Deepa Iyer of the South Asian American Leaders for Tomorrow, a community advocacy group with many young Indian-American professionals and students working with it, says: “Indian-Americans aren’t as confused about identity as they were before. They’ve learned to balance their lives…and community and civic organisations play a role in making them comfortable with an hyphenated identity.”
Politics is among the areas where young Indian-American youth are disproportionately active. It is hard to find a US congressman who doesn’t have a staff member of South Asian origin. Though still few in number, each election cycle sees more and more Indian Americans running for elected office.
Varun Mehta, a 21-year-old leader of the US-Indian Political Action Committee, says, “Indian-American youths are very excited with political activity. You hear about the community cutting cheques for Senator Hillary Clinton, but not so much about the large numbers who are working as volunteers for the candidates.”
First generation Indian Americans were rarely involved in community affairs or local politics. “This is a key difference between the first and second generation,” says Mehta. “The latter are genuinely collaborating with their environment. The former tended to just talk.”
Mehta, a 10-year veteran of US politics, knows of Indian Americans in their teens who are already giving $5 or $10 to Senator Clinton or Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.
Annette Seecharan, head of the South Asian Youth Association who has considered running for a local office, says, “Indians come from a culture of democracy. If you can run [for political office], you should run. It’s an obvious area to become involved in.” Seecharan’s parents are Guyanese of Indian origin.
When Ronak Shah’s parents emigrated to the US, they were avid followers of local politics in Tennessee.
Volunteering for John Kerry’s presidential campaign and signing up for his high school’s Democratic Club came naturally to this 20-year-old student. “I like competition. So I do a lot of sports and politics.”
Political activity is also a measure of the economic success of the Indian Americans who are the highest-earning US ethnic group. Says Seecharan: “Politics is a privilege of the elite. The well-paid can afford to go into the politics. It’s the next step for an ethnic group that has become established.”
Given that Indian-Americans barely top two million in number, the degree of activism is remarkable. Mehta, who researched ethnic youth activism in US colleges, says other Asian minorities pale in comparison to Indian Americans. “Hispanics, Blacks, Jews and Indians are the four ethnic groups who have gone into political activism. Indian Americans seem to be following the path of the Jews,” he said.
While the Indo-US relationship gets play in India, most desi youth are concerned about strictly national if not local issues.
Shah is watching the present presidential campaign closely. He is leaning towards Democratic candidate John Edwards because “there’s meat in his policies, he’s thought through things like universal healthcare.” That Edwards has the most forward-looking views on India hasn’t registered. “I’m basically American. I have difficulty watching a Hindi move to the end,” he confesses.