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by Rani Chandran

Context for Indian Immigration

History and Government

India has one of the two oldest civilizations in the world. Excavations in the northwestern parts of India indicate the existence of a highly advanced urban civilization in the Indus Valley regions almost 5000 years ago. Seals discovered in these parts point to a flourishing trade with Sumeria and Mesopotamia. In around 1500 B.C. the Aryans entered from the northwest and merged with the local inhabitants to create what is termed classical Indian civilization. The Aryans introduced the Sanskrit language and the Vedic religion, the early form of Hinduism-Buddhism. Founded in the 6th century B.C., it became widely adopted under the rule of Ashoka (269 – 232 B.C.), one of India’s greatest rulers. However, Hinduism soon revived, and, during the rule of the Guptas (4th – 6th century A.D.), the religion, as well as science, literature and the arts flourished in what is termed the “golden age” of ancient India.

Intermittent Arab invasions from the 8th century began a series of Muslim invasions. In 1526, the great Mughal Empire was established and Delhi henceforth became the center of political power. The Mughal period saw the reemergence of an Indo-Muslim amalgam that manifested itself in all forms of art and culture. The discovery of the route to India by Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in 1498 opened trade with the west. The English East India Company set up its first factory in 1621 and expanded its influence militarily. Its victory at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 laid the foundation of the British Empire in India. Administration of the Indian subcontinent formally passed to the British crown in 1858.

Indian nationalist aspirations rose steadily after World War I. Under the leadership of Mohandas K. Gandhi, ?later known as Mahatma Gandhi, nonviolent non-cooperation became the strategy of the Indian National Congress Party which spearheaded the freedom movement. Though India and Indian soldiers were part of the allied effort in World War II, the Indian demand for freedom was sustained. Failure to reach a political settlement led to the Quit India movement initiated by the Congress. Mass arrest of freedom fighters such as Gandhi and Nehru ensued. Gandhi’s release in 1944 was followed by protracted negotiations. With the entire sub-continent rising as one to demand the right to be free from the yoke of a foreign power, the British position in India became untenable. On August 15, 1947, India gained full independence. However, the subcontinent had been divided into two countries, the predominantly Muslim regions in the northwest and the east became a separate nation called Pakistan. The partition led to a massive migration of people across the two borders – a migration marked by bloody riots among the religious groups.

Jawaharlal Nehru became India’s first Prime Minister. The new nation was committed to a parliamentary democracy and in 1951 became a republic. Democracy, the federal structure of the Indian union, universal adult suffrage, equality for all and religious freedom are some of the features enshrined in the Indian constitution which was formed along the lines of the constitution of the United States. The current Prime Minister is Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Some of his most formidable challenges involve establishing peace in the subcontinent and battling poverty, illiteracy and corruption within the country.


While over 60 % of the population continues to be employed in agriculture and related fields, India has been rapidly expanding its industrial base. In the last decade the economy has been slowly liberalized. Its GDP is approximately $ 1,689 trillion, and it has a per capita income of $1,720. Its exports range from textiles and handicrafts to engineering goods, information technology, software and IT enabled services.

Indian Immigration

The first Asian Indians arrived in the middle of the 19th century and were mostly Sikhs from the western Indian state of Punjab. The majority of them were engaged in agricultural and construction activities in California. By 1920, Asian Indians owned 38,000 acres in Imperial Valley and 85,000 acres in Sacramento Valley. However, restrictive legislation in the U.S. ensured that Indian immigration was negligible until 1965. The Immigration Act of 1965 altered this situation. Opening immigration under family reunification and occupational categories, it allowed significant numbers of Indians to enter the country. The new entrants were overwhelmingly urban, professional and highly educated. They quickly entered professions such as engineering, medicine, and research or set up entrepreneurial ventures. In general they settled in the larger cities. California continued to be the state of choice for most.

The post 1990 years saw liberalization in the Indian economy. Globalization and the emergence of new markets ushered in paradigm shifts in the concepts of structural organization of business and trade The rise of massive transnational corporations, rapid knowledge transfer and capital flows saw the fledgling information technology industry and IT-enabled services in India expand rapidly, creating a large pool of technically trained professionals. The emergence of Silicon Valley created a sharp demand of IT professionals familiar with the English language. This led to the entry of large numbers of Indian software and hardware professionals on temporary work permit visas. San Jose is home to more Indians than any other U.S. city.

Social Characteristics of Indians

Ethnic and Religious Diversity

Diversity is inevitable in a land with a long and complex history. India’s many races, religions and languages have created a rich mosaic reflected in its traditions, cuisine, costumes and the performing arts. The ethnic diversity of India is reflected in the 16 different languages recognized by the constitution and 1,652 dialects. As far as India’s religions, Hindus form 82.6 % of the population, Muslims 11.3 %, Christians 2.4%, Sikhs 2 %, Buddhists 0.71 % and Jains 0.48 %.

Family Life

The extended family is India’s social and emotional anchor. An individual’s identity is often determined by the role he/she plays within the familial network. Except in pockets such as the southern state of Kerala, the patriarchal family model prevails. Respect for elders is a norm that helps sustain the framework of an extended family even if the members of the family are geographically dispersed. While Indian families continue to be male-dominated it must be pointed out that universal adult suffrage and free secondary education in public elementary and secondary schools have led to significant shifts in gender roles. These shifts both implicit and explicit are emerging in urban and to a lesser extent in rural regions where working women and homemakers from all strata of life have emerged as decision makers within the family.

Health Care Practices

Health care for low-income groups and the poor is free in government-owned hospitals in India. However, due to the vastness of the population and the budgetary constraints under which the government health care departments operate, there is an inadequate supply of hospitals, paramedical staff and drugs. Hence modern health care, even if affordable, is not always accessible, especially in rural areas. Awareness of public health issues is severely limited by the combination of illiteracy and poverty.

Indigenous health care systems, though, have a long tradition. Yoga, for instance, which regards health as a harmonious amalgam of the spirit, the mind and the body, has been widely acknowledged for its therapeutic role. Other indigenous medical systems such as Ayurveda and Siddha are being practiced. Research in the last few decades indicates the efficacy of these systems in the successful treatment of chronic diseases such as arthritis, ulcers and diabetes.

Educational System

The educational system is based on the British model. K-12 education concludes with a state or national level exit examination. Undergraduate programs are three-year courses for liberal arts and science majors. Engineering, medicine and law education undergraduate programs extend by one or two years. The emphasis on math and science and the proliferation of engineering colleges has created a large pool of technical professionals, both men and women. In contrast, the poverty-stricken strata reveal low literacy levels. Even though schooling is free, incidental expenses such as books and pencils are not affordable for these groups. Nearly half of all Indians remain illiterate.

Indians in Santa Clara County


The average age of the respondents in the random survey was 42 years with 31% in the 25-34 age group and 32% in the 35-44 bracket. Of the respondents from the top five immigrant countries (Mexico, Vietnam, Philippines, China and India) who indicate that they had between 17-18 years of schooling, 53% were Indians. Given that a large number of the Indians in the country are IT professionals, this is not surprising. The average number of persons in an Indian household was 3.5. The maximum size in this category was listed as 10, suggesting that the Indian family in the U.S. is occasionally an extended multi-generational one. About 10% had non-family members living at home. The average length of stay in the U.S. for the Indian respondents was 13 years.

Social Customs

Interpersonal Communication

Warm, friendly and hospitable, most Indians see a natural progression from an acquaintanceship to friendship. Asking questions about personal and professional life is not considered intrusive. Rather it is regarded as a manifestation of the questioner’s concern and interest. The norm of “respecting elders” is so firmly embedded that a deferential tone of voice while conversing with an older person is automatically adopted. This is also the rationale behind why Indians may not look the speaker in they eye if the speaker is older.

Emotional Support

The strong ties between family and friends is reflected in the response to the random survey, where 66% stated that when faced with an emotional problem, they turn to their spouse to talk it over. Around 47% claim that friends are their confidants during troubled times. In homes with children under 12, the primary caretaker for the children was the mother in 56% of the cases; grandparents (20%) also play this role. Approximately 17% of the respondents used child care centers. There is a strongly rooted belief (49%) that seniors and disabled people must be cared for at home by family members. Only 2% believed that institutional care was the preferred option.


Traditional attire within India constitutes an amazing range of style, texture and form. The most common garment for women is the sari, a six-yard piece of material, draped gracefully around the body. Its weave, design and texture are often indicative of the region of manufacture. Equally popular is the salwar-kameez, a long dress often intricately embroidered and worn over loose pants. A stole usually completes the look. Most women, especially married women, place a black or red dot on their forehead. This is considered a symbol of femininity. Men wear versions of the Kurta-pyjama, a long loose shirt worn over loose pants.


The numerous Indian restaurants in the county are testimony to the preference for native cuisine by the large Indian population here. Indians include a great deal of lentils, vegetables and spices in their diet. Rice and a variety of unleavened breads form the cereal component of the meals. Hindus generally avoid beef and the Muslims eschew pork. Most Indians in the U.S. opt for a traditional cooked meal at the end of the day. India’s vast size and diversity is reflected in significant differences in sub-cuisines. In addition, religious and social functions have certain traditional preparations that are specific to the occasions.

Religious Traditions and Holidays

The numerous socio-religious festivals are a time to bring families and communities together and to strengthen social anchors. Often the functions, though rooted in religious belief, are pan-Indian celebrations. The social celebrations associated with Christmas, for instance, would find participants from all religions. This is equally true of the Hindu festival of Holi, the festival of colors and the harbinger of spring. Families and friends congregate to spray colors on each other and round off the morning with dances and a special lunch. Diwali, the festival of lights, is another joyous occasion. To North Indians, it commemorates the return of Lord Rama to his kingdom after a voluntary exile in the forest. South Indians believe that it signifies the victory of Lord Krishna over a demon. Friends and relatives meet to exchange sweets and share in the religious poojas or prayers. Homes are illuminated at night with decorative lights and a glorious display of fireworks brings closure to a day of communal togetherness. For Muslims, Id-Ul-Fitr marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, a period of fasting and prayer. The mass prayers in the mosques are followed by social gatherings marked by goodwill, good food and beautiful clothes. For the Sikhs the birthday of Guru Nanak is a day of communal prayer. A communal meal prepared and served by volunteers is indicative of the strong spirit of devotion and community service that is a hallmark of this religion.

Weddings are elaborate affairs and can often stretch for several days. The practice of arranged marriages is common across all religions. However, increasingly one finds marriages of choice taking place.

India has a large number of holidays to accommodate the traditions of its diverse communities. In addition, the nation celebrates Independence Day and Republic Day.

Challenges in Santa Clara County

The top seven needs of this community as revealed by the data from the random sample group are citizenship help (20%), dental care (15%), housing (15%), medical care (14%), eye care (13%), help starting a business (13%) and help finding a job (12%). The data from the public benefits group survey reveals a slightly different picture. Here, the needs appear in the areas of eye care (78%), dental care (76%), medical care (70%), help in becoming a citizen (61%) and housing assistance (55%). A significant number of those who need help in these areas have not received it.

At the focus group discussion led by Ms. Matra Majmundar, the top needs identified were medical insurance coverage for seniors, help with the inordinate delay in processing H1-B visas, green card and citizenship applications, gender discrimination, the absence of child care centers at the workplace, and permission for H-4 visa holders to seek employment.


When questioned on how they felt when stopped by police, 58% claimed that they felt respected, but around 12% pointed out that they felt mistreated. With reference to the workplace 34% had experienced discrimination from their bosses, 24% at their job interviews and 23% from co-workers. Survey data reveals negligible discrimination at school.

Barriers to Education, Services & Benefits

While many immigrants wish to avail themselves of the opportunities for education, services and benefits provided in the county, there are very real problems of access. For 59% of the respondents, constraints of time were a barrier; 29% listed scheduling difficulties, and approximately 23% claimed that they lacked sufficient information on the opportunities.

Employment and Working Conditions

Occupational Data

From high-tech industry to construction, Indians span a range of occupations. Over 42% are in fields related to engineering, math or electronics; 9% are managers and around 1% hold positions as office assistants or receptionists. About 41% of the random sample respondents stated that their occupations were different in their home country. Of these, 18% listed different eligibility requirements in the U.S. as the reason for a shift in occupation and 13% lacked the credentials or licenses for U.S. practice. A significant number (37%) claimed that their current job was better than the one they held in India.

Working Conditions

About 40% of the respondents from the random sample have one working member in the house, and 43% have two. The average number of hours worked per week by Indians is 42. An overwhelming majority (94%) work for a single employer. About 26% have an immigrant employer; 23% enjoy no medical benefits; and 25% have no paid vacation. About 33% are expected to work overtime. Over 50% have completed a university education in India.

Small Businesses

Some 15% of the respondents are self-employed or have their own businesses. Most Indians (62%) perceive ignorance about what business idea will succeed as their chief obstacle in making the transition to entrepreneurship.

Public Benefits in the Indian Community

In the random sample, some 21% appear to know the requirements for receiving SSI but only 11% actually receive it. Of these, 58% consider it inadequate. Few appear to be on CalWORKs or food stamps. About 13% receive MediCal benefits. Of these, 86% feel that the county worker communicates well with them but 41% feel that he/she is not familiar with the cultural background of the recipient.

In the public benefits group, 49% know of the SSI requirements. About two thirds of those who received this benefit considered it adequate. CalWORKs requirements were known by 26%, food stamps by 33%, CAPI by 42%, and MediCal by 91%. Of those who availed themselves of MediCal and CAPI, 76% and 40% considered it adequate, respectively. The majority felt that county workers from CalWORKs, MediCal, and food stamps treated them with respect and communicated well with them.

Educational Access in Santa Clara County

K-12 Education

About 53% of the respondents from the random sample had children under 18 in school. Almost half stated that they would like their children to be taught only in English. About 35% of the respondents had children in after-school activities; 40% had children in breakfast or lunch programs at school; 50% were satisfied that they were receiving information from school in a language that they understood; and 62% were attendees at parent meetings.

Employment Training

Almost half of those who had received training from the benefits group were trained in areas relating to health care. Community colleges seem to be the preferred place for receiving training.


Approximately 58% rated their English skills as excellent. They felt that English was vital for employment opportunities (85%), for daily living (73%), and for participating in their children’s school (51%). Interestingly 67% considered it a key skill to read literature. While 52% suggested that the best way to hone English skills was through the TV, 31% opted for weekend classes as a preferred option.

Citizenship & Voter Participation

Around 43% of the respondents in the random sample were naturalized U.S. citizens. About 13% would like legal advice on this issue and 25% desired special classes on citizenship. Of the 42% registered to vote, 61% of them did not exercise their franchise due to lack of time. As of December 2000 there were 8,416 registered voters from India in Santa Clara County. Actual voters increased from 982 in November 1990 to 2,421 in March 2000.

Communication & Outreach in the Indian Community

Essential sources of information were TV in English (83%), the San Jose Mercury News (77%), the internet (77%), friends (65%), and family (42%). Most Indians have a TV (99%) and a computer (94%) with internet access (90%). A number of newspapers and magazines targeted at Indians enjoy wide circulation in the county. Prominent among these are the newspapers India West and India Post. India Currents is a popular magazine. Equally popular are the Indian programs on the Bay Area channels during weekends and the cable channels devoted entirely to Indian programs.

Indians in Action: Kanwal Rekhi

His is the quintessential success story. Raconteurs will tell you that this resident of Los Gatos is the man who around 30 years ago arrived in the United States with $400 in his pocket and that, last year, his wealth was estimated at over $500 million. He is the first Indian American to become a CEO in Silicon Valley, and the first Indian American to take his company public in 1987.

These successes notwithstanding, Kanwal Rekhi is not the only Indian to achieve the American Dream. Why then is it that this engineer-turned-high-tech mogul has become, to Indians, an icon in a way others have not?

The answer lies in his ability to combine blunt speech with philanthropy, to blend mentoring of young professionals with community welfare. He does all this through the medium he is most familiar with: high-technology business. A former president of TiE (The Indus Entrepreneurs), the organization that helps aspiring entrepreneurs, he has been personally responsible for setting many Indians on the road to financial success. He also continues to contribute liberally to his alma maters in both India and the U.S. More recently, he has agreed to serve on the advisory board of Immigrant Support Network, a non-profit organization.

Frequently featured in the print and visual media, he possesses an impressive ability to connect with people. This quality and his wide range of business and humanitarian activities make him a role model for the immigrant community.