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Why do Indians do so well abroad?

🔴 Vikram Patel writes: It has less to do with their Indian heritage and more to do with Western countries’ commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion

Written by Vikram Patel |
Updated: January 19, 2022 12:25:23 pm
There is little doubt that persons born in India out-perform all other nationalities in the sheer scale of their success when they migrate to the “West”. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

In these times of hyper-nationalism, inevitably fuelled by the 75th anniversary of independence, I have been flooded with messages, forwarded by patriotic relatives, friends and random persons, extolling India’s greatness. One such message was provocatively titled “Who’s running the World?” (with no apologies to Noam Chomsky). Here is a synopsis: One day, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi were arguing about who was in charge of the world. After much deliberation, Modi replied that all he knew was that the leading CEOs of the world were Indian. The message then rattles off a list of companies, many of which are household names (think Google and Microsoft) and, after 21 such examples, a shorter list of Indians who have ascended to political heights in other countries. And this was before a person of Indian origin ascended to the helm of Twitter and the omission of persons of Indian origin who have headed prestigious global NGOs such as Medicins sans Frontiers and Amnesty International or headed US states or European countries (Portugal and Ireland and some predict the UK in the near future!).

There is little doubt that persons born in India out-perform all other nationalities in the sheer scale of their success when they migrate to the “West” (essentially, Europe and North America). Earlier this week, I read that people of Indian origin top the list of US unicorns’ immigrant founders. But I wondered if these observations reflected more on the “greatness” of the country they had migrated to rather than India herself? What struck me was the discrepancy between a few million Indians doing so well abroad, the most celebrated of whom were taking their companies (and, in some instances, countries) to dizzying heights, while India herself, despite being home to over a billion fellow Indians, continues to languish at the bottom of virtually every list of countries ranked on desirable goals such as human development, income equality, food security, gender equality, air quality, transparency, universal health coverage, literacy and sanitation. In the World Happiness Report 2020, we rank alongside Afghanistan, South Sudan and Yemen. And what’s more worrying, our rankings on these lists has been falling in recent years.

I know I’m not alone in wondering about this conundrum. I have reflected on this a lot, drawing upon my own personal experience of working as a public health scientist in India and in the US and UK, supplemented with stories of achievements of migrant Indians in the academy, and of relatives and friends who left India with just pennies in their pockets. I have come to conclude that the principal reason Indians do so well when they migrate to the West has less to do with their Indian heritage than the ways in which their adopted countries have shaped their societies, at the heart of which is their explicit commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Indeed, if it were not for this commitment, it would have been simply impossible for people from a completely foreign land, who embrace alien religions and cultures, to achieve such exalted success in a single-generation. It is these features which account for the meteoric rise of migrants from India.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this. Diversity, equity and inclusion were certainly not prominent in the history of the West, dominated by genocide, slavery, colonialism and white supremacy. But, in the past half-century, these countries actively sought to reimagine their societies as beacons of multiculturalism where people of all hues and ethnicities could realise the possibility of achieving the highest offices in the land. It is surely ironic, then, that those fleeing India are leaving a land which was, historically, the most diverse nation in the world. India’s singular claim to greatness lay in its unparalleled history of multiculturalism, a mosaic of diverse people far richer and much older than the European Union or the countries created by European settlers after murdering the indigenous peoples. A land where thousands of languages were spoken, which birthed four of the world’s major religions and gave shelter to the others, a place which assimilated its invaders to further enrich its melting pot. Despite the persistence of ancient prejudices and the considerable work still to be done to achieve equity and inclusion for all her diverse peoples, India remains an audacious and unique civilisational feat.

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But that India now seems to be fading away as the fault-lines between communities whose ancestries and histories are inseparably intertwined are being inexorably, and deliberately, widened. I watch with despair as violence, both symbolic and actual, is replacing the arts, culture and faith as the language of identity, and homogenisation is replacing diversity as the defining feature of our nationhood. I watch with sorrow the increasing marginalisation and falling representation of minorities in public institutions (barring prisons), the demonisation of diverse food habits and customs, the rewriting of history to reframe some of our customs as being foreign and to be shunned, and the terror threatening co-habitation and marriage between communities. This seems to me to be exactly the wrong recipe for greatness, one which will not only further diminish our country in the eyes of the world but, more importantly, in the eyes of our own youth.

The list of names of “Indians” who rule the world ends with Kamala Harris. Of course, her story is utterly inspirational. But, I wondered about the odds that a person like her, the female child of a Hindu Indian and a black Christian West Indian in a predominantly white, patriarchal country, could reach such heights in India today. And she is not an outlier. With the appointment of Yasmin Trudeau as a state senator on Monday, Washington state legislature has four women of South Asian origin, including a Hindu, a Sikh and a Muslim. One of these women, Mona Das from Bihar, said this remarkable occasion was proof that America celebrated the diversity of her communities.

I have no doubt that our nationalists love India, but it baffles me that they cannot see what is staring at us in our faces: Hate and othering will extinguish the flicker of hope for our young people craving for a country where the diversity of personal identities is a marker of a country’s maturity, magnanimity and modernity. Worryingly, in the three years from 2016 to 2019, the number of young Indians who fled the country to study abroad increased by 40 per cent and I expect that the numbers will climb further in the years ahead. Most will become migrants and will undoubtedly further swell the ranks of “Indians” who “rule the world”.

It is our diversity which is our greatest asset and which the West has co-opted, along with some of our brightest talent. If we want India to realise greatness, we will need to reaffirm our commitment to embracing, celebrating and protecting this very essence of our nation.

This column first appeared in the print edition on January 19, 2022 under the title ‘The rise of the Indian migrant’. Patel is The Pershing Square Professor of Global Health at Harvard Medical School.

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