Tulsi Gabbard, the Citizenship Bill and the New Indian Identity

That the Samoan Gabbard's Hindu religion excites Indian Americans more than other Indian-origin leaders reflects a narrow mindset.

A new generation of Indian American politicians are emerging on the US political scene. Several of them hold posts in city politics around the country, and two have become state governors – Bobby Jindal and Nimrata ‘Nikki Haley’. Ro Khanna is a Congressman and Kamala Harris a Senator. She has now declared she is running for the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate.

These four, the most high profile Indian Americans on the political scene, are of varied Indian heritage. Jindal’s family is originally from Haryana, Haley is a Sikh, Khanna a Punjabi Hindu and Harris is the child of an Tamilian mother and a Jamaican father.

By all accounts, Harris foregrounds her Caribbean ancestry in public life. Jindal and Haley, at different stages, converted to Christianity and are not very prone to emphasising their ‘Indianness’. Harris sings in the choir at a Baptist church.

Jindal proved to be a disappointment for many Indian Americans who initially felt very proud of one of their own rising to the top of state politics. But he did not show much interest in consorting with them and played down his ethnic identity. He dismissed the tendency to use hyphenated identities, such as Indian-American; even the liberals among the community were angry.

Not appealing to conservative Indian Americans

The conservatives among Hindu Indian Americans, therefore have not really taken to any of these politicians. For them, none of them are ‘Indian’ enough – they may look like one of them, but they tend to be fully Americanised and don’t spend too much political capital on wooing Indians. They don’t appear at community events on special days, wearing ‘ethnic clothes’ and don’t speak about the greatness of India. Nor have they particularly fought for India’s interests in Capitol Hill. Besides, converting to Christianity puts them beyond the pale.

As for Harris, in normal circumstances, a presidential hopeful would have excited desis to no end, but she talks a lot about black activism, hardly something that would endear her to conservatives. Her Tamilian mother married a Jamaican she met in Berkley and took part in the radical politics of the ‘60s. After the parents separated, her mother raised the two daughters. Harris, a lawyer and legal officer, has advocated many liberal causes, though the left has criticised some of her policy positions.

Kamala Harris. Credit: Reuters

Enter Tulsi Gabbard

So, given this paucity of the ‘perfect’ Indian American politician, who does the Indian community turn to? Tulsi Gabbard, Congresswoman from Hawaii, and another presidential hopeful, has emerged as an unlikely favourite. She is not remotely ‘ethnically’ Indian. Her father is of Samoan and European ancestry and her mother of European descent, which would, in the Indian scheme of things, make her a ‘gora’ (a word quite commonly used among Indians in the west.)

But at the age of 14, following in her mother’s footsteps, she became a Hindu and has identified herself as such. (She later took her oath on the Bhagvad Gita.) Not just that, she has actively wooed sections of the Hindu community and shown support for Narendra Modi – she said denying Modi a visa after the Gujarat riots of 2002 was a ‘huge blunder’.

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This has endeared her to his huge fan base among People of Indian Origin (PIOs) in the US, many of whom are wealthy and highly educated. Gabbard has tried to distance herself from the more extreme Hindutva leaning elements in the US, but that has not impressed critics who feel she panders to the Hindu right.

The stance of Indian Americans who support her indicates a stark reality – religion now trumps ethnicity. Being of Sikh, Haryanvi or Tamilian origin in the US does not make you an Indian-American; only Hindus, brown or white doesn’t matter, need apply. It is to Tulsi Gabbard that the donations will go; in the first flush of enthusiasm, Bobby Jindal got a lot of money from the community but that fervor has died down.

An attitude also reflected in India

This attitude is being played out in a different way in India at the moment. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which has raised a storm in Assam and other North-Eastern states, in short recognises Hindus as worthy of refugee status in India, but not Muslims, who may be escaping the same dangers. Thus, a refugee from Bangladesh could be turned away based on their religion; that both are of the same ethnic stock and their forebears would have been part of a united, pre-partition India is of no consequence – their religion matter more than their ethnicity.

In the 1940s in South Africa and then later in the 1970s in Uganda, India refused to take active interest in the discrimination by local regimes against the Indian community. They were seen as citizens of that country and the Indian governments of the time refused to be drawn into the internal affairs of either country.

That policy continued for decades, till, in the 1990s, the Indian political and diplomatic establishment began reaching out to NRIs and PIOs, especially to those who were successful, high-profile, influential or just rich. The ‘Pravasi Bharatiya’ jamborees became clubby affairs for a gathering of the privileged; the working classes of the Middle East or the US remained ignored.

Still, there was official recognition of the Indian ‘diaspora’ (the word originally refers to Jews who were dispersed outside Israel), a recognition that some sort of connection needed to be established, even if to woo their dollars, skills or influence. In many of the countries where Indians have migrated and settled, they take their micro-identities quite seriously, congregating on the basis of religion, community and caste (and in some cases, also villages). But India, officially at least, was non-discriminatory, welcoming people of all faith.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at Madison Square Garden in New York, during his visit to the United States, September 28, 2014. Credit: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

A narrow and bigoted definition

Hindutva forces in India have long posited a narrow – and bigoted – definition of who an ‘Indian’ is. The constant invocation of Athithi Devo Bhava – the guest is king – as part of Indian culture masks the deep hatred against minorities, and Muslims in particular. For the Sanghis and their followers, Muslims are outsiders – they either came as invaders or, if they have lived here for generations, converts from Hinduism. Either way, goes the Hindutva claim, Muslims are aliens, not belonging to the land, and if they want to continue living here, it should be as second class citizens.

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The Modi government has turned this prejudice into policy. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, if implemented, will allow Hindu migrants but not Muslim ones. Thus, should the situation arise, Tulsi Gabbard, who has no Indian background, will get in, but Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, whose ancestors migrated from Lucknow to Pakistan (and then to London), may not. Gabbard is the pride of Hindutva types in the US, but Khan, the elected representative of one of the great cities of the world, is not.

Assam and the other northeastern states are up in arms about the Bill – they don’t want an influx of outsiders from Bangladesh – but this warped idea of Indianness has frightening implications for Indians everywhere. Taken to its logical – and sinister – end, it could end up creating a new class of sub-citizens, whose rights could be curtailed based on their religion.