Contested Citizenship

Indian Americans are conflicted over abandoning their Indian nationality to acquire U.S. citizenship.


Entertainment conglomerate Disney recently created its first ever Latina princess to join the ranks of its long lineage of white royalty princesses. The Latina princess, who debuted with the new animated television series Elena of Avalor on the Disney Channel, marks her presence by spouting the powerful first words, “It was finally my time.”

Though the teenage princess in the series was talking about her conquest against the sorcerers, her words have an important and almost deliberate second meaning. Perhaps, this cute little entry of a dark-skinned princess in the kids’ fantasy world, reflects yet another repercussive idea of inclusiveness to which immigrant communities in the United States can relate.

Indian Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor: “If a genuine dual citizenship (retaining both passports) was a viable and legal option, a majority of first-generation Indian immigrants in America would keep both.”
The country is home to a record 42.4 million immigrants, of the 319 million American population in 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Immigrants comprise nearly 13.3 percent of the national population, the highest in a century. The country has another 39 million U.S. born children of immigrants. These 81 million immigrants and their children constitute fully a quarter of the U.S. population.

The 3.5 million Indian Americans comprise just a sliver of this immigrant population, about 5 percent, so an Indian Disney princess is not on the cards anytime soon, although it would no doubt be a sure-fire hit idea, given the pantheon of powerful Indian female mythological characters. But Indians command a U.S. presence disproportionate to their numbers.

Shashi Tharoor, Member of Parliament and former chairman of India’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, said in an interview from India: “I see much more self-confidence (amongst the Indian-American community) these days than was apparent when I first came to the U.S. in 1975.

“Indians are now an accepted part of the landscape. There are several high achievers among them. The community is politically influential. They are also a fully-accepted part of American society as doctors, techies, legal-eagles, 7/11 operators, cab drivers and characters in sitcoms — and they know they are here to stay.”

Indian Americans have cracked the highest ceilings of corporate leadership, such as Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft; Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, and Indira Nooyi, CEO of Pepsico. Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams have soared in space as astronauts. Nobel Prize winner Har Gobind Khorana, Actor Kal Penn and Author Jhumpa Lahiri have left indelible marks in fields ranging from biochemistry to Hollywood to literature. Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley have risen to the pinnacle of politics as governors of Louisiana and South Carolina respectively.

For millions of Indians who have made the United States their new home for personal, professional or financial prospects, these American successes embalm the pangs of sentimentality they experience from time to time for the country of their origin. Millions of Indian Americans remain torn between their two worlds, alternating between insecurities, alienations, nostalgia and even racial insecurity in this land of possibilities.

Nowhere does this struggle play out more poignantly than in the decision of eligible Indian Americans to acquire or defer U.S. citizenship. The experience is especially wrenching because India, unlike many other countries that allow dual citizenship, requires them to renounce their Indian citizenship when they acquire foreign citizenship.

Between 37,000 to 50,000 Indians, a fraction of those eligible, have taken the naturalization step annually in recent years. According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and U.S. Census data, fewer than half of Indian Americans acquire U.S. citizenship upon eligibility, which is typically three to five years after acquiring a green card. DHS data found that just 58 percent of Indians who became permanent resident in 1995 had naturalized nine years later by 2004.

Ajay Kapoor (seen here with his wife Rachyata) of Tampa, Fl.: “Giving up your Indian passport is a heavy feeling. I have known people who cried at the moment.”
But citizenship does creep up upon most holdouts ultimately. The data found that 71 percent of Indians who became legal permanent residents in 1975 had acquired citizenship by 2004. Census data paints a somewhat different picture — one third of eligible Indian Americans taking out citizenship in nine years and 95 percent in 30 years. Even so, Indians acquire U.S. citizenship in far greater proportions than citizens of most countries.

Deep Ambivalence

In the complex web of paperwork and procedures involved in acquiring U.S. citizenship, most Indians experience deep ambivalence and multilayered feelings in abandoning the country of their birth.

Ajay Kapoor, a first generation Indian-American settled in Tampa, Florida says, “Giving up your Indian passport is a heavy feeling. I have known people who cried at the moment.”

Although Kapoor was able to overcome his emotions forpractical considerations, he says: “I did delay it for many years. It wasn’t certainly easy to come to terms with the fact that on paper I would no longer belong to a place I came from. But practically it felt right to do it for my children who were born here and were attuned to America as their home.”

Like millions of other immigrant Indians, Kapoors’ is a classic dream story. He says: “I never planned to go abroad. No one in my family had ever been abroad. But one day a random job application resulted in selection and in a flash of a second I had the option to go and work in America. My mom got worried, but I came nonetheless thinking that it will be soon time for me to go home.”

In the course of time, Kapoor found himself climbing the career ladder swiftly. His marriage to an Indian woman who embraced American life made the transition easier. He says, “I would be lying if I say that I didn’t try to go back. There were times when I sent the kids to India for a few months to observe how they adapt to life there. But I realized it felt forced for them.”

Kapoor recognizes that opting for U.S. citizenship has its own ramifications: “There are factors such as you can’t own a property. India today is growing at a phenomenal rate; the GDP is growing 7 percent, so practically India is a place to invest right now. Even if you were to just deposit money in India right now you will get better returns. That apart the fact that even today I am more involved in Indian politics, but cannot vote, feels weird.”

The limitations notwithstanding, practical considerations and especially the American roots of their children overcome the sentimentality for many Indians.

Tharoor says: “I think Indians who have made the U.S. their permanent home opt for citizenship as a natural step forward in their complete integration into American life. It also has practical advantages, especially when it comes to travel, and though the emotional connect to India remains strong, the OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) card means they don’t lose out on their connection to their homeland by giving up their Indian passport.”

Still there’s no vox populi that can sum up the broader Indian sentiment. In most cases, it is a highly individual decision, driven by personal and professional factors. While for some, like Kapoor, it was a gradual process, where the option began acquiring greater importance, for many others the move to initiate a U.S. citizenship remains unnecessary.

Rachna Tiwary, a design researcher working in the Bay Area, Calif., came to the United States in 2007. Her family is eligible to apply for citizenship, but despite the preference of her husband, she feels too rooted to let go of her Indian citizenship. She says, “I understand that U.S. gave me opportunities, but how do I deny the contributions my country made towards shaping my future.”

She adds: “My studies at Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore were sponsored by Government of India. A few years down the line, I would want to go and pay back to my country, the place that prepared me to pursue my dreams.”

San Francisco based Bharat Kanodia: “Today after having lived half my life in India and other half in America, the option of choosing either seems brutal.”
But even she is acutely aware that her visions and dreams may be different for her children. Tiwary says: “A few years down the line if I go back to India, I am very clear that it will be my dream. For my son, who’s born here and knows U.S. as his one and only home, it will seem unnatural to force that transition.”

For all the confusion and gray areas, wherein Indian immigrants feel the pulls and tugs of their identity, it has not abated the enterprise with which they are making the new continent their home.

A Dynamic Diaspora

Indians are one of the largest and most successful diasporas around the world. Indian immigrants in the United States boast the highest educational attainment of any ethnic group, including Whites. According to the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates, of all temporary visa holders earning a doctorate from U.S. universities or colleges, 14 percent were Indians. Indians immigrants also have the highest household income.

According to U.S. Census data, the median annual income of Indian immigrant households was almost double the national average $103,000, against $48,000 for the overall immigrant population and $53,000 for native households.

Indians are asserting themselves in American public life — from protest lines to the judicial system. Bhairavi Desai leads the taxi drivers’ union, while Preeta Bansal is the New York solicitor general.

Indeed, they have arrived at a point that they don’t feel the desperation to be clannish. In 2003, followed by 2007 and 2011, when Bobby Jindal ran for Congress and later governor, Indian Americans rallied to him because of his lineage, even though many differed from his political views and were offended by his attempt to distance himself from his Indian heritage. Cut to 2015, when Jindal became the first Indian to seek the nomination of the Republican Party for president, he garnered only tepid Indian American support.

Rashi Verma, who was a student in 2003, says: “The departure from then and now was evident. The opinion of the new Indian Americans was pronounced. They didn’t just want a token in the form of an Indian surname, but someone who took pride in his past.”

Indians poked fun of Jindal’s announcement on social media with a twitter hashtag #BobbyJindalsowhite trending for days.

The decision to opt for American citizenship is no longer driven by a desire to elevate one’s social status. Instead growing numbers of Indian immigrants are applying logical and pragmatic yardsticks.

Bharat Kanodia, who runs a successful venture valuation company Veristrat in San Francisco, says: “If a dual citizenship was possible I would choose that. But today after having lived half my life in India and other half in America, the option of choosing either seems brutal.”

His professional life is as torn as his identity: “I came to the U.S. back in 1996 to study. After my engineering, I took up a job that was gratifying enough for me to spend eight years in it. I have ventured into many different things here in the U.S and I even went back to India for three years to work on a start up there.”

On the contrast between the American and Indian work culture, he points out: “Of course there were difficult adjustment to make. India has genuine infrastructure problems. There is also rampant bureaucracy, but still it is the place I was born in and I still like finding my way through the mesh there.”

If only for nostalgic reasons, Kanodia is holding on to his Indian passport: “U.S. is no less than a motherland for me. The only reasons for the moment could be that U.S. citizenship will come at a price. I will have to get a visa to visit India; I won’t be able to own land. And though all these things are workable and I can opt for an OIC card, let’s just say, if India is like my mother, U.S. is like my dad.

How do I choose between the two?”

New Jersey resident Priti Saldanha: “My intense experiences in this country has made me fall in love with it so much that it’s only natural for me to opt to apply for U.S. citizenship.”
Not everyone struggles with that dilemma, however. Bharti Mukherjee, a popular Indian writer in English in America, who has written extensively on the subject of identities and cultural differences, is explicit in her own mind. She is on record saying that she considers herself an American writer and not an Indian expatriate one. She famously said in an interview, “Those were wonderful roots, but now my roots are here and my emotions are here in North America.”

Almost depicting the transition, all of the protagonists in Mukherjee’s novels are immigrant women, experiencing the concussions of an uprooted life.

But not all women feel that culture shock. Minoo Malik, an information technology consultant in Maryland, who has been in the United States since the 1990s, says: “Though I consciously haven’t applied for the U.S. citizenship so far, I haven’t ever felt any less Indian or American. I had a very cosmopolitan upbringing in India, attended a Catholic school so the transition to U.S. didn’t seem alien at all.”

She hasn’t opted for naturalization though:

“My reasons were totally emotional. My dad was in India and he didn’t want to shift to U.S., so I could never bring myself to cut my roots from India. However, with my dad’s passing away I feel I have lost that inevitable reason, so I am considering to go for it.”

Malik says: “My reasons now remain totally practical. There are certain federal government jobs that are only available to citizens. The jobs may not give you great money, but come with benefits and then there are additional advantages, such as voting rights and the non-requirement of visa in many countries, which looks like a good reason.”

Malik is married to an American, but she insists that the consideration for citizenship has nothing to do with her marriage: “My husband Curtis has been more accommodating and diligent about my traditional customs and practices than have been. He has reflected the inclusiveness that an expat experiences in America and perhaps that’s why it’s easier for so many of us to make it our home.”

Her husband Curtis Bawroski, a special education teacher, says: “While I can’t claim to understand what it feels to adopt another citizenship as I am not in that situation, but in our household, there has been no major discussion over it. Minoo still holds an Indian passport and some of her other relatives too, who gave up their Indian citizenship, continue to be deeply involved in everything from Indian politics to movies. I would say to me it just means another paperwork.”

HHe adds, “While I recall that once on a travel to Canada some of Minoo’s relatives required visas while we didn’t, but then again these are workable things.” Americans are unfazed by foreign nationalities, Bawroski says, “Growing up in the U.S. you are so exposed to an environment where you have varied nationalities that to me it seems almost natural to relate to non-Americans too.”

Overlapping Identities

Indian Americans mark India’s Independence Day on Aug 15 with much fervor, holding parades across the country. The largest of these is the India Day Parade in New York City, which will be held on Sunday Aug 21 this year. The occasion reflects the unmistakable pride that resonates among Indians for their country of origin. At last year’s parade when Bollywood star Parineeti Chopra, said, “Indians have the perfect balance between modern and traditional and have great cultural values,” she may have unwittingly captured the qualities that enable Indians to assimilate into a new culture and yet retain their own unique identity.

Rohit Tibrewala, CEO at an Indian food manufacturing company in St Louis, Mo., has struck a wonderful balance between two cultures he calls home, “I took up American citizenship, but I am very clear that legally we are American, but culturally we are Indian.”

Rohit Tibrewala with wife Leena and sons Eshaan and Aryan: “I took up American citizenship, but I am very clear that legally we are American, but culturally we are Indian.”
Tibrewala adds: “Taking American citizenship was logical, because we plan to stay here, but my practices, habits and forms of leisure continue to be Indian. I have never bothered whether I fit into the American set up. My legal status does not automatically make me similar to my American friends. I am still a vegetarian; I don’t touch alcohol, practices alien to American culture. But the beauty of American life is that they respect you for who you are. When you try to change your identity you get confused.”

He has equal clarity about the identity of his kids: “While my wife and I were brought up in India, we are very clear that my sons who are born here should have no confusion about their nationality. They respectfully follow Indian traditions, but we make sure that their loyalties are towards America.”

The journey from a temporary visitor to a citizen is a critical and extraordinary experience for every Indian American.

New Jersey based Priti Saldanha, a mother who teaches art in after school programs, says citizenship was a long awaited and cherished moment: “My intense experiences in this country has made me fall in love with it so much that it’s only natural for me to opt to apply for U.S. citizenship.”

She recalls her long U.S. journey: “I came to the U.S. soon after my marriage and initially I felt so lost that one day out of desperation I looked up the directory and phoned the first person with my maiden surname — D’Souza. Unbelievably the lady to answer the phone turned out to be an Indian American and on hearing about my loneliness, she drove to my place, took me to her home, introduced me to a 200-people strong Catholic community that she was a part of. I was blown away by the gesture and just felt a little bit at home instantly. A few years later when my son began his school I looked at the possibilities the U.S. offered for my son and I decided to apply for a green card, a process we had been deferring for years.

“A few years ago I went through a divorce and the state helped me see through this very difficult period in my life. I was able to get help just by dialing 911 and also my fellow Americans sheltered me like family. One of the ladies I barely knew offered me her place to stay.”

Saldanha couldn’t apply for citizenship when she became eligible, however: “In 2014, I lost everything I owned in a fire at my home. But it felt that all of the American humanity came to help me. Strangers raised money for me and donated stuff for my new home. These are the things I realized that make America special and this special place for me is now where I belong.”

She has since taken the naturalization step, and experiences no pangs: “I love India and it’s my country of origin. It’s not that my American journey has been all rosy, I have had my share of racist moments, but still looking at the larger picture, for me applying for U.S. citizenship seems as obvious as eating food!”

The Hobson choice is forced upon Indian Americans by Indian law. Tharoor says, “My guess, though, is that if a genuine dual citizenship (retaining both passports) was a viable and legal option, a majority of first-generation Indian immigrants in America would keep both.”

Until genuine citizenship comes to pass though, most Indian Americans feel at least a tinge of regret in severing the umbilical cord with the home country.


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