On the evening of February 22, two men of Indian origin, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, 32, and Alok Madasani, 32, met at Austin’s Bar and Grill in Olathe, Kansas in Midwestern US for a customary drink after work. What followed was deeply tragic.
According to bystanders, 51-year-old Adam Purinton opened fire on the two men – who he mistook to be Middle Eastern – after yelling “Get out of my country”. Kuchibhotla was killed in the incident, while Madasani and Ian Grillot, an American who had attempted to intervene, sustained injuries.
The reactions to the incident, which is being viewed as a hate crime, have been perplexing. The White House labelled the attack as “disturbing,” however, press secretary Sean Spicer brushed aside any correlation between the incident and the Trump presidency’s rhetoric of Islamophobia and immigrant-phobia.
Meanwhile, US president Donald Trump had nothing to say in the days following the incident, finally breaking his silence after eight days in his address to the US Congress. His initial reticence is in stark contrast to that of his predecessor, Barack Obama, who, after the killing of six people at a gurudwara in Wisconsin in 2013, issued a statement saying, “As we mourn this loss which took place at a house of worship, we are reminded how much our country has been enriched by Sikhs, who are a part of our broader American family.”
Considering Trump ascended to the presidency with promises of white supremacy, it was not surprising that he did not immediately condemn the murder of a person of colour by a white person.
On the other hand, what is surprising is that the Narendra Modi-led Indian government, which has been pushing a particular brand of nationalism on everyone has had nothing to say about the attack.
One can only guess the reasons for the prime minister’s silence on the incident.
Modi was one of the first world leaders to receive a call from the White House after Trump’s inauguration, ahead of China’s Xi Jinping, Japan’s Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Modi has visited the US several times before the Trump presidency and has attempted to present India as an attractive site for investment, aid and US exports of clean energy and defence technology.
On its part, the US has endorsed India for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, much to the displeasure of China. One would surmise that Modi would like to maintain the upswing in US-India relations under Trump’s presidency. Modi is also possibly worried about Trump’s undeclared policy on H-1B visas, which may cause adjustment problems for India’s tech industry and put several young Indian professionals out of jobs.
Nonetheless, what good is the status of India-US relations, the tech companies, or even the visas of Indian professionals if persons of Indian origin are shot and killed in public spaces in the US?
Moreover, Trump is considerably popular among the Hindu rightwing within the Indian diaspora, a significant part of Modi’s support base.
Like Trump, Modi too has been pushing ‘alternate facts’ of his own. For example, during the ‘California textbook controversy,’ Hindutva activists insisted that it was the Muslim rulers who had introduced the caste system into India. Had it not been for the intervention of independent scholars and the Indian American Muslim Council, it is possible that a generation of school children in California would have grown up studying ‘alternate facts’ instead of South Asian history.
During Trump’s inauguration, a Hindu priest was among the spiritual leaders who conferred their blessings on him. The Hindutva support for Trump being “good for India” relies on the understanding that India is a ‘Hindu rashtra’, and that both Trump and the Hindu rashtra have Islamophobia in common.
What the Hindutva groups do not realise is that to a white supremacist, Islamophobia and xenophobia extend not just to Muslims but also to nearly any non-white person and anyone from West Asia, North Africa and even Latin America.
Tapan Ghosh of the Hindu Samhati may advise Hindu Indian-Americans to wear tilaks and bindis to distinguish themselves from Muslims, but white supremacists are equally suspicious of ‘dot Indians’.
In 1987, a group called Dotbusters in Jersey City, specifically attacked and even killed those wearing bindis. Till 1946, the US judicial system considered “Hindus too brunette to vote here”. US military veteran and Indian immigrant Bhagat Singh Thind had struggled for years during the 1920s to gain citizenship claiming to be of Aryan descent and therefore Caucasian and “white”. However, the US Supreme Court concluded in United States vs Bhagat Singh Thind, 1923, that the term “Aryan” indicated a “common linguistic root buried in remotely ancient soil”, therefore “inadequate to prove racial origin.”
Regardless of whether Hindus are white or not, more of interest to Hindutva supporters than to anyone else, for most white supremacists, indeed most white persons, all South Asians are non-white, regardless of their religion. In a way we are all united in that we were colonised by Europeans and have ever since been the subjects of hate of the white supremacists.
Finally, most Modi supporters in the Indian diaspora believe that they are the ‘good’ immigrants and that if they keep their heads down, work hard, maintain valid visas, pay taxes and vie for US citizenship, they will escape racial hate. However, the unprovoked shooting in Kansas shows that immigrants can no longer pit themselves as good vs bad.
Kuchibhotla was a model immigrant. According to his wife, he loved the US and believed that hard work would bring his acceptance into US society. Nonetheless, it made no difference to Purinton whether his victim was a good or a bad immigrant.
As of late, several other ‘good immigrants’ have faced racial discrimination. An elderly Indian gentleman, otherwise a low flight risk and TSA pre approved, was strip-searched at the Washington Dulles airport in January. During the presidential campaign, a young Ohio-based couple of Pakistani origin was asked to leave a plane simply because the woman was finishing a phone call to her parents in her own language. In May 2016, an Italian professor of economics was asked to leave a plane merely because he was solving a system of differential equations which his co-passenger mistook as Arabic. Clearly, even white persons can face discrimination arising from Islamophobia.
For the Indian community in Kansas, the issue is deeply personal regardless of religion. According to the Kansas City Star, hundreds of persons have attended condolence meetings. Crowdsourcing accounts have raised over $940,000 for Kuchibhotla’s funeral expenses and to meet the medical expenses of Madasani and Grillot.
Now that Trump has broken his silence on the issue, Modi must publicly pressurise him to ensure that the perpetrator should be brought to justice; condemn all racially motivated crimes and discrimination on the basis of race, religion or sex during his presidency; and express condolences and support to Kuchibhotla’s family as well as support to the families of Madasani and Grillot. But before that, Modi must acknowledge and condemn the Kansas shooting himself.