Satya Nadella's comment on CAA reflects his poor understanding of subject, but shoddy media coverage amplified controversy

  • No country takes a lenient view of illegal immigration of economic opportunists, least of all the US where Satya Nadella resides.

  • Any immigrant from anywhere in the world, including a Muslim from Bangladesh, may apply for Indian citizenship and can contribute greatly to India’s economic development or cultural enlightenment as an Indian citizen.

  • The controversy also reflects poorly on the media and exposes its propensity to run sensationalist campaigns bordering on fake news.

The controversy over Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s statement tells us everything that we need to know about the campaign surrounding the amendment to India’s Citizenship Act. It tells us that even knowledgeable individuals — in this case the top honcho of one of world’s biggest tech companies — have poor information on the topic, and that their views are not any clearer than the misinformed protestor on the street.

Nadella believes that India’s ‘flawed’ citizenship law might make it difficult for an immigrant to become a successful entrepreneur or high-profile CEO of a multinational firm. This is an unfounded fear based on incomplete understanding of the issue.

 Satya Nadellas comment on CAA reflects his poor understanding of subject, but shoddy media coverage amplified controversy

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. Reuters

In reality, nothing stops a Bangladeshi immigrant to come to India and become the next CEO of Infosys or create a successful startup. Certainly not CAA that does not interfere with India’s citizenship laws, but only fast-tracks citizenship for a group of religiously persecuted people from neighbouring Islamic nations who have taken refuge in India.

The controversy also reflects poorly on the media and exposes its propensity to run sensationalist campaigns bordering on fake news. Nadella’s comments were taken out context to completely strip those of any nuance, and then entire news cycles were spawned based on those edited remarks. Commentators added their two bits of partisan positioning to make it a full-blown controversy. Truth, as always, was lost in translation.

It was a tweet by the editor of an American media outlet that triggered the latest row. Ben Smith claimed that during a conversation with editors, the CEO of Microsoft Corporation has said that what’s “happening” in India over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) “is sad... It’s just bad…”

That was all that was needed for commenters to weigh in, based purely on what their understanding is about Nadella’s reported comments.

WSJ columnist and author Sadanand Dhume claimed Nadella “disapproves of India’s citizenship law”. Does he? In a subsequent tweet, Smith, the editor of Buzzfeed, posted what he claimed was the verbatim conversation that took place between Nadella and editors in Manhattan, US.

This tweet added a new dimension. On a question whether he has any views on CAA, Nadella is quoted to have said (if reported accurately): “I think what is happening is sad, primarily as sort of someone who grew up there, I feel, and in fact quite frankly, now being informed, shaped by the two amazing American things that I’ve observed which is both, it’s technology reaching me where I was growing up and its immigration policy and even a story like mine being possible in a country like this…

“I think it’s just bad...If anything, I would love to see a Bangladeshi immigrant who comes to India and creates the next unicorn in India, or becomes the CEO of Infosys, that should be the aspiration, if I had to sort of mirror what happened to me in the US, I hope that’s what happens in India.”

And then he went on to add, “I’m not saying that any country doesn’t and should not care about its own national security, borders do exist and they’re real and people will think about it, after all immigration is an issue in this country, it’s an issue in Europe and it’s an issue in India, but the approach that one takes to deal with what is immigration, who are immigrants and minority groups, that sensibility.” He then goes on to applaud the debate over the act in India.

We see that Nadella’s comments, taken in entirety, is nuanced. He acknowledges the need to balance immigration policy and liberal outlook, the reality of it as an issue and places weight on national security and a nation’s sovereign choices while also expressing fears that CAA might interfere with the dreams of an immigrant.

This nuance was missing from the debate over his reported comments based on which narratives were shaped in India. In a subsequent statement, Microsoft’s Indian arm released a statement trying to tone down the tenor and thrust of CEO’s comments in an obvious attempt to calm frayed nerves and settle the controversy.

Microsoft’s aim at damage control is evident where Nadella’s comments have been sanitized to the point of irrelevance where he speaks about every country’s right to defend its borders and develop immigration policies in accord with its own sensibilities. Nadella, who grew up in Hyderabad, ends by saying that he hopes an immigrant in India may be given the chance to explore those options.

As an immigrant in the US who made it big, Nadella’s sentiments are understandable. It is natural that he would like India to give those opportunities to its immigrants that he benefitted from as a migrant to the US. It is debatable, however, whether he has been properly briefed on this issue. If one were to go by reporting on CAA by American mainstream media, there is very little chance of it. US liberal media’s reporting on India has mostly been a confirmation of its own ideological bias against the elected government.

Nadella was presumably talking about legal migration to India. No country takes a lenient view of illegal immigration of economic opportunists, least of all the US where Nadella resides. Donald Trump rose to power as 45th POTUS based on his campaign against illegal immigration from Mexico, and he has since made building the wall his top priority.

Nadella might know that America’s Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRAIRA) penalizes undocumented immigrants who commit crimes in the US or stay beyond statutorily defined periods of time. The Act makes it possible for the US government to deport undocumented immigrants. Needless to say, Nadella like many of his peers such as Sundar Pichai of Google or Shantanu Narayen of Adobe, entered the US legally.

We may safely assume, therefore, that the Microsoft Corp CEO was talking about legal migration while expressing his sadness over the turn of events in India. It would comfort Nadella to know that CAA makes no changes in India’s existing citizenship laws. Any immigrant from anywhere in the world, including a Muslim from Bangladesh, may apply for Indian citizenship and can contribute greatly to India’s economic development or cultural enlightenment as an Indian citizen. The confusion over this is purely due to a misinformation campaign.

As lawyer Kartikeya Tanna has written in Firstpost, the only thing CAA does, is “enlist specific categories of people (six religious minorities) from specific countries (three neighbouring nations of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh) as ‘historically persecuted groups’ similar to the Lautenberg Amendment obviating the need for them to meet the individual demonstration requirement. In addition, the CAA fast-tracks the amount of time these specific categories need to physically be in India in order to be eligible to apply for Indian citizenship.”

Interestingly, America’s Lautenberg and Specter Amendment seeks to give persecuted refugees a faster avenue to citizenship. It was first enacted in 1990 to facilitate resettlement of Jews from the former Soviet Union, a move that came as a relief for tens of thousands of Jews.

In 2004, the Lautenberg Amendment was amended to add a new provision called “Specter Amendment” that brought into its ambit persecuted religious minorities in other countries such as Jews, Christians, and Baha’is from Iran (specifically religious minorities) for whom less evidence would be needed to prove refugee status.

One hopes Nadella would have no objection to the CAA that merely accords a similar status to religiously persecuted people from India’s neighbouring Islamic nations by creating ‘positive discrimination’ to give them some extra benefits. Nadella’s comments show the depth of the misinformation campaign around the very humane legislation.

Historian Ramachandra Guha, a vocal critic of the Narendra Modi government, castigated Indian “IT czars” for not joining the chorus with Nadella.

Maybe they are better informed than the Microsoft chief?

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Updated Date: Jan 14, 2020 16:04:31 IST