India’s double standard? Expats in the West vs. laborers in the Middle East

S. N. M. Abdi
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New Delhi's handling of the case of 39 Indian workers missing from Mosul in war-torn Iraq since 2014 exposes the double standards of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, say analysts.

The Government is obsessed with wealthy Non Resident Indians, or NRIs, in America and Europe but its interest in India’s blue collar sons in the Middle East is evidently step-motherly, although remittances from the Gulf are many times more than Pounds, Dollars and Euros sent from the West.


Commentators are aghast at Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s admission in Parliament that she isn’t sure whether 39 Indian laborers, mostly from Punjab, taken hostage by the Islamic State three years ago, are dead or alive.

Earlier, she had insisted that the kidnapped Indians were safe and negotiations were being held with the Iraq government to bring them home. Her new statement led the opposition Congress Party to accuse Swaraj of “misleading the nation, Parliament and families” of the missing hostages.

More remittance

Condemning the cavalier attitude, Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, one of India’s foremost editors, wrote: “Two million Indians in the US might organize Madison Square Garden jamborees and pander to India’s rock-star politician, but seven million Indians in West Asia serve the country they have never left even if they are physically absent. In 2015, workers in six GCC states sent back nearly four times the amount repatriated by the pampered white-collar darlings of the Indian American Community Foundation”.

“UAE Indians alone accounted for more than $12.5 billion out of that year’s $69 billion remittance. Although our newspapers speak of ‘Indian workers emigrating to the Gulf’, they don’t emigrate at all. They go on short term contracts for specific jobs and return home when the contract expires. There is no scope for staying on or investing their savings there.

“In contrast, the steadily growing number of Indian Americans consists almost entirely of professional migrants. As the plucky Sunayana Dumala demonstrated after a white American racist murdered her engineer husband in Kansas, they will not be cheated of their ambition to become American. This group doesn’t need India. Rubbing shoulders with New Delhi’s high and mighty at the annual Pravasi Bharatiya Divas is only gilt on the gingerbread.”

Another analyst, Rohan Venkataramakrishnan, laments that although seven million Gulf workers “sends India more money than all other expats”, the Government doesn’t even have the decency to give them postal voting rights “so that they can exercise their franchise without flying to their constituencies during elections”.

Humiliation in America

Indian workers in West Asia, Singapore and Malaysia are often illiterate, under-privileged and vulnerable but ministries tasked with ensuring their welfare abroad abrogate its responsibilities. New Delhi lashed out at Washington after diplomat Devyani Khhobragade’s humiliation in America but kept mum when Singapore brutally punished 300 Indians for agitating over the death of a Tamil worker.

The Indian Government didn’t speak out for workers. Instead it patted Singapore on the back and announced that “strategic partnership” and cooperation on a wide range of issues wouldn’t be affected at all.

According to Dutta-Ray, India’s diplomats are usually “so busy trying to secure their own post-retirement positions abroad as well as jobs for their children” that migrant labor like the 39 missing men are nobody’s responsibility – a harsh reality borne out by Swaraj’s somersault.

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