‘I wonder who they voted for’: Indians facing identity crisis in US under Trump

Hindustan Times, Mumbai | By
Jul 19, 2017 03:41 PM IST

Despite support within neighbourhoods, the sense of being different and standing out from the crowd has heightened for Indian students since Trump assumed office.

A college student has shaved off his beard. A techie with a work visa is afraid he’ll never get another job. A young woman says she will never see Republicans the same way.

People at a vigil in honour of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian engineer killed in Kansas in a possible hate crime.(Reuters File)
People at a vigil in honour of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian engineer killed in Kansas in a possible hate crime.(Reuters File)

It’s a confusing time for Indians in America. And while there is support within their neighbourhoods, and often outrage against the ‘tell them to go home’ attitudes surfacing in pockets of the country, the sense of being different, of standing out from the crowd, has become heightened since the start of the Trump administration.

Take Sushovan Sircar, a student at Georgetown University in Washington DC. He used to sport a luxuriant beard that completed his hipster look. Last month, the 28-year-old student of cybersecurity policy decided to shave.

“I have become acutely aware of my skin colour in the last few months, after the rise of alleged hate crimes against Indians and Indians mistaken for ‘Arabs’,” he says. “The last two months have seen three violent attacks against people of Indian origin in Kansas city, Kent and South Carolina, which resulted in two deaths. I didn’t want to stand out any more than I already do, and my family back home has been worried too. So I shaved off my beard, and the absurdity of this fear is saddening,” he adds.

Development professional Apala Guhathakurta, 24, describes New York as a “safe bubble”.

“The most notable change for me is that, anyone new I meet or make eye contact with, at parties, in the street, on the subway, I wonder who they voted for. I wonder if they think I don’t belong, that I should ‘go back to where I came from’,” says Guhathakurta, who moved to the US with her family at the age of 6.

At work, she says she and her colleagues watched in distress as Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump, who had run a campaign built largely on anti-immigrant, anti-outsourcing rhetoric.

“The most notable change for me is that, anyone new I meet or make eye contact with, at parties, in the street, on the subway, I wonder who they voted for.”

“After the results, our entire organisation mourned,” says Guhathakurta, who works in the field of public health, with a special focus on women and girls. “We already had indications of how our work would be affected. We also mourned for the pure misogynistic, nationalistic, and manipulative way he won the election.”

Not on campus

A recent survey by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) has indicated that 40% of US colleges are seeing a decline in applications from international students. The largest drop reported was from India and China, who together made up 47% of the international students in the country in 2016.

Among the students already there, many say they feel it’s time to take a stand. Some are participating in protest marches for the first time ever, others are taking every opportunity to confront extreme views on issues like immigration.

“Most people I come across at the university are very liberal. There are Republicans in the university space but their politics of conservatism is more economic than social,” says Shourjya Deb, 27, a student of public policy and administration at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “In the university space, the way of life is such that people are kind of afraid of being called out as racists or fascists. But even here, when I ask Republicans if they want me to leave the country, they are embarrassed and don’t know how to handle the question.

Since February, three Indians have been killed in racially motivated attacks in the US.
  • February 22: Indian engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla was killed and friend Alok Madasani injured when a man opened fire at them in a Kansas bar. The alleged shooter, a US Navy veteran named Adam Purinton, apparently thought the two were from the Middle East and was heard calling them "terrorists" before telling them to "get out of my country".Incidentally, Ian Grillot, a 24-year-old Caucasian American construction worker was injured while trying to stop the assailant.
  • March 2: Harnish Patel, a 43-year-old store owner in South Carolina, was shot dead outside his home. It is not yet clear if this was a hate crime.
  • March 4: Deep Rai, a 39-year-old Sikh, was shot outside his home in Kent, Washington, by a masked gunman who allegedly shouted to him to "go back to your own country".
There are concerns that US President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant, anti-outsourcing rhetoric is giving free reign to extremist elements.
  • Trump took office on January 20, winning the Oval Office on the back of an 18-month-long campaign that hinged on the idea that he would Make America Great Again by wresting it back from ‘outsiders’, and by demanding that American jobs be given to ‘American people’.
  • Entire communities have marched against his exclusionist ideas in cities across the US, declaring that all Americans are immigrants, and that its melting-pot culture is among its greatest strengths.
  • In universities too, there have been efforts to stress that the culture of inclusion is important to the academic community.

Speaking up

Both Guhathakurta and the now-clean-shaven Sircar have been on their first political rallies ever, since the election results.

“I joined the women’s march in January and it was electric,” Guhathakurta says.

Sircar walked in three separate protest marches on January 20, the day of Trump’s inauguration.

“I felt it was my moral duty to do so,” he says, adding with a laugh that even growing up in Kolkata he never protested, but he does now.

Perhaps most troubled are the job-seekers with H1B visas — the employment-based visa category for temporary workers.

“Job-hunting has become much more difficult for us,” says Susmit Sen, 35, an IT engineer from Nebraska who has been in the US for three years. “Indians who have already got a green card are in a safe spot, at least professionally, but there is a sense that those without one are now in for trouble. People like me, without a green card, have openly been told, No H1B candidates, please.”

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    Dipanjan Sinha is principal correspondent, weekend features in Mumbai. He has been a journalist for seven years now and worked on the desk, news and features teams

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