While the FBI is yet to call it a hate crime, the shooting of Indian engineers Srinivas Kuchibhotla and his colleague Alok Madasani on February 23 in Kansas is believed to be motivated by a racial bias, as the assailant shouted a racial slur prior to firing the shots. Some reports claim the victims may have been taken by the assailant to be middle-eastern. Cases of such mistaken identity are none too rare.
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According to a FBI report, 2015 – the year Trump began his heavy-on-immigrant-and-Muslim-bashing presidential campaign – saw a 67 per cent jump in hate crimes against Muslims. According to a recent report by the left-leaning nonprofit, Southern Poverty Law Center, anti-Muslim hate groups in the US have nearly tripled since the last year. It attributes the reason to the “incendiary rhetoric” of President Donald Trump, along with several members of his administration, and anger for various terror attacks which have fueled anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments.
Hate crimes in the US against Muslims and those who look like Muslims first spiked infamously after 9/11. Sikhs-Americans, in particular, were targeted as Muslims due to their turbans, beards and skin tone and enfolded into mistaken-identity hate crimes. A Sikh-American named Maan S. Khalsa was attacked on September 25, 2016 in California when two men punched him in the face and used a knife to cut up to 10 inches of his long hair. In what was suspected to be a racist attack, a 17-year old Sikh-American teen named Gurnoor Singh Nahal was shot dead in the garage of his family’s house in California on November 9, 2016. These are but two out of scores of examples in the last decade and a half. It is clear that hate attacks on one minority or subsection poses an enduring threat for many more and inhibit a much larger group of people from feeling safe. Indian-Americans and Indian immigrants of all faiths are now more vulnerable and less safe by default, even if “Indians” per se are not being targeted as much as “Muslims” or “Mexicans”. Not to forget that about 10 per cent of the estimated 3.2 million Indian-Americans identify as Muslims (as per a 2012 Pew report). Those who commit hate crimes are usually ignorant enough to not recognize such fine distinctions (not that it would be any less tragic, if they did). We overlap very much.
Dhruva Jaishankar, foreign policy fellow at Brookings India in New Delhi, told the New York Times that an isolated incident like the Kansas shooting would not affect the relationship between America and India. But if more attacks against Indians were to occur, or if the United States were perceived to not be taking such cases seriously enough, there could be a problem, he added. Recently, tensions have been running high over the proposed curb on H1B visas. Amidst the looming promises of a crackdown on undocumented, illegal immigrants, it would also bode well to remember that according to a Pew Center report from 2016, Indians in the recent years have become the fourth largest group of illegal immigrants in the US (after Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala) — numbering to about half a million.
Brown has long been a byword for immigrant in the United States, in spite of the fact that many people of South-Asian, middle-eastern and Latin American origin have lived and assiduously contributed as legal residents and citizens for several decades. By and large, Indian-Americans, who are generally perceived to be a hard working, highly-educated and entrepreneurial lot, have been hailed as a model minority in the US. But the do not exist in a vacuum. Incidents of violent attacks, such as the one that took place on February 23 in Olathe, Kansas, raise red flags. As Sandip Roy writes in a Huffpost article, “They are part of the immigrant story, and when backlash happens they will be part of that story too, as the Kansas incident tragically illustrates.”