Monday, February 19, 2007

The NRI and Their Nation

This essay analyses the blog titled ‘My Dear Average NRI’ by Prabhu Kartik. The blog is available on To keep the essay focused I have discussed only the main text of the blog and the comments of the author relevant to his argument. I have not discussed the comments by the readers or the comments of the author not pertaining to the original article.

Nationalism and Colonialism

Colonialism derives a lot of its power and justification from the idea of fixing identities. Nationalism can be seen as one way in which it does that.

To begin, the idea of a nation fixes identity physically in terms of territory. Each nation occupies a certain area of land and the boundaries of this land define what a nation is or is not. Thus colonialism functions in very concrete terms at the level of territory. This land is the colonizing nation and that land is the colonized nation. In extension, this land is the colonizing nation and anything which is not this land can be colonized.

Then, the idea of a nation fixes identities in terms of ethnicity and culture. A nation is defined as a group of people having a common culture and ethnicity. This leads to a very rigid and unchanging identity for a group of people who might be highly varied and diverse in reality. For example, a society as complex and varied ours gets grouped under a single stereotypical term ‘India’. Once this kind of fixing is done, colonial discourse proceeds to deem one kind of culture as ‘lower’ than another, hence justifying the power that one culture may wield over another.

This kind of colonialism as nationalism thus works at two levels -- on the level of territory and one the level of culture. For example, the British occupation of India and the subsequent valorization of the British culture and education.

The Right to Crib?

So what exactly is that the author is expressing his anger about? He is angry with the NRI because – “Every third post in your blog would be about the lack of discipline in Indian roads, the corrupt political system, the unscrupulous bureaucracy, the snail’s pace functioning of government departments …” and “you sit safely in a developed country and keep on gossiping about your underdeveloped motherland”. He asks them to “devote sometime to worry about (their) own backyard. After all not everything is great there …”

The author thus feels that an average NRI sitting in a foreign country has no right to crib about India. They should leave India alone and better worry about what is going on in their countries of residence.

The essay takes the very rigid territorial definition of nationalism. If one is not living in a particular territory then one does not belong to a particular nation. This is further exemplified by the authors views in comment # 162 “Lets say i’am from Bihar and am right now working in Chennai as an IT professional. You have to tell me how useful it is if i write a blog in which i keep on cribbing about how bad my home state while compared to Chennai or Bangalore.” Thus the author’s notions of identity are strongly linked to territory.

You Don’t Live Here

Since identity gets linked to territory the NRI loses his original identity as soon as he leaves the country. He is seen to have taken on the identity of his country of residence. Therefore an NRI living in the USA, for example, and complaining about India is seen as valorizing the USA and undermining the Indian nation. Thus, the fact that India is being portrayed as worse than the USA is not what is troubling the author. It is the fact that the criticism is being done by the more powerful nation through the NRIs.

That is why the author accepts the shortcomings of India and launches into a defense in comment # 152 – “… this post is not about India’s condition and nor did we say we r better than the so called developed countries. This post is about NRIs whose sole mission in the world is to complain abt India.”

Thus, if you don’t live here, you are not seen as belonging to this nation and hence anything you say about this nation is seen as demeaning to this nation because you now live in a nation that is more powerful.

Therefore, the essay appears to be resisting colonialism in two ways. It accepts the rigid definition of a nation. It also accepts that the colonized nation (India in this case) is less ‘developed’ than the colonizing nation (US in this case). And the nation as portrayed in the essay tries to oppose this kind of colonialism by merely trying to shut itself off from everything else. In this case a territorial definition of nation becomes an effective mechanism of making a colonized nation ‘untouchable’ by the colonizing nation.

The other way in which the essay opposes colonialism is by emphasizing that it is not only the Indian nation that has problems. The American nation has problems too. And that is perhaps why the author wants NRIs to crib about their nation of residence also. Since it is not rationally possible to valorize India as against the USA, the essay tries to undermine foreign authority by exposing its own problems.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The NRI an His Nation

What nation does an NRI belong to? It is fashionable among NRIs to worry about India and its condition, occasionally even do something about it. Then comes this post which suggests that they do something about the country that they live in rather than the country they were born in. Then again, comes this rebuttal to the post.

Quite apart from what these posts are trying to say, to me they appear to be an indication of how the concept of the Nation is beginning to lose its meaning in todays world.

What exactly is a Nation? Like all true-to-their-profession engineers, I asked Lord Google to ‘define: nation’. It came up with the following definition from :

state: a politically organized body of people under a single government;

So, definition wise, you no longer belong to the Indian Nation once you lose the Indian citizenship and acquire an American one. But is that it?

A Nation is more than what that definition conveys. A Nation is a group of people bound by common ethnicity and culture. It is easy to part with your passport but not easy to part with your ethnicity and culture. No wonder NRIs keep looking back towards India in various ways.

So are they wrong in doing that? Are they being unpatriotic in leaving the country and then hypocritical in looking back towards it and wishing to do something about it? Are they being immoral in not feeling the same way about their new country of residence and not feeling ‘patriotic’ in the same way about the USA or Germany or the United Kingdom?

The problem arises when you coin your questions in National terms. Of course, if you subscribe to the concept of Nation in totality then it is unpatriotic to leave ones country and work for the benefit of another. And if you do choose to do that then it is immoral and ethically wrong to hold citizenship of one country and work for the betterment of another.

But the problem does not arise when you coin your question in terms of culture and ethnicity. If I settle down in some other country in the future I would still want to contribute towards the people that I grew up amongst. I would like to contribute to the institute that I studied in. I would like to contribute to the society that helped shape the values that I believe in.

I would also contribute to the society that would be giving me the opportunities that my native society was unable to give me. And I would seek to create those same opportunities in my home country so that other like me don’t have to come so far away from home in search of what they seek in life.

I don’t see any contradiction of terms when you put these things in such words. Contradictions arise when you subscribe to concepts like Nation.

Indeed, I can see hints that the concept of Nation is starting (merely starting) to grow obsolete in the present world. The spreading Indian (and indeed Chinese) diaspora is an example. Another example is the European Union where Europe is endeavoring to create a European (economic?) identity instead of separate National ones. These changes remain large economic in nature and have not extended to the social structure. Racism and xenophobia is still strong in most regions of the world. While I dread that these changes would never seep down to the social structure, I intensely hope that they would. I would like to see one united world where a man is man and not an Indian or American.