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NRIs: Pop Nationalism To Identity Supremacy

October 21, 2023 10:59 IST
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Brand India's societal divisions and distortions have remained as much relevant in 'liberal' America and Europe as it still is in the structurally stratified Indian society of the 21st century, observes N Sathiya Moorthy.

IMAGE: 'If the nation has been celebrating the likes of Indra Nooyi, Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella and their career achievements, there is also the question if 'We, the People of India' should continue to 'subsidise' education for future American and European corporate executives and government leaders,' asks N Sathiya Moorthy.

Credit should go to Congress MP Shashi Tharoor for highlighting the fact that many of ISRO's top scientists behind the successful Chandrayaan-3 came from humble backgrounds and did not go to fancy educational institutions like the IIT.

Then you had the Tamil Nadu government honouring seven of those scientists from the state, all of them from a similar background.

ISRO Chairman S Somnath has since acknowledged what the nation had known all along but had chosen to ignore -- all along.

That India's very successful space and atomic scientists do not come from the IITs or high-cost private tech schools that alone are often associated with intelligence and tech prowess in super-speciality areas that space and A-science constitute.

According to Somnath, 60 per cent of IIT students who appeared for an ISRO campus interview walked out when they got to know about the pay-packet.

As is known, top-notch scientists at the high-end of their career in ISRO, Atomic Energy Commission and such other rarified fields draw salaries that are often at the lower-end of any large private sector tech company -- and more overseas.

Their hearts beat for the nation in cricket stadia and weekend marathons, but their minds are too sharp not to be calculative, if not outright cunning.

The mind also finds ways to reason out one's 'escapism', this one to faraway land without thanking the motherland enough for all things she has given through those growing up and formative years, making one brighter for the pick for an American MNC.

Of course, the guilt is deep there, and shows up when it is unquestionably a non-Indian for all intents and purposes -- and bursts out as what can be described only as 'pop nationalism'.


Overseas is where it is. That is because most IIT graduates and those from such other priced institutions end up overseas, notably the US and the rest of the West.

If the nation has been celebrating the likes of Indra Nooyi, Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella and their career achievements in the host nation, there is also the question if 'We, the People of India' should continue to 'subsidise' education for future American and European corporate executives and government leaders.

The question has always been lingering for decades, but may have assumed greater significance after Prime Minister Narendra Modi downwards began running down revdi or freebies on the one hand, and also our own education system, on the other -- whether explicitly or otherwise.

As coincidence would have it, of the three named, Nooyi and Pichai are from Tamil Nadu, where NEET for entering medical colleges is still a burning socio-political issue.

There are many more like them in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere across the country, who had their humble beginnings in one or other part of India but made it big outside the country.

Of course, they were/are all great achievers in their own fields and the firms that hired them as CEOs, but in the post-reforms India, which has evolved as a global market with consumerist tendencies holding sway, they are also brand ambassadors of a kind.

In the early years of the reforms era, they came from the other side of the spectrum.

IMAGE: Harnaaz Kaur Sandhu is crowned Miss Universe 2021. Photograph: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

You then had Aishwarya Rai and Sushmita Sen, 'Miss World' and 'Miss Universe' in the very same year, 1994, not to leave out a long list of successors for either title -- Diana Hayden (1997), Yuktha Mookhey (1999), Priyanka Chopra (2000), Lara Dutta (2000) Manushi Chillar (2017) and Harnaaz Kaur Sandhu (2021). Again their beauty and brains were/are impeccable.

Recall that the first of the lot came as far back as 1966, when Reita Faria became the first of those global beauty queens from India. She was 'Miss World 1966'.

It is no slur on her beauty or brains -- she became a qualified medical doctor, shunning film and modelling offers, for which pageants of the kind are meant for. But as coincidence would have it, India had announced devaluation of the rupee less than six months earlier, in June 1966. If you say, it was all a coincidence, so be it...

IMAGE: Ranjitsinh Disale, winner of the Global Teacher Prize 2020, with his students at the Paritewadi Zilla Parishad Primary School in Paritewadi, a remote village in Maharashtra's south-western district of Solapur. Photograph: Kind courtesy Ranjitsinh Disale

The presumption is that our entire education system is flawed from scratch.

It is hence that the government (whoever was/is in power) brought forward a New Education Policy (NEP), starting with a common examination from third-grade onwards.

If one acknowledged the poor physical and social infrastructure, will such measures improve our education reach and standards -- not necessarily in that order -- or, diminish it even further.

Field experience in Naxalite-infested states have shown that granting an all-pass until grade nine if only to retain those students in school may have helped reduce the number of new recruits for such outfits.

The NEP promises common exams almost after every two or three years of schooling from third standard upwards.

Given the socio-economic levels of most rural families in most states and certain sections of the urban poor across the country, the NEP system of examination would lead to more drop-outs at regular intervals.

Whether they become anti-socials or will take up the family craft as a home-trained career with the kind of finance and institutional support that the PM's Vishwakarma Scheme' promises is anybody's guess.

This is at a time when the Tamil Nadu government has introduced a hugely popular and equally successful free breakfast acheme for all students in government-run elementary schools across the state.

According to official claims, the breakfast scheme has encouraged more pupils to attend school.

School students in Tamil Nadu are already getting nutritious noon meals, under a scheme introduced by the late M G Ramachandran as chief minister, and which has continued with added nutrients through the past four decades and more.

Having followed the TN precedent -- call it the 'Dravidian model' if you wish -- on the noon meals scheme, after the World Bank and WHO commended it to all Third World nations not long after local experts had condemned it, other states are now studying the breakfast scheme for possible implementation.

The question thus arises as to how the governments at the Centre and the states are going to match the NEP exam scheme whose outcome, if not goal, is to encourage graded drop-outs and student-centric social welfare projects like the breakfast scheme, whose add-on aim is also to retain more students in schools.

Following the success of the breakfast scheme, there are requests for extending it to all aided-schools in the state, and also to higher classes, as well.

Needless to point out, such an effort would require more funds, and it could increase the state's debts even more. But the question arises if the political administration should sacrifice the present for the future generations or the future for the present generation.

Yes, appealing to the people to support such schemes may produce instant results but sustaining the momentum may be difficult.

In the past, when Congress chief minister K Kamaraj introduced free noon meal scheme alongside free school education, in the mid-fifties, it was based on voluntary donations, focussing on the state's land-owning class. An overseas aid scheme also helped initially.

IMAGE: Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin feeds students at the Aadhimoolam Corporation Primary School in Madurai during the inauguration of the Chief Minister's Breakfast Scheme. Photograph: PTI Photo from the Rediff Archives

However, when rains failed the state in successive years in an era before the Green Revolution, and food shortages and black-marketing were rampant, the noon-meal scheme died a slow but natural death.

It was thus that when MGR revived it with added focus on nutrients for school children, he made it up as a budgetary scheme.

In the changed socio-economic environment of today, the state government could appeal to the hugely successful corporate sector, including the MNCs, to divert a substantial portion of their CSR funds to such schemes.

It will definitely be a welcome move, but in times of corporate distress as happens in cycles, there would be less, if not no funds for their CSR projects.

There could also be more schemes fighting for those funds. Hence also the reason why the state government, over the past decade or so, is not too eager to count on CSR funds for its welfare schemes.

All of it takes you back to the question of funding and financing the rich and affordable to complete their higher education in fancy institutions, with the sole personal aim of flying out to the US or Europe the day after they have their graduation certificates in hand, and compromising on the basic needs and necessities of the poor and infirm, that too from class one upwards...

There is another side to it. Broadly speaking, those that travel to the Gulf-Arab nations as began happening since the petro-dollar boom of the seventies, cannot claim local citizenship.

Whatever jobs they get in the Gulf, whatever be their educational qualifications, invariably they ended up returning home after a decade, two or three. Hence, they also repatriated those moneys back home.

Now, the second-generation Gulf NRI is looking sideways at Australia, New Zealand and times Europe and the US, where all they end up settling down as citizens. They have no use for India.

It can even be argued that they did not owe anything to India, other than their parents -- who alone owed something to the nation.

But many graduates of high-end Indian tech and medical schools go to the US or Europe straight, become citizens there -- never to return.

At the height of the economic reforms in the early nineties, the government discovered that West-based NRIs gave a lot of sympathy for the motherland, they also lectured on how wretched the Indian administrative and political schemes were, but did not really invest a paisa in this country, which they were hoped to do.

Today, a generation later, their children born and brought up elsewhere cannot be do anything differently. But what is different now is that the socio-economic strata to which these NRIs belong too has undergone a change.

Time used to be when those first and second-generation NRIs used to build temples in host nations and cities.

Against this past trend, now you have the tallest statue of Ambedkar outside the country coming up in the US.

With chants of 'Jai Bhim', which has a strong socio-political connotation, the 19-foot statue was inaugurated in Washington, DC. According to reports, some 500 Indian-Americans were present on the occasion.

The Ambedkar statute was sculpted by Ram Sutar, the man who had earlier made Sardar Patel's 'Statue of Unity', which is also the world's tallest statue at Kevadia, Gujarat.

Organisers have named the Maryland Ambedkar statue as the 'Statue of Equality'.

IMAGE: The B R Ambedkar statue inaugurated by the Ambedkar International Center in Washington, DC. Photograph: Courtesy,

All of it raises two pertinent questions. Assuming that first-generation NRIs in the West came from the upper strata of the Indian societal order, the installation of an Ambedkar statue in a Washington, DC suburb now speaks of a new crop of Indians flying out there for higher education and jobs.

If this is the tallest Ambedkar statute outside the country, it also implies that there are more of them in the US, Europe and elsewhere -- and there are his admirers in substantial numbers in each of these towns, provinces and nations.

Needless to argue, they are also not expected to return home, even granting it will take their children and grandchildren, to cut off all ties with the motherland.

The second question is if these admirers of Ambedkar overseas have come from a particular social stratum, does it mean that they were less educationally-endowed before flying out, or were they on par with the rest, or at least somewhere close to it?

If so, where did they do their schooling and tech courses that have equipped them for higher studies and/or better-paying jobs in the US and Europe?

Did they do it in IITs and IIMs, or started off in a leaky government school with absentee-teachers in a faraway village with no electricity or drinking water or even a clean toilet?

If so, where do we fit in the visible contradictions that is very much there and which our policy-makers do not seem to have understood and acknowledged.

Instead, they are seemingly looking elsewhere and digging out solutions that cannot solve the problems that they have not even really identified.

Is it also because the Team NEP, for instance, was led not by an educationist but a space scientist, K Kasturirangan, and they produced a report that has positioned India in the stratosphere, and not terra firma?

How then do you justify NEET, especially when the cut-off marks is as low as they have come to, and unfilled vacancies are as many as they are, year after year, both in the under-graduate and post-graduate courses?

All of it takes us to the immediate present and a past that flows backwards from it -- or, is the reverse course truer? In the past decade and two, there has been an increasing NRI-driven social media campaign, flagging the greatness of ancient India, its arts, architecture, technology, astronomy and Ayurveda....

They are citizens elsewhere, vote-rights there too, yet they seek to wash away their past-guilt of ditching the nation that fed and educated them for greener pastures, and yet telling their forgotten brethren whom to vote and whom not to trust in the politics of a nation that is NOT theirs -- by choice.

That is only one side of the coin. For some years now, a new trend has emerged across the NRI community where greatness of individual 'Indian cultures' going beyond what some dub as north Indian, others as 'Aryan' or whatever.

Unacknowledged unlike the other, every social media post on the greatness of 'Sanskritised India' and its contributions to humanity has fed a parallel post on the greatness of 'Tamil antiquity, culture and heritage' or 'Telugu culture' or 'Bengali culture' -- only that they do not do the mainstream social media circuit.

The 'Jai Bhim' slogan in the USA only adds another unacknowledged dimension to the NRI discourse on things that are still Indian and real.

All of it boils down to the Hindutva-centric 'pop nationalism' setting of similar trends in support of pan-Tamil cultural revivalism and the like on the one hand -- and the 'Jai Bhim' kind of social-markers on the other.

The competition for 'identity supremacy' is showing. Rather, as in 'back home' (?) India, 'Hindutva nationalism' is giving way to arguments for and against 'identity supremacy' -- but on the streets, without anyone resorting to fisticuffs, as some Indian campuses like JNU-Delhi and IIT-Madras.

That Brand India's societal divisions and distortions have remained as much relevant in 'liberal' America and Europe as it still is in the structurally stratified Indian society of the 21st century is not only shockingly real. It is a stunning eye-opener even more -- but then, who cares, after all?

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and author, is a Chennai-based policy analyst and political commentator.

Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/

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