NRIs and India Bashing
Image Credit: Will Ockenden

NRIs and India Bashing


Unlike my previous pieces for The Diplomat, this post may sound a little more like venting than strategic analysis. But I think this issue is one worth thinking about – the superiority complex among many Non-Resident Indians.

Why am I writing this now? It started with a conversation I overheard on my recent flight from Singapore to New Delhi. An Indian man in his 20s was talking to a foreign couple travelling to India for the first time, and I was sat in the row in front of them. 

What started off as a polite conversation between the couple and the Indian man, who seemed to have spent most of his life living outside India, turned into an India-bashing marathon as the couple’s self-appointed guide warned them against everything from dirty drinking water to mosquitoes to dishonest cabbies to lecherous members of the public to pollution. The couple seemed a little horrified, but their “guide” wasn’t done yet – he then went on to draw favorable comparisons between Singapore (where he’s currently based) and the string of problems he says represents India.

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You don’t have to be a patriot to wonder why the man didn’t mention India’s famous hospitality, cuisine, historical monuments, bio-diversity and strong family bonds. I was so annoyed I was tempted to turn around and say something. However a woman from Mumbai beat me to it, giving the man a dressing down that left him silent for the rest of the flight.

Unfortunately, this is far from an isolated case. A few months ago, I was at an investors’ conference where I watched an Indian and Harvard MBA dismiss India as a “third world country where one is forever stuck in a traffic jam on pot-holed roads, and where electricity is a luxury.”

I had a chance to speak with him afterward, and pointed out the impressive GDP growth of this supposed third world country, as well as its relative resilience during the 2008 financial crisis. Needless to say, the cat got his tongue. But I feel like I’m pushing against the tide with Non-Resident Indians (or NRIs as they are often known).

The list of complaints I’ve heard about NRIs is a long one, but their status often manifests itself in some predictable ways – the strangely quick adoption of the new host country’s accent, the sudden dismissing of Indian culture such as Bollywood, and a general desire to be more of a native than the natives.

So why does this happen? The only half-reason I can think of has been the historical tendency for Indian families to lavish praise on NRIs. In the 1980s and early 1990s, a family member living abroad used to be seen as something to celebrate. That chacha or mamma (Hindi words for different kinds of uncles) used to be the favorite among the kids back home should be no surprise – he would usually return for visits bearing gifts of imported chocolates and toys.

But the world has changed since then. Travelling abroad is no longer such an unusual event, especially in industries like IT, where software engineers are dispatched by the thousands. Unfortunately the mindset of many families in India hasn’t kept pace with the times.  A relative settled abroad, no matter what job he’s doing, is still considered something to brag about. It’s little wonder, then, that some of these absent “heroes” might develop a superiority complex.

I’m not saying that there aren’t things in India that shouldn’t be improved – there’s a long way for India to go. But NRIs shouldn’t forget some of the basics, like India allowing its citizens to openly and freely speak their mind, which isn’t the case in many parts of the world.

Loudly broadcasting India’s faults to the world, while willfully ignoring any positives, reflects a terrible insecurity. India isn’t perfect. But then again, nowhere is.

Tanuj Khosla is a research analyst at an asset management firm in Singapore. He can be followed on Twitter @Tanuj_Khosla. The views expressed are his own.

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