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'Overseas citizen shifted the basis of Indian nationalism'

October 12, 2012 01:57 IST

Devesh Kapur has been the director of Centre for the Advanced Study of India, the only research institute in America devoted to India, since 2006. CASI at the University of Pennsylvania turned 20 this year.

Part I: 'There are real fears of crony capitalism in India' 
Part II: 'Indians still continue to see their nation as developing' 

An associate professor for the study of contemporary India at Penn, Kapur says CASI fills a key need for objective knowledge of India's politics and society, rapidly changing economy, and transformation as both an ancient civilization and major contemporary power.

Its goals are to nurture a new generation of scholars across disciplines and to provide a forum for dialogue among the academic, business, and foreign policy communities.

Through its collaborative research initiatives, seminars, conferences, publications, and outreach, CASI seeks to provide in-depth, policy-relevant analysis of the most pressing issues facing India and the Indo-US relationship today.

Kapur, who has also taught at the University of Texas and Harvard, focuses his research on human capital, national and international public institutions, and the ways in which local-global linkages, especially international migration and international institutions, affect political and economic change in India and other developing countries.

Kapur's last book, Diaspora, Democracy and Development: The Impact of International Migration from India on India, has earned him the 2012 ENMISA (Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Migration Section of International Studies Association) Distinguished Book Award.

In an interview with Arthur J Pais, Kapur discusses the impact of international migration.

Where did you grow up?

You may say I am an Uttar Pradesh bhaiyya who grew up in Kolkata before I went to the Institute of Technology-Banaras Hindu University (now Indian Institute of Technology-BHU) to study chemical engineering.

My grandfather had moved to Kolkata in the mid-1930s where he had started a precision engineering company that prospered during World War II. I grew up amidst interesting family stories.

My grandfather Devi Das Kapur and his brother Kali Das Kapur were both interested in education and how the new India could be transformed by it. But they had very different views.

My granduncle admired the egalitarian Japanese primary education system, so he went to Japan, came back to Lucknow and started an experimental school.

My grandfather was fascinated by German engineering and technological success and he went there to learn machine tool technologies. The factory he had started flourished for some time, but as the War ended, its fortune declined.

My father worked hard to revive it, but he could not succeed fully as Bengal's fortunes began to wane from the late 1960s and the labour strife and overall business climate hurt many industries.

We know you better as a professor of political science. Were you really interested in chemical engineering?

I loved it. Even today, I say that if I have to choose, I would be happy to be in a factory. But even as I was studying engineering in India, I was interested in public policy and economic development.

I remember a Sanskrit saying -- you learn one fourth from your teachers, one fourth from your own efforts, one fourth from your peers, one fourth with the passage of time.

In my undergraduate years, I learnt most of all from my peers (one of who, Professor Pankaj Chandra, is now director of the Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore), holding adda (the Bengali word for community chat and bonding sessions) over chai in between studies and the BHU library, which was very good.

We were a group of curious young people and that curiosity about the world around me continued when I came to the US with a fellowship to do Masters in chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota.

That led me to check public policy programs at major American universities and I chose to study at Princeton. The American educational system does not box you in. You can study very different subjects simultaneously, and you can go from one discipline to another with ease. And that is what happened to me.

What were your early years in America like as a researcher?

At Princeton, my dissertation focused on why state-owned enterprises in India perform better in some sectors and not others and focused on the petrochemicals sector.

As I was finishing up, my advisor at Princeton, Professor John P Lewis was asked in 1990 by the World Bank to lead an effort to write the official history of the institution for its 50th anniversary, based at the Brooking Institution in Washington, DC.

He had headed USAID in Delhi in the mid-1960s when it was the largest aid program of the United States, and was a good friend of Indian economists I G Patel and Manmohan Singh (now India's prime minister).

He wanted Dr Singh to be his collaborator in writing the history of World Bank, but given his own expertise in South Asia, he was urged by the World Bank to have a co-author from another part of the world.

Eventually Dr Richard Webb, the former governor of the Central Bank of Peru, joined him. I joined John and Richard as head of research, but soon my role evolved as co-author of the history. I left Brookings in 1997 after spending six years there.

India at that time was not as hot as it is now. It was neither a threat to America nor a great opportunity. I was offered a faculty appointment in the government department at Harvard, followed by one at the University of Texas in Austin after which I came to Penn to head CASI.

How did the book on migration come about?

Growing up, whether in Kolkata or as a student in Banaras or the US, I realised that most of my friends had grown up in places that were different from their ethnic background -- the Bengali who grew up in Delhi, the Tamilian who grew up in Mumbai or the Maharashtrian who grew up all over, except in Maharashtra (as my wife did). They saw themselves as 'Indian' more than their narrower regional or ethnic identity.

While doing my field work for my dissertation on a central public sector company where the employees were from all parts of India, I realised that the steel towns like Bokara and Bhilai, the army, the railways or the central civil services -- one of their most unheralded contributions was to 'make Indians' through patterns of mobility and migration.

And when I came here I began to wonder about the effects of international migration on self-perception -- on identity.

Take my wife as an example. Her parents are Maharashtrian. She was born in the UK, but went back to India as a baby, grew up in UP and West Bengal and came here at the age of 10. Surely these different experiences have shaped her in different and complex ways.

The same is true of me -- and indeed of all migrants. How would we have turned out if we had never left? This led to me think of a much larger question. How would the country of origin, India, have turned out if there had been no migration, which became the subject of the book.

What are some of the interesting things you discovered as part of the research?

For one, the changing composition of international migrants from India. For instance, while labour flows from Kerala were dominant in the 1970s and 1980s, by 2010 it accounted for less than one-sixth of low-skilled labour flows from India and UP had emerged as the largest state for low-skilled international labor outflows.

The book argues (based on extensive original data) that international migration has had a significant positive impact on Indian politics: First, by influencing the commitment to liberal democratic politics among Indian elites, and second, by promoting India's democratic durability and stability through elite 'exit.'

The analysis points to the less salubrious effects on India, arising from support for extremist nationalist and separatist groups by members of the Indian Diaspora. However, the evidence suggests that the systemic effects of this support are relatively modest compared to domestic factors.

International exposure and return migration of Indian elites contributed to several key ideas that have shaped India: Its commitment to a democratic form of government at the time of independence and, more recently, to economic liberalisation. This is not to say that these two critical characteristics of contemporary India have been primarily shaped by international migration, but international migration has certainly played an important role in shaping the sensibility of Indian political and policy elites.

The distinctively 'elite' character of modern Indian emigration has amplified these 'social remittance' effects, both because of the Diaspora's overseas success and its access to influential institutional channels to transmit these ideas.

You have asserted that international migration has had a notable political impact on the endurance of India's democracy…

Elite 'exit' through emigration eased the political ascendancy of India's numerically dominant lower castes. From the mid-19th to the end of the millennium, Indian emigration became increasingly 'positively' selected (whether measured by caste, class, or education and skills).

This elite emigration has lubricated the political ascendancy of India's numerically dominant lower castes and challenging the entrenched political power of upper castes.

The question was not if this would happen, but when and at what cost.

No group gives up its privileges without a fight, and this 'silent revolution' in India could have been much more contentious but palatable exit options made it easier to relinquish their centuries-old privileges.

It is in this contribution to the strengthening of India's democracy, even if inadvertent, that international migration may have had its strongest political impact on India.

At the same time, the elite basis of Indian emigration has also had implications for the quality of Indian democracy. Exit has implied a reduced incentive to exercise voice, particularly for public goods like health and education that have been the very basis for mobility of Indian elites (human capital).

It has also had pernicious effects on the competence of India's public institutions, by undermining the availability of human capital.

This is particularly the case with higher education, where the absence of qualified faculty at a time of rapid expansion has entrenched mediocrity with debilitating long-term consequences.

Thus, while international migration has allowed an exit mechanism that has mitigated conflict, it simultaneously undermined the quality of India's democracy by weakening the competencies and capabilities of India's public institutions.

You have also written that international migration and the Indian Diaspora have both created new opportunities, but also serious challenges for India's foreign policy.

In established industrialised democracies, like the US, where the Indian Diaspora enjoys full citizenship rights and is also in a privileged economic position, the Diaspora has broadly facilitated Indian foreign policy goals.

In contrast, the Diaspora's impact on India's foreign policy has been more circumscribed in countries where it enjoys virtually no citizenship rights and forms a mix of an economic underclass as well as middle-class professionals (as is the case in the Middle East and Gulf states).

In these cases while the Diaspora has helped weave a limited web of ties between India and the Middle-East, periodic bouts of political instability in that region put them at physical risk, placing a substantial repatriation burden on the Indian state (as evidenced during the Gulf wars and the Libyan crisis).

The third group of countries, where the Indian Diaspora is of older vintage and where citizenship rights are contested with other ethnic groups, have posed serious challenges.

These include countries in India's neighbourhood and in others such as East Africa in the late 1960s-early 1970s, Fiji and Malaysia.

Domestic political instability and ethnic conflicts invariably target immigrants and as Indian emigration grows, addressing the fallout when this occurs putting Indian migrants are at risk, will pose serious challenges to Indian foreign policy.

The book also highlights three mechanisms through which the economic effects of emigration and the Indian Diaspora manifest themselves: Financial flows, global networks, and the Diaspora's role as reputational intermediaries.

Unlike the Chinese Diaspora, which has been a critical source of FDI into China, the Indian Diaspora's role as a source of FDI into India has been modest.

Instead, however, it has been an important source of financial flows into India in the form of remittances, which emerged as an important part of India's balance of payments.

The India Diaspora has created a web of cross-national networks, thereby facilitating the flow of tacit information, commercial and business ideas, and technologies into India.

It has also facilitated 'home sourcing,' as exemplified by the rapid growth of India's diamond cutting and polishing industry on the one hand and the rapid growth of India's IT sector on the other.

The cognitive effects have been the result of the visible success of migrants abroad, which have favourably influenced global perceptions of India.

Finally international migration has had subtle shifts on notions of Indian citizenship, from birth in India or naturalization to encompass ethnicity as well.

The Overseas Citizen of India shifted the basis of Indian nationalism from a pure civic and territorial one to a more ethnic nationalism. Whether -- and what -- impact this has on India in the long-term remains to be seen.

Image: Devesh Kapur with his wife Sadhana.
Photograph Courtesy: Devesh Kapur


Arthur J Pais