‘More liberal than all other Asian Americans’

Sun 11 Dec 2016

Indian Americans, numbering over three million, make up about 1 per cent of the American population. The Other One Percent: Indians in America (Oxford University Press) is arguably the first comprehensive and data-driven account of the “selection, assimilation, and entrepreneurship” of Indians in America. Authors Sanjoy Chakravorty and Devesh Kapur explain the contours of the study, the political and social attitudes of Indian Americans and what their future could be in their host country. Kapur spoke first and Chakravorty supplemented the responses with written inputs. Kapur is Director, Centre for the Advanced Study of India at University of Pennsylvania, and Chakravorty is Professor of Geography at Temple University. The third co-author, Nirvikar Singh, is Professor of Economics at University of California, Santa Cruz. Excerpts from an interview:

Why is the book titled the ‘Other’ One Percent?

In a way it is a play on a big trope in American popular culture, which is inequality. At one level it is a factual thing, because Indian Americans are 1 per cent of the total population of America. The other point is that, if you take all Indians anywhere in the world, those in America are richest in that population. This it not to be taken literally, but in a figurative sense. They are the tail end of the income distribution of global Indians. To top it all, they are also the most well-to-do immigrant or ethnic group in America.

Do they have an identity as Indians in America? Or are they Telugus and Tamils, Brahmin and Dalit in America?

Identity is contextual. If you look at surveys and see how they identify themselves, one thing that they rarely do is to call themselves South Asians. Country of origin is the most used self-identification. So, a majority of Indian Americans identify themselves as Indians in such surveys. Of course, given that India is a heterogeneous country, you could expect Indian Americans to be heterogeneous. Till the 1990s, if you take Hindi out, Gujarati and Punjabi speakers were the biggest groups. But Telugu speakers are the largest community after Hindi speakers now, and there has also been a rapid growth of Tamil speakers. These groups have the Maratha Sangham, Telugu Association, etc. So that is about a cultural identity, it is not a political identity. On a day-to-day basis, as far as the people they associate with and the food they eat and the culture they consume are concerned, it is very likely that these cultural identities dominate, at least in the first generation. It is also possible to maintain these, to some extent, because our language communities tend to live in separate places — Gujaratis in New Jersey and Illinois, Punjabis in California and New York. But when it comes to a question of India, these communities tend to coalesce around the notion of India. But your identity is not entirely decided by who you think you are; it is also about who others think you are. For most Americans you are Indian. It has a feedback effect — one begins to see oneself through the eyes of others.

Talking of context, religion is another identity that a majority of Indians might share in America. Is that true?

There is no precise way to gauge that because of the fact that the U.S. census has not asked questions about religious identity from around 1950. Other surveys, such as some by Pew [Research Center], have done so, but not the census. But you can make some reasonable statements about the likelihood. To the extent that higher education has been very important as a route for Indians to come to the U.S., the social groups that are highly represented in higher education in India are more likely to have arrived in the U.S. Some religious and social groups are under-represented in India while some others are over-represented. Upper castes, Christians, Jains are over-represented relative to their share in the population while Muslims and many caste groups are under-represented.

This election season had a particular context, one that demanded all Americans to think about their identity. A group of Indians defined themselves as Hindus against Islamist terrorism and decided to support Donald Trump. How appealing was that to Indian Americans in voting?

A distinct minority only may have been swayed by it. Of all Asian Americans, Indian Americans were the least likely to support Trump. If you compare with Chinese Americans, Vietnamese Americans, the degree of dislike for Trump was the highest among Indian Americans. There was a small group that strongly liked him, but the intensity of dislike was much higher among the rest.

The one per cent of the population now also has one per cent representation in the U.S. Congress, with five Indian American members and the first Senator. Do you think the Indian American community’s influence in the country’s politics will continue to grow?

Moderately, for sure, maybe more. If you look at the trends, there are far fewer Indian American Republicans than you would have expected and the main reason for that is religion. The only Indian American Republicans of consequence are the ones who either converted to Christianity or were already Christians. There is no way you can stand for governor in a southern American state and win if you are not a Christian. That essentially means that one party becomes your only avenue. That itself is a limiting factor. And race, of course, and the fact that the Republican party is increasingly identified with anti-immigrant positions.

Moreover, Indian Americans are concentrated in some locations: California and the north-east. These are already Democratic States. So if you are heavily Democrat-oriented in a Democratic State, the marginal impact is limited. So, as voters their impact is modest. Because they are articulate and well-educated, they have more influence in staffing in the U.S. Congress and in offices in Washington. Electoral office, at least in the foreseeable future, as long as this polarisation continues, may have some natural limits. But there are reasons to think that their political impact may increase, and that is mainly because large cohorts of the children of Indian immigrants are beginning to come of age. The second generation is very, very young. Five out of six are less than 25 years old. When these youngsters begin to become politically active, they will do so in an American framework, unlike many Indian-born immigrants who still connect more strongly to politics in India. It is possible that we will see more Indian American names and faces in mainstream American politics relatively soon, if not immediately.

What is the Indian Americans’ conception of India?

The media in Delhi and the intellectuals in general are obsessed with the notion that Indian Americans are big supporters of Hindutva. There is a practical question here. Now, one of the largest Indian American groups is Telugu. What is the kind of support for the BJP in Andhra Pradesh? Very little. The BJP is pretty weak in the entire south. The largest numbers of Indians coming now are coming from south India. So we cannot make that correlation easily. Is there a segment that is a strong supporter of the BJP? Yes. Is it a majority view? Unequivocally no. Is there a larger group that supports this particular Prime Minister? Yes. It would be very simplistic to confuse the support for an individual with support for an ideology. Unfortunately we tend to make these equations.

What does the book say about the social attitudes of Indian Americans?

On almost all issues they are more liberal than all other Asian Americans and definitely more liberal than the Indians in India. One area in which Indian Americans are less liberal in comparison with other Asian Americans is in their attitude towards gays. It is below the average. But on all other questions — affirmative action, giving a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, attitude towards Muslims — they are more liberal than other Asians. One thing that stands out, which we think can be called a part of social attitudes, is that they have the lowest rate of divorce. That means they tend to have two incomes per family, and children grow up in two parent households. What it does is, it gives you an household income advantage, which means that your children get better education, which gives you a further advantage that your life’s chances are better. So you find a peculiar link between a social conservative trait and an economic advantage.

What is the key point about Indian Americans that you think stands out in this book?

The extent of the brain drain from India. If you take the areas of higher education, despite all the rhetorical flourishes about engaging the diaspora, it is actually severely underleveraged. There are 95,000 Indians with PhDs in the U.S. India produces around 25,000 PhDs every year. Assuming that 10 per cent of that is of the quality that is produced here, we are talking about 2,500 annually. So, in some ways, India has gifted the U.S. half a century worth of high-quality human capital. Yet, the whole mindset in India, all the rules and regulations, ensures that instead of attracting as many of them back, keep them away. In the U.S., even with an Indian passport you can work in defence research. Can you imagine this happening in India? All political parties in Indian are complicit. None of them has the vision to leverage the potential of the diaspora.

(The full interview is available on www.thehindu.com.)

Of all Asian Americans, Indian Americans were the least likely to support Donald Trump. There was a small group that strongly liked him, but the intensity of dislike was much higher among the rest.


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