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Bharara, Jindal, Harris: They are Americans first

Clearly, all three — Bharara, Jindal and Harris — want the Indian American community to release them from their expectations and let them pursue their plans. After all, how wrong and insensitive can it be to want to be just “American”, which is who they are, essentially?

columns Updated: Mar 29, 2019 18:16 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times
They thought, Bharara writes in his autobiography, trying to make sense of an understandably tumultuous phase in his life, that even though this man hailed from India — he was born in Ferozepur — he seemed to be going out of his way to act “American”. “The thing is,” Bharara writes, “I am American.”(REUTERS)

Preet Bharara was livid at the hammering he was getting in the media. And he told us, a few reporters gathered around a wooden table in a windowless room inside the offices of the US attorney for the Southern District of New York. But it was off the record, couldn’t be reported. He has since gone public with his sentiments in his just published autobiography.

Back in December 2013, at the height of an India-US row precipitated by the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York, a case prosecuted by his office, Bharara, also a celebrated Wall Street crime-fighter at the time, was a fallen hero in Indian eyes. He was called “Uncle Tom”, a pejorative for African Americans seen as too eager to please whites to win their approval, and some said he was working for his “white masters”.

Indians were outraged that an Indian American — “one of us” — had thrown an Indian diplomat into jail (Bharara hadn’t; his office handled only the prosecution end of it, he has said). And so were a large number of fellow Indian origin immigrants in the US, who saw him as a serial offender, recalling all the Indian Americans he had thrown behind bars, including former McKinsey boss, Rajat Gupta.

They thought, Bharara writes in his autobiography, trying to make sense of an understandably tumultuous phase in his life, that even though this man hailed from India — he was born in Ferozepur — he seemed to be going out of his way to act “American”.

“The thing is,” Bharara writes, “I am American.”

Bobby Jindal, former Indian American governor of Louisiana who ran for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, faced a similar backlash, if not worse, for trying to mainstream himself with these words, in his launch address, on June 24, 2015: “I’m sick and tired of people dividing Americans. And I’m done with all this talk about hyphenated Americans. We are not Indian-Americans, Irish- Americans, African- Americans, rich Americans, or poor Americans. We are all Americans.”

He was savaged for it, starting the day after. A series of racially-charged jokes popped up online, all starting with the same five words: “Bobby Jindal is so white …” His long-shot run was turned into a joke overnight by outraged Indian Americans. Many of them saw him as a selfish opportunist who bailed on the community after using its equity to advance his career, with donations and volunteers.

A few weeks ago, Kamala Harris, the California senator who is seeking the Democratic presidential ticket for 2020, rattled the Indian American community, which is still trying to reconcile its enthusiasm for her run, as an Indian American, with a growing realisation that she doesn’t see herself as one of them. Senator Harris is part Indian, from her mother’s side, and part African American, on her father’s. Asked by a reporter how would she identify herself given her Indian American heritage, she said: as a “proud American”.

Clearly, all three — Bharara, Jindal and Harris — want the Indian American community to release them from their expectations and let them pursue their plans. After all, how wrong and insensitive can it be to want to be just “American”, which is who they are, essentially?

yashwant.raj@hindustantimes.com

First Published: Mar 29, 2019 18:16 IST