We need a strong sense of national identity, not regional: Prof Mohanbir Sahwney

Ritu Jha-

Mohanbir Sawhney is the director of the Center for Research in Technology and Innovation at Northwestern University, Illinois, and wants to use all his expertise to calculate the Global impact of the Indian Diaspora (or GDiP as he calls it), as the total value of the economy, philanthropic, intellectual and civic impact on the people, organizations, economies and the governments worldwide, which he says it needs to be measured and have an annual index to see in terms to define progress and success.

In an interview with indica on the sidelines of the Indiaspora 10th anniversary conference in San Jose, CA, Prof. Sawhney said there has been a significant shift in the evolution of the Indian community worldwide. “They were not rich when they arrived [in the US] and the first objective was to settle down. What we’ve noticed the Indian Americans worked hard, whether they are Sikhs or Patels.”

He said that in the first phase, in the 1970s till the late 1980s entrepreneurs of Indian origin kept their head down. “The engagement with civic, politics, and philanthropy was not there as much as you see today,” he said. “Now they have settled down and the interesting thing I could see in this forum [at indiaspora ], everyone is doing something more than the regular job.”

He said the community is broadening its scope and influence, and now they are in Congress, city administration and state government. “Indian Americans punch above our weight economically, but punch below our belt politically. We need to change that.”

He also said that polarization in the community is alarming. “There is no middle ground; we have become a hostage of both left and right. The rise of the right wing is happening in India.”

He said the main question before the Indian American community is, “How do we participate in both parts of the political discourse and not just as a voting community.”

“I am registered as a Democrat, but I disagree with their economic policies, and the Republican party has become anti-immigrant, anti-abortion and this is not the Republic party we had. I used to respect the Republican Party for its conservative principles, but no longer. There is a lot of evil in politics today,” he said.

About India’s foreign policy in light of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, he said we are “caught in the crossfire”. “We have been asked to pick sides when the shooting’s going on. It is a difficult game to play. By not picking sides, India is seen as supporting Russia.”

He added that given Russian support of India during the 1971 war with Pakistan and the subsequent military and economic cooperation between the two countries, India has an obligation to support Russia. “No one was willing to sell us military hardware when Russia was. We need the oil as well.”

He has a word of caution for Indian Americans, though. Because former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric on the haves and the have-nots, he feels the Indian Amerrican community may have become too successful for its own good. “We have to careful because we happen to be the most affluent ethnic community in the US. Hate will be directed by people who perceive our success is their failure.”

He added that there is a tremendous amount of ignorance about our community, and about Sikhs and “we have to make sure we need to be part of that community.”

He said Indian Americans need to be deeply engaged in the political process, to be visible in policy formation. “Otherwise, immigration law will push us back. Waiting for a green card or even a tourist visa to come to the US takes years and that is not acceptable. So, we have to participate in the political dialogue, otherwise, we will choke.”

He said politics in India has also changed significantly. “We have a muted impact in the US because we are at a distance, but it does create a new way of polarization and that is the last thing we need. Today Indian Americans, instead of asking if are you a Trump supporter, ask if are you a Modi supporter. When I look at Modi from the economic and infrastructure points of view, he has done a good job. I like his fiscal and economic policies, but not his social policies.”

He said that Indian politics is “unfortunately becoming about are you pro- or anti-Modi. He has done more for the Sikh community than any other government. But the cult of Modi worship worries me. If you speak about it on social media, you are viciously trolled. Indian democratic institutions are getting eroded and that has a ripple effect here.”

He said that America is different, though. “It allows us to speak freely without fear of persecution for our beliefs and gives us a platform where we can be in a safe space for such conversation to happen. If we don’t step up to this polarization, it will continue. One thing that bothers me is that we don’t have or never had a very strong sense of national identity. We are seen as Tamilian first, Sikh first, and associated from the district… We are not as proud as a nation as Americans. We need to change that.”

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