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Indian immigrants, a fast-growing community

india Updated: Oct 23, 2006 15:52 IST
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The train station billboards tell it all.

Local travel agents promise the best airfares from New York to Mumbai. Shagun Fashions is selling dazzling Indian saris. And DirecTV offers "the six top Indian channels direct to you."

Roughly every third person who lives in Edison, a New York suburb, is of Asian Indian ancestry. Many are new immigrants who have come to work as physicians, engineers and high-tech experts and are drawn to "Little India" by convenience—it's near the commuter train—and familiarity.

Here they can "get their groceries and goods from home," says Aruna Rao, a mental health counselor who lives in the town.

Although a steady stream of Indians have settled in the US since the 1960s, immigrants positively poured into the country between 2000 and 2005—arriving at a higher rate than any other group.

Not only is the Indian community burgeoning, it's maturing. Increasingly, after decades of quietly establishing themselves, Indians are becoming more vocal in the American conversation—about politics, ethnicity and many more topics.

"I've been studying the community for 20 years and in the last four or five years something different has been happening," said Madhulika Khandelwal, president of the Asian American Center at Queens College in New York.

"Indian-Americans are finally out there speaking for themselves."

Roughly 2.3 million people of Indian ancestry, including immigrants and the American-born, now call the US home, according to the 2005 Census data.

And so when Virginia Senator George Allen was caught on video in August calling an Indian American man "macaca"—a type of monkey and an offensive term—the community quickly responded.

Within days after the reports emerged, Sanjay Puri, founder of the US Indian Political Action Committee, and other Indian leaders in the Washington, DC, area requested and got a lengthy meeting with Allen, Puri said. The senator publicly apologized.

If this had happened 10 years ago?

"It would have been a lot harder," Puri said. "But this is a prosperous and fast-growing community. People are beginning to understand that we are contributing politically, so that made a big difference."

Many Indian immigrants arrived in the US focused almost entirely on individual success—getting a top-notch job, making good money and pushing their children do the same.

But things are changing. After the September 11 attacks, many Indian Sikhs, who wear turbans as part of their faith, were mistaken for Muslims—and terrorists. Hundreds were harassed or worse: In Mesa, Arizona, a Sikh gas station owner was shot and killed on September 15, 2001, by a man who told the police "all Arabs had to be shot."

Few knew their rights because few had been engaged politically, said Amardeep Singh, executive director of The Sikh Coalition in New York.

The group now has two bills pending in the New York city council—one would allow city employees to wear turbans and the other would make city officials craft plans to prevent hate crimes if another terrorist attack happened. The community recently saw three Sikhs elected to low-level offices around the city. "It's a good first step," Singh said.

The push extends beyond Sikhs, Puri said.

"The question that every Indian-American is asking lately: Is the American dream—making a lot of money and having fancy cars—enough?" he said. "Giving back and being active is also happening."

In New Jersey, Ready to Run, a Rutgers University-based project that helps women seek public office, will next year for the first time court Asian women, said Reema Desai, an immigration lawyer who is helping organise the outreach.

Indians also are working outside politics to influence the broader society. They are overrepresented among college professors, engineers and technology workers. Between 10 per cent and 12 per cent of all medical school students are Indians, according to the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, the biggest physicians' group in the nation after the American Medical Association.

Half of all motel rooms in the US are owned by Indians, according to the Asian American Hotel Owners Association.

In New York City, Basement Banghra, a popular Indian music event that blends hip-hop rhythms with Indian melodies, attracts hundreds of partygoers to Sounds of Brazil nightclub each month.

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