Patriotism and the NRI

Arnab Ray

NRIs are unpatriotic.

Having stayed outside the country for many years (twelve and counting), I have heard this and its variations many times. If you are an NRI, chances are you have too. In some form or the other.

Let’s look at the first sentence, shall we?

We know what an NRI is. Kind of.

But what is unpatriotic?

To me there are two kinds of patriotism—-Type A wherein people paint the tricolor on their faces, scream “Jeetega bhai jeetega India jeetega” at cricket matches, get all misty-eyed at “Mere Watan Ke Logon” and click “Like” on the  “I hate those who hate India” page on Facebook. Then there is Type B, the ones who actually do something for the benefit of Indians, over and above the call of duty.

From my personal experience, I can say that the average NRI, in the US at least, is actually more aggressively Type A than their homeland cousins. So by the Type A definition, their patriotism is next to none. This is in many ways natural. In the US, where I stay, a first-generation Indian (the only type who may reasonably be expected to be “patriotic”) despite his best efforts, can never be white. Nor can he be black. Which is why, no matter what his immigration status be in the eyes of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, he will never be American. Definitely not as American as apple pie. Or as Tupac.

It’s not just the color of his skin that detaches the first-generation NRI from the American identity. It is the reality of his upbringing, the very fact that he grew up in India watching “Hum Log” and “Buniyaad” instead of “Gilligan’s Island” and “Addam’s Family”.

No matter how much he reads up on the rules of baseball so that he may do small-chat with his American colleagues, a baseball game will never conjure up for him images of walking in to the stadium holding dad’s arm and eating  hot-dogs at the concession stand. Which is why he will never truly be as emotional over the game as a true-blue. In addition, the almost prevalent ignorance about his country of origin (“Do you guys really drink cow piss?”, “Do you people have modern toilets?” “Would you be allowed to eat with a person of a lower caste?”) in his immediate social context, an ignorance strengthened by simplistic poverty-porn like “Slumdog Millionaire” that defines India in popular culture, makes the average NRI even more conscious of his roots. It makes him that much more protective of his Indian identity, sometimes to the point of being aggressive. Of course this pent-up aggression cannot be given vent to when boss does his best Simpsons-Apu “Thank you come again” accent.

At that time, he needs to smile (else he will be considered “not a sport”). But the anger does need out, else he will burst. Some give in to gratuitous self-flagellation in the hope that he can get rid of the brown tag. But most react to the incessant cultural push by becoming even more “Indian”. This strengthening of  identity is manifested through regular attendance at India Association meetings every weekend, threats to cut off junior’s allowance if he/she does not attend “Indian cultural workshops” and ceaseless trolling of anyone who thinks “Rang De Basanti”‘s vision of redemptive justice rather disturbing.

One would say of course that when an NRI is accused of being “unpatriotic”, it is in the Type B sense. In other words, jingoistic as he be, he does not do anything for the country. Since this accusation comes primarily from non-NRIs, the assumption is clear “The person who stays in India, by the very act of staying, does more for  the country than the NRI. ”

Whenever I have asked “How is the homeland Indian more patriotic by definition?”, the answer I get, most often, is ” We pay taxes to the Indian nation.”
My counter to that is “You pay taxes, because you have to.” You pay only the amount the law dictates, taking advantage of every opportunity for deductions.

Nothing wrong in that of course.

What however is “not on” is when this kind of altruism-out-of-compulsion is presented  as an act of patriotism, as if one had any choice to do otherwise. If there is someone out there who is paying more tax than he is legally obliged to pay then yes, that person is definitely “patriotic”. But can we agree that if such people do exist in this world, they are the exceptions rather than the rule? And that there is nothing that prevents a NRI, if he be so inclined, from sending an envelope stuffed with cash to the Indian exchequer.
Is that likely?


But then neither is the hypothetical homeland Indian who overpays tax intentionally.

The other argument I hear is: ” By staying in India, the homeland Indian works for companies that operate locally. Thus his brain is put to the service of the nation.”  Another closely related argument is that  “The homeland Indian  buys “Indian goods”, thus facilitating the flow of service and goods in the Indian economy.”

I have two problems with this.

One is that in today’s globalized economy, how is working for Indian company Wiprosys more “patriotic” than working for US company Microgle, when most likely the project you are working at Wiprosys is actually doing contract work for Microgle? Who is benefiting from your brain? The answer—the world.
As for spending money in India, whose economy do you think is benefited by the iPad or the Motorola phone you bought in Delhi or Bangalore? The answer—–the world’s.

I also fail to see the patriotism in providing a service and getting paid for it.

The only exception to this are people of the armed forces; their patriotism is beyond question. Why?
Because their calling carries with it the threat of death and serious injury and the salaries they receive do not compensate for that possibility—-it needs a special kind of person to be ready to make the supreme sacrifice and on the nobility of that, there can be no dispute.

And as for contributing to the economy, if we are going to be splitting hairs, I can say that the NRI also spends on their annual visits to the homeland. Spends quite a bit I can say from personal experience. Many send money back and buy property in India, thus oiling the wheels of the economy almost as well as the homelander. Again that he does so is driven by his personal interest and not from an inherent desire to go good for the country. Same then for the non-NRIs.

And if we are looking for true Type B patriots, you will find them outside the country as well as inside. And I am not just talking about the many who press a button and send a cheque to an Indian charity. Not that that in itself is not significant. I am talking about those NRIs who put in labor, taking time out from their jobs and their research, so that things may be better in India. I am talking about those running in marathons to raise money for Indian causes, those volunteering resources for organizing fund-raising events, those who take out time from the 2 weeks they get to go to India to trek to the backwaters and check on projects that are being supported, those who are working to supplement the Indian government’s meager lobbying efforts on Capitol Hills using their own resources. And many others.

Are there self-loathing, “India sucks” type here abroad? You bet there are. But for each one of them, I can show you one homelander who feels the exact same way. And for every NRI who does nothing for the country, you will definitely find one homelander who does exactly that.

In today’s globalized world, in which where one stays and works is merely an accident of convenience and opportunity, belittling someone’s love for their country and their contribution to it, purely on the basis of where they live, is intellectual laziness at the best.

And a  sneering “I am better than you” at the worst.

Arnab Ray is the author of "May I Hebb Your Attention Pliss" from Harper Collins. He blogs at