Exclusive: Sanjeev Joshipura Talks to India Ink

Sanjeev Joshipura, Executive Director of Indiaspora, a non-profit that works to transform the success of Indian Americans into meaningful impact worldwide, spoke with India Ink earlier this year about the history of the Indian diaspora, the growing need for Indian-American political engagement, and what it means to be Indian-American today.

India Ink: I was wondering if we could start with a bird’s eye view of the waves of the Indian diaspora, starting with 1965 with the removal of many immigration restrictions, and then the 1980s, and then finally the IT boom as well. Could you maybe speak to the different qualities of each of the waves, in terms of average income and welfare, but also each wave’s level of political engagement. For example, the more recent waves having more shallow roots in the US as compared to older waves such as Balan Ayyar that are much more integrated into the American life.

Sanjeev Joshipura: That’s a great question. I’ll get to the crux of your question in just one second, but one thing I did not know is that going back to the 1960s’ there was some very isolated Indian immigration to the US which I learned from the Beyond Bollywood exhibit at the Smithsonian a few years ago. Indian immigration is a story that dates to before the 60’s, but you’re absolutely right in saying that after ’65, when Johnson signed the Act into law. There was slowly a bigger wave that became bigger and bigger over time.

To answer you, in terms of both the overall attitudes and in terms of the political engagement specifically of succeeding waves of Indian immigration; I’ll speak to what I’ve spoken about with several members of the Indian Diaspora, many of whom who are now extremely successful people in the United States, often who made it to the United States a long time ago, but in some cases more recently and that gives you a little bit of a vantage point in terms of trying to understand how the diaspora over time has evolved here in the US. I think in general the earliest waves of diaspora that came here, came here in search of opportunity because opportunity was not really existent back home in India. So those that were lucky to make it came here were very focused on making sure that they got well educated, that their families had a good life financially, and that their children had a good pathway to education: overall ensuring that they maintained a good middle class living in one of the richest countries in the world. That was their mindset. To make sure that nothing could go wrong. However, over time, I think the newer waves of Indian immigrants that are coming from India, but also Indian-Americans who are second generation here in the US have a bit of a different attitude. That attitude is now let’s not just worry about things not going wrong, let’s actually try to do something different. Let’s try to do something bold. Let’s not be defensive in our posture, but let’s aggressively try and make something happen proactively. So, let’s take risks. Let’s study unconventional fields, not just become a doctor or engineer. Let’s do media, let’s do sport medicine. Or, let’s do some very different things, or do a startup. Let’s not even necessarily do a masters or a PHD. And I think that’s because of a couple of things. I think in the US, the second generation of Indian-Americans here is already reasonable financially secure, and, in most cases, I would say even fairly affluent, if you look at the statistics of the average income of the Indian American community versus Americans overall. Indian-Americans far outstrip, by a factor more than 2:1 if I recall, the American average income. The financial security part of it is more or less, well-taken care of for the vast majority of Indian-Americans. So, they can now afford to stand on the shoulders of their parents, and they can now afford to be more adventurous, take more risks, do something unconventional by having the family’s financial backing and perhaps even attitudinal support in doing something different. That’s the Indian American side of it.

The Indian side of it, the new wave of Indian immigrants that are now coming to the US are perhaps coming less because there’s not opportunity in India, because there is. We know there is. There will be many who tell you that there’s more opportunity in India now in certain sectors or segments in society than there is in America in some ways. But still, they are here for a variety of different reasons because of the diversity here, to some extent the educational opportunities here that don’t exist back there, the pull of some family members here. Maybe just the opportunity to make a lot more money here than they do over there. Lots of different reasons, but having said that, they already come from a base in India where there already exists opportunity. Where there already exists a chance for a great pathway for success in India. And so, it’s not so much trying to escape India, it’s actually in search of something different, and maybe better. Which is different in the past. And therefore, because they already have that base in India, saying that I can be successful, I deserve to be successful in life. And there are opportunities that exist here in India to be successful. Given that they already come with that mental base, now in the US, they are really seeking to do something different, very adventurous, very new. Not just being a doctor necessarily or an engineer all the time.

 

India Ink: Right, looking for those new branches, new avenues?

Sanjeev Joshipura: New branches, new avenues. And the political side since you asked about the politics part of it. I think in the past like I was mentioning, the attitude was don’t raise your head too high, don’t stand up in the proverbial classroom and raise your hand and ask a tough question. Just go about day to day doing your stuff, keep your head down. Make a good living for yourself and pass down the wealth to your future generations. Get more financially stable, secure, and prosperous. That was the goal. Now it’s not like that. Now it’s like, let’s make our voice heard. Let’s stand up for something. Let’s go out there and say what we believe in, what we think. Even if it means being popular in some quarters or unpopular in some quarters. You know because they have the base, again, they’re standing on the shoulders of their parents. So, credit to their parents and grandparents. But now because they’re more financially secure and able and want to make their voice heard in very, very different and sometimes provocative ways.

 

India Ink: My next question deals with the flip-side of that, the negative consequences of having that distance, of being second generation. I read a piece of yours on LinkedIn from a few years back on Bobby Jindal and his argument that “Indian-Americans” shouldn’t be hyphenated that they should be either American or in his rather harsh terms, be sent back to India. And I wanted to ask you about this cleavage that exists between second or third generation Indian-Americans that have been socialized as Americans, who unless they live in the Bay Area, live somewhere in the US, where there isn’t that strong Indian-American community that can provide that cultural context. What do you think about those different identities, and do you think second, and third generation Indian-Americans have a responsibility to stay in touch with their motherland or that they possess their own distinct identity.

Sanjeev Joshipura: I really think that it’s very hard to use the word “responsibility” to stay in touch because quite frankly although those of us that may romanticize India a little bit, having grown up in India and then come here, would love for our progeny to be in touch with the motherland of their parents if you will, and so on and so forth. There is that emotional attachment. The fact of the matter is that you can’t force these things. There has to be either a pull that exists from the cultural milieu of the countries that causes the kids to want to be back in touch. Or there has to be something from within the kids or whatever reason based on their experience, based on their family circumstances, based on their geographic location that wants to make them continue their parental/grandparental attachment to India. So, I would shy away from forcing it or using the word “responsibility” to stay in touch with India, although obviously, I guess being a father now myself, I would like that. I will say though that it may not just be a matter of culture. There may be indeed very well be – in fact I foresee this – a purely commercial or economic reason to be in touch with India, going 10, 20 years out. Arguably, there may be several Americans raised here, Indian-American or not, who say I want to make a career in India because there’s tremendous opportunity in that particular field in India. So, there may be an economic or commercial imperative to that as well.

To your question of where you are raised in America, you made a good point about being from the Bay Area, there’s a lot of access to a lot of Indians there. So, you are automatically in some ways in touch with India if you will. In some senses, in touch with Indian–Americans or Indian–American activities, and that may not exist if you happen to be an Indian–American in Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Mississippi etc. in the middle of the country so to speak. I do think that – and this is a generalization, obviously it differs on a case to case basis depending on the person themselves, himself or herself. At the end of the day, we are talking about individuals and not, you know, some sort of massive factory-like robot. But as a generalization – and this is to some extent from personal anecdotes, in my own life, having seen Indian-Americans from the coast and from the middle of the country, from smaller towns and so forth – there is a little bit of a difference in terms of how much there’s in touch with India. Typically, if you’re in New Jersey or if you’re in San Francisco or Dallas or Chicago, speaking of big cities in the middle of the country, you’re perhaps more in touch with India in some way just because you’re in touch with Indian-Americans and Indian-American Activities. Not so much in the states in America where there’s less access to Indian-Americans or Indian-American cultural activities. Again, a generalization, but as a generalization, I think perhaps, there’s some substance to that.

 

India Ink: Returning to the issue of political engagement, and this is an issue that speaks to me being here in DC as an Indian-American student at Georgetown, what’s the role of Indian–Americans and the Indian Diaspora here in the capitol? Going back even all the way to the first Indian origin member of the US Congress in 1956, Dalip Singh Saund, all the way to one of my local congressional representatives today, Ro Khanna. It’s interesting to see that progression, and my question is where do you see Indian-American political engagement, not just in terms of fundraising but actually being the face of the campaign and being a representative, going from here on out?

Sanjeev Joshipura: I’m glad you asked that question because it’s actually very timely due to the imminent 2018 electoral season. Just a quick anecdote that will lead to my answer to your exact question of greater Indian-American involvement in the heart of the political scene as being a candidate and so forth and not just as a fundraiser: When Indiaspora was started in 2012 by MR Rangaswami, a successful technology executive, investor and entrepreneur in California, he noticed that there was not even one Indian-American congressman at the time, although Indian-Americans made up 1% of the U.S population roughly and were very successful in various other fields such as medicine and many others, engineering, technology and so forth. The social influence was not that high. And as I mentioned a short while ago, to take a parallel example, that although the Jewish-American community has been here historically much, much, much longer, with far deeper, more entrenched roots: there is two percent Jewish-Americans in America, but ten percent Jewish-Americans in Congress. So, what do Indian-Americans do to increase their sociopolitical influence was the question of the founding of Indiaspora. I’m glad to say that because of the efforts of several different organizations, of which Indiaspora is one, there are now five Indian-Americans in US Congress – four of them in the house, one in the senate, including of course, Ro Khanna, who you mentioned. Which is almost 1% of the US Congress in total, roughly commensurate with our population in America.

What I’m glad to note, specifically, in response to your question, is that I think the Pandora’s box has been opened, and this may not be the right metaphor, it’s like the genie’s out of the bottle perhaps is the better metaphor. In the sense that, in this election cycle in 2018, there are, if my numbers are correct, I think, 24 Indian-Americans running for federal office. Obviously not all 24 will be successful, in fact, a probably a relatively small percentage of them will be, but it just goes to show the excitement among the Indian-American community, in terms of running for office. And perhaps who knows, 2, 3, 4 of them might be successful, right? We also have in the executive branch in this administration and even the administration before this, so cutting across party lines, Indian-Americans who were and are in high positions. In this administration, I’ll mention Nikki Haley, Seema Verma, Raj Shah. In the previous administration, I’ll point to people like Nisha Biswal, Arun Kumar, etc.; and many of them are Senate confirmed positions. And not just that – I think it’s also important to note the involvement of Indian-Americans in grassroots politics. And what I mean by that, is, you know, it’s not just the 23, 24 Indian-Americans running for Congress at the federal level, remains to be seen how many make it past the primaries and into the general, and so on and so forth. Let alone that for a second, let’s take a look at the state-level. Let’s look at the local level here in America. And I think if you total up federal plus state plus local, I think there’s an excess of 65 Indian-Americans running for elected office in various different capacities. And so, like I said, the genie’s out of the bottle. I think I’m glad and proud to say that among the organizations that catalyzes and fosters that, Indiaspora is one of them. And, all power and all credit to those Indian-American folks who choose to service in public office, enormous credit to them, and I wish them luck.

 

India Ink: I want to move the interview to something related, which is the issue of Indian Americans being a “model minority” here in the United States. A minority that many people look up to, but also one that many conservatives use to compare to other minorities whether it be African-Americans or Hispanic-Americans, asking them almost, “Why aren’t you like this? I’m wondering therefore about your take on the status Indian-Americans have and whether you think it’s advantageous, disadvantageous for ourselves as well as other minorities. Because there are a lot of Indian-Americans who maybe aren’t as well off affluent, aren’t affluent, and suffer from that widespread notion that we’re all successful.

Sanjeev Joshipura: That’s a good point. You know while it is true, like I mentioned a short while ago, that the average or the median Indian–American income is far higher than the overall American median income, that almost conceals as much as it reveals. What I mean by that is that we sometimes forget that there is a whole bunch of – in fact probably, I think of excess of a couple hundred thousand Indian–Americans that are living in the United States below the poverty line. And maybe twice as many as that that are here on, let’s say for example, overstayed visas and so forth. Again, I need to check my stats and numbers, but this is if my memory serves me correct. There is obviously a segment of Indian-Americans who is not the Sundar Pichai’s and the Satya Nadella’s of this world. And I think it’s important to keep that in mind, and we here at Indiaspora are trying to catalyze and instill this attitude about the Indian-American community at large that some of our brothers and sisters here – and not just Indian-Americans quite frankly, but Americans overall – that this is the land we’ve made our home and so, there’s a responsibility towards America at large, not just towards Indian-Americans to some who are perhaps, for whatever reason, less fortunate than we are. And sometimes, it is a matter of just fortune – right? – depending on which household you’re born in. And there is a responsibility towards helping them achieve or having their shot at achieving their potential, the opportunities that lay before them – getting them exposed to that. And helping them out in terms of what might be basic fundamental needs that we take for granted here among the more affluent segments of Indian-American society. So, you’re right. There is that segment that one absolutely needs to be mindful of.

But to your question of is that advantageous or disadvantageous for Indian-Americans overall – this notion that all Indian-Americans are extremely successful. You know, I think it’s both. I think it’s more advantageous than disadvantageous because to the extent that there are stereotypes attached to Indian-Americans, and I know that there are some racist stereotypes for sure, as I think was discussed on the panel a short while ago in regard to the Simpsons and so forth. Those exist – I am not denying that they exist. They absolutely do, and they need to be addressed in a thoughtful manner. And Indiaspora has done some work in that regard. But, I also think that there’s this other, positive stereotype among American society at-large; at least on the coasts and in the big cities in the center of the country where they think oh, if you’re Indian-American you must be successful, you must be either a doctor or an engineer or have a good job, be well educated. You must have a strong family background, that kind of thing. So, to that extent, I think it’s advantageous.

But, it’s not without any disadvantages, that notion. That positive stereotype is not without disadvantages in the sense that there’s always the possibility – and actually in some cases in the recent past, that I personally know about. I’d rather not get into specific details, but there is the actual reality of people in other communities here in America or perhaps America writ large perhaps bearing some kind of resentment towards Indian-Americans as thinking of them as – “Oh, these guys are immigrants and now so successful, but we’re not doing so well and they’re stealing our jobs” kind of thing. A certain sort of resentment comes from that. Which by the way is happening all over the world, not just in ethnic terms, but within ethnicities, we see this economic divide between the haves and the have-nots. And to address that, I think is very important that Indian-Americans who are successful take advantage of giving back to society. Take advantage of their circumstances and their fortune and wealth. Not just giving back to India – that is fantastic, and we encourage that that be continued obviously. But also giving back here in the US because I think that when Americans are educated about some of the outstanding philanthropy that Indian-Americans here do, participate in, and lead, I think some of those notions will begin to change. I’ll give you a quick example. I don’t think too many people know this actually, but we in Indiaspora have done a back-of-the-envelope calculation that over the past 5 years, roughly, Indian-Americans have been responsible, in terms of academic donations to various universities in America, for over $500 million dollars in donations. And not just for India programs or whatever, and in fact by and large, they are not for India programs. They’re for the university as a whole for various different things. I think it’s important to highlight that. I think it’s important to highlight the fact that Indian-Americans are giving back to this society where they’ve made their home in addition to giving back to India. And that we are in some ways, taking on the responsibility of giving back to those maybe a little less fortunate than us or paving the pathways for upward economic mobility that we took advantage of here in America when we became wealthy.

 

India Ink: The Indian–American community’s efforts at lobbying the US Congress whether directly or indirectly is pretty long-standing here in the US, especially in the context of the Indian Diaspora. My question for you is: aside from remittances or maintaining familial ties, what role do Indian-Americans have or what can they do to further improve bilateral ties? Whether that be serving in the executive branch or in the legislature and even across administrations, thirty or forty years into the future.

Sanjeev Joshipura: Absolutely. I think that you sort of pointed to this in your question itself, but politics is one part of it. Right? The executive branch with Indian-Americans, in legislature, so on and so forth that automatically strengthens ties with India to a fair extent if you have more Indian-Americans involved. That’s one part of it, right? But there’s various other realms. There’s technology contacts, financial contacts, entrepreneurial contacts, the venture-capital space, even large company technology contacts, not entrepreneurial. There’s that. But that’s a well-trodden path. We don’t necessarily don’t need to over that either because that’s a well-known story. But in addition to that – I’ve always maintained this, that administrations both in India and the US come and go, different political parties, different majorities in parliament or Congress, different perceptions about this particular defense issue or that bilateral or multilateral issue. That ebb and flow will keep happening, right, over time. I think overall the trajectory of the Indian – American relationship is definitely on the upswing over time, in general. There will still be some ebbs and flows in sort of a minor way. It won’t be a linear upward line; it’ll be a bit of a zigzag upward line.

But I’ve always maintained that the even more sustainable thing beneath the government to government level that doesn’t make the headlines in the Times of India or the Washington Post or the Indian Express is the people to people ties. Whether it’s cultural exchanges, whether it’s – and this is something that needs to be emphasized even more here on the American side – academic exchanges between the countries: American students, more of them going to India, and there’s already a lot of Indian students coming here to America as we know. Underneath the big corporate world headlines where there’s Indra Nooyi and you know Ajay Banga and these guys running American and global companies, and underneath the political environment where there’s so many Indian-Americans running for office etc., these more sustainable long-term ties, over thirty, forty years like you said, have bound the countries together – even in times where there was the Cold War, and India was leaning a little more towards the Soviet Union than the US. Even though those years, there were strong Indian – American ties, and now India is more overtly friendly with the US. I think it’s the people to people ties that will continue over time that will really bind the two countries closer and closer. I would hope in an inextricable way; I think it’s for the good for the world at large, without being too presumptuous in saying this, that two large and important democracies share these close ties and relationships and values. I hope that answers your question.