On a chilly December morning in 2019, just days before Christmas, a small group of Indian students in Grenoble, France, planned to hold a gathering. This event was intended to show solidarity with the protestors back home in India who had taken to the streets over citizenship concerns following the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act and the subsequent police brutality.

Another group of Indian students warned the organisers that such a gathering would tarnish India’s image abroad and threatened to report them to the police if they didn’t abandon their plans. The irony of threatening police action in a country where protests are jokingly called a national pastime was not lost on anyone involved. Moreover, nobody could quite fathom just how brittle a country’s image needed to be for it to be jettisoned by a mere dozen students meeting in a park.

As planned, they did meet. They spoke dispassionately about resistance, read poems as well as the preamble of the Indian Constitution. In so doing, the students proclaimed their unabashed love for their country.

I was at the gathering that day for the same, simple reason. I love my country. And it is that same love that brings me back to India now – this time to vote. Protesting and voting, after all, are two sides of the same, multi-faceted democracy.

For many people living away from their home country, the sensation of being split is familiar: the body resides in one place, while the heart remains in another. I am no exception. I have lived in three different countries, yet I have always considered India my home.

The year I left, trust in the ruling United Progressive Alliance had bottomed out and a new government was voted to power on the promise of economic development. Since then, as I have moved from one country to another, conversations on home and land, on homeland, on who has the right to which land, have come to dominate the geo-political landscape, to become the zeitgeist.

During this period, India, much like the rest of the world, has spun around its axis like a restive top, wobbling and stumbling, repeatedly falling, while causing significant damage along its circuit.

In this light, it seemed natural that the dozen-odd Indian students in Grenoble thought it their duty to step out and step up on that cold December morning to express their avowed disapproval of policies that would make a significant portion of their compatriots fear losing their right to their own land. That show of solidarity from far away was so simple that even though I am tempted to add “yet so immensely powerful”, I will resist because the simplicity of that small symbolic act, unnoticed by the world, was precisely what made it so immensely powerful.

The diaspora is usually seen as an amorphous community – and perhaps it is – spreading out like clouds, shifting shapes and forms, belonging to, yet often singing out of tune in, the symphony of the native sky. Our neither-here-nor-thereness makes us tread, quite literally, a tricky territory. Does our participation in a general election even matter then?

I put the question to the wise old master of our times, ChatGPT. It reassured me that my vote did indeed count for several reasons including my ability to influence policy, my connection to the homeland, and most importantly, my capacity to strengthen democracy.

As soon as the broad election months were announced, my two friends – one in Sweden and another in the US – began discussing possible polling dates in our respective cities. Relying on past patterns, and a wing and a prayer, I booked my tickets from the UK, where I live. However, the election season was extended, and my city’s vote was scheduled after my return. Fortunately, I could change my tickets for free and had the flexibility to make the trip.

The Palestinian American poet Hala Alyan wrote recently: “The thing about diaspora is that the option of looking away is a trick mirror – doing it is never a relief.” I know this to be true because that trick mirror came to haunt me these past years if, afforded by distance, I dared to look away even briefly. And so I watched.

I watched from that very distance when people got murdered, one after the other, by hungry mobs of cow vigilantes. I watched when millions of lives got upended when overnight the government declared a substantial amount of money invalid.

When Covid came, I watched with utter helplessness, as streets turned into crematoria, sidewalks filled with exhausted migrants on their long march home, people begged for hospital beds, for ambulances, for oxygen cylinders, for breath, breath, just a few more lungsful of breath.

I watched, too, when our farmers spilled to the streets to demand basic rights and got beaten up in return. I watched and watched and watched it all from a cool remove. What had my country become?

Nostalgia is both the NRI’s biggest enemy and closest friend, and I indulge in it only in private. I know very well that the India I left was no perfect angel – because which country is a perfect angel? But the more my country changed with time, the more I began to long for it, the more I began to criticise it.

One day, I read something by James Baldwin that percolated into my skin: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticiSe her perpetually.”

Weren’t then my complete disappointment in India, my constant censure of it, my untiring nostalgia for that faraway sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic Republic committed to the now hoary concepts of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity, mere offerings of love?

You may now ask, as you rightly must: why don’t you live here? I ask myself this question all the time too. But personal reasons (in my case, marriage) compel people to embark on personal journeys that cannot and should not be questioned. Reasons notwithstanding, when have distances and time zones, boundaries and borders, come in the way of feeling love, longing and loss?

Diasporic identity is about rootlessness, rooted restlessness, restless rootedness. It is about always having one foot on the other side of the pond. This year, I made the journey back home to vote because I felt compelled to.

I have come to vote, bearing in mind Nehru’s words when he said that is the responsibility of the majority to make the minority feel safe; Tagore’s words when he said that people would truly gain their India when they realise that a country is not greater than the ideals of humanity; Ambedkar’s words when he said democracy is not merely a form a government but primarily a mode of associated living and conjoint communicated experience.

What a mad and radical experiment the birth of this country was – to corral together such diverse people from an impoverished landmass and awaken them at the stroke of the midnight hour to life and freedom. For doomsters it was and is destined to fail, this project. But for others, it is this idea of India as an inclusive, pluralistic place, this symbol, this image, that is worth saving, with a little ink on the finger.