Prime Minister Narendra Modi has long enjoyed the visible support of many in the Indian-American community. However, in the past, groups of Indian-Americans have also effectively mobilised to challenge the BJP’s Hindu nationalist vision for India. Today, as large sections of the Indian public rise up against the Modi government’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act and National Register of Citizens, and it responds with unprecedented ferocity, it is time for Indian-Americans to re-engage in a moral debate and express support for a vibrant, democratic, and multi-hued India.
The Indian-American community is reflective of the diversity of India. There are an estimated 46 lakh people of Indian origin in the United States. About two-thirds of them are under the age of 18. A strong majority of Indian-Americans who are US citizens support the Democratic Party, and have fairly liberal political views.
As part of my research on the South Asian diaspora, I had written an article about the Indian-American community’s perceptions of Narendra Modi, while he was still the chief minister of Gujarat. I found that Americans of Indian origin were deeply divided over him. While some supported Modi enthusiastically; others actively opposed him. This latter group had a significant policy impact. In 2005, they were able to persuade the US government to deny Modi a visa to enter the US because of his poor track record in human rights and the 2002 Gujarat riots. This ban stayed in place till 2014.
After becoming Prime Minister in 2014, Narendra Modi has visited the US on multiple occasions, and has addressed rapturous crowds of Indian-Americans. The latest instance of this was the ‘Howdy, Modi!‘ show in Houston in September 2019. While protesters demonstrated outside the event; their efforts were dwarfed by the 50,000 people in attendance at the stadium, where Modi and Donald Trump walked holding hands.
My research has shown diaspora movements are most effective when there is a single issue around which people can coalesce. Further, diaspora groups tend to be reactive — responding to, rather than shaping, the politics of their home country.
As a muscular, authoritarian Hindu vision has taken hold in India, progressive voices in the immigrant community have become disillusioned. The prevailing sentiment has been — If Indian voters continue to hand the BJP resounding majorities; what is there for us, who live outside India, to say? This explains why the protests at Modi’s visits to the US have been relatively muted.
During the visa ban process, activists could focus on a single, achievable target. No such clear goal exists today – nor is one likely to emerge. However, that case was significant not only because of its actual policy outcome, but because it was shaped by a moral debate within the Indian-American community. There is an urgent need to revive and publicise that debate, so that Indian-Americans can shape both their own identity and their relationship to India.
The Indian community in the US can provide CAA-NRC protesters in India with some of the moral oxygen they desperately need, as they confront a hostile and dangerous environment.
These are some suggestions to Indian-Americans about what expressions of solidarity can look like.
First, if there are protest events planned in your locality, make every effort to attend. Perhaps the turnout will be sparse — no matter. High-decibel events like ‘Howdy, Modi!’ help legitimise the BJP regime, including its brutal actions. We may not be in a position to dwarf such events, but our voices can challenge the ideology that they are celebrating.
Second, the current spate of protests included students and faculty from institutions that are not known for their political activism, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management. If you are an alum of one of India’s preeminent educational institutions, your voice carries leverage. Contact your alumni association, and ask that they speak up in support of India’s democratic heritage. At the very least, students must be allowed to peacefully protest — without fear of state retribution under the guise of a colonial-era rule that was written to silence Indian nationalists.
Third, the crowded media space in India is astonishingly corrupt and biased. Take the time to identify the few independent voices that still exist, and support them with a subscription or, at least, regular ‘clicks’.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, reach out to fellow Indians in your community. Do you have friends or colleagues who are from one of the many minority groups that make up the rich tapestry of Indian society? Perhaps they are from Assam or Kashmir, states that have long and painful experiences with militarisation. Perhaps they are Muslim, Sikh, or Christian. Talk to them, and resist the easy anodyne of discussing American sporting events and the latest Netflix drop. Take the time to understand how different the life of a non-Hindu, non-mainland Indian is from those of us who were fortunate enough to be born as the ‘right’ sort of Indian. Now is the time for empathy and dialogue, without which a community – or nation – is rendered meaningless.
In discussing the India of our childhood, I, and the many Indian-Americans I have spoken to, recall pride in belonging to a country that had, against the predictions of many Western analysts, proven itself to be a strong democracy. That identity, which has thrived because of India’s diversity, is in grave danger. While the protesters have shown us that that identity still lives; their path ahead is perilous. By extending moral support to them, Indian-Americans can signal that we, too, have a stake in the idea of India.
The author is a Professor of Political Science at Western Washington University, US. She has published and spoken extensively on diaspora issues, including the Trump administration’s immigration policy towards Indians. Her book, Indian Immigrant Women and Work: The American Experience, was published in 2016. Views are personal.