Including how much they love India and Indian food
By Neera Kuckreja Sohoni
In September 2019, some 50,000 cheering members of the Indian diaspora packed into NRG Stadium, home of the NFL’s Houston Texans, to hear Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Media puzzled at this mammoth gathering to hear a foreign leader on American soil as constituting a rare event.
Back in 2014 at MSG in New York, a substantial gathering had occurred with dozens of members of Congress, a governor, and a few senators who had appeared alongside the newly elected Indian PM. What made the Texas event exceptional was Trump’s presence giving both Modi and the Indian diaspora a more pronounced validity.
In the context of both India and the US, 50% respondents plumped for a strong leader.
With US presidential elections a year away, political observers found their curiosity piqued by the glitz of the event in Houston, but more importantly, the significance of a minority gaining in visibility and with promising potential of becoming a voter bloc with some amount of numerical power to bend the electoral need in favor of one or the other candidate.
Indians who leave their country for foreign pastures traditionally are motivated to improve their standard of life and operate in a country relatively free of social stratification and administrative corruption. Those who have inherited wealth and agency to not be really impacted by the socio-economic constraints imposed by hereditary and inherent forces not only continue to live in India but prefer living there. They also look down upon those who left the country for “Umreeka” and other alien shores.
Any attempt to understand the immigrant Indian’s political beliefs and likely voting behavior has to start with this inherent limitation of a bias – namely that it is dealing with a traditionally socioeconomically insecure group temperamentally motivated to “make it” in a foreign land. Not surprisingly, they are attuned to work hard, achieve much, but lie low, remain passive, and away from any kind of socio-political and ideological confrontation.
While the above is largely true of first-generation immigrants, politics and socio-political behavior is bound to change and is already changing from one generation to another. With greater economic security and higher societal presence, the younger Indians here are more ready to shed their defensive inhibitions and jump into the fray of politics. Hence the greater number of city, state and federal elected representatives and office-holders of Indian ethnicity in American polity, culminating in a half-Indian (half-baked Indian?) now next in line to the US President.
About 4.2 million strong (in 2018), Indians constitute the second-largest immigrant group in America (after the Mexicans). Of them, 2.6 million (62%) are US citizens (1.4 million are naturalized citizens and 1.2 million were born in the United States), and 38 percent non-citizens. Two-thirds of the Indian population arrived here after 2000. With active recent memories and ties to Indian developments, they have increasingly been wooed by the Indian government and party leaders to assist and advocate on their behalf. Like many immigrant ethnic groups over the course of American history, this group of Indians is recognized for its potential to serve as an important conduit for financial and human capital, as well as for political support within and diplomatic support outside India.
Their ‘beneficial’ power is not lost on America’s politicians. Not surprisingly, interested to understand their socio-political leanings and potential, a three part study funded by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is being executed. The first, released in September 2020, explored the political attitudes and preferences of Indian Americans heading into the November 2020 presidential election. The second assesses the diaspora’s views of India, and the third and final study will explore the social realities of Indians in America.
The second report’s findings were recently released and have been reported in the ethnic press. Among the aspects surveyed are how Indian Americans assess the state of democracy in India, how closely they follow Indian politics, what are their political leanings and partisan identities in India, how do Indian Americans view contentious policy debates in India, and do they exhibit similar views on comparable policy issues in India and the United States, what sources do Indian Americans rely on to remain informed about news and politics in India, what personal and cultural outlets do Indian Americans pursue in order to remain engaged with India, and how do they view U.S.-India relations and U.S. efforts to lend diplomatic support to India?
To cynics, some of the above lines of inquiry appear devious and their underlying motivation suspect. The survey instrument contains 157 questions organized across six modules: basic demographics; immigration, citizenship, and family background; presidential campaigns and voting; U.S. politics and foreign policy; culture and social behavior; and Indian politics. Notably, respondents were allowed to skip questions save for important demographic questions.
The limitation of the surveyed sample is evident – a total of 1200 out of a universe of 4.2 million. The respondents were chosen from a proprietary panel comprising 1.8 million Indians and appropriate steps were taken to ensure representativeness of sample. The proportion of citizens in the sample is considerably more – 77% than in the population (62%). Of the respondents, 39% are naturalized U.S. citizens, 33% belong to the second generation, meaning they were born in the United States to immigrant parents, and a miniscule 4% were born in the United States to parents who were also born in the United States, making them members of the third generation. Inferring secular trends from a disparate sample is hardly easy and likely superficial.
Findings nevertheless are worthy of interest. In the sample, 80% are interested in becoming citizens of America even though it means they lose Indian citizenship as India does not allow dual citizenship. That is a strong indicator that loyalty to one’s birthplace or “birth-Motherland” is absent in a majority of us Indians. Tomorrow, if better prospects emerge in Canada or elsewhere, maybe on Planet Mars, we can infer that Indians will not hesitate to dump American citizenship.
About 42% of respondents who are no longer Indian citizens possess an OCI (Overseas Citizenship of India) card. Securing the card is valued – arguably a signifier of the strength of one’s connection to India. But more likely, because the card provides foreign citizens of Indian origin visa-free entry into the country and grants them the ability to live and work in India on a permanent basis. These are handy privileges and therefore the OCI card procurement can hardly be lauded as a gesture of fealty or undying devotion to India.
Significant in the above context is that unlike the Biden administration’s determined efforts to offer voting rights to non-citizen immigrants, India has steadily opposed granting such a right to non-citizen Indians regardless of whether they were born or lived in India. In this respect, India seems decidedly more respectful of the key principle of democracy that sees the privilege to vote as a distinct right exclusively of citizens and not of all and sundry that happen to enter the country legally or illegally.
About 80% respondents feel extremely, very, or moderately connected to India, while 13 percent say they are not too connected, and around 6 percent claim they are not at all connected to India. So emotionally India figures well in the hearts of four-fifths of Indians. The feeling of connection understandably weakens most among those born here than among those who were born in India. Travel to India follows the same trajectory, with higher numbers (30%) of India-born respondents having visited India in the previous one year, compared to 18% of U.S.-born Indian Americans. Monthly communication with friends and family in India shows a similar gap – 61% compared to 41%.
Charitable support to religious organizations based in India is predictably higher (21 percent) among the India born compared to 13% percent among Indians born here. The difference between the two groups dissolves in respect of donations to secular charitable organizations (21% and 19% respectively). That charity figures so little in our community is no surprise. Indians have a long history and tradition of donating precious diamonds, trinkets and outfits to idols, and building structures to serve as temples, mosques and churches rather than to render assistance to the needy underprivileged people. That almost a third acknowledges not engaging in any charitable activity is hardly a discovery.
Watching Indian movies or television shows comes naturally and figures equally, with 68% India-born and 51% US-born respondents respectively indulging in such entertainment. Indian food consumption is also steadily high among both groups with three-quarters of foreign-born and two-thirds of U.S.-born Indian Americans reporting having eaten Indian food in the last month. That proportion and regularity of intake is likely much higher and possibly is closer to being daily!
Differences become significant when it comes to politics and political beliefs. As much as 36% of Indian Americans believe that India is currently on the right track, while 39 percent believe it is on the wrong track, with 25% refraining from offering any opinion. In contrast, a whopping 67% believe that the United States is on the wrong track, and merely 33% percent believing it is on the right track.
Lest we get confused, and possibly to cover their flanks vis-à-vis the current administration, the survey report quickly notes that “these data reflect attitudes as of September 2020, before the results of the November U.S. presidential election were known.” Though not explicitly, the study’s authors obliquely seem to infer that the greater mistrust of American political conduct could possibly be connected to the pre-Biden Trump era. It is this single cautionary comment that erodes (at least for some of us) the very purpose of this research undertaking, while exposing the politics that lies behind innocent apolitical investigation into an emerging demographic group’s relevance to, and likely impact on, American politics.
One heartening finding although not explicitly stated by the report’s authors pertains to Indians ability to discern. Since Trump took over as President and well after he left, the Biden half of America is suspicious and contemptuous of the misinformed, naïve, and gullible Trump half. They worry that if allowed to remain exposed to Trump or Trump-inspired nasty devious ideology, they will spawn more “insurrections” similar to the riot that occurred on January 6 when frenzied mobs broke into the citadel of US Democracy. That worry seems to be unfounded and contradicted by this sample’s ability to sift grain from chaff, proving that one can be pro-India but not necessarily and not always pro-Government. Thus, only 17% respondents identify as pro-India and pro-government, while 58% report being pro-India but remain critical of some or many of the government’s policies. That 7% indicate being generally not pro-India could irk or worry those engaged in promoting a positive perception of India. But that is less worrisome than the 18% who hold no opinion. This should provide fodder for further inquiry into what causes political ennui in some and not in other Indians living here.
Of great interest are the comparative findings concerning political attitudes of respondents to roughly comparable issues that dominate politics in both countries. The survey poses a relevant key question viz., do respondents’ policy attitudes remain stable across countries and contexts? In other words, can one be a supporter of Modi and Biden at the same time? Or can one simultaneously be a Democrat in America but a Republican (pro-BJP) in India?
Other intriguing aspects assessed are whether as an immigrant to a given country, can one be supportive of others right to immigrate? And desirous of citizenship for oneself, does one support that entitlement be offered to immigrants everywhere? Do respondents endorse the practice advocated under the contentious National Register of Citizens (NRC) to document all legal citizens of India so that illegal migrants can be identified and deported, and if they do, would they support weeding out of illegal entrants to America? Do they favor an expedited path to citizenship for migrants from neighboring countries who illegally entered India by 2014, with the exclusion of Muslims, and if so, did/would they favor the ban on travelers from some Muslim countries to enter the US as advocated by Trump?
Additional issues with application across India and America addressed by the survey include: views on police and law enforcement action against peaceful protests and protesters, Government (Why not Corporate?) efforts to use defamation and sedition laws to silence reporters critical of government, and affirmative action to favor the deprived groups (caste in India and race in America) in university admissions. As suggested in parenthesis above, the survey stays out of the aggressive censorship exercised by powerful social media companies in the US to permanently ban Trump from their sites, and de-platform those who support Trump – all this on grounds that they are spreading misinformation against Biden or against the democrat-supported view of the Corona pandemic.
The findings reveal a majority support (51% and 55% respectively) for national registry and citizenship regulation, but overwhelming opposition to the use of police force against peaceful protesters (65%) and government crackdowns on the media (69%). Support for caste-based affirmative action is less vigorous (47%) but it is still higher than what one would expect, given the frustration of many in and from India being sidelined from coveted colleges and jobs on grounds of caste. Perhaps it is indicative of some kind of surrender to or coming to terms with an affirmative measure that has been in existence for quite some time.
Secular feeling seems to predominate with 90% respondents expressing support for equal treatment of people belonging to different religious faiths. Mahatma Gandhi and Indian Constitution’s secular messaging and bent could in some way be connected to this high level of support. Surprisingly, this secular support weakens (by one-third) when applied to the American context. On the question of illegal immigration, 69 percent support the idea of more permissive policies toward undocumented immigrants in general. But differences emerge, with 55% supporting less stringent deportation actions in the US compared to 45% who support leniency in India.
On the use of police force against peaceful protesters, over two-thirds support restrained police action whether in India, US, or elsewhere. Protecting the media from government censorship or retribution evokes much higher level of support (87%) in general, with slightly greater support in the American compared to the Indian context (72% and 69% respectively).
The most intriguing question in the survey is one that goes to the core of the democratic psyche of both countries. As the world’s longest and largest democracies operating in the challenging post-Corona shake up of the socio-economic and political order of the world, a legitimate concern they cause is over where their people stand on democratic principles. Hence the question posed to respondents whether India and the US should rely on a democratic form of government or on a leader with a strong hand to solve its problems.
In both country contexts, just one-half place democracy above having a strong leader. Fresh from the wounds (mistakenly or correctly) perceived to have been inflicted by a ‘strong-arming’ ‘autocratic’ Trump in America or Modi in India, one would have expected much higher opposition to having a strong leader. Yet that has not occurred.
Fear of ethnic majoritarianism is also somewhat surprising. The threat from Hindu majority to Indian minorities and democracy is perceived to be considerably less than the threat of white supremacy to American minorities and democracy (53% and 73% respectively). Indian Americans, in other words, believe that white supremacy is a greater threat to minorities in America, a country where they are a minority, than Hindu majoritarianism is to minorities in India, a country where Hindus are in the majority.
Indian Americans believe that white supremacy is a greater threat to minorities in America, a country where they are a minority, than Hindu majoritarianism is to minorities in India.
The above takes one to questioning the actual worth of knowing what we do now as a result of the study. In the current and past Corona-dominated year, when people’s lives, livelihoods are at stake, and society along with social connection and economic activity as we knew it are gone, democracy and how we conduct ourselves in relation to others take a backseat.
Following the 2020 Black Lives Matter agitations, with racial overtones forced on all democratic tenets and functioning bodies in the US, and the Damocles sword of WOKE hanging over our necks with the threat of being cancelled out and extinguished from history’s pages, the risk to democracy is likely higher here than in India.
However weird, that can be a source of some satisfaction to our compatriots in India.
Ms. Sohoni is a freelance writer and published author.