Posted by: Vikram | October 24, 2008

Why are the Indian middle classes so enamoured of America ?

Nicolas Kristof, the famed NYT journalist wrote this article about what Obama’s election to the US Presidency would do to how this country is perceived abroad. Interestingly he mentions India to remind America that it should not self-congratulate itself too much,

Yet before we get too far with the self-congratulations, it’s worth remembering something else …. India is overwhelmingly Hindu but now has a Sikh prime minister and a white Christian as president of its ruling party, and until last year it had a Muslim in the largely ceremonial position of president.

Of course, India is having a lot more issues with its primary minority, Muslims, than America does with its primary minority, African-Americans. A Muslim Prime Minister looks highly unlikely in the near future. But it is perhaps interesting to note that some secondary minorities (Sikhs, Christians in India, Asians, Indians in the US) are actually better off than the majority on average. What really caught my eye though, was a comment by Sen from India (2nd most recommended),

I am, in many ways a westernised indian; and a fan of the USA, warts and all. The last 8 years have been very difficult for people like me. It is not easy to see what you believed in , all your life, getting disproved daily.

Senator Obama’s election as the president of the USA, if it does happen, will, at one shot,recover for the USA its entire reputation as a land of oppurtunity where evryone can make it, irrespective of class, colour and religion.

For people like me and there are lots of us, it will vindicate our faith in the principles which we feel make for a better world. Sure we have problems with lots of things the America does ( and does not do). But, at its best, the USA has no comparison.

After the last 8 years, its time that our faith in the USA got reconfirmed.

You must realise that what you do and how you behave has effects far from your shores. Its an awesome responsibility.

The comment left me quite bemused. There’s nothing wrong about liking and admiring the US. But seriously, this guy’s core beliefs were something about America ? There certainly needs to be a substantial debate in India about what it means to be Indian (please dont give the usual ‘family values’, cricket, ‘hard working’ crap), so I can understand some degree of confusion within Indians, I feel it myself. But simply appropriating/aping someone’s else’s values will not provide any kind of answer, in the long term it will only lead to denial and more confusion. It is one thing to wear a ‘I Love USA’ shirt, quite another to say my core beliefs are something about America.

What Sen is definitely right about though, is when he says ” For people like me and there are lots 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 Palo Alto was surprisingly detailed and nuanced.

It wouldnt surprise me if more young, urban Indians knew what the capital of Minneapolis was than those that even know what Tripura is, let alone remember what its capital is. Shouldn’t one know oneself very well before trying to be someone else ? Much more importantly, is the fact that more urban Indians are probably interested in who becomes the next American president, while talk of the status of Indian democracy today draws cynical ire. Apart from rabidly supporting Modi, and hating Communists I dont see any great political activism among the middle classes.

Let me make it clear, that this comment might have been made in the best of faith and Sen might genuinely admire American equality, tolerance and achievement. But admiration should not come at the cost of introspection and self-respect, not from someone who belongs to however flawed, the largest democracy in the world.


  1. @ Vikram : Nice post. I am not so interested in the United States except for movies. Although I am just addicted to movies I guess since I watch many from so many places. I guess I am one of those kinky Japan fan boys. he he he he.

    Hey I met someone from Tripura the other day he is a manager here at one of the local coffee shops and I started speaking Nepali to him (I have never met anyone from there before). He did not look pleased but we are friends again now. I guess since India is made up, there is no such thing as Indians. Anyone who has a passport issued by the Union of India is Indian.

  2. Vikram, your observations in the last two paragraphs of your post are true and disturbing. May be it has something to do with the fact that there are Indians who think that there is no such thing as Indias. So far, I thought such ‘Indians’ were from the remote corners of the country. Odzer tells us differently. Given his intelligence, he may have some very good reasons for believing what he does. For most others, it actually is a reflection of lack of belief and confidence or parochial prejudice. Not surprising, after so many years of colonial rule and fighting with each other, to the never-ending advantage of invaders. The easy identification with the US and the lack of knowledge about India flows directly from there in such cases.

  3. I think America is a lot like us, in it’s diversity, attempts at equality, freedom of press – we can relate to America more than any other place. Also most of us have, or many of us have half our family in America. I know some parents who were worrying about their Investment Banker sons in America, to them, it really matters who gets elected next 🙂
    It does not mean they will settle down in America or are in awe of America. Also it’s just like an Indian moves from their villages to bigger cities, middle class Indian wants to be a global citizen…we love to talk about all ‘foren’ countries, but America has become home to more Indians….just some thoughts.

  4. IHM, I have encountered this analogy before, it is only partly true. Yes, America and India are diverse, but the nature of the diversity is very different. There is a lot of nativity to India’s diversity, whereas America’s diversity is mostly imported. Most migrants to America are economic migrants, who dont have a political voice in their first generation. And the second generation of these migrants (for e.g. American born children of NRIs) are extremely ‘white’ apart from their physical characteristics. Very often their attempts at asserting their connections to the lands of their ancestors are extremely shallow, and in the case of some Hindus, downright bigoted.

    Really, there are only two strongly distinct cultural groups in America, black and white. In India there are atleast 20.

    I dont believe that most Indians have some family here. There are about a million Indians here, and at most that can mean about 10-15 million Indians have some strong family connection here.

    Middle class Indians want to be global citizens but this cant come at the cost of being an Indian citizen. I think the fundamental problem here is, too much of the middle class ‘Indian’ identity is cultural (read upper caste Hindu) or consumerist (read cricket and Bollywood). It is not political or civil, in fact that aspect is often very cynically cast aside or forgotten. This is just the impression I get from the media and talking to my own family and friends, so I may not be completely correct.

  5. You are right I guess…I just feel that if there is any country that comes close to being like India it is America, that is why the comment.
    And I totally agree with you about Indian Hindus over there being ridiculously bigoted, I have argued and fought with a very dear aunt, who was perfectly sane when she was here, the reason she says she has changed is it helps in having something of your own, some roots & culture, but I always tell her, this is not the way to have ‘something of your own’…it sounds almost like one upmanship….you talk of Christ, I talk of Krishna :))

  6. Hey I had corrected ‘most of us’ to ‘many of us’ have family is America 🙂

    I didn’t understand your last para….this bit, “too much of the middle class ‘Indian’ identity is cultural (read upper caste Hindu) or consumerist (read cricket and Bollywood). It is not political or civil, in fact that aspect is often very cynically cast aside or forgotten.”

  7. Well, I just mean that Indians confuse their culture with their state. There are values espoused by the various religious/linguistic/ethnic communities in India, which are often very strictly adhered to. There are also values adhered to by the Indian state, democracy, equality, secularism (that flow from the people who set up the country) that seem to take a complete back seat it seems.

  8. isn’t it because they have a better economic standing than they are in india.
    have you noticed the rich indians (mostly) do not want to stay here for long term.

    isn’t it because they are more powerful in getting things done for themselves while in india you need to be connected and networked even for the smallest of things.

    why did india celebrate its 6oth ( independence 0 day celebrations in pomp and vigour in New York and not elsewhere ( not sure) why?
    does it have something got to do with the indian government though mostly they try to keep away from washingtonian poltics such as not agreeing with iraq war and still wants to celebrate its independence at lincon center here with such pomp that banners were put in many places in the city.

    why does the rich indians always send their children to the US to study ( and some elswhere in scotland or the US)

    why segregate the middle class indians as being enamored of america (good or bad ? ) why does the IFS officers want their posting in the US. Most of their children ( conduct a study and you will find that their children want to study and stay here for long term. why ???

    when we don’t get admissions in IIT, parents sent their children to undergrads here in the US.why ?
    On a blog one IIT’an ( lower middle class ) wrote america is a land of milk and honey. Now of course she is disillusioned of the many things here, but still wants to stay here. Why?

    why do software engineers ( even after big economic boom )want to leave the shores of india after 5 years of experience. why ?

  9. Anrosh, you seem to imply that there is a strong correlation between wanting to migrate to America and ‘worshipping’ America in India. It is not so clear that this correlation can be made easily, there are many countries (including our neighbours Pakistan) where the desire to migrate to America is very strong but the general sentiment is extremely anti-US, across society.

    I talked about the culture of migration in India in an earlier post. That culture, as you pointed out, is prevalent across society and exists for many different reasons.

    For example, the culture of migration does not explain why Bush was so heavily favored in India (even before the nuke deal) and the invasion of Iraq had almost unanimous support of Indian middle class (except perhaps the Muslims and the left). There is a distinction to be made between elevating America to the land of milk and honey, and deciding to stay here even when you discover it it not like that.

    That was the distinction I was trying to make, though I might have not done the best job.

  10. Vikram I agree that we seem to identify more with our culture/region/religion/language than we do with our Nation, and that is what is being used to the max by our political leaders.
    My blogging started with my angst over such issues (if I have understood it correctly), we seemed to have no value for our secularism, or even for our freedom, we take all this for granted and some of us even claim that India will benefit with some benign monarchy! It’s in our genes to be ruled it seems, we just haven’t digested or even understood the idea of choosing representatives not mafia-heads to run a smooth organisation called a democratic Nation. We hope for a proverbial Ram Rajya, even if half the population is against that Ram … please excuse this long comment, just ranting.

  11. I agree that it is much easier to come up with answers to the identity question with materialist or regional/cultural answers. Those are the most concrete ways identity is shown. What makes my husband an Indian and me an American? Neither of us can easily answer that question.

    We do worry about what our kids will know of India. Will it just be Bollywood and eating bisi bhele bhath and mango lassis? Well, I think of that question a lot.

    It does not matter. Your children will be American. 🙂

    One thing I remember my husband saying was that Indian history isn’t taught much in schools. Perhaps due to the overwhelming importance placed on math and science? I don’t think he had a history class past the 10th grade. Would history class be the answer? Probably not. The U.S. has a terrible record of history teaching too-many of our history books repeat myths and half-truths rather than facts.

    I also disagree with your assumption that there are only really two groups in the U.S…white and black. What about the Latinos? Some have argued that Mexicans are replacing blacks as the “underclass” in the U.S. and that they face just as much prejudice as blacks.

    I meant in a strong cultural sense. I dont see Latino culture being part of the American culture proper. It would fall more in the Latin American culture for now. Maybe this will change in the future.

    Small correction…Minneapolis is not a capital. Minnesota is the state and St. Paul is the capital. Minneapolis is across the river from St. Paul and is the largest, most urban, most “hip” city in Minnesota and the whole Upper Midwest region of the U.S : )

    Sorry, thanks for clarifying.

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