Houston (Texas, US): Last Sunday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump addressed a gathering of more than 50,000 Indian-Americans at the NRG Stadium in Houston. But there was a smaller crowd outside the stadium – and they weren’t pleased with the event or the two leaders addressing it. The Wire spoke to some of them, to find out why they were there and more.
Abhinaya Govindan, 22
Hasan Minhaj wasn’t the only stand-up comic who didn’t attend the Howdy, Modi! event at NRG stadium despite having a ticket. Except, while in Minhaj’s case, he wasn’t allowed in, Abhinaya Govindan (who goes by the stage name ‘Abby’ Govindan) chose to forego the event at which her parents were “distinguished guests”, instead attending the protest outside.
Born and brought up in the US, besides her stand-up, she is a newly minted psychology graduate, having studied at Fordham University in New York (which, incidentally, is also where Donald Trump went to college for two years). Her parents hail from Chennai, and she has visited India with her family many times.
On what brought her to the protest:
“I was brought up Hindu, so, growing up, I went to Vedic Heritage class here every other Sunday. The India I learnt about was a peaceful one. My parents told me that Hinduism was a very peaceful religion, not one of violence, and had concepts like ahimsa etc. But around last year, I was forced to call into question some of those beliefs because I learnt about caste-violence. I was 21 at the time- which is 21 years too late! And I made an effort to learn about religious violence in India, I just didn’t realize how often in the recent past they’ve been stoked by those who identify as Hindu nationalists.”
On what prompted that realisation:
“So I have a large following on Twitter because of my stand-up gigs, and I had tweeted a joke which centred around Hinduism. The joke went along the lines of “in Hinduism there aren’t any rigid rules as compared to other religions and how it’s very nice to be Hindu, in that it’s a lax religion..” – and some people called me out for that, saying it was only “lax” for me because I’m an upper caste Hindu and that it can be traumatic for those who do identify as Hindu but are lower-caste, and even for other religious minorities in India.
I’d never heard of caste violence before (I knew about caste of course). Over the years, my parents had told me that it was actually the Brahmins who were a persecuted minority in India and I believed them and then later I found out that a lot of Brahmin kids are told the same thing growing up. A lot of my Brahmin friends were certainly told the same thing, that their parents had come to the US to survive.
And then I looked into it, researched online, and it turned out that wasn’t the case at all. I realised they are, by and large, pretty much privileged, and they have every single advantage that a group of people could have, and yet many Brahmin parents in America peddle the myth to their children that Brahmins immigrated from Indian largely because an affirmative action (reservation) law that gave more opportunities to lower-caste people. Now that myth has shattered for me, I’m still coming to terms with reality and learning and un-learning new things everyday.”
“When Narendra Modi was elected in 2014, my parents were enthusiastic about him and told me that the BJP was the best political party for India’s progress. That said, my parents vote for Democrats in the US. They voted for Hillary in 2016.“
On Indian-Americans, and the apparent paradox that NRIs vote liberally in the US, but seem supportive of right-wing nationalism in India:
“It’s really easy to see the ways in which you’re oppressed. So, it was easy for my parents to be liberal Americans since Republicans – especially in Texas – were associated with racism against non-white people. Also, my mom’s a physician. She believes everyone should have access to healthcare, it’s a basic human right. So she’s obviously liberal.
Like I said, it’s easy to say ways in which you’re oppressed. Here in America, Indians are often the target of racist stereotypes, racist practices in hiring, and even racist violence. I was made fun of as a kid for being Indian – so it was easy to talk about ways in which I was victimised in an oppressive system, but I think it is harder to talk about ways in which you are complicit in the system, in which you’re the oppressor. It’s harder to look into the mirror and see all the ways in which you’re upholding an oppressive system.
And I think this is what a lot of upper-caste Indian Hindu kids fail to do: self-reflection – since we tend to be a part of the upper middle-class in the united states. But I guess the rose-tinted glasses shattered for me, and I don’t want India to be this and Hinduism to be this. I don’t want it to be a source of trauma for so many millions, I want it to be more equitable. I do believe in the core tenets of Hinduism, karma etc, I’ve struggled on and off with this, with my religion, and I want to mould it into a religion for me that I feel comfortable associating with. I guess I’m still reconciling with it.”
On the tendency of some in the NRI diaspora to dismiss such protests as merely Pakistani propaganda and insinuate that only Muslims (and Sikhs who are Khalistan sympathisers) turn up at such protests:
“It’s obviously a lie, as you can see here. But how would it change anything, even if that were true? I hope we can get to a point where we don’t need non-Muslims to vouch for the rights of Kashmiris and Muslims in India. This is a protest for and by humanity.”
“I’ve had more conversations with my parents about these issues, and my mother has revised some of her opinions. Recently, she said had she been allowed to vote in this year’s election in India, she would have voted against the BJP. Also, I recently joined an NY-based organisation called Sadhana which is a coalition of progressive Hindus- they identify with Hinduism, but they fight against caste-violence, against anti-Muslim sentiment in India. I am looking forward to learning and doing more with them.”
Aasif (name changed), 28
Born and brought up in Kanpur, Aasif moved to the US to study and now works as an engineer at oil major Schlumberger in Houston.
On why he was at the protest:
“The Modi government is suppressing the Kashmiris, and he and the RSS seems to have designs to make India a Hindu nationalist state, which is obviously not okay.
I don’t know much about what’s going on with the Dalits in India (pointing to the message on the T-shirt he was wearing) since I lead a busy life here and haven’t been able to educate myself on this adequately, but I’m very aware of the campaign against Muslims in India- which directly affects me and my family. I’m hoping that organisations within the US, in Houston and in New York City can take it further during Modi’s visits this week.”
Sarah Philips, 21
Born and brought up in Houston, Sarah is an organiser with a social justice group called AZAAD Austin (which had many members present at the protest) and is also a fourth year undergraduate student pursuing Asian-American studies at the University of Texas in Austin. Her family hails from Kerala, her grandmothers having immigrated to the US to find nursing jobs. She recently wrote an article titled “Trump and Modi are two sides of the same coin” for CNN.
On what brought her to the protest:
“Modi, and the persecution of religious minorities during his rule. Not just the way it has been happening through “legal means” and through the government machinery, but how his rhetoric has spurred on violent mobs who take care of his business for him. I think it’s a dangerous time to be a minority in India, and I hold Modi responsible for that. He has clear ties with the RSS, he’s proud of the person that he is and I believe he is a criminal.”
On what shaped that view
“The knowledge of Gujarat, 2002. In fact, “no matter what you do, we won’t forget 2002” is one of our chants at this protest. No matter what he says, we will not forget that. Just because he’s trying to whitewash what he’s doing with events like these that bring out certain groups of people and fundraise around those things, doesn’t mean we can forget what happened in 2002.”
On the contradiction between many members of the Indian diaspora supporting Modi and yet being apprehensive about Trump:
“I think when you face racism in the United States, it becomes natural to cling to your country of origin, where you come from and I think that is problematic because it doesn’t speak to everyone who’s Indian. If you’re Hindu and privileged enough to be upper caste, clinging to Hindu nationalism which Modi represents makes sense in a pragmatic, self-serving way…and that’s where the contradiction kicks in. When you’re separated from India, you can realise Trump’s policies have a racist bent, but when you are privileged in the South Asian community and the Indian community, then you hang on to that privilege. Personally for me, though, I’m brown in the United States and I’m also a religious minority in India. So that obviously informs my sensitivities and my politics.”
On some NRIs citing “economic development” during the last five years as the basis of their support for Modi:
“’Economic development’ is the rhetoric of occupation. You can try to justify anything, any unfairness, hiding behind the veneer of so-called economic progress. An analogy here in the US would be some right-wing supporters saying “Republicans have cut the deficit”, have cut taxes etc. – it is appealing to a certain group. The NRI’s themselves, have been selected by the American system because they’re privileged, because they were able to get an education. Even I’m here in the US because of my family’s privilege. They are here because they were able to study a certain thing. They are privileged enough to be able to just talk about economics and dismiss human rights concerns since they themselves haven’t been affected by those. That appeals to a certain class of people, which the NRIs heavily represent.”
On who she will be supporting in the 2020 US presidential election:
“I’m rooting for the most progressive candidate possible. Not a Republican, obviously. I’ll be voting in the Democratic primary. That said, personally, I don’t believe in worshipping politicians, whether one’s a progressive or a conservative. Across all boards, look at what they’ve done. For example, in the case of Modi, there are Democrats here (like Tulsi Gabbard) who are supporting him. Being a Democrat is not the answer to everything, you have to look at what they’re actually doing. Sylvester Turner is a Democrat. He’s the mayor of Houston, the most diverse city in America, and today he’s going to support Modi and Trump? So you really have to look at their policies, and what they stand for – and not just what they talk about.”
Born in Ludhiana, Ruby identifies as a practising Sikh. She moved to the US at a young age and works in human resources for a power company in northwest Houston.
On what brought her to the protest:
“The fact that they’ve taken away the rights of Indian citizens in Kashmir. I feel there’s no reason for such sweeping measures- even if there are some terrorist cells within that region, it doesn’t mean every single person in the region has to pay the price.”
Her views on Modi:
“I am aware about his time as a leader in Gujarat and the riots that he essentially orchestrated.”
On the fact that Modi was cleared by the courts of charges of complicity in the riots of 2002:
“I’m aware of that. But as a Sikh, some of whose family members bore the brunt of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, I also know how the judiciary in India is often hamstrung by its reliance on the executive for collecting evidence. And we all know quite well that members of the police and other law enforcement agencies in India often have vested interests in not collecting evidence against political leaders who appointed them to their posts, or could help them in the future, or out of fear of transfers, etc. So as we have seen in the case of the Congress leaders who led mobs and gave inflammatory speeches in 1984, it took years to convict some and cases are still going on against some of them because police filed to – or did not want to – collect evidence in a timely manner.
That does not mean those leaders did not commit those crimes. Try telling the victims’ families that. The same goes for Modi. We already know there are policemen who have been persecuted for speaking out about how he allowed the riots to happen. Even at this protest, I saw banners about it. So yes, I strongly believe he could have stepped in and stopped the violence, but didn’t because he knew he stood to gain politically. And he did. He won the election in 2002 only because of the religious polarisation as a result of the riots. I’ve heard his speeches, and you don’t need to be a genius to connect the dots.
What do you say to those who say that Modi has brought economic progress to India?
“I’m not 100% sure that’s true. Recently I saw a news report which said that since he’s taken over there’s actually been some decline in the Indian economy. I don’t remember the numbers to back that up, since it was a report I saw in passing, but to me it seems like he’s not made the economy any better. He may not have made it any worse too, but what I know for sure he has made worse are the hardships that religious minorities in India face. So it’s primarily that.”
David Michael Smith, 64
David Michael Smith, from Galveston, Texas, is a retired professor of political science at the College of the Mainland, Texas City, having previously also taught at the University of Houston. He was accompanied by his wife Rona at the protest.
On what brought him to the protest:
“Kashmir. Depriving Kashmir of special status, moving military forces in (a larger number) to the region, arresting thousands of people, killing some people and terrorising most of the population – these are totally unacceptable.”
On how he came to know about recent events in Kashmir:
“Besides following the news, a couple of weeks ago, I attended a meeting organised by a local human rights organisation, and was particularly impressed by what I heard from a woman from Kashmir with family there who hasn’t been able to communicate with them most of the time and based on whatever few updates she’s got, the situation seems horrible there. I told my wife that the situation must be worse than even what the Indian media is reporting. We plan to make financial donations to help Kashmiris, we’ve been telling our Left-leaning friends to come today as well. So we’re glad to be here today.”
On what he makes of the Indian diaspora’s enthusiasm for Modi:
“It’s totally understandable for Indian-origin people in the US to say there are many more toilets being built in the country, it’s okay to say a deal to get Liquified Natural Gas from Texas will help development in their home country. It’s one thing to say all that. But there can be no excuse for mass murder, mass repression, and for rising Hindutva extremism. It is their duty to repudiate this extremism. And we all know the history of Modi. I mean people need freedom, they do not deserve violence and political repression.”
On the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation awarding Modi a prize:
“I’m aware of that. It’s reprehensible. And I’m so glad that three Nobel laureates have written to the Gates foundation and asked them not to do that. There are, of course, many problems with the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation to begin with- but awarding anything to someone like Modi, who stands accused of murder, of having blood on his hands, is unconscionable.”
On his leanings vis-à-vis US politics:
“We’re well to the left of the Democrats (let alone Republican). Bernie Sanders seems like the lesser evil, though to be honest, some facets of even him seem a bit like those of a liberal imperialist. His positions are better on some issues – such as Palestine – than some of the other Democrats.”
Sahil Wajid is a researcher currently based in the US.