Under attack in America
Seema Sirohi March 19, 2017, 0:19 IST
Srinivas Kuchibhotla. PTI file photo
Dinner conversations have turned sombre, weekend errands curtailed and late-night outings for teenagers heavily restricted, especially in suburban towns of the American heartland. Fear has become a factor of Indian life which until recently was a scrum of ambition, success, consumption and pride. Above all, it was hard work and a relentless eye on the prize – “the American Dream”. Indian Americans had it down to an art, as did their kids. They were winning spelling bees and science talent competitions, creating a whole new positive stereotype.
But Srinivas Kuchibhotla’s cold-blooded murder in Olathe, Kansas, an attack on Deep Rai who was left injured in his own driveway in the town of Kent in Washington state and last week’s arson attack on a store owned by Indian Americans in Florida have made the community nervous. Everyone is asking, “why us?”
Kuchibhotla’s attacker was specific when he began the altercation at the bar where the Indian engineer and his friend Alok Madasani were having a drink. The gunman asked them what visa they were on and then told them to “get out of my country”. The most chilling was a video posted on an anti-H1B website of Indian families enjoying a day in the park in Ohio with a running commentary on how Indians had taken over entire neighbourhoods and “ravished the Midwest”.
Then there are countless examples of verbal abuse at airports, micro and macro aggressions on buses and metros and bullying at school. The onslaught began during last year’s presidential election campaign as Donald Trump deftly wove his anti-immigrant message into his larger narrative about the malaise of white “Middle America”. He dipped into a pool of anger, found his assault weapons, mounted them at the heart of the idea of “we-are-one-big-happy-family-of-immigrants” and rode to victory. He was adding the jobless and the growing anti-Muslim brigades to America’s permanent resident racists. The lid was off.
“I have no doubt that the highly divisive Trump campaign and his election as president have empowered and enabled the nativist elements,” says Frank Islam, a prominent Indian American entrepreneur and philanthropist. While Trump didn’t create the hate groups, he did mainstream the fringe elements and “amplified” their voices, he added. “Initially, the rhetoric was against the Mexicans and Muslims. Now it has expanded to include all immigrants and minorities, including Indian Americans.” Trump has appointed members of the “alt-right” in top echelons of his administration, giving them “a voice and a seat at the table,” Islam said.
To be sure, the lid on hate was first lifted after 9/11 when Sikh Americans came under attack because they were mistaken for Muslims. Former president George W Bush took a strong stand, reminding everyone about religious tolerance and in time, the hate talk subsided.
Life for Indians returned to the “pursuit of happiness” but the undercurrents stayed. A white supremacist went on a rampage in 2012 at a gurudwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, killing six and wounding four. The then president Barack Obama reacted immediately, reminding everyone “how much our country had been enriched by Sikhs, who are a part of our broader American family”.
It took Trump time to condemn Kuchibhotla’s killing. “While we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms,” he said in his speech to the US Congress last month. This was after US civil rights groups demanded action, India made noises at every level and Indian Americans called their senators and Congressmen, asking for public statements.
Dr Chowdry Jampala, a Chicago-based psychiatrist and president of the Telugu Association of North America, said while Indian Americans were “jolted” by Kuchibhotla’s murder, they “do realise that this is not a systematic vendetta against them. A bigot got hold of a gun and it could have happened to anyone at anytime.”
“So far, the Sikhs had borne the brunt of anti-Muslim hate because of their beards and turbans, this is the first time...,” Jampala didn’t complete his thought but the implication was clear. Hindu Americans had lived with a false sense of safety, which is now somewhat shattered.
Indian American community groups are sharing common sense precautions – don’t get into arguments, don’t speak in your language in public, don’t dress too Indian and be proactive in avoiding trouble. In other words, keep your head down and be sensible. “The attack has shaken the community and thrown them out of their comfort zone,” says Islam. “We have entered a dark and dangerous chapter in America. Even Jewish Americans who have such a long history in this country are being targeted.”
Nation of immigrants
American civil society is out and front fighting and demanding justice. The South Asian Americans Leading Together (Saalt), an advocacy group, gathered Indian American Congressmen and women on the steps of the US Capitol building last week to send a message. Congressman Ami Bera said, “Attacking someone based on where they come from or what they look like insults the very core of everything that we stand for as a nation of immigrants.” Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, a fiery progressive, said: “America is your country, you belong here and we will stand up to protect your rights.”
Saalt executive director Suman Raghunathan fired straight at Trump. “Waiting nearly a week before commenting on a deadly shooting in Kansas won’t do it. Issuing a second toxic Muslim ban won’t do it.” She wants “direct action” from the Trump administration to “forge inclusion, justice and hope in this quintessential nation of immigrants.”
Saalt has documented more than 200 incidents of hate violence and xenophobic political rhetoric aimed at South Asian and West Asian Americans in the 2016 campaign, more than 95% motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment.
But it must be pointed out that Trump is not the cause but a product of various forces that have been at work for some time. The Democratic Party is not as innocent as it would like to believe. It’s top leader Senator Charles Schumer played a role in stigmatising H1B visa workers and feeding anti-immigrant sentiment. He called Infosys a “chop shop” in 2010 while arguing for hiking H1B fees to pay for border security. A chop shop is where stolen cars are cannibalised and parts sold to repair other stolen vehicles.
But what the attacks have also done is to make Indian Americans realise they need to come out of their mansions and “mix with the mainstream so people don’t think you are a parasite,” says Jampala. The flip side is the need to join hands with other minority communities to present a united front against hate and violence. As Islam said, “We as immigrants and minorities are in it together”.
(The writer is a senior journalist based in Washington)