President Barack Obama’s visit to India this month as the first U.S. “chief guest” for Republic Day — along with the recent arrival in Delhi of new U.S. Ambassador Richard Rahul Verma (a son of immigrants from India) — prompts reflection on our countries and their relationship. From global security to environmental sustainability, trade, and immigration, these two nations and peoples increasingly intersect to mutual benefit.
Both India and the U.S., of course, became republics after gaining independence from Britain. It is 65 years since the Indian republic began after B.R. Ambedkar helped write the constitution.
Ambedkar received his graduate education at Columbia University, where President Obama earned his bachelor’s degree. Moreover, Ambedkar’s familiarity with the U.S. constitution influenced India’s document.
Cultural, Economic, Political Interactions—and Inequalities
The interplay of Indian(s) and American(s) — cultural, economic, political — is longstanding. For example, as he inspired others worldwide, Mohandas Gandhi impressed U.S. figures from Martin Luther King Jr. to President Obama. Gandhi himself read the work of Americans such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson — who in turn drew upon Indian texts including the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads. According to D.G. Tendulkar’s Mahatma (cited by George Hendrick in his 1956 New England Quarterly article, “The Influence of Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience’ on Gandhi’s Satyagraha”), Gandhi in 1942 wrote Franklin Roosevelt, “I have profited greatly by the writings of Thoreau and Emerson.”
Ambedkar, in previewing the new Indian constitution in a November 1949 speech, invoked Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s words — “a house divided against itself cannot stand” (1858) and “government of the people, by the people, for the people” (the Gettysburg Address) — appear in Ambedkar’s remarks. He warned Indians “not to be content with mere political democracy.”
Ambedkar worried, “In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality…. We must remove this contradiction … or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy.”
Caste remains a barrier in India. Enormous inequalities corrode politics and limit socioeconomic opportunity in India, the U.S., and elsewhere. Still, the route to mobility is eased by international exchange and migration.
While unfettered global trade can foster exploitation if lax labor and environmental standards prevail, on balance more economic activity creates jobs and purchasing power. Opening borders can not only stimulate economies but bring ideas and people into contact, often fruitfully.
Crossing Borders, Testing Republics
The U.S. republic now faces one of its periodic tests as opposing parties control the presidency and Congress. One controversy is over immigration. President Obama seeks reform through executive action. Congress resists a legislative remedy and approved related funding only through February.
Attention has centered on immigrants from Mexico and South America, largely because of implications for Hispanic voters. Overlooked are immigrants from Asia and elsewhere. As observers including Karthick Ramakrishnan have noted, more than one million of the Asian immigrants in the U.S. are unauthorized. They and their children, too, could benefit from a heightened focus on deporting immigrants with serious criminal records, while deferring decisions on others.
There are concerns over delays for family and employment-related visas, as many applicants wait years to obtain such visas, permanent residency, or citizenship.
My mother is a naturalized U.S. citizen (originally from Germany), while my wife and sisters-in-law are U.S. permanent residents who remain citizens of India. My nephews are officially “persons of Indian origin” (PIO); they are U.S. citizens who hold PIO cards. My children, though they don’t have PIO cards, are of half-Indian descent; they have — like me — traveled to India on tourist visas.
Visa policies involving both India and China recently made news. President Obama in November announced that the U.S. and China will extend visas to facilitate travel, education, and commerce. A greater harmony of values between the U.S. and India, as well as more room for growth in Indian infrastructure and the economy, could make developments between these two nations even more substantial.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a trip to the U.S., spoke before the United Nations and an audience of Indian Americans. Modi’s September 28 speech drew thousands of admirers (and hundreds of protesters). He talked of economic advances and desired government reforms, and of the Indian diaspora. Among his pledges: to simplify travel to India and provide lifelong visas to non-resident Indians (NRI), whose status would become more uniform.
A Dynamic Diaspora, Toward Closer Integration
According to a May 2012 Indian government estimate, there are some 21.9 million “overseas Indians,” roughly 10 million who are NRI and 11.9 million PIO. One-tenth live in the U.S., according to that estimate; the U.S. census of 2010 found some 3 million people of Indian descent.
Obama and Modi’s September 2014 joint statement included — along with provisions on trade, investment, national security, public health, science, women’s empowerment, smarter growth and cleaner energy — the ambition of “easing travel between their two countries, as India introduces visa-on-arrival for U.S. citizens in 2015 and works toward meeting the requirements to make the United States’ Global Entry Program available to Indian citizens.”
Global entry presents challenges for every nation. Recognizing what our countries have already given each other, and what we share, can help the U.S. and India to address our differences — for the betterment of both peoples, and the world.
Josiah H. Brown (Twitter: @JosiahBrownCT) works in education in New Haven and volunteers with LiteracyEveryday.org. His wife was until 2016 a citizen of India, where they have traveled multiple times with their children. A version of this essay appears at the Times of India, to which he is an occasional contributor.