Section 2.09 NRIs – Unintelligent, Hindu Extremists; Not Enough Drunks

FOIL takes a rather unkind view towards the Non-Resident Indian (NRI) community in America.  In sweeping generalizations, FOIL is audacious enough to label the entire community as unintelligent souls who have sold themselves to Corporate America and those who support extremism.

First, let’s look at the idea of “model minority suicide”[1] as proposed by Vijay Prashad.  According to Prashad, “South Asians are disproportionately successful in America not because they are inherently more intelligent or work harder, but mostly because of immigration law.”[2]  He then adds that “between 1966 and 1977…83 percent of Indians who immigrated to America entered under the category of professional and technical workers: about 20,000 scientists with Ph.D.s, 40,000 engineers and 25,000 medical doctors.”[3]  So, all those scientists, doctors and engineers apparently didn’t need to work hard after coming to America and were not intelligent at all.  They made name and fame just by the fact they had good degrees and by the good graces of the US government.  It cannot be that these intellectuals, understanding the hardships and obstacles in India, arrived in the US in search of better opportunities and worked their way to the top by utilizing their skills and educational background. It’s as if the US government automatically planted them in guaranteed top posts for the rest of their lives.

Prashad lambasts these intellectuals for asking their kids to work hard and to get a better education.  “Parents are setting up INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] standards for their kids”[4], a reference to the 1960s opening up of US immigration for Asians. “South Asian young people who don’t conform to the myth…deny their parents access to the power centers of the community: joining the chamber of commerce, becoming a leader in the temple or heading a community organization.”[5] Prashad therefore portrays NRIs as power grabbers and seekers of false statuses.  And, if their kids don’t become the model minorities, the NRIs will not be in any prominent position.  The individual talents, leadership skills and business acumen of these NRIs amount to nothing.  While it is true that youth in Indian American community face enormous pressure at times from their parents to conform to certain values, to get a good education and excel in various fields, it is not fair to assassinate the character of the entire community.

Similarly, setting high standards of performance, though agreeable by most, “can be very confining”[6], according to Prashad.  “It’s not human. It’s like taking a group of scientists and making a colony on Mars and pretending the whole world should be scientists. Where are the artists, the poets, the drunks? Where is everybody that makes history possible?”[7]  Is Prashad implying that the standards should be relaxed such that Indian American kids become the drunks of the society?  Or, does Prashad not want Indian American kids to be in the fields of science, technology, business, politics, law, etc.?  Is entrepreneurship frowned upon?  Prashad seems to be conveniently ignoring the fact that Indian Americans have excelled in many fields besides just science.

The contributions and achievements of Indian Americans in various fields besides science are well known.  In 1982, Vinod Khosla co-founded Sun Microsystems[8], a world famous company known for the famous Java platform.  In 1987, President Ronald Reagan appointed Dr. Joy Cherian, the 1st Indian Commissioner of the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).[9]  In 1989, Rohit Jagessar founded RBC Radio, the first Asian Indian radio station in the US.[10] In 1994, Guitarist Kim Thayil, of Indian origin, wins Grammy award for his Indian inspired guitarwork on the album Superunknown by his band Soundgarden.[11]  In 1999, Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan enters film history with his film “The Sixth Sense” becoming one of the all-time highest-grossing films, worldwide.[12]  In 2001, Professor Jamshed Bharucha (born in Mumbai) appointed Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences at Dartmouth College, the first person of Indian descent to serve as dean of a school at an Ivy League institution.[13] In 2001, Professor Dipak C. Jain (born in Tezpur – Assam, India) appointed as dean of the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.[14]  In 2006, Indra Nooyi (born in Chennai, India) appointed as CEO of PepsiCo.[15] She also serves as a member of the boards of the International Rescue Committee, Catalyst and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Trustees of Eisenhower Fellowships, and currently serves as Chairman of the U.S.–India Business Council.[16] In 2007, Vikram Pandit (born in Maharashtra, India) was appointed as CEO of Citigroup[17].  He also serves on the boards of Columbia University, Columbia Business School, the Indian School of Business and The Trinity School.[18]  In 2008, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson appointed Neel Kashkari as the Interim U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Financial Stability.[19] In 2008, Raj Chetty was appointed as professor of economics at Harvard University[20]. At that time, he was the youngest person (of age 29) to ever receive tenure of professorship in the Harvard Economics department and one of the top 8 young economists of the world.  In 2009, President Barack Obama nominated Rajiv Shah, M.D. as the new head of United States Agency for International Development.[21]  In 2010, President of Harvard University Catherine Drew Gilpin Faust appointed Nitin Nohria as the 10th dean of Harvard Business School.[22] Sanjaya Malakar was a finalist on the sixth season of the show American Idol.[23] Karsh Kale is a well-known Indian producer, composer and musician who has performed with top artists of the world, including Zakir Hussain, Sting, Paul Oakenfold, Ravi Shankar, etc.[24]  Kal Penn, whose real name is Kalpen Suresh Modi, is a well-known Indian American actor in Hollywood.[25]  He is not a son of a rich doctor, but of a fragrance evaluator for a perfume company and of an engineer.[26]  In early 2009, Penn was offered the position of Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement in the Obama administration, which he accepted.[27] Padma Lakshmi is the famous Indian American model, actress and cookbook author.  Jhumpa Lahiri is the famous Indian American author of books like Interpreter of Maladies (1999) and The Namesake (2003).[28]The former won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

One can simply conduct a quick web search to understand the achievements of Indian Americans.  The list is incredibly long and it covers almost every major field, from science, technology and mathematics, to business, law, politics, and literature, art, music, etc.  Reducing the abilities of Indian Americans to a ‘mere policy quirk’ is highly superficial.

Jason Richwine of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, in writing about the success of Indian American immigrants, says that “education and culture can take people only so far”.[29]  According to him, intelligence has a lot more to do with success.  He cites a 2003 New Immigrant Survey of basic cognition which was administered to children of arriving immigrants.  He describes the results of the survey as follows:

When statistical adjustments are used to convert the backward digit span results to full-scale IQ scores, Indian Americans place at about 112 on a bell-shaped IQ distribution, with white Americans at 100. 112 is the 79th percentile of the white distribution. For more context, consider that Ashkenazi Jews are a famously intelligent ethnic group, and their mean IQ is somewhere around 110.[30]

Thus, Indian Americans exhibit sharp IQs and intellectual capacity as a group.  This is certainly one important reason for their rise within the American society.

Two things are clear from the above examples: 1) while immigration policies of the 1960s and today may have helped bring in talented Indian Americans from India, the ascendance of Indian Americans to the top echelon of American society is in great part due to their hard work, values and intellectual abilities; and 2) Indian Americans are in a broad range of fields besides just science and medicine.

Furthermore, “Prashad wants South Asians to commit ‘model minority suicide’ by being outspoken and individualistic…”[31]  However, it appears the outspokenness and individualism is to be defined by FOIL only and not the community.  When NRIs speak out against the biased portrayals of Hinduism in academia by various scholars like Wendy Doniger, Paul Courtright and others discussed earlier, or when NRIs (including California parents) fight for an equal portrayal of Hinduism in 6th grade textbooks in comparison to the Abrahamic Religions, they are automatically deemed as Hindu extremists and ‘Yankee Hindutvavadis’.

Mathew and Prashad comment further:

The NRIs are caught in a contradiction. At one level they yearn to be well-integrated into American society, for it is, after all, the American Dream of a two car garage and house (a dream monopolised (sic) by White Americans) that brought them to this land. At another level, they seek to retain their identity, a need that is heightened by the contradictions of integration. The NRI’s relation to nationalism and identity is not just a product of the nationalist construction of India by Hindutva ideologues, but also continuously mediated by the NRI’s link to the American Dream.[32]

Thus, the individualistic expression of Indian identity within the American society is a problem for FOIL.  The identification with India as an ancestral land is automatically deemed ‘Hindu extremism’.

When NRIs start internet groups or forums that cater to a specific subsection of the community or to India in general, this is also a problem for FOIL.  According to Mathew and Prashad:

While the nets are often heralded as ‘free’ spaces, they are also spaces of isolation. An India-related newsgroup rarely attracts a non-Indian (or non-South Asian); a Hinduism-related site attracts only those interested in Hinduism or for that matter a Gujarati Samaj mailing list only occasionally contains non-Gujaratis. Thus, these isolated sites become spawning grounds for the technocrats who need to re-invent their identity each night after having sold their souls to corporate America during the day.[33]

Hence, FOIL takes issue with the fact that India (or Hinduism or Gujarati) related groups or discussion forums will mainly attract Indians (or Hindus or Gujaratis) and not others.  That’s like saying that sports discussions and forums should also attract non-sports fans; music discussions and forums should attract non-music fans; discussions on the Quran and Mohammed should attract non-Muslims; white supremacist discussions and forums should attract people who don’t believe in it.  It is ironic that FOIL and their affiliates have exactly the same type of ‘isolated’ discussions and forums that focus on Marxist/Communist views of the world, demonizing the Indian state and devaluing Hinduism.

In addition, somehow, these hobbies and passions are considered needs to reinvent an identity, after having sold our souls to Corporate America.  Someone who makes an honest living in Corporate America while taking the time about to learn about one’s culture/religion or to participate in causes related to one’s culture/religion is considered the slave of ‘imperialist capitalism’.  The same person who works for corporate America during the day and attends community religious events or a temple function is considered a ‘sinner’ that somehow needs to reconcile her guilt of being in cahoots with these ‘imperialist bourgeoisie’.  One wonders how FOIL feels about orthodox Jews or about Muslims who also work in Corporate America and sometimes pray while at work.

When NRIs exercise their political clout or organize themselves for causes related to India’s development, their efforts are reduced to those out of greed and guilt.  Or, their efforts are scrutinized with suspicion by FOIL and its affiliates.  “Wealthy not because of natural selection, but because of the state selection of the U.S., NRI engineers, doctors and scientists lived with the guilt that they had abandoned their nation whose taxes educated them at least in the Indian Institutes of Technology and other such major research institutions.”[34]  Similarly, “[their] ‘patriotism’ is simple: they are jingoistic for whomever will allow them the freedom to make money. Whether saffron or red/white/blue, these cats are heavily into the green.”[35] Even within this spectrum, the NRIs are criminalized further.  Prashad adds – “And what are issues that motivate desis? Things to do with the ‘homeland’ or things that have to do with the exploitation and oppression of desis and others in the U.S.”[36]  So, NRIs are now aiding and abetting the exploitation and oppression of people, per Prashad.  According to FOIL, it is not possible that the NRIs hold sympathy towards people of India because they realize the challenges that India faces in terms of development, education, infrastructure, social issue, etc.  On one hand, FOIL and its affiliates demonize NRIs and especially Hindus for the ‘evils of the caste system’ and not raising their voices against poverty and lower caste people.  On the other hand, if an NRI donates money or volunteers for a cause that is ‘India centric’ including the ones that FOIL demonizes her for; she cannot be sincere about it.  Is a cause only valid when it resonates with FOIL and its affiliates and their ideologies?

Prashad and Mathew describe social, cultural and religious events held by NRIs as part of an extremist scheme.  “Yankee Hindutva operates through multiple organisational (sic) forms, including Gita-reading groups [emphasis original], mahila sabhas [emphasis original], temple-based functions and pujas, informal baby-sitting groups, cultural events of various kinds and summer camps.’[37]  Hence, groups that get together, read the Gita and discuss its philosophy are label as ‘Yankee Hindutvavadis’ or Yankee Hindu extremists.  Similarly, temple events and ceremonies are considered the breeding grounds for Hindu extremism.  Mahila Sabhas (gathering of women) are extremists and so are baby-sitting groups!

Similarly, according to FOIL, NRIs have an extremely narrow minded view of India and its cultural and don’t understand the various nuances that go along with them.  This is apparently due to the result of their narrow education in India.  “[The] NRIs present themselves as a cultural commodity even though they themselves came to the US without extensive training in the arts of their own culture (that is, during their narrow-minded and extensive education in the post-colonial educational system of India, they never gained the nuanced idea of their cultural history).”[38]  It is worthwhile to note that many of the history books in India have been written by Marxist/Leftist historians like Romila Thapar.  So, FOIL’s position here is obfuscating.  On the one hand, they chide the NRI for standing up against biased portrayals of India and Hinduism.  Then, they disapprove of their educational training in India, even when most of it is based on Marxist/Leftist textbooks.  What is FOIL’s idea of Indian cultural history then?

In summary, FOIL portrays NRIs as a group of greedy, unintelligent, extremist lunatics that are slaves of the imperialist capitalism of America.  These NRIs have experienced success due to the good graces of the American government.  They apply enormous pressure on their children, confine them to narrow career paths and don’t let them become the ‘drunks’ of the society.  While FOIL encourages individualistic expressions of identity, it reprimands the NRIs for considering India as their ancestral homeland, and raising their voices against injustice and bias in the media, academia or in other areas.  Forums and organizations started by NRIs are labeled as isolated spaces that really exist as a need to reinvent one’s identity after slaving away during the day in Corporate America.  NRI activism in the political arena is not considered sincere and is a result of some underlying greed; in essence, they are supporting oppression of people in US and India.  Social and religious events such as women’s gatherings, baby-sitting groups, temple ceremonies and celebrations, etc. are considered the breeding grounds for ‘extreme right-wing activities’.  And, NRIs’ sense of history and cultural knowledge is shallow, even when it is based on the writings of popular Marxist/Leftist historians like Romila Thapar.


[1] “Smashing the Myth of the Model Minority”, http://asiasociety.org/policy-politics/social-issues/human-rights/smashing-myth-model-minority?page=0%2C1, accessed July 11, 2011

[2] John Blake, “South Asian Atlantans Feel Burden of Model Minority Myth”, February  3, 2002, http://www.modelminority.com/joomla/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=222:south-asian-atlantans-feel-burden-of-model-minority-myth-&catid=41:identity&Itemid=56, accessed July 11, 2011

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.[2]

[5] Ibid.[2]

[6] Ibid.[2]

[7] Ibid.[2]

[8] See the achievements of various Indian Americans at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_American, accessed July 11, 2011

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.[8]

[11] Ibid.[8]

[12] Ibid.[8]

[13] Ibid.[8]

[14] Ibid.[8]

[15] Ibid.[8]

[16] Ibid.[8]

[17] Ibid.[8]

[18] Ibid.[8]

[19] Ibid.[8]

[20] Ibid.[8]

[21] Ibid.[8]

[22] Ibid.[8]

[23] See the list of various Indian American at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Indian_Americans, accessed July 11, 2011

[24] See the entry on Karsh Kale in Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karsh_Kale, accessed July 11, 2011

[25] See the entry on Kal Penn in Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kal_Penn, accessed July 11, 2011

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.[25]

[28] See the entry on Jhumpa Lahiri in Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jhumpa_Lahiri, accessed July 11, 2011

[29] Jason Richwine, “Indian Americans: The New Model Minority”, February 24, 2009, Forbes.com, http://www.forbes.com/2009/02/24/bobby-jindal-indian-americans-opinions-contributors_immigrants_minority.html, accessed July 15, 2011

[30] Ibid.

[31] Blake, Ibid.[2]

[32] Biju Mathew and Vijay Prashad, “The Saffron Dollar”, http://www.proxsa.org/politics/hindutva/nridollar.html, accessed July 21, 2011

[33] Ibid.

[34] Vijay Prashad, “Countering Yankee Hindutva”, Frontline Magazine, Vol. 19, Issue 25, December 7-20, 2002, http://www.hindu.com/fline/fl1925/stories/20021220005302800.htm, accessed July 21, 2010

[35] Ibid.[1]

[36] Ibid.[1]

[37] Ibid.[32]

[38] Ibid.[32]

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