Indo-US relations and the role of Non Reluctant Indians

The writer, Maithali Sane, is an Assistant Professor Dept. of International Studies Women’s Christian College, Chennai

Guest Writer

From Har Gobind Khurana, through Prathap Reddy, to Sundar Pichai, the mosaic of persons of Indian origin who have studied, worked or lived in the USA is rich, diverse and exciting. Today, not only do Indian-Americans form the second largest immigrant group in America, but they are engaged in high impact sectors such as medicine, engineering, IT, journalism and now increasingly in politics. No wonder then, despite representing about 1.6 % of the US population, Asian-Indians (as the US Census Bureau refers to them) have double than the average income of Americans and pay 6% of the country’s taxes.

It is the growing strength of this diaspora which has been recognized in the recent years as a key cornerstone of the US-India partnership. This month, as PM Modi makes his first State visit to the USA, four factors are pertinent to note. First, Indians receive the maximum H1-B visa for high skilled workers. Second, this diaspora contributes the highest remittances to India from any single country. Third, Indian students are the second largest international students enrolled in U.S higher education, inching their way to the top spot if not already there! Finally, Indian-Americans are recognized for their work ethos, value systems, law abiding nature, non-interference, and peaceful living. All of this has given a unique soft power to this diaspora – an aspect recognized very well by PM Modi through his ‘Diaspora Diplomacy’ wherein rather than looking at this group from a brain drain perspective, it is now treated as a bridge for Indo-US relations and an effective public diplomacy tool.

This is why, the June 2023 visit by PM Modi offers an important opportunity for the Indian American diaspora to address several issues. For example, the FDI from the US to India is less than its expected potential. The Indian-American community can be the catalyst through effective lobbying for policy changes (in both US and India), investments and opening up non-traditional trade channels between the two countries.

Another major area of convergence for the two countries is education. The New Education Policy of the Government of India offers scope for joint campus development between Indian and American universities. Additionally, the University Grants Commission, India has plans to encourage satellite campuses of foreign universities in India. The India-American diasporan can be an effective mediator for these initiatives. Further, fluctuating visa policies, long queues and quotas for immigration are other areas where the diaspora can use its voice to gain certain exemptions (easier immigration process for Indians going for work to the USA was in discussions a while back).

At the same time, an oft ignored aspect – that of increasing illegal Indian immigrations should also be focussed on. The Migration Policy Institute discusses the Border Patrol data which reveals that between October 2021 and September 2022, US authorities detained Indian migrants 18,300 times at the US southern border – a massive increase from the 2600 in the same period a year earlier. This is a worrisome rise, not only for Indo-US relations but also from the standpoint of the credibility of the India-Americans currently living there.

The diaspora has become an effective non-state actor in politics as well--vocal during the farmers protests in India to keenly commenting on elections in the country, this group has emerged as a key influencer of voting trends within US and America. In fact, given the rising influence of Non Resident Indians, India has been contemplating introducing e-voting for the NRI group. Should this become a reality in a short span of time, the Indian American community might be a gamechanger in the 2024 General elections in India.

Finally, the racial discrimination faced by this community also needs to be a subject area of continues discussion and engagement at all levels.  As was pointed out in “Social Realities of Indian Americans: Results From the 2020 Indian American Attitudes Survey”, Indian Americans regularly face discrimination in the USA, mostly based on skin color. The 2016 elections already reflection the way American society feels about the non-Americans. This is something which needs to be discussed more openly through increased P2P interactions.

Thus, there are several areas of engagements where the Indian diaspora in the USA can be a true gamechanger in the Indo-US relations. Given PM Modi’s focus on Vasudhaiave Kutumbakkam (The world is one family), the time is opportune to channelise the Indian family spread all over in the USA to be key stakeholders in India’s growth story.

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