Srinivas Kuchibhotla murder: Why Modi’s nationalism no longer works for Indian-Americans
Let it be stated, unequivocally, that the heinous murder of 32-year-old Indian techie Srinivas Kuchibhotla was brought about by a fatal mix of racism, ignorance, hate and rising intolerance in the United States. But, equally, it can and should be argued that his murder raises as many troubling questions for Narendra Modi’s India as it does for Donald Trump’s America.
The horrific shooting of Srinivas in Kansas, as pointed out by Mohan J Dutta from National University Singapore in an article in The Wire, draws some interesting parallels with the brutal lynching of Muhammed Ikhlaq in Dadri (Uttar Pradesh) in 2015. Both became victims of anti-minority violence and just as Modi’s otherwise busy Twitter handle went silent on Ikhlaq’s murder, so did Trump on Srinivas. Pressure and outrage finally compelled Trump to cough up a condemnation, but Ikhlaq’s death, however, continues to be mired in the debate over whether his fridge actually contained beef.
India’s home minister Rajnath Singh’s subsequent entreaties to the US government “to restore the faith of minorities” smacks more of hypocrisy than irony. An odd choice of words from the minister of home, moreover, given that loud noises about ‘minority appeasement’ have been central to Modi and the BJP’s majoritarian politics. Since the BJP government coming to power, in fact, minorities in India have on instance also been stunned by unexpected acts of ‘official pettiness’. Notably, the government’s decision to treat Christmas day in 2014 as ‘good governance day’. In September last year, blood donation camps were held in Rajasthan on the Muslim festival of Bakrid to mark Deendayal Upadhyaya’s birth anniversary by the state government.
Indian immigrants in the United States (approximately at 3 million in 2016) are in actual fact more than simply a minority. Referred to as The Other One Percent by Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur and Nirvikar Singh in their much acclaimed book on the Indian diaspora; as an immigrant community they have the highest education and income levels when compared to all other immigrant groups in the US. This achievement was a result of several fortuitous, unintended and chance events. Since 1965, when immigration from South Asia was opened up, three successive waves followed in which the last between 1995 to 2014 was marked by the Information Technology migration .
Between 65,000 to 100,000 Indians were annually entering the US, mostly under the H-1B programme, with the technical or IT emphasis having a lot to do with India’s own decline in those decades in manufacturing and the shift towards the services. In the same period, China moved in the opposite direction with its civil and mechanical engineers instead of migrating created a new industrial base for their county and as pointed out by Joel Andreas in his book The Rise of the Red Engineers, even becoming part of the new communist political and ruling elite. The Indian IT exodus to the US, however, also found themselves catching an economic high wave from the 2000s, especially in the state of California. In effect, the Indian IT story was about being in the right place at the right time. The Indian diaspora in the US today remits close to $13 billion annually to India, besides contributing richly to innumerable social causes, intellectual projects and professional networks in both countries.
But an equally striking analysis offered in The Other One Percent is over the Indian diaspora’s political leanings. Here, it is pointed out that the majority are predisposed to the Democrats, with Indians even preferring to reside in blue or Democratic party controlled states. On the surface, Indian immigrants would appear to fit the Republican profile in being economically well off, averse to increased regulations and disinclined to paying higher taxes. The authors, however, tell us that the Republican party’s Christian evangelical turn, especially after 2000, proved to be decisive. In other words, the Indian diaspora has largely stayed Democrat because of the growth of the religious right within the Republican Party.
The implications are many. As an economically powerful minority, the Indian diaspora in the US has much to gain from cultural tolerance, respect for difference and assimilation by trying to weave into the greater American immigration narrative. In other words, a cosmopolitan America that is welcoming of pluralism rather than a US strongly defined by hard nationalism, religious exclusion and racism. Interestingly enough, the emergence of leaders such as Kamala Harris or the socialist Kshama Sawant suggest that the Indian diaspora will increasingly incline towards those liberal views rather than follow the likes of Nikki Haley or Bobby Jindal, with their evangelical Christian commitments.
Given the context, what is the appeal of Modi’s Hindutva for the Indian immigrant today? The killing of Srinivas is instructive. From the immediate panic of asking Indians not to speak in Telugu in public to a later more composed effort by the community to re-emphasise their basic ‘ Americaness’ in values such as democracy, justice and the pursuit of opportunity. This is all a far cry from Modi’s Madison Square Garden performance, when he not only asked them to keep one foot in their ‘land of origin’ but even chided them to ‘return’ and be part of the Indian development story. Clearly, asking the Indian diaspora to plant themselves in two countries does not carry easily in a crisis moment. If anything, one sees instead the wife of Srinivas actually wishing to return to the ‘country he loved’ in order to accomplish her husbands’ dreams in the US.
The Other One Percent also provides us with another intriguing statistic. The Indian immigrant community in the US is interestingly enough undergoing an internal social transition. Notably, the South Indian Telugu has become, since 2016, the single largest fraction of the Indian diaspora in the US. And within the same churn, the Gujarati and Punjabi immigrants have begun to decline in numbers and with another generation of US born Indian immigrants coming into economic and cultural maturity, the Hindutva version of narrow nationalism might have less appeal. There will perhaps be reduced nostalgia for the ‘homeland’ and a greater urge to craft new identities.
Lastly, The Other One Percent concludes by suggesting that the IT exodus under the H-1B visa might have peaked. The American frontier, as the great economic and psychological prop for the post 1991 Indian middle class, might indeed be rapidly closing. India’s middle class now needs a fresh and urgent discussion over addressing the challenge of education, in particular, and shaping a more inclusive, plural and cosmopolitan world to retain traction with the forces of globalisation.
(Rohan D’Souza is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University)