Indian Americans are increasingly occupying an important place in political conversations both in the US and India. Being one of the fastest growing groups in the US – the third largest after Mexican and Chinese Americans – they have lately been targets of anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions. There have been policy proposals such as cutting down of H-1B visas, imposing new restrictions and reducing the number of immigrants entering through family reunification visas, the last one reiterated by President Donald Trump in his first State of the Union address.
Immigration enforcement agencies have also deliberately targeted small businesses like 7-Eleven that tend to employ South Asians with precarious visa status. Furthermore, continuing hate violence against South Asian and Muslim Americans has put the community on edge. The killing of Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Olathe, Kansas in 2017 reflected a tragic consequence of anti-immigrant rhetoric that has touched the community.
However, even while Indian Americans, like other immigrant communities, seem to be at the receiving end of the current anti-immigrant rhetoric, they also occupy a unique place as an ethnic group with the highest median household income and a significant number of people with professional degrees.
Indian Americans are often portrayed, alongside other Asian Americans, as model minorities. The label of model minority works to essentially stigmatise other minorities – African Americans and Latinos, in particular – and delegitimise the latter’s demands for racial equality.
The model minority discourse not only pits one minority group against the other but also does the work of homogenising the Indian-American community that is internally differentiated along multiple axes such as religion, class, occupation, immigration status, caste, sexuality and language that produces distinct experiences of privilege and marginalisation in American society as well as within the community. My book, Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans, engages with these internal differentiations to understand the political lives of South Asian immigrants in the US.
The internal cleavages within the Indian-American community were reflected in the mobilisation, or lack thereof, in response to a prolonged phase of racial hostility in the US, initiated after the 9/11 attacks, against South Asians alongside Arabs and Middle Eastern populations. The racial hostility triggered by the 9/11 attacks impacted Indian Americans of all religious backgrounds. In fact, the first two hate killings that took place after 9/11 attacks were of Balbir Singh Sodhi and Vasudev Patel, both Indian immigrants of Sikh and Hindu faith respectively.
There was a lumping of all South Asians on the basis of their appearance, as outsider, suspicious and threatening creating a possible basis for a unified response. However, the reactions to the ongoing racial hostility broke down along the lines of religious identity. There was a distinct pattern of mobilisation whereby sections of Hindu American community positioned itself in ways that communicated a distancing from the targeted Muslim identity. In the interviews that I conducted for my book in 2006-07, such sentiments were expressed openly. A Hindu Indian-American community leader explained why a mobilisation against hate violence that followed 9/11 attacks was not unified and strong.
He said: “Hindus must be supporting Sikhs on that sort of campaign but I don’t see any way that Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshi can meet. Religion is a big divide – it really is. It is not only a feeling, but it is there in practical life.” The statement underlined the fault lines within the community that spoke to how different communities were responding to that moment of targeting.
The distancing from Muslims was not happening only among Hindu Americans. Similar dynamics was also playing out within Sikh community as well. A Muslim Indian-American community leader put it very directly: “I have seen Sikhs with posters saying we are not Muslims. It was shocking actually, but I guess I could understand, they were the ones targeted most. So that way everybody tried to distance themselves from Muslims.” The Sikh American community produced a remarkable mobilisation in the post-9/11 period and some of the most visible and influential Sikh organisations were formed in this phase.
Importantly, most of these Sikh organisations moved away from the early reactions from the community that was encapsulated in the expression “we are not Muslims.” Organisations such as Sikh Coalition, even while focused on Sikh religious identity in their organisational work, strived to create mobilisation that was in close solidarity with Muslims and others who were targeted.
This was in sharp contrast to the exclusivist responses that emerged from some of the major Hindu American organisations such as Hindu American Foundation. These cleavages and distinctive mobilisations, notwithstanding progressive South Asian groups such as South Asian Americans Leading Together, Desis Rising Up and Moving and South Asian Network who worked toward broader pan-ethnic mobilisation, shape the political landscape of the Indian-American community as they navigate a harsher political reality marked by increased xenophobia and enhanced anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric in the US today.
Indian Americans, even as they navigate the internal cleavages and fractured mobilisations described above, have shown a remarkable electoral convergence in response to a polarisation within American politics where the Republican Party has increasingly aligned itself to anti-minority and anti-immigrant rhetoric and shown a complete lack of inclusion for non-Christian minority religious communities.
Indian Americans, along with other South Asian communities, have turned increasingly to the Democratic Party in their voting patterns in the last three presidential election cycles. They voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama, in 2008 and 2012 and repeated the pattern in the 2016 presidential election. Approximately 77% Indian Americans voted for Hillary Clinton, according to an authoritative post-election survey conducted by National Asian American Survey (NAAS).
This overwhelming support for the Democratic candidate in 2016 among the Indian American electorate happened despite the emergence of outfits such as Hindus for Trump. The latter group deployed anti-Muslim talking points from Hindu nationalist political discourse in India and also evoked Narendra Modi to sway Hindu Indian American voters. The convergence of Indian Americans in support of the Democratic Party candidate, despite internal contestations within the community, points to a deeply racialised party system in the US.
To put the 2016 elections in the transnational political field, many have wondered what it means for the Indian-American community to vote against Donald Trump despite his campaign deploying Hindu nationalist symbols and framings to attract Hindu American voters. A particularly visible clip that went viral included Trump’s attempt to adapt the winning Modi line in one of the Hindus for Trump event – ‘Ab ki baar, Trump sarkar’.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that it would be a stretch to interpret the spurning of Trump by Indian American voters in 2016 presidential election as a sign of of their disinterest in Hindu nationalist politics in India as represented by Modi. These are context specific decisions that speak to particular social locations and available political choices. In fact, some of the Hindu Indian American groups with pronounced Hindu nationalist sympathies have often indicated their Democratic Party sympathies as they have tried to create space and acceptance for Hindus as a minority religion within the multicultural discourse in the US.
The theme of unity has been a major staple of diasporic discourse but political contestations within the Indian American communities over the meanings and directions of the “nation” (home country) and how particular groups are placed therein suggest a different reality.
To take a more recent example, after coming to power in 2014, Modi, did two major events in US – in New York City in 2014 and San Francisco in 2015 – that mobilised Indian Americans at a scale never seen before. The organisers pulled out all the stops to bring large crowds of Indian Americans for these two events. Indeed, the events were impressive, creating a narrative of his popularity among Indian Americans.
However, these two events were also meant to erase the painful public memory of visa denial to Modi by the US for his alleged role, as the chief minister of Gujarat, in the pogrom of 2002 which resulted in killings of thousands of Muslims at the hands of Hindu mobs as well as state police.
The visa denial, which lasted for nine years and was rescinded only after he became the prime minister in 2014 was deeply reflective of the internal contestations within Indian-American community which is majority Hindu but has a sizable Muslim, Christian and Sikh population. In fact, the proportion of these minority religious communities in Indian American population is higher than their share in India.
The visa denial of Modi in 2005 was preceded and followed by sustained mobilisations by Indian American Muslims and Christians alongside other secular and progressive Indian Americans who were extremely worried about the attacks on religious minorities in India and the fate of religious tolerance there.
It was their lobbying with members of Congress and other American institutions and forging of alliances that kept the issue of religious violence and discrimination into the political limelight. The diasporic narratives, both in the US and India, often paint the Indian-American community with a broad brush suggesting a unified community. A closer look, however, suggests this narrative to be only a partial truth that homogenises a community that is deeply divided over the future of Indian politics and society and their own challenges in the US political system.
Sangay Mishra is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Drew University in New Jersey, United States. He is the author of Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian American (University of Minnesota Press, 2016 and Sage India, 2017) Read excerpt on Aerogram.