India has made a dramatic turnaround in the past 20 years or so as far as its economy, prosperity and recognition of its importance in the world are concerned. The key to this transformation has been the dominance of Indians in Information Technology or “IT”. Indians are genetically analytical. At the same time our educational system emphasises memorisation and theoretical understanding mainly because schools cannot afford fancy laboratory equipments.
Opportunities of software development, modification and maintenance provided a perfect niche for Indians. There was no need for expensive equipment to train technical people; all one needed was a laptop computer. Furthermore these computers became more powerful and less expensive every year.
Combination of easy availability of computers and the analytical minds of Indians constituted a match made in heaven for the emergence of “new India”. Coincidentally, the demand for IT people in the USA started to increase exponentially from the late 1990s and technology companies realised that America did not have enough technical people to provide the needed talents. The answer was recruiting Indian and Chinese engineers. There was the added bonus that they were willing to work for a lower salary than their American counterparts. The US Government increased the quota of H1B visas to pave the way for an unprecedented influx of Indian engineers into the country.
The larger tech companies all established facilities in India and many engineers could travel back and forth between the US and Indian locations of these companies. All software giants as well as virtually all other major companies that needed IT professionals employed huge numbers of Indians. Some smaller US companies relied on Indian companies like Infosys which provided Indian engineers to work in the US on a contract basis. This phenomenon has resulted in major social and political consequences both in India and in the USA. First consider the positive impacts in India.
Such engineers transferred most of their savings in US dollars back to India which resulted in an increase in their living standards in India and contributed to a boost in the domestic economy. The upper middle classes started to see significant increase in their wealth. Foreign travel became very common. The availability of IT jobs in USA and/or India prompted establishments of educational institutes specialising in curricula customized to such careers. ITtrained graduates found job opportunities not only in USA, but all over the world. There has been a definite shift in the mindset of younger people towards more materialism.
Success of IT professionals abroad encouraged start up of domestic companies and development of new computer-related technologies in India. This new way of empowered thinking and emphasis on technology among young people have definitely contributed to the popularity of BJP and election of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister of India. American technology companies have, of course, benefited tremendously, not just from “using” the Indian professionals as glorified “cheap labor”, but allowing them to manage and lead their product innovations.
In addition to the Indian engineers on temporary visas, a large number of Indians have green cards/citizenship, which they obtained on their own or with sponsorship from their US employers. Many of them succeeded in climbing up the corporate ladder. It is a testament to the ingenuity of these engineers that the CEOs of both Microsoft and Google (Satya Nadella and Sundar Pichai, respectively) are first generation Indians with their educational base built primarily in India. In addition, many of the major divisions of virtually all Silicon Valley companies are headed by Indian immigrants.
The large presence of Indians in the US, although not entirely because of spread of IT, has resulted in a substantial increase in Indian influence on the population. Indian restaurants popped up in almost every neighborhood of big cities.
Bollywood style outfits and music are finding wider acceptance. Actors and actresses of Indian origin are common in TV shows and even movies these days. lT engineers have opened the eyes of American high-tech companies to the analytical strengths of Indians and made it easier for them to get jobs in areas other than lT, such as telecommunication, semiconductors and hardware design.
On the negative side a widening financial gap in India between the “haves” of IT and “have nots” can certainly be a concern. However it seems that a “trickle down” economy is working in improving living conditions at all levels and most Indians are probably satisfied enough not to express any widespread discontent. However there is a potential dark social side of this success for Indians in US. IT engineers on temporary visas have created a new “class” among Indians in this country who are neither here nor there.
Unlike the Indian immigrants they have not embraced USA as their country simply because it is not their country and probably they cannot become US citizens for one reason or another. As a result they have made no effort to assimilate into the American culture. They tend to live in their own world of Bollywood movies, Indian food, cultural practices and conversation in their native tongues.
Moreover, they tend to socialise only with people who are in the same boat. Their mannerisms may even be described as “unfriendly” by American standards. Secondly, since they view USA and the companies providing employment only as a source of financial affluence, their thought processes might be centred around money. They may feel oblivious to the political and social issues in USA because they know they can go back to India any time.
Unlike first-generation immigrants, the “IT crowd” enjoys the convenience of internet, skype, Indian TV channels, cheap phone calls, cheap airfare etc. and do not feel that they have to live their lives in this country any differently from how they lived in India. I worry that average Americans who may not know the difference between “IT Indians” and the traditional Indian immigrants might end up putting all of us in the same class and categorise us as rude, unfriendly, snobbish and apathetic people and perhaps even develop animosity towards us.
The Americans have been remarkably open in welcoming and accepting immigrants throughout history. They understand that it takes a lot of effort to learn a new language, adjust to new social customs and get used to different food and clothing items. All hard-working immigrants who truly love their new country have established good lives for themselves.
However I believe that a large number of Americans view all immigrants who cannot or do not want to assimilate into this society with a degree of apprehension if not resentment. This is not a recent phenomenon but has always been the case. This may not be obvious because of the politeness in their formal behavior or the fever of political correctness might have suppressed their candid views. Their reasoning is not racism based on skin color or religion and is really very simple: if immigrants come to America in search of a better life, they should embrace their new country instead of hanging on to everything they left. Unfortunately the communities of IT engineers stick out like sore thumbs.
On top of this there may also be a belief that IT engineers are taking away American jobs. There is certainly some truth to that. Technology companies have not made enough efforts to ensure they have exhausted supply of American engineers before jumping on the bandwagon of recruiting foreigners on temporary visas. After all many of these jobs involve fairly routine functions of writing various codes.
The recent shooting death of an Indian IT engineer in Kansas is a horrific wake-up call about the potential danger although it was probably motivated by the mistaken belief that he was a Muslim and not based on his profession. In any case the incident should be taken very seriously in order to address future problems because there are crazy bigoted people in every community.
One can certainly blame the anti-Muslim sentiment that has been fostered by Donald Trump’s rhetoric but I believe that all IT engineers on H1B visas and their employers bear a responsibility for social integration. Engineers must be provided extensive orientation sessions when they come here about how they can appear to be more comfortable in this country. Otherwise this could result in a loselose situation for both countries.
The writer is a physicist who worked in Academia and Industry, is a Bengali settled in America.