The other side of the Indian-American diaspora
The protests in India after the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) have moved beyond its borders, with civil society groups and students protesting in campuses abroad and outside Indian consulates. In the United States (US), the protests have highlighted the disaffection of a section of Indian-Americans with Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi. Until now, this group has been perceived as loyal supporters of the PM.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government’s perceived targeting of students in India, who are protesting the CAA, has come under criticism from several Ivy League universities in the US, with South Asian students calling upon the US House of Representatives to impose “targeted sanctions”, including freezing of assets and denial of visas to responsible representatives.
Like in India, the control of universities and institutions of knowledge is crucial to the Hindutva agenda in the US. Between 2016 and 2017, the California department of education became a site of contestations over the introduction of new history and social science textbooks. The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) alleged that the textbooks “erased” India’s identity by using the term South Asia, instead of India, and “denigrated” Indian culture by incorporating references to caste prejudice and discrimination.
The HAF’s proposals faced opposition from the South Asian Histories for All (SAHFA), a coalition of South Asian teachers, students, parents and community members. Consequently, the HAF was compelled to concede that the word “Dalit” could not be edited from the curriculum framework. In December, Brandeis University became the first institution in America to add caste to its non-discrimination policy even though caste is not officially recognised in the US. At the forefront of resisting and calling out caste dominance in the US is Equality Labs, formed in 2015 by Thenmozhi Soundararajan. Among many firsts, Equality Labs held the first US congressional briefing about caste in the diaspora, and released a report on “Hate Speech and Disinformation” on Facebook.
Modi’s rally at Madison Square in 2014 and this year’s Howdy Modi in Texas highlighted the support of a section of the diaspora for him. But there has been an equally energetic element of the diaspora, which is opposed to him and in the past, lobbied with the State Department to deny him a visa. Organisations such as the South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) formed in 2000, the South Asia Solidarity Initiative (SASI 2008), the Alliance for Justice and Accountability (AJA 2014), Indian American Muslim Council (formed in 2002), and the Equality Labs have raised the structural problems of Hindutva politics in the diaspora.
A notable presence of Indian-origin elected politicians is a recent phenomenon in the US politics. Kamala Harris in the Senate and Pramila Jayapal, Raja Krishnamoorthi, Ro Khanna and Ami Bera in the House of Representatives. Khanna came under heavy attack from several Indian American organisations, most prominent among them, the HAF, for joining the Congressional Pakistan Caucus, and for tweeting “reject Hindutva, and speak for equal rights for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhist & Christians”. Similarly, Jayapal’s criticism of the government’s nullification of Article 370 in Kashmir and telecommunication shutdown resulted in the cancellation of a meeting between the Indian minister for external affairs and senior members of the Congress when they refused to exclude Jaypal from the meeting. As the American political landscape reels under the shadow of its president’s impeachment, US Congress members find themselves in a bind between the diaspora voters in their constituency who may be critical of Delhi’s actions and the HAF, which is supportive of it.
Within the diaspora in the US, there is a sharply divided politics of contestation, and not necessarily one of a shared identity. As the Modi regime pushes its ideological beliefs, being desi has also come to mean being cognisant of the dangers of majoritarianism, steadily but surely.
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