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The Non Resident Indian – From Envy to Ridicule

Little India, Commentary, Achal Mehra Posted: Oct 09, 2009

A scathing column by noted Indian columnist Swapan Dasgupta recently celebrated the precipitous fall from grace of Non Resident Indians: “The vacuous condescension that marked earlier attitudes has been replaced by desperation to find some accommodation somewhere…. The small fish whose tie and a twang once enabled him to lord over his less fortunate brethren in India has seen envy replaced with disinterest.”

Dasgupta mocks the “paranoia and pseudo-superiority” of the new breed of “know-all, ultra-nationalist … meddlesome NRI,” who has become “an intellectual nuisance” by injecting himself into public debates on Indian websites and recommends they be “royally ignored.”


The gratuitous swipes in Dasgupta’s critique aside, the dramatic economic transformations in India in the last decade require a reassessment of the relationship of overseas Indians with their homeland. For too long, unfortunately, financial factors have been the prime driver of the role and place of NRIs in Indian society. Overseas Indians often wore their economic superiority on their sleeves — Bisleri surely rode its success on water bottle toting NRIs — while the bear hugs of Indian politicians aimed squarely for their back pockets.

The lust for overseas Indian capital skewed the NRI enterprise disproportionately in favor of Indian immigrants in Europe and North America, even though they constitute under a quarter of all overseas Indians. The Pravasi Bharatiya Divas has been reduced to a trade show hawking investment opportunities to overseas Indians, which might explain the declining attendance at the annual jamboree.

A relationship grounded on financial stilts is vulnerable to market gusts. As the global economy experienced a meltdown, growing numbers of Indian professionals lost their jobs and are returning in droves to India for opportunity and safety. Little wonder that upwardly mobile resident Indians, who once eyed their NRI competition with a mixture of envy and resentment, have traded the envy for snickering contempt.

What’s love got to do with it?

The economic whirlwind that brought the arrogant NRI to his knees offers a glorious opportunity to re-imagine a healthier relationship between overseas Indians and the homeland — one that elevates long-ignored, larger and older overseas Indian communities and unshackles new immigrants. First generation NRIs in Europe and North America frequently sought glory by leading parades in the cultural ghettoes of their adopted countries or in the false swagger the exchange rate allowed back home. But as overseas Indians from Singapore to Guyana, South Africa, Mauritius and Trinidad stake claims on the front lines of politics, arts and culture in their societies, Indian immigrants in the West can be liberated from the tyranny of such false pretenses.

Hopefully, so can the upwardly mobile resident Indians, whose torch Dasgupta so valiantly holds forth. Hundreds of millions of Indians toil in abject poverty so that he can be unchained from “NRI munificence” through easy access to the best global brands, dramatically diminishing the exotic shopping aspirations of a few hundred thousand of his “discerning” countrymen. Meanwhile, millions of undiscerning, impoverished Indians sustain themselves on the generosity of expatriate relatives who toil in the farthest regions of the world from where they collectively remitted $50 billion in 2008, constituting a not insignificant 4 percent of India’s GDP.

Perhaps, now that the drawing room class has gotten their licks, the rest of us can return to the task of exploring the deeper, more enduring bonds that tether the 20 million strong overseas Indians to their homeland.

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