“The subject of overseas Indians is one which is very dear to our hearts. Everyone of Indian origin, overseas, is a representative of India and retains many aspects of our cultural traditions and civilization.” – Atal Behari Vajpayee, 11th Prime Minister of India in 1978
The Indian diaspora is the second largest in the world with around 22 million overseas Indians. After Nepal, the USA is the second destination for Indian immigrants. This includes both non-residential Indians (NRI) and persons of Indian origin (PIO). A NRI is an Indian citizen, who possesses an Indian passport and who has emigrated temporarily from India. On the other hand, a person of Indian origin is not an Indian citizen. According to the US Census Bureau, around 3,180,000 PIO or NRI lived in the USA in 2012. For the Indian Ministry of Overseas Affairs, they were 2,250,000 in the same year. The term “Indo-Americans”, being both NRI or PIO in America, represent the fourth largest immigrant group in the country.
Therefore, it is necessary to analyze this Indian diaspora in the USA and to take a closer look at its place in the US society. Has the Indian diaspora the same features as other diasporas in the USA? What does it make particular? What are then the consequences for the Indian image in the world?
A short chronicle of the Indien presence in the USA
Unlike the first wave of Indian immigrants in the USA in the late 19th and early 20th century who worked in low-skilled jobs, such as taxi drivers, and were denied citizenship, recent Indian emigrants are mainly professionals or graduated students. After WWII, they could lay claim to the US citizenship. The independence of India and the internet development led to an increased migration towards the USA. Nowadays, a large number of PIO and NRI work in the fields of hi-tech industry, information technology (IT), academia and medicine.
Diaspora: A balance between two identities
According to Gijsbert Oonk “people in diaspora are part of both global history and a local history. Historians should emphasize the dynamic processes of changing attitudes towards the homeland, the host country, and the diasporic community itself”. Indeed, being in a diaspora implies that the Indian identity is negotiated in the context of the host country. At the same time, Indo-Americans are also part of a same community, which has its origins in India. This double affiliation explains several paradoxes. For instance, many Indians in the USA want to succeed and follow the path of the “American Dream”. Nonetheless, they often aspire to reproduce their culture, to conform to ‚Indian‘ values and to marry Indo-Americans. Ashok Rao is a successful Indo-American businessman. He wrote about this double affiliation: “We maintain our family traditions of origin, but also are gradually subject to social, cultural and political integration into the host nation… We perpetuate significant aspects of our Indian culture like language – most of us speak Hindi, as well as our mother tongues – and we maintain our religions and our tradition for weddings, upananyanams, and cremations.”
A ‚model minority‘: the economic success of the Indo-Americans
The Indian community is a highly esteemed community in the USA since it largely succeeds economically. Currently, Indo-Americans dominate high-skilled positions and their adaptability and hard-work made them a “model minority”.
Even though Indo-Americans represent less than one percent of the US population, they stand for more than five percent of the scientists, engineers and software specialists and account for ten percent of the doctors. They are successful in the fields of medicine, engineering and law: A striking example is that 35 percent of Boeing’s technical work force are of Indian origin. They are also numerous in the field of IT. In the Silicon Valley, 15 percent of the start-ups is held by Indo-Americans, where they produce around $250 billion per year. Indo-Americans are also present in international finance and management, academia and entertainment. This leading position is blatant with regard to their revenue. According to the Report of the High Level Committee on the Indian Diaspora, the average income per capita of an Indo-American is around $60,000 per year whereas the average of Americans is around $39,000.
Hence, they represent a well-educated and hard-working force. Two thirds of the Indo-Americans have a college education compared to one fifth of the American population. This results in a large trust in Indian abilities.
A small but growing place in politics
The Indo-American community therefore also represents a persuasive political force. However, only a few Indo-Americans have been elected or appointed as senator, governor, Attorney General, mayor and so on.
Nevertheless, Indians in the USA are politically active through lobbying. Organizations have been created to defend their concerns. They stake out to favor India in the US foreign policy. A large network of Indian associations is influential in American politics. Conventions are held regularly to celebrate Indian culture.
Practically, they claim facilities in exchange of all sorts between the USA and India. For instance, they ask for easier investment procedures and an increase of flights during holidays.
Relations with the motherland
The Indo-American community in the USA not only pushes for political relations with India but also maintains strong social and economic ties. It constitutes the most generous diaspora in sending remittances to its country of origin, with over $55 billion per year. Indo-Americans feel grateful for their education in India that made them successful in the USA. That is why a lot of philanthropic and charitable associations were established. They give donations to universities in IT and send financial aid to their former schools. The Indo-American communities also support social and developmental projects and financed a big part of the new Indian Prime Minister’s, Narendra Modi, electoral campaign. Finally, congresses are held to raise US politicians’ awareness about important issues in India. For example, the Indian diaspora puts pressure on the Congress to rise the number of visas for Indians to come into the USA, while the State Department often requests the Indian diaspora’s opinions on issues concerning India.
To conclude, the Indo-American diaspora fully succeeds and therefore changes the image of India and of its population. One talks now of “Incredible India” and considers its work force as highly educated and skilled. This helps India to attract investments and to develop its own economy.