What will Subrahmanyam Jaishankar say to Tom Shannon, the United States undersecretary of state for political affairs (who had briefly served as acting secretary till Rex W. Tillerson was sworn in as the 69th secretary of state on February 1), the foreign secretary’s opposite number in Washington, when the two meet later this week? While there are a whole range of issues in which the two large democracies are actively engaged in, let us focus on what many regard as the most poignant issue in current Indo-American relations. At another time and with another partner, India might have remembered that Britain sent the Royal Navy to Greece in 1850 when a Greek mob damaged the property — only the property, mind you, not the life — of the Portuguese consul, a Jew who was technically a British subject, having been born in Gibraltar. India might appear to ride high and strong to Indians at home, but anything like the Don Pacifico incident is way beyond the feeble competence of a nation that goes cap in hand for jobs to the United States because it cannot provide for its own.
Of course, Mr Jaishankar can tell Mr Shannon that 65,000 H1-B visas are issued annually only because the Americans need Indian skills. It would be true too. But the Indians who flock to the US, and for whom the Green Card is the brightest dowry and greatest asset, do not go there to help out the US in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM disciplines. They go purely and simply because employment prospects are so bleak at home. Indian doctors similarly migrated to Britain in the 1960s, and it was said afterwards that they had saved the National Health Service. In the 1950s, Jamaican bus drivers and conductors also kept the wheels of Britain’s nationalised state transport moving. Both groups were fulfilling the primary obligation to self and family. That also applies to Indian labourers in Singapore. Will our high commissioner there boast that Changi airport’s latest extension would not have been built without unskilled Indian workers? The Chinese don’t rely on H1-B visas to the same extent. China’s economic growth may not be as spectacular as it claims but they obviously the Chinese don’t face the dilemma of training skilled personnel at great cost to the exchequer, and then not knowing what to do with them because industrial growth hasn’t kept pace with the phenomenal expanse of higher education.
The roots of the problem go back to the setting up of the Indian Institutes of Technology under Jawaharlal Nehru and his vaunted five-year plans not creating the expected high-tech jobs. Nalini Ranjan Sarkar, the pioneering Bengali businessman, industrialist and entrepreneur, was a member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council before Independence when he was appointed chairman of a 22-member committee that recommended in 1946 the establishment of “higher technical institutions in the eastern, western, northern and southern regions of the country along the model of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology”. Humayun Kabir and Dr B.C. Roy, then chief minister of West Bengal, persuaded Nehru to push through a special law to establish the Kharagpur IIT in 1951. The first five IITs thus owed their origin to the enterprise of a man who made a fortune for himself and wanted to do the same for his country. Sarkar was not an ideologue. He expected IIT graduates to give the impetus to India’s economic regeneration, not to go to the rescue of America’s information technology or fill the shortfall of 2.4 million STEM jobs in the US that a Brookings Institution report predicts. Sarkar would have been pained to read these graduates described as “indentured servants”.
As Norman Matloff, professor of computer science at a California university, wrote in the Washington Post of IT giants: “These firms of the new economy seem to be awfully fond of the old economy of 200 years ago — when indentured servitude was in vogue.” But to put it bluntly, beggars can’t be choosers. Even substandard US wages seem extraordinarily high in rupees, specially to Indians who can’t get any job at home. Other aspects of the situation merit notice. The rise in anti-black and anti-Jewish crimes even during the election campaign suggests a connection with Donald Trump’s “America for Americans” rhetoric, no matter what his press secretary might plead now. The growing mistrust of Muslims is a global phenomenon. While it is generous of the US charge d’affairs in New Delhi, MaryKay L. Carlson, to call her country “a nation of immigrants”, it is open to question whether all Americans “welcome people from across the world to visit, study and live”. Statistics show that old immigrants are often the most dogged in rejecting the new ones. Singapore’s Chinese bear this out. Finally, who exactly is the tragically dead Srinivas Kuchibhotla’s widow, Sunayana Dumala, addressing when she asks so poignantly, “Do we belong?” Despite Ms Carlson’s claims, she cannot really expect an affirmative answer from the US government. Trump or no Trump, Washington has no specific obligation to protect Indian immigrants. That brings me to Ms Dumala’s reported decision to return to the United States. However it may be worded, it’s impossible not to see the decision in terms of all the factors that induce aspiring Indians to take enormous risks to migrate to far more prosperous countries in the first place. So, is Mr Jaishankar going to say to Mr Shannon: “It’s business as usual because we Indians place material self-interest above self-respect”? It’s about all that he can say. There wouldn’t have been an Indian diaspora otherwise. From plantation workers in Mauritius to engineers in California, the driver is the profit motive.