Did Satya Nadella really support illegal immigration into India?

Satya Nadella | Courtesy: Microsoft

Satya Nadella, the Indian-born CEO of Microsoft, has found himself at the center of a citizenship-related debate in India after he reportedly compared his situation in the US to that of Bangladeshi immigrants in India.

However, a careful reading of Satya Nadella’s comments reveal that he did not support illegal immigration into India, but did call for a more ‘liberal’ approach on the subject of immigration.

“I’m not saying that any country doesn’t and should not care about its own national security,” Nadella said in response to a question from BuzzFeed News Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith at a Microsoft event in Manhattan on Monday.

“Borders do exist and they’re real and people will think about it. I mean, after all, immigration is an issue in this country. It’s an issue in Europe and it’s an issue in India,” Nadella said.

He then went on to say that even if a country wants to set up strong borders, it can still have a ‘liberal’ immigration policy, and pointed to the example of the United States — his current home.

“But the approach that one takes to deal with what is immigration, who are immigrants and minority groups, that sensibility…that’s where I hope these liberal values that we’ve kind of come to..,” he said, indicating that economic growth depends on a certain degree of freedom given to people to move around.

“Capitalism, quite frankly, has only thrived because of market forces and liberal values — both acting [together], and I hope India figures it out.”

From his comments, he seemed to be nudging India to adopt a liberal immigration policy like that of the United States, where a whopping 14% of the population are immigrants (born outside).

Illustrating the point, he said his life has been shaped by two “amazing American things” — American technology and the country’s immigration policy: “..its 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.”


However, he did state that he was sad about the controversy set off by a new set of amended citizenship rules in India.

The country passed amendments to its tight citizenship rules a few days ago, inserting the names of certain religious communities in certain countries as eligible for full citizenship even if they entered India illegally prior to 2014. The new rule has been marketed by the government as a compassionate legislation intended to give asylum to those fleeing religious persecution in nearby countries.

However, the amendments have been widely criticized and opposed on the streets by activists, students and concerned citizens who see them as a dilution of the secular principles on which India is founded.

Protesters point out that the new rule offers citizenship to only a handful of communities instead of all persecuted groups in these countries.

The amended law, they point out, offers citizenship to Hindus, Buddhists and Christians who entered India from Pakistan before 2014, but not to atheists or Ahmediyas — an Islamic sect subjected to widespread persecution in Pakistan.

Like the protesters, Nadella too seems upset about the distinction, and said religious barriers were never allowed to get in the way of normal life in the India he grew up in.

“I grew up in a city [Hyderabad], I always felt it was a great place to grow up. We celebrated [Id?], we celebrated Christmas, Diwali — all three festivals that are big for us. I think what is happening is sad, primarily as sort of someone who grew up there,” he said.

Nadella said he hopes India adopts a liberal immigration policy so that someone from outside the country — such as Bangladesh — can come and become the head of Infosys, one of India’s top IT companies.

“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.”

The question & answer, tweeted by BuzzFeed Editor Ben Smith

The comments have sparked controversy, especially the last part where Nadella ostensibly compares his status — as a highly educated, highly qualified, legal immigrant in the US — to that of illegal, undocumented and mostly low-skilled laborers from Bangladesh.

“How literate need to be educated”, tweeted BJP leader and lawyer Meenakshi Lekhi. “How about granting these opportunities to Syrian Muslims instead of Yezidis in USA,” she added, trying to drive home the difference between dominant groups and persecuted groups within a country.

However, from a perusal of Nadella’s comments in their entirety, it would seem that Nadella was not rooting for an illegal immigrant to become the head of Infosys, but for India to have a more liberal attitude to immigrants that would open the doors to a legal immigrant to become the head of a company like Infosys.

Nadella also clarified in a statement issued by his company later that he was not questioning India’s right to define its borders, ensure its security or to have an immigration policy. “My hope is for an India where an immigrant can aspire to found a prosperous start-up or lead a multinational corporation benefiting Indian society and the economy at large,” he said.