Karthik Chandramouli has always been an active citizen. Growing up in Kentucky as the only son of two Indian immigrant professionals, Chandramouli recalls his third-grade classmates in 1979 being unable to tell him apart from the Iranian refugee in their class. The experience sparked his interest in the politics of racial justice and civil liberties. He majored in political science and earned a master’s in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School. Running on a platform of social justice, this past spring he campaigned for village council trustee in Mundelein, Illinois.
In 2017, the marginalization of Indian-Americans continues to inspire their political activism. In response to the hate crimes committed in February with the shootings of Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani in Kansas (which resulted in Kuchibhotla’s death) and Deep Rai in Seattle just two weeks later, Indian-American communities hosted vigils and petitioned representatives to introduce more comprehensive hate crime legislation.
But in the broader history of Indian-Americans’ civic engagement, such strong political involvement is rare. Only recently have Indian-Americans begun to embrace their roles as civic leaders, with leaders across the country tossing their hats into the political ring. A more politically-active cohort of Indian-Americans could wield significant force at all levels of government: Indian-Americans compose about one percent of the total U.S. population, and are one of the fastest-growing ethnic minorities in America.
Nevertheless, many obstacles stand in the way of Indian-Americans’ efforts to build a collective political identity. The combined forces of internal, religious, and linguistic divisions, along with a lack of organizational institutions, form the core of this civic disengagement. But while additional political organizations offer an important step towards collective action, for Indian-Americans to unite as a robust political force, the movement must begin with involvement at the local level.
Internal divisions along religious and linguistic lines form the most tangible obstacles to the formation of a collective Indian-American political identity. “Most [Indian-American] communities tend to congregate by language rather than race,” Temple University professor Sanjoy Chakravorty told the HPR. The Indian government recognizes 22 distinct Indian languages—only a fraction of the larger number spoken throughout India. This extreme linguistic diversity limits Indian-Americans’ ability to communicate with one another in a single tongue.
According to Drew University professor Sangay Mishra, tensions among Indian Hindus and Muslims further prevent the formation of a collective political identity among the Indian-American community. “Even though we’re majority Hindu, we have a large segment of Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians,” Mishra explained in an interview with the HPR. He noted that the interaction among these different religious groups plays a large part in organizing widespread political movements among Indian-Americans.
However, instead of bridging religious barriers to build political cohesion in the post-9/11 era, Hindu-Americans have tried to distance themselves from Muslims, Mishra said, adding that Sikhs are prone to doing the same. “There is a very powerful mobilization among the Sikh community where they feel as if they’re being mistaken as Muslims, so they need to educate law enforcement agencies and the American community about what Sikhism is,” he explained. According to Mishra, this interaction will shape the evolution of Indian-American political identity and determine “whether it is all-inclusive or just a Hindu identity that distances itself from other religions.”
Complex Class Interests
In addition to these internal divisions, Indian-Americans often find themselves split between their class interests. While many Indian-Americans’ cultural and economic interests favor the Republican Party, their marginalization as racial and religious minorities draws them towards the Democrats.
While a slight majority of Indian-Americans lean left, according to Chakravorty, Indian-Americans are natural Republican voters due to their cultural conservatism. Moreover, as Chakravorty asserted, Indian-Americans’ economic interests also favor the GOP. Hrishikesh Joshi, a postgraduate research fellow at Princeton University, argued in a National Review article that Democratic policies like the current country-based, permanent-residence visa quota system and race-based affirmative action policies disproportionately harm Indian-Americans.
But Joshi noted that the Republican Party has failed to market to Indian-Americans at large. “The perception of the Democratic Party as the party for minorities has been marketed and presented robustly through outreach programs and the media,” Joshi told the HPR. He explained that the lack of GOP outreach “overrides the other socially conservative views that Indian-American immigrants tend to have which would point them towards the Republican Party.”
Indeed, the continued religious and social marginalization faced by Indian-Americans leads many away from the Republican Party. For instance, Chakravorty noted that the party has become synonymous with Christianity, which has made Indian-American voters “feel unwelcome.” In fact, Chakravorty argued that “in order to become prominent Republicans, Indians have to become Christians,” referring to former Indian-American governors Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley as examples of the deeply-rooted Republican evangelism that effectively necessitates Christianity as a condition for political success among candidates of racial minorities.
Mishra echoed these sentiments, noting that even though Indian-Americans would seem to naturally lean right because of the community’s general affluence and conservative cultural values, “their religious, cultural, and social marginalization makes them more receptive to liberal ideas that the Democratic Party has put forward,” especially in the wake of recent hate crimes. “In the end, they are seen as non-white, they are seen as minorities, they are seen as people who are perpetual outsiders,” argued Mishra.
While Mishra acknowledged the weight of internal divisions and class interests, he said the main obstacle preventing Indian-Americans’ political organization is a lack of organizing institutions at both the national and grassroots levels. “[Indian-Americans] have not been approached by political parties and candidates. … They’re not trying to recruit,” said Mishra.
South Asian Americans Leading Together is one umbrella organization that is tailored towards Indian-Americans. By representing South Asian Americans of multiple ethnicities, cultures, and religions, SAALT attempts to overcome internal divisions and focus on collective advocacy related to issues affecting the community—including immigration, civil rights, and hate violence. “Today, we’re seeing the highest level of hate crimes [against South Asian Americans] since the year after 9/11. It’s an epidemic, it’s terrifying,” SAALT’s Director of National Policy and Advocacy Lakshmi Sridaran told the HPR. “There is an onslaught of policy attacks against members of our community, whether that’s the Muslim ban or limiting H1B visas.”
However, complacency among Indian-Americans in the face of injustice is pervasive, explained Mishra: as “Indian-Americans are not considered a ‘problem minority,’ which leads them to not worry about discrimination because they believe they are doing so well, contributing to the economy, and being educated.”
But according to Mishra, in the end, no matter how marginalized Indian-Americans may feel, due to their relatively high status as a minority group, they are not immune to it. He noted that many Indian-Americans believed “that if we kept our heads down and kept doing what we’re doing, we would be able to fit in. But now we realize that’s not true.”
While national advocacy groups like SAALT offer robust paths towards collectivizing personal marginalization and attacking problems like Islamophobia, in order for Indian-Americans to form a truly collective political force, they must become more politically engaged at the local level. That means welcoming political discourse in their social circles, voting for candidates who will champion their interests, and running for office.
To address the first goal, organizations like SAALT have developed regional and local initiatives to engage South Asian Americans in political discourse, including town halls, naturalization clinics, and roundtable discussions with local policymakers. But while these efforts are primarily concentrated in Washington, D.C. and New Jersey, Indian-American communities across the country have enhanced political discourse among their members in the wake of tragedy.
The second goal of increased political representation presents a greater challenge to increased civic engagement, because many Indian immigrants have yet to receive full citizenship. However, cities like San Francisco have recently passed measures to allow noncitizens to vote in local school board elections, illustrating the value of starting small when it comes to civic engagement. As a result of San Francisco’s efforts to expand suffrage, many previously disenfranchised Asian-Americans and Latinos—who make up a majority of public school students in the area—have been empowered to become more politically engaged.
Furthermore, breaking down the English language barrier for more recent Indian-American immigrants offers one way to promote civic engagement. Groups like SAALT have translated voter educational materials into several South Asian languages to increase civic literacy, while ballots in Bengali have already been implemented in some areas of New York City.
As for Indian-Americans with full citizenship, running for office is becoming an increasingly popular option. During the most recent election cycle, a record number of Indian-Americans were elected to Congress, evincing the unprecedented political success of the community. Moreover, a slate of recent appointments of Indian-Americans to the executive cabinet indicates greater bipartisan representation on the federal level.
Meanwhile, some Indian-Americans have been focusing on attaining smaller positions, including state legislature seats, board of education positions, and city council memberships. “Indian-Americans are more active in supporting candidates than in running for office, and are generally less active in the politics of local communities,” Chandramouli noted, emphasizing that efforts at change must start small. To Chandramouli, collective political mobilization of the Indian-American community ultimately depends on the efforts of local leaders.
“We don’t organize and get things done locally,” Chandramouli told the HPR. “When we learn how to do that, we can leave an impact.”
Image Credit: Flickr / Ami Bera
Correction, Dec. 21: Due to a technical difficulty, a previous version of this article omitted the final five paragraphs of the original piece. The article has since been updated to include the entirety of Staff Writer Meena Venkataramanan’s work.