Posted by: Vikram | August 29, 2008

Thoughts on India’s ‘culture of migration’

Syed Ali, at Long Island University researched (mostly through informal interviews), the ‘culture of migration’ among Hyderabadi Muslims. In the paper, Ali says that the research also applies to Hindus in Hyderabad to a great extent, and by my own experience I think it applies to the whole of India. Indians remain the second largest immigrant group to become American citizens and Indian cinema increasingly uses the NRI story in many movies. Out-migration from India has become an established phenomena and as Ali says,

the culture of migration has a generalised effect upon the social atmosphere in which certain types of life choices and social interactions occur.

Hyderabad, is a particularly interesting to study migration, because it is a city with considerable economic development and investment, offering substantial employment opportunities, especially in the IT industry. Yet, Ali finds a great desire to migrate, regardless of caste, creed and gender. He says that migration is

perceived as an easy escape from the India that many young educated men and women in Hyderabad have learned to dread

The key words to think about here are perceived and learned: Does migration really solve an individuals problems ? Are the problems facing these individuals real or imaginary ?

The answer to the first question, it turns out depends on the status and the nature of the migrant. In many cases, the migration of lower caste and status individuals changes the economic and correspondingly the social status of their families. Thus, immigration provides not only financial, but also social capital. Ali describes the case of a history professor (from a Nawabi family) and his servant,

his (the professor’s) former servant’s son, … went to the Gulf as a mechanic for fifteen years and bulit himself a large house. The professor lives in a small rented flat in the Old City. What is the relation now ?

There were other cases where a migrant laborer (male or female) provided funds not only for a economic but also a social transformation. I personally feel that this kind of migration has a very positive impact on the country, it is a kind of foreign investment that leads to both direct economic and social transformation. And certainly these individuals and their families would have faced far greater obstacles to progress in the absence of migration.

But, there is another level of migration, that of highly educated and (relatively) highly paid professionals. Ali finds a great desire to migrate within this community too, mostly to the US. He reflects that this desire is not necessarily based on financial benefits, but mostly on social and cultural ones,

.. being a migrant in itself has become a status marker. … They (the migrants) become highly valued commodities, irrespective of what they were before the transforming act of migration. … Those who manage to get abroad are seen as victorious, and to the victor go the spoils.

Migration thus, has an enormous impact on the marriage prospects of an individual, something that is central to how Indians see themselves. It has lead to an abolition (at least in urban areas) of traditional notions of caste, but instead created new notions of ‘caste’, revolving around the NRI. Ali examined six months of matrimonials in the most widely read Urdu daily in Hyderabad and found that,

Not once did any of the ads mention the caste of the person advertised, nor did they specify the caste of the partner sought. What was common, however, was advertising that the person in the ad had some kind of foreign visa, or that a foreign visa holder was sought.

It is interesting that young Indians brought up on boy-meets-girl Bollywood fare do not question the logic of an arranged marriage, if the marriage provides the desired migratory avenues.

Ali, points out an extremely worrying truth in urban India,

Not migrating, or rather not wanting to migrate, is perceived as ‘deviant’ behaviour. Those who choose not to go must defend the decision, rationalising their abnormal stance

This fact has the important effect of channeling the aspirations of young Indians in a direction where migration is likely. Very often, the choice of a course of study is made not on the basis of how interesting the individual finds it or even what the job opportunities (in India) are, but on the possibilities of future migration. India’s future top journalists, conservationists and sociologists, today might be in a cramped Engineering College. It is the responsibility of parents I feel, to assure their children of support regardless of their choice of profession in life (as long as they work hard), instead it is most often parents themselves that condemn their children to a lifetime, spent thousands of miles away from their home and their ambitions.


  1. Syed Ali has put the academic imprint on something that’s experienced by so many people — particularly the middle class folks.

    Thanks for sharing his insights through this summary.

    Thank you. Your comments are welcome.

  2. When I was young I lived for around a decade in a small town in Punjab, then we moved to Chandigarh for a while and then shifted back to live in a small village for 3 years before shifting again back to Chandigarh. The transition from the city to the village was the hardest in terms of quality of life. Now a days whenever I return home from abroad it takes me a while to adjust to India and make the same transition, its just like coming to stay in that village. The quality of life in the terms of infrastructure, choices etc are quite poor in India. Its the small things that one misses but one of the biggest things that I miss about being abroad is just the sheer amount of people in India. I guess given a choice most people would want to leave and they can hardly be blamed for it. Although there are some very good reasons for living in India as well, I am just lazy and that works quite well here.

    I agree completely. I just think that kids should be given a bit of leeway when it comes to choosing their futures. Trust me, a lifetime spent away from home churning out computer code can in no way be satisfying if your true passion is studying wildlife or climate change in India. Yes, your weekdays might not be spent stuck in a traffic jam but they will also not be spent doing something that you feel is worthwhile. Your weekends might be spent cruising around a well tended country in expressways but they will not be spent working with an NGO, cheering the Punjab Kings or the Indian team or celebrating a festival. The choice is quite hard. But then again, sometimes ppl just have to leave, either because their ambitions require it or because they may not feel safe in India.

  3. The whole ‘New West’, is built on migrants. Indians have been very, very slow to take off the block in any significant numbers. In fact, till early 20th century, those going abroad were looked down upon and even faced social boycott!

    We have always been an inward looking country. Material gains have never been the driving force for most; detachment and the search within rather than without has been our forte as well as our weakness.

    Things are beginning to change; in fact have alredy changed considerably. Odzer has perfectly compared the contrast between his village and Chandigarh to that between the city and the West. As long as that exists, people will continue to migrate, just like the Biharis, for example, are from the interior of Bihar to other parts of India.

    The numbers are going to increase in the coming years

  4. Nicely compiled article.
    It’s startling “Not migrating, or rather not wanting to migrate, is perceived as ‘deviant’ behaviour. Those who choose not to go must defend the decision, rationalising their abnormal stance”.
    i totally agree to this point, i’ve seen this happen.. even to me! 🙂

  5. […] of us … “, quoting from Syed Ali’s paper on the culture of migration in Hyderabad that I discussed, At times, their (young, educated Hyderabadis) knowledge of daily life in places such as Houston or […]

  6. I had read somewhere that the trend is beginning to reverse because India is beginning to be able to offer its high powered graduates high powered jobs. Here is a link to that blog post from “A Wide Angle View of India”.

    Also, I read somewhere that NRIs are no longer the preferred partners.

    Do you see any evidence of this beginning to change or do you think that the emigration will only increase?

  7. MmeetsK, India suffers from more severe brain drain today than at anytime in its history. This year all records were broken for Indian grad students coming to the US, and a graduate degree in the US is mostly a way to come into and stay here.

    This kind of brain drain doesnt really matter (might even be good) if the students were all Master’s students, just looking to get a better job and a better life here. But the real blow comes due to the migration of PhD students, potential scholars and researchers. If you notice the papers I review here on my blog, you will see that most of the authors are based in American schools. Their scholarship is of little use unless communicated to India, and that is extremely difficult if you are a US based professor.

    NRIs are still the preferred partners, make no mistake, I havent seen any evidence otherwise.

    I dont think the emigration of Master’s students will slow down any time soon, maybe the number of incoming PhD students will decrease.

  8. Vikram, its useful if one can read ur resp, its easier to ‘see’ when it isnt italicised, as when u append it below a commentator’s comment. It was better here, when u used a separate ‘box’. Thx.

  9. […] But, the middle class has to realize one thing, that migration is an okay goal for an individual3, but not for an entire society. Until this fundamental realization occurs and middle India learns that it has a huge stake in the […]

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