A promise not kept

Updated - June 17, 2013 09:02 pm IST

Published - June 17, 2013 08:56 pm IST

Impossible Citizens, Dubai's Indian Diaspora. Author: Neha Vora.

Impossible Citizens, Dubai's Indian Diaspora. Author: Neha Vora.

The introduction to Impossible Citizens is full of promise and interesting premise, and hence the expectation that at the end of the read, we would understand why both the foreignness and belonging of the Indian diaspora is crucial for the Emirati identity. Well, keep waiting...

Having been part of the diaspora (not in Dubai but the region) for 14 years, it’s refreshing to see someone recognise and speak of the relationship between India and the Gulf region that precedes the oil era; in fact, long before the borders within the Gulf region were clearly defined, and long before being British subjects was the main commonality.

“While oil companies and the infrastructural growth following oil discovery created a large spike in migration to the Gulf, the idea that oil precedes migration makes it difficult to understand the multiplicity of economic and political activities occurring in Gulf port cities like Dubai, which have rich cosmopolitan pre-oil mercantile pasts and entrenched diasporic communities that pre-date European colonialism in the region,” writes Neha Vora.

She argues that by keeping the majority expatriate population — especially Indians who are a majority within that — as the ‘other’, the Emirati identity was strengthened. Citizenship in UAE, as in the rest of the GCC states, is jus sanguini and not jus soli.

“National identity in Dubai and the UAE is dependent on the production of division between the nation and the economy…To produce an imagined community for a relatively new nation (the UAE became independent in 1971), the state narrates Emirati identity through autochthony, projects of heritage, and the erasure of precolonial and colonial cosmopolitanisms… (national identity) been naturalized through the presence of foreigners, as there was no cohesive identity even at the formation of the Gulf nations in the second half of the twentieth century.”

An interesting and valid argument up to a certain point. We see time and again in the region that national identity is steeped in the emphasis of the foreignness of the ‘other’, even if the other has spent decades in the country. But in not touching upon the strong tribal alliances of the period before statehood, Vora does a disservice to the Arab history of the Gulf.

Now India (and the subcontinent) is seen as provider of cheap labour, and probably is primarily that. And therein lies the problem, according to Vora. “Studying migration in Gulf through the lens of labour — focusing on human rights, coping strategies, remittances, or modern-day slavery, for example — effectively collapses migrant lives into economic terms and removes possibilities of community formation, political agency, cultural hybridity, emotional attachment, consumption, leisure activity, and other forms of belonging from South Asian experiences in the Gulf.”

So far, so good. Except that in telling the story of only the ‘middle-class’ and occasionally the ‘business elite’, Vora dismisses the prevailing elements of the diaspora, to focus on what once was.


The author links the ‘forms of belonging’ to the relationship that existed before the oil era, but seeks evidence through her ‘interlocutors’ who moved only recently to Dubai, and for economic reasons. She also tries to place the onus of the Gulf Indian diapsora’s lack of belonging on the Indian government.

She argues that it’s not the kafala (sponsorship) system that removes political rights from Indians in the Gulf but the Indian state. “It is evident that the Indian state has a very narrow description of diaspora, one that privileges professional classes, newer migrants to the West, and non-Muslims.”

Of this, I will discuss no further, as her arguments are not sufficiently substantiated. Vora is an American of Indian origin, and her interest in South Asian diasporas obviously goes beyond the academic. Her book published in 2013, began as a dissertation project she started in 2004. So almost all of what she writes find context in the period from then till about 2006. To not assess the situation in the six years preceding the release of the book -- critical years, as it saw fluctuating fortunes of both Dubai and India, and the shift in power to Abu Dhabi from Dubai, is a miss. Though she has attempted to include some updates, it is not sufficient enough to take the book as a definitive text on either the Indian diaspora or the Emirati national identity.

That is not the book’s main pitfall, either. She also disregards the large population of Indian Muslims in Dubai, seeking to tell the story of the Hindu population of the diaspora, speaking of their temple-going and community events and equating it to ‘community formation’. What of the Muslims, an equally important part of the diaspora?

The book’s main failures are these: Lack of statistics of the diaspora, which probably would have splintered her arguments; not seeking a broader representation of the diaspora; the deliberate tone of her interlocutors (too uniformly supportive of her stereotypes); a well-presented introduction that is followed by chapters that are just pointlessly inflated providing no new insights; and the tediousness of academic writing that renders the book inaccessible to the very diaspora she speaks of.

Clearly, she first stepped into Dubai (2004) with preconceptions, and from then on has proceeded in turns to simplify things to benefit her stereotyping or complicate it to support her arguments.

Of course, Impossible Citizens is first and foremost an anthropological study, so Vora attempts to let her ‘interlocutors’ and ‘informants’ lead the narrative of their diaspora, but they don’t because of the careful selection and consequently the elimination of their compatriots.

( Vani Saraswathi is

a Qatar-based Indian journalist )

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