Indian wedding
Image used for representational purposes | Photo by Ritam Banerjee/Getty Images
Text Size:

The non-resident Indian, or NRI, a celebrated figure in Punjabi culture and actively courted by the state government as a partner in development, has now become a source of distress and panic in Punjab. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, the Punjab government initiated a range of measures to track NRIs in order to make sure they are complying with their home quarantine directives. In Doaba villages, overseas Punjabis have become a menace best avoided. This moment marks a rupture in the social imaginary of migration in Punjab, from an aspirational movement to one that is linked to derision and isolation. Will this Covid-19 moment spur a shift or re-negotiation in the hierarchy between the local and overseas Punjabis?

The state media has been actively covering the threat that faces Punjab as an estimated 97,000 NRIs have returned since January. There have been numerous reports of the government trying to locate “fleeing NRIs” and NRIs violating home quarantine and leaving the hospital without permission. NRIs are also being blamed for hiding at their relatives’ to escape the administration’s gaze. There is increasing concern that NRIs are not cooperating and complying with state directives. As of 27 March, 262 people were arrested for violating curfew and quarantine directions. These reports paint the NRI as irresponsible and a threat to the health of Punjab’s residents.


Also read: Curfew, an app & assured home delivery — Punjab leaves little to chance in Covid-19 battle


Migration and Punjabi culture

Migration from Punjab dates back to the colonial period, beginning from 1849. Sikhs were inducted into the Indian Army and taken to different countries under the British empire. The soldiers, when they returned, narrated fascinating stories about foreign lands and encouraged other young men to migrate to British colonies. After the Second World War, in the 1950s, Sikhs from rural Punjab migrated to the UK and Canada. In the mid-1970s, Gulf migration also became a particularly popular avenue of migration for Dalit Punjabis. Today, there are large Punjabi diasporas in Australia, Canada and the UK.

In the contemporary imagination of Punjab, migration is seen as synonymous with Punjabi culture. A celebratory narrative of migration is pervasive in everyday parlance in Punjabi villages and towns. A stroll on the streets of Jalandhar or Phagwara reveals a proliferation of visa agencies and institutes that advertise classes for IELTS — the international English language proficiency test often required for migration.

Popular Punjabi songs tie high-status consumption and wealth with being located in a foreign country and with increased attractiveness. In many of these songs, the young man, invariably a NRI, is able to woo the woman through an explicit display of his wealth and know-how of Western urban mannerisms. Scores of young men commit themselves to this imaginary of migration as mobility and disengage from local educational and employment opportunities and wait for the chance to migrate to the UK, Europe and North America.

The importance of migration is also reflected in the approach adopted by the state government. Since 1996, the Punjab government has been actively creating institutional channels to engage migrants in the development of the state. Measures such as hosting NRI sammelans, launching the NRI Sabha, and protecting urban properties developed by NRI through stipulations inserted in the Punjab Rent Act were also adopted. In 2002, the Department of NRI Affairs was set up by the Amarinder Singh government. This department was meant to incentivise philanthropic capital flows for development of villages, even creating the NRI-GoP Rural Infrastructure Development Fund for the purpose.

We are deeply grateful to our readers & viewers for their time, trust and subscriptions.

Quality journalism is expensive and needs readers to pay for it. Your support will define our work and ThePrint’s future.

SUBSCRIBE NOW


Also read: Why Punjabis leave thousands of toy planes at this gurudwara near Jalandhar


Altered States

In the context of Covid-19, the government of Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has been forced to shift its approach towards the NRI, who is no longer being treated as a development partner but as a potential hindrance to development. Given the high number of NRIs in their midst who might be infected by the coronavirus, the Punjab government has adopted stricter measures to limit the cases of Covid-19. Punjab was one of the first governments to announce a state-wide lockdown and follow it up with a curfew to prevent people from stepping out.

The case of a 70-year-old man from Nawanshahr, who returned from Germany via Italy and, before succumbing to the virus, partook in a large religious gathering at Anandpur Sahib, sounded alarm bells and spurred the state government to take more stringent measures. About 30,000 NRIs have been asked to quarantine themselves at home and strict action will be taken against those violating the rule. Ironically, Covid-19 has meant restriction and immobility being imposed on the otherwise mobile NRI.

The threat of a visiting NRI spreading Covid-19 has also influenced community-level dynamics, with neighbours and relatives reporting those violating home quarantine and asking authorities to ramp up their measures. In the past, visiting NRIs enjoyed the patronage of neighbours, many of whom would volunteer to clean and cook for them during their stay in the hope of facilitating their own migration. This juncture marks a shift in the construct of the NRI: from an asset to be courted and only privately critiqued, to one that is best avoided and can be publicly reported due to the threat that they pose.

In violating home quarantine, the NRI is also rehearsing an older, pre-Covid-19 script in Punjab, wherein the comfort and mobility of the visiting NRI is placed above the needs and concerns of those who never left the state. But this time the scenario has changed; the local community seems to be more concerned about protecting its own health rather than cosying up to the NRI. But is this subversion of the NRI’s authority only a passing phase? Given its importance as a source of status of wealth in Punjab, it is unlikely that the palpable culture of migration will be permanently altered by Covid-19. But it may serve as a reminder of the fallibility of the NRI.

The author is an Assistant Professor in the School of International Affairs at O.P. Jindal Global University. Her research focuses on rural development, migration and gender in Punjab. Views are personal.

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

News media is in a crisis & only you can fix it

You are reading this because you value good, intelligent and objective journalism. We thank you for your time and your trust.

You also know that the news media is facing an unprecedented crisis. It is likely that you are also hearing of the brutal layoffs and pay-cuts hitting the industry. There are many reasons why the media’s economics is broken. But a big one is that good people are not yet paying enough for good journalism.

We have a newsroom filled with talented young reporters. We also have the country’s most robust editing and fact-checking team, finest news photographers and video professionals. We are building India’s most ambitious and energetic news platform. And we aren’t even three yet.

At ThePrint, we invest in quality journalists. We pay them fairly and on time even in this difficult period. As you may have noticed, we do not flinch from spending whatever it takes to make sure our reporters reach where the story is. Our stellar coronavirus coverage is a good example. You can check some of it here.

This comes with a sizable cost. For us to continue bringing quality journalism, we need readers like you to pay for it. Because the advertising market is broken too.

If you think we deserve your support, do join us in this endeavour to strengthen fair, free, courageous, and questioning journalism, please click on the link below. Your support will define our journalism, and ThePrint’s future. It will take just a few seconds of your time.

Support Our Journalism

6 Comments Share Your Views

6 COMMENTS

  1. True Chracter of Persons, people and Nations is shown during the times of Crisis. Virus is nor discriminating Humans but Humans are showing thier true colors. Either it is an agenda to keep people apart or the insensivity to write cheap.
    I do not think People who went to Punjab this time of the year have Intentionally tried to spread Virus , they unknowingly became victims of False propaganda. Nobody wants to harm their Family, Friends or Co inhabitants Whether living in village or Urban Area. Baldev Singh from Distt SBS nagar was a preacher who came to ITaly to preach and did not He was Victim or Carrier of Virus. So stop Blaming him. Please change your Glasses and start seeing things in diffrent Perspective. Help people who are needy in this Crisis and keep your pseyudo Intllectual manipulation in Check. Punjabis Living abroad will always keep helping our people in Punjab Sarbat Da Bhalla( Wellbeing Of All in the Universe) is directed to us by Our Gurus.

    I do not think People who went to Punjab this time of the year have Intentionally tried to spread Virus , they unknowingly became victims of False propaganda. Nobody wants to harm thier Family, Friends or Co inhabitants Whether living in village or Urban Area. Baldev Singh from Distt SBS nagar was a preacher who came to ITaly to preach and did not know He was Victim or Carrier of Virus. So stop Blaming him. Please change your Glasses and start seeing things in diffrent Perspective. Help people who are needy in this Crisis and keep your pseyudo Intllectual manipulation in Check. Punjabis Living abroad will always keep helping our people in Punjab Sarbat Da Bhalla( Wellbeing Of All in the Universe) is directed to us by Our Gurus.

  2. Mr.Baldev Singh first case of Coronavirus was NOT a NRI ,but prechar ,he has gone to Italy and Germany for his business activity.

  3. The part where Nagpal starts differentiating Punjabi into Dalits immigration to Gulf countries, is very distasteful as if he is playing the old cast cards. All Punjabis have already or are moving away from Indian cast division. Nagpal being a professor should be progressive to move along to shunt the age old cast system. Rabindra Nath Tagore was pleased to learn that Punjab was leading India towards shunting the cast system.
    If you look at Delhi’s international Indian diaspora passengers then more than 50% are Punjabi speaking from Punjab/Hary/HP giving rich benefits to Delhi and the national coffers but Delhi airport do not provide any service in Punjabi yet…old saying “jithu roti milay, usdi boli vich isda maan karts” customer service have not Reached Indian decision makers, Nagpal Ji if you call yourself Punjabi then look into it.

  4. NRIs are more disciplined than the people here. In fact they are more fearful of the virus as they think they have comparatively low immunity due to the good living conditions In the west.

  5. Delhi to Punjab include Haryana through nh1 for six months take advantage of Nri’s Airlines,tourism ,charities, buses,taxis,restaurants marriage palaces,clothing shops. Go check what they done for their native villages and towns .Now only 1 Indian citizen of punjab came back from Italy diagnosed with corona with 37 cases positive .how about rest of India does Nri’ punjabis spread there .Why some cheap journalism put every Punjabi Nri’s as scape goat shame on you.

  6. A well written article using facts , the shift towards the greener pasture is not only predominant in Punjab but in many states accross India . The current fear of NRIs is due to the pandemic , but in the long run economics will again take over . Our population is also our bane , which can’t provide opportunity of employment for all the citizens . So as soon as the impact of the pandemic diminishes we all will start looking towards greener pastures

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here