Indian-American activism is acquiring critical force
Immigrants and their children now comprise almost 25 per cent of the US population and their political involvement is beginning to transform the country. This was evident in the 2012 elections and now in the bipartisan immigration bill,which was recently introduced in Congress and will be put to the Senate. While lacking the numbers of Latino groups,Indian Americans are viewed as a rising political force due to their financial clout,their high-profile members in elected and appointed political positions,and increasingly,their organisational success. The growing geopolitical and economic importance of India is certainly an important factor as well.
Indian American activism presents an interesting paradox. While residential concentration and unity around national-origin organisations are considered prerequisites for successful influence,Indian Americans are the most dispersed ethnic group and have multiple advocacy organisations. There are Indian American,South Asian American,Hindu,Sikh and Muslim organisations. There are organisations for Indian American Democrats and Republicans. Finally,a growing US-born generation is getting involved in activism in very different ways from their parents.
Indian American organisations have generally been established by the immigrant generation. The first organisation was formed in 1967 around domestic issues,specifically,getting a census category for Indians. Most contemporary organisations focus on foreign policy issues that have a bearing on India. Indian American activists were able to shift the US to a more pro-India stance in the post-Cold War period,decouple the Indo-Pak hyphen and develop the largest ethnic caucus on the Hill. They also rallied around the US-India nuclear deal and were crucial in getting the deal through Congress.
South Asian American organisations,generally comprised of the American-born generation,started forming in the early 2000s. Since Indian Americans comprise well over 90 per cent of the South Asian American population,most of the founders and many activists of South Asian American organisations are Indian Americans. Individuals who identify as South Asian tend to be people explicitly against the religious nationalisms in South Asia and who think subcontinental politics are irrelevant to their lives. Most South Asian American organisations are focused largely on domestic issues. These organisations have mobilised around hate crimes,particularly after 9/11,and against racial and religious profiling. They also work on voter registration and on encouraging and monitoring the participation of South Asians in elections. Finally,they have played an active role in recent immigration reform debates.
Hindu American organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA) and the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) were formed as early as the 1970s but remained focused on intra-community issues. The first Hindu organisation oriented towards a wider sweep of society was the American Hindus Against Defamation (AHAD),founded in 1997. Several Sikh American organisations were established after the storming of the Golden Temple and the anti-Sikh riots in 1984. Muslim Indian American organisations developed from the 1980s to raise funds for the welfare of Indian Muslims,to oppose the development of the Hindutva movement,and to promote secularism and communal harmony in India. The 9/11 attacks were a watershed for Hindu,Sikh and Muslim groups and second-generation members got involved in large numbers to deal with the post-
There have been active Indian American Democratic and Republican organisations since at least the early 2000s. However,studies have found Indian American voters overwhelmingly identify as Democrats. The perception that the Republican Party is dominated by conservative white Christians seems to be an important factor. Indian American Republicans try to counter this perception arguing their party is more welcoming than Democrats to racial minorities and to individuals of faith from any religious tradition. They also claim the conservative social and economic platform fits in better with the moral values and fiscal beliefs of most Indian Americans. The fact that the two Indian Americans with the highest political positions,Governors Jindal and Haley,are converts to Christianity and play down their Indian ancestry has been discussed extensively by both Democratic and Republican Indian Americans.
Indian American activists face several dilemmas. There is a vigorous debate on the diversity of Indian American organisations,and whether it is important for the community to become more unified. There are also questions about the primary goal of political mobilisation. Should it be to impact policy on India-related issues,to develop policies on domestic Indian American issues,or to shape mainstream American policies by having Indian Americans in decision-making positions? Finally,activists acknowledge Indian Americans who have won elected positions might face some tension between soliciting money and support from the community to get into office and supporting Indian American issues once in office,for fear of alienating their overwhelmingly non-Indian American constituents. How Indian Americans deal with these dilemmas will be interesting to watch.
The writer is director of the Asian/ Asian American Studies Programme,Syracuse University