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Non-Relevant Indians

This post originally appeared in Pragati.

Diaspora: the movement, migration, or scattering of a people away from an established or ancestral homeland

We disperse, float away, settle in new lands – mostly by design but sometimes by default – and we take root. I am one such example. I did not move by choice, the impetus came from a set of unique circumstances that pushed me westwards. Over five years, I have built a life and career here. It’s home. At the same time, I have found it difficult to disconnect from events in India. There’s a natural affinity, or perhaps a continuing curiosity, that goes beyond simply wanting to stay in touch with relatives and family. Twitter and Facebook have largely been the platforms of choice for keeping abreast of events in the Homeland. Unfortunately, it’s also on these platforms I have encountered a general sense of derision towards my kind – the NRIs or Non-Resident Indians.

An NRI is a citizen of India, holding an Indian passport but temporarily living outside India for more than six months. If online chatter is to be believed, an NRI also becomes the least relevant of all Indians when his/her plane departs. It’s this attitude I personally find appalling. The derision towards NRIs exists at different levels – ranging from discounted opinions to a resistance to allowing them to vote in general elections. The most common justification for this hostility is that NRIs having left their homelands for greener pastures should no longer have a say in its welfare.

Well, I respectfully disagree.

There are 22 million Indians living abroad, permanently or otherwise. Of these, 10 million are technically NRIs. Assuming 70 percent are adults over 18, that’s a voting bloc of 7 million. That’s around the number of votes the NCP and DMK individually garnered in the 2009 General Elections; it’s more than the votes the Shiv Sena obtained. It’s not enough to be a margin of victory, but it’s enough to make a difference. The right to representation was denied to NRIs until as late as 2010 when the Representation of the People Amendment stated that voting is a fundamental right for an Indian citizen and allowed them to vote in General and State elections – “in case they happen to be in their constituency at the time of polls”. The reasons for imposing this condition aren’t specified. This is a huge barrier to voting because traveling back to India is expensive and the window for voting too narrow to guarantee the timely arrival and departure of millions of Indians. It’s also reminiscent of our mythological fables in which you had to perform a supreme personal sacrifice to obtain the largesse of the gods.

India has established protocols for absentee ballots if you are serving overseas in the armed forces or away from your registered constituency for election duty. Why can’t NRIs be allowed to register and vote at their consulates? If the logistics of in-person voting are too daunting for the current overseas consulate staff to handle, why not charge the consulates with identity verification and then allow postal ballots? I sincerely hope the procedure to vote for NRIs is simplified in the near future.

We are everywhere; literally – as of 2012 there were 17 Indians in North Korea. We are also an enterprising lot – we are in 205 countries and in many cases the transition to a new land hasn’t been peaceful and welcoming. For example, the first Indians in the United States weren’t students pursuing higher studies; they were Punjabis who made their way to the West Coast, looking for agrarian work in California’s fields. Subsequent Indians entering the US had to put up with racially biased policies and curtailed rights. We have come a long way since then. We are the face of India outside it. It’s not just the Presidential junkets, United Nations appearances by the Prime Minister or lobby groups that are instrumental in shaping India’s image and identity overseas – it’s also us. In our own way, we are the gateway everyday to India for millions of international faces, some of who actively invest in the country.

If it’s a question of having a stake in India’s development, the financial contribution of NRIs tells a compelling story. Foreign remittances from NRIs totaled 70 billion USD in 2012. For perspective, that’s roughly 4 percent of India’s nominal 2012 GDP. It’s also the most money any country receives as remittances in the world – almost 18 percent of the global share. This is money sent home to businesses, relatives, and families and is reinvested or saved in India. The Reserve Bank depends on this corpus in times of currency fluctuations (like the recent crash against the dollar) and is encouraging NRIs to send more money back.

We have families back home whom we would like to be safe and comfortable. Their welfare also drives us to voice opinions about India. Some of us would like to return to them. It makes sense to involve NRIs in shaping the future of the country if they see themselves being a part of it. Iam personally aware of many Indian colleagues who are actively looking to move back or have already done so, citing a booming job market or a desire to be with their families.

NRIs, for better or worse, are exposed to myriad styles of governance and policies because they live or settle in foreign countries. Whether consciously or subconsciously, these make a difference when forming opinions of how India should be governed. This perspective is valuable.

However, most importantly, we are still tied to India, no matter how we change our externalities, appearance or environment. We have grown up in India and it’s a part of us. It shapes our identity and we view the world through the lens of its learnings and experiences. To say we don’t have a stake in India’s progress is shortsighted and petty. To say we have forsaken the country is regressive. By that standard, everyone moving to cities in search of better opportunities should be deemed irrelevant to their places of birth. If this seems fundamentally unreasonable, why adopt a different standard for NRIs?

Technically, nothing stops us anymore from exercising our right to vote (if we spend thousands of dollars to travel thousands of miles to do so, that is). Technically, nothing stops us from voicing opinions about India – social media is free and accessible. What’s galling is how these opinions are discounted. Granted, not all opinions are created equal or are even rational, and I am not trying to extrapolate my intentions to millions of other NRIs, but that is still no excuse for denying a fundamental right by erecting barriers to its access.

We are enterprising, we are resilient, we are Indians, we would like to see India do well and we deserve our say—whether it’s an opinion or a vote.

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