Somya Sheshadri came to the United States from India when she was seven. A doctor now, she was among a group of Indian Americans gathered outside the White House to convey their fears and apprehensions to President Donald Trump.
The President wasn’t home, of course. He was away, as on most weekends, in Palm Beach, Florida, his Winter (now called Southern) White House.
But Sheshadri, her friend Vindhya Adapa, parents, uncles and aunts, neighbours and acquaintances stood there on a cold blustery afternoon, holding posters, making barely audible speeches on bullhorns, gawked at and photographed by curious tourists on foot and Segways, and at times, overshadowed by a more colourful and raucous group of Macedonian protesters.
“I never imagined in all my life I will be outside the White House one Sunday afternoon defending my being American,” Sheshadri said, with a look of anger flashing across her face, her voice strong and steady. She is troubled.
“I am an Indian American, I am brown-skinned, have a Sanskrit name, and knew at some point of my life I would be perceived to be the ‘other’.” And that time is now, a realisation that has shaken up a community of nearly three million lulled by its astounding success as the richest, most educated minority in the US.
But a string of attacks on Indian Americans—killing of Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Olathe, Kansas, attack on Deep Rai in Kent, Washington, and earlier, the assault on Ankur Mehta in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—ever since Trump won the elections, and later ordered a ban on Middle-Eastern Muslim countries, has the community worried, and somewhat frightened.
Kuchibhotla’s alleged killer, a white male, told him to “get out of my country”, mistaking him for a Middle-Easterner, and Rai, a Sikh, was told by his assailant, another white man, to “go back to your country”.
Mehta, an Indian American, was mistaken for a Middle-Easterner, by his assaulter, a white man, who told him, “Things are different now. I don’t want you sitting next to me, you people.”
That was on November 22, less than two weeks after Trump’s upset victory in an election marked by unprecedented rise in ethnic, racial and religious tensions that have only intensified in the days since, instead of dissipating.
The President’s controversial attempts to ban citizens of six Muslim-majority countries—down from the earlier seven—from entering the US temporarily, may have contributed to the ‘Islamophobia’ that resulted in the Kansas attack.
Vindhya Adapa, a lawyer whose father Adapa Prasad was one of the organisers of the Sunday gathering, blamed the community’s present plight on Trump’s election rhetoric.
“It hasn’t happened to me yet,” Vindhya, a second generation Indian American, said, “but I cannot sit back and let it happen.”
The demonstration was the community’s attempt to “show our face”, her father said. “Let Americans see us as Indians, and not mistake us for anyone else—which is not to justify their targeting of Muslims or Middle-Easterners.”
In a petition meant for the President, the demonstrators said, “We request your kind intervention in this matter and (sic) take steps first to punish the culprits under federal hate crimes law, second to allay the fears of the Indian American community and show your support, and finally to take remediation steps to eliminate the hate.
“A message should go out to the people of this country from the administration that ‘no citizen should take the law into their hands and it will not be tolerated by the government’.”