In an interview to The Hindu (May 20, 2008) US Ambassador to India, David Mulford, made some significant observations concerning Indo-US relations. He noted that there are 84,000 Indian students in the US, 1,700 American students in India, that young Americans are fascinated by India and that Indo-US relation on a ?people-to-people, company-to-company, university-to-university, city-to-city? basis is ?very, very durable?.
He further added that ?of all the major relationships, the US has around the world, this is the one that will probably change least by a change in administrations in Washington?. He could have said?but didn?t?that almost a third of NASA staff is of Indian origin, that Indians have distinguished themselves in many walks of life, that a politician of Indian origin has even become a Governor of a State and could possibly be the running mate of the Republican candidate for the presidency.
But were things always as honky dory as is believed? This is where Vinay Lal'sThe Other Indians?a study of Indians in the US?comes in handy. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the first Indians to migrate to America were Sikhs, who were described as Hindoos, somewhat derogatorily. In 1900, there were barely 2050 Indian residents in the US. Indians were not wanted. In 1904, some 258 Indians were admitted, another 145 were admitted in 1905 and they mostly worked on farms as labourers. One early Sikh immigrant was later to recall how, at a bar, a white man motioned to him, saying: ?Come here, slave!?. In 1907 Indians were subjected to racial attacks.
Few Indian students went to the US for higher studies. Those were times when Indians thought more of Cambridge and Oxford than of Harvard, Yale or Stanford. Canada had shut its doors to Indians in 1908. Indians, to US minds, constituted an ?Oriental problem? and an American official admitted in 1914 that the ?safest? plan to ?preclude the possibility of a Hindu invasion is for Congress to enact a suitable exclusion law?! Indians who had become US citizens could not buy land. In March 1923, one newspaper, The Sacramento Bee said that the decision of the US Supreme Court that ?Hindus are not eligible to American citizenship, is most welcome in California?! The 1940 US Census indicated that 56 per cent of the Indian population in the US then were over 40 years of age, that some 70 per cent were employed as labourers, over two thirds of them on farms. Of the Indians 25 years and older, some 40 per cent had not completed even one year of schooling.
As Vinay Lal puts it: ?The perception that the United States had become supremely inhospitable to Asians was widespread?. The 1930s were a ?period of despair and inacticity? for Indians in the US, despite the presence of some distinguished Indians who had made their name in the country, like Dhan Gopal Mukherji, Krishnalal Shridharani, Haridas Mazumdar, Rajani Kant Das, a Ph.D in Economics who taught at New York University, J.J.Singh who became an eloquent spokesman for the Indians cause for freedom and, according to the author, ?used his close friendship with Clare Luce, the wife of publisher Henry Luce, to press for less hostile coverage of Indian nationalism in Time's pages?.
Conditions had changed. From 1990 to 2000, the Indian population in the US doubled to 1.71 million, ?by far the greatest jump for any large Asian American ethnic groups?. Conditions of Indians resident in the US had changed. When once Indians in the US were largely uneducated, currently 63.9 per cent of American Indians have a minimum of a bachelor'sdegree, higher, percentage-wise (24.4) than white Americans. Presently, nearly 23,000 IIT graduates are estimated to have made the US their home. It is this story of how Indians have made it in the US in just the last quarter century that makes for fascinating reading, even though Vinay Lal does not provide much details. First, they made their presence felt in sheer numbers. The 1980 Census recorded 33,541 Indians in the Chicago metropolitan region alone. That number had grown to 125,208 by the year 2000. Then they strengthened their position through educational qualifications, percentage-wise outnumbering white Americans.
Unbelievable, but true. Indian lobbies have attempted to memorialise great Indians in many American cities and there are statues of Mahatma Gandhi in at least eight American cities, including Washington, the US capital. How many statues of great Americans?say, of an Abraham Lincoln?are there in India? Indian influence in the US is neatly summed up by the author when he says that ?certainly no Asian Indian liberal or critic of establishment politics has exercised the kind of incalculable influence on American public policy wielded by someone such as Dinesh D?Souza?. Indeed, the last ten years have opened up entirely new chapters in the history of the Indians diaspora in the United States, But times are changing. NRIs seem to be returning to India in large numbers.
This book is a study of the growth of the Indian diaspora and how it has been sustained over the decades and how it has been attempting to adjust itself culturally to its new surroundings. Who knows but that some day like the Jews, it is the NRIs who would make a strong element in American policy-making circles? Vinay Lal'sstudy is titillatingly short, but it is indicative of what could happen to NRIs in the future.
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