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Attacks in Kansas, Kent: Indians unsafe in Donald Trump’s US

Many Indians, especially in the rust-belt, have long bore the brunt of the backlash against H-1B, a temporary visa programme that allows American companies to bring high-skilled foreign worker positions they cannot fill locally.

india Updated: Mar 15, 2017 09:14 IST
Yashwant Raj
A peace vigil held in Washington on March 5 in the memory of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, the 32-year-old Indian engineer killed at a bar in Kansas
A peace vigil held in Washington on March 5 in the memory of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, the 32-year-old Indian engineer killed at a bar in Kansas(AFP File Photo)

On March 4, Anil Dash, a technology entrepreneur and a prolific blogger, re-upped a 2016 video of his tribute to Prince, the pop icon who had died suddenly earlier that year. But it wasn’t about him this time, but to reintroduce Americans to a people that had been living among them for more than 100 years, with a long history of suffering systemic discrimination. By way of explanation, Dash, an Indian American whose family came from Odisha, only said this: “If you’re not familiar with the history of systemic discrimination against South Asians in America, do watch this.”

It was posted the day a video re-surfaced of Indian families on H-1B at a public park in Dublin, Ohio, filmed by an anti-immigrant zealot who could barely conceal his racism and distaste for Indians in the commentary.

Just the day before, Deep Rai, a Sikh man was shot and wounded in his own driveway in Kent, Washington by a white man in half-mask who, while leaving, told him to “go back to your country”.

And barely two weeks before, Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani, engineers from India, were shot by a US navy veteran at a bar in Olathe, Kansas. Kuchibhotla did not survive. The alleged shooter, Adam Purinton, who was arrested hours later, had mistaken them, for Iranians.

That he couldn’t tell they were Indians brought little comfort to the community of Indian Americans, which at an estimated three million is among the tiniest of ethnic minorities in the United States; but the richest and most educated.

The attacks and the video have left them both shocked and puzzled.

Shocked, by the killing and the shooting in Kent.

And puzzled, because they are not entirely sure if they, as Indian Americans, are the target now and not of softer, milder undertones of discrimination — the “other-ness”, as one of them pointed out — that they have long experienced, in varying degrees, but not violence, death itself, in a long time.

“Whether Indian Americans are being targeted as Indian Americans is a question that we have to investigate,” said Raja Krishnamoorthi, one of five Indian Americans elected to congress this time, but, he added, the Ohio video “looks almost like a prelude to an attack”.

In the voice over, the man had said, “The number of people from foreign countries blows my mind out here. You see this whole area is all Indian, amazing. It’s an amazing number of jobs have been taken away from Americans.”

Where are the white men?

Many Indians, especially in the rust-belt, the once-manufacturing hub of the United States that is now a vast expanse of shuttered factories, have long bore the brunt of the backlash against H-1B, a temporary visa programme that allows American companies to bring high-skilled foreign worker positions they cannot fill locally.

President Donald Trump, who has admitted to using these visa for his businesses himself, has said the programme was being abused by companies to outsource American jobs, and along with many in his administration, he is widely understood to be planning changes through executive action, whatever he can, and the rest through the legislature.

COMBATING PREJUDICE
Almost every Indian American family in the US has had a discussion about how to avoid a situation like Olathe or Kentand who to approach if they found themselves in one. Here are some moves they are talking about:
  • Know your neighbours, at least their names, invite them to some Indian community events to show our rich cultural heritage.
  • Do not cause any inconvenience by playing loud music in and around your home.
  • Car parking should not block your neighbour’s exits or entrance.
  • Never raise only Indian flag without having American flag next to it.
  • Respect laws of the land, small things such as lane driving. Many Indian Americans said they were yelled at — with racial slurs — for this.
  • Educate your visiting parents or guests from India about US culture and traditions in advance before they arrive. For example, do not stare or finger-point Americans especially when they are in swim suits or are engaged in private moments.
  • Do not converse in a different language in front of them.
  • Do not touch, hug, kiss or offer any food items — this can be really dangerous because of food allergies — to American children.
  • Do not leave parents/guests from India on their own till they become familiar with the surroundings.
  • Always keep copies of your legal status ID and cell phone handy
  • Always heed to police officers’ instructions.
  • If you are in a situation where you cannot protect yourself, do not resist, argue or fight. Always think your life is more precious than your material possession.

The video was another manifestation, although far more chilling and creepy, of the same disquiet about H-1B, and has raised fears about violence in the midst of heightened anti-immigrant sentiments following Trump’s election, as Congressman Krishnamoorthi said, it seemed like a “prelude to violence”.

The Seattle shooter is still at large with no explanations for the violence he perpetrated on Rai, other than just plain xenophobia, the fear of foreigners, which in the minds of some white Americans, is anyone not white. “Go back to your own country,” the assailant had yelled at Rai.

But this is Rai’s country. Why is that so difficult to get?

“There is a level of distrust towards immigrants generally,” said Pawan Dhingra, professor and chair in department of sociology at Tufts University, but “the hatred of many Americans towards Muslims generally and Arab/Middle Eastern Americans is intense” and “Indians are swept up in that”.

Purinton thought Kuchibhotla and Madasani were from Iran, a country that may have stuck in his mind from the seven Muslim-majority countries, now six, whose citizens have been barred from entering the United States temporarily.

There is then the racism of the ignorant, a possibility strongly suggested by lots of Indian Americans to explain their present predicament. “We have known for a very long time that our community is at risk specially from people who don’t know the community,” said Kishan Putta, commissioner for Asian American Affairs in Washington DC.

Balbir Singh Sodhi became the first victim of the backlash against Middle-Easterners after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks when a man who mistook him for one, because of his turban, and shot him dead outside his gas station in Messa, an Arizona city. Sikhs have suffered several attacks, bullying and racial slurs since.

The most heart-rending was the killing of six members of the community at a gurdwara in Wisconsin in 2012.

Indian Americans recalled with unconcealed horror a spate of violence from the late 1980s unleashed on the community by a gang that called itself the Dotbusters, because they targeted bindi-wearing girls and women.

“We will go to any extreme to get Indians to move out of Jersey City,” one of the gang-members wrote to a local news daily. “If I’m walking down the street and I see a Hindu and the setting is right, I will hit him or her.” The gang was active mostly in Jersey City, New Jersey, which had then a large population of Indian Americans, as now.

Indian women switched to western dresses to escape notice when they stepped out, even for their daily grocery.

And then it stopped, but not overnight. Sushil Jain, a Virginia physician who served in US military, said it took time and education and then finally “bindi itself became fashionable among some Americans”. He strongly advocates the need for Indian Americans to increase their outreach, as one of many ways to overcome the sense of estrangement from the larger community.

In their rush to make money, settle down, send children to good schools, upgrade from one big car to another, from one big house to another, many immigrants said they overlooked trying to belong. “We have colonised ourselves here,” said Bhanu Illindra, an immigration lawyer in DC. This may be as good time as any to stop, and fix it.

Headless chicken

Even two weeks after the Kansas shooting, the Indian American continues to look for leadership, to make sense of the killing, the Kent, Washington assault, the Ohio video.

Are they under attack? What do we need to help ourselves?

A Virginia tech entrepreneur, who requested anonymity, said, “We are a headless chicken at the moment. No one quite knows what to make of these incidents and what needs to be done.”

Another Indian American said, “We are paralysed.”

They point to other communities that have organisations in place to step in at a moment’s notice, reach out to those affected, and open a dialogue.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, for instance, is a single-window agency for Muslims, and has been active in reporting the surge in hate crimes against the community since the election Trump. The Jewish community has the Anti-Defamation League.

Indian Americans have the Hindu American Foundation, which rushed personnel to Kansas after the shootings, and the Republican Hindu Coalition, which has said it quietly pushed the White House to make a statement.

And the Telugu Association of North America was also at hand. Sikhs have the Sikh Coalition. But Indian Americans believe they need an apolitical, bipartisan organisation with overarching reach to take the lead in such situations.