Opinion: Modi and Trump are Ready to Bury the Indian-American Community. Is Anyone Else Grabbing a Shovel?

Source: Instagram of Narendra Modi

Across America, South Asian Americans (Pakistanis, Indians, Sri Lankans, Nepalis, etc.) vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Although President Donald Trump has publicized his relationship with a small group of Republican Hindus, there appears to be no danger that Democrats are losing their favored status with South Asian voters. However, there is a real risk that the burgeoning alliance between Trump and authoritarian-right-wing Indian Prime Minister Modi will harm how South Asians are viewed by their neighbors. The Modi-Trump political rally in Houston this week may be an unfortunate turning point.

By and large, Americans that aren’t South Asian don’t spend a lot of time thinking about South Asian Americans because the stereotypes are generally positive; educated, hardworking, and uncomplicated. Even when victims of hate, like the Wisconsin massacre of Sikhs at a Gurdwara on a Sunday morning in 2012 or the recent attack on a Hindu religious leader in New York, the narrative is generally of immigrant Americans that are just trying to do the right thing. This could be changing and it may get worse before it gets better.

On August 5, 2019, India made a rare appearance on American news channels when Indian Prime Minister Narinder Modi stripped Muslim-majority Kashmir of all autonomy, eliminated democratic institutions, cut off the internet, and essentially turned the state into a vassal of the central government in New Delhi. Since then, news coverage in the U.S. has been mostly negative and often referred to Modi’s status as a purveyor of bigotry and religious discrimination. The move was widely condemned in the United States, including by South Asian American leaders. In the subsequent six weeks, there have been regular news pieces describing human rights violations and suffering in Kashmir.

[Read Related: ‘Paradise Has Fallen’: The State of Jammu & Kashmir Post Article 370]

This week, Houston’s largest arena will be the site of a fifty thousand attendee political rally headlined by PM Modi and President Donald Trump. The sight of such a large and unique crowd is sure to be at the top of every national news broadcast, a political website, and insider podcast. Americans will see a rabid crowd of brown faces cheering two leaders, an American bigot and an Indian bigot, both with virulent anti-Muslim policies that push the limits of their respective national institutions. Although there are sure to be protestors from across the political and ethnic spectrum, the lasting image in the U.S. will be of two horrid leaders being hailed by South Asians.

Despite the potential damage of these images, there is cause for hope in the South Asian political community. The progressive movement across the country has a growing list of South Asians in leadership positions that are a counterweight to the Trump-Modi disaster. From Congressman Ro Khanna (Vice-Chair of the Bernie Sanders campaign) and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (sponsor of the Medicare For All Bill) to Varshini Prakash (Executive Director of the Sunrise Movement) and Joseph Geevarghese (Executive Director of Our Revolution), there is a deep bench that is changing minds and leading political conversations.

These two opposing forces within the South Asian American community, religious nationalism versus American progressivism, are rapidly drawing battle lines in the United States with ‘Hindutva’ as the dominating point of dispute. As I have discussed elsewhere, Hindutva is a fascist and supremacist movement similar to white supremacist movements in the U.S. It mobilizes around a virulent religious ethnonationalism, holding that India is a homeland for only Hindus and using violence to intimidate compliance around its economic and political policies. Indian Prime Minister Modi, his political party (BJP), and its cultural counterpart organizations (RSS, VHP, etc.) have won elections by pairing violent Hindutva political rhetoric with virtual impunity for those that engage in the rape, torture, murder and oppression of Indian Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Ravidassias, and Hindu Dalits. (See the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Reports for detail.) The sad truth is that there is a significant American contingent of South Asians that hypocritically support bigotry-fueled Hindutva for India while asserting liberal human rights protections in the U.S.

This dichotomy came to light this week with the hashtags #StopHinduFascism and #HowdyModi.

Modi-supporting South Asian Americans pushed the latter hashtag as part of a campaign to publicize the Modi rally. However, it was quickly taken over by a coalition of social justice activists and organizations as they countered the whitewashed narrative with stories of persecution and oppression in India. Although this tension has been simmering for some time, it appeared to boil over with the recent announcement that Trump will join Modi on the main stage.

More telling, however, than the inclusion of Trump is the apparent abandonment of Modi by most South Asian American elected officials. When Modi was elected and in his subsequent visits to the U.S., his schedule was overflowing with large events, high-level meetings, and photo-ops alongside Senators and Congressional representatives of all political stripes and ethnicities. However, with Kashmir oppression in the news, South Asian American elected officials are widely refusing to be seen with Modi.

[Read Related: A Response to Donald Trump’s SOTU Address from a 17-Year-Old Brown Girl]

Representative Ami Bera had been a long time and effective supporter of the Modi-led Indian government, despite the latter’s deplorable human rights records. However, he is now one of the high profile South Asian Americans declining the invitation to the Modi-Trump rally. Representative Brad Sherman had publicly defended his decision to invite his colleagues to the event but even he reversed his position after hearing from constituents. The list of Democrat elected official attendees appears to be shrinking by the hour.

Although the South Asian American community continues to be solidly Democratic and the rejection of the Modi-Trump rally by elected officials is a good sign, the truth remains that the upcoming media narrative is likely to damage the reputation of the South Asian American community. It is never helpful for any community to fill a stadium in honor and appreciation of bigots, foreign or domestic.

Amar Shergill is an attorney, Executive Board Member of the California Democratic Party (CDP,) and Chair of the CDP Progressive Caucus. Twitter handle is @AmarShergillCA.
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By Amar Shergill

Amar Shergill is an attorney, Executive Board Member of the California Democratic Party (CDP,) and Chair of the CDP Progressive … Read more ›

Oak Creek: A Story of Hate, Hope and Healing

Every year on August 5th, the Sikh American community remembers one of our community’s most devastating tragedies in recent memory — the Oak Creek massacre. On this day in 2012, a white supremacist gunman entered the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, a gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin where he shot and killed six worshippers and severely injured others. This violent attack was the deadliest mass shooting targeting Sikh Americans in U.S. history, and at the time, was one of the worst attacks on a U.S. house of worship in decades. Six worshippers — Paramjit Kaur Saini, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Prakash Singh, Suveg Singh Khattra, and Satwant Singh Kaleka — were killed on that horrific day. An additional community member, Baba Punjab Singh, was severely paralyzed and ultimately passed away from complications related to his injuries in 2020. Others, including Bhai Santokh Singh and responding police officer and hero, Lt. Brian Murphy, were seriously wounded during the shooting. 

[Read Related: Oak Creek Gurdwara Massacre’s 4th Anniversary: Young Sikhs Express Optimism for the Continued Struggle Against Hate and Ignorance]

In 2022, the community came together to demonstrate that we are undaunted. My organization, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) joined in supporting the anniversary observance at Oak Creek: a remembrance event centered around the theme of “Heal, Unite, Act.” The Oak Creek Sikh community hosted a series of in-person events, including the 10th Annual Oak Creek Sikh Memorial Anniversary Candlelight Remembrance Vigil on Friday, August 5, 2022. The program included a representative from the White House, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, Oak Creek Mayor Dan Bukiewicz, and representatives of the families who lost loved ones. Being there in Oak Creek 10 years after the tragedy was deeply meaningful — both to see the inspiring resilience of this community and to remember how much remains to be done.

In D.C., SALDEF continues to fight for policies that improve the lives of Sikh Americans. I had the honor of chairing the most recent iteration of the Faith-Based Security Advisory Council at the Department of Homeland Security, providing recommendations at the request of Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas. Consequently, the three subcommittees published a report that emphasized the importance of greater accessibility, greater equity, and greater transparency in counterterrorism efforts that for too long revolved around surveilling populations like the one that was senselessly attacked at the Oak Creek gurdwara in 2012. Leading the FBSAC as a Sikh woman, and representing a community that was highly targeted alongside Muslims by both white supremacists and in post-9/11 counterterrorism profiling, was an opportunity to push the Council to advocate more fiercely for further information-sharing between communities and law enforcement, extending grant opportunities for security for Gurdwaras and other houses of worship, and building trust between the government and Sikh communities. In addition, I advocated for accountability for the damage needlessly caused to Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and Hindu (MASSAH) communities by federal agencies historically pursuing “counterterrorism” objectives which has resulted in eroded trust rather than the development of strong partnerships. 

Although we have made great strides in this country, there is still more to do. Through our work we have partnered with many across the nation to come together and find solutions through tenets central to Sikhism and America — unity, love, and equality. SALDEF continues to strongly endorse the policy framework articulated across the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act (H.R. 350 / S. 963); Justice for Victims of Hate Crimes Act; and the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) Improvement Act (H.R. 6825). We believe strongly in mandating federal agencies to create dedicated offices to investigate domestic terrorism; allowing prosecutors to feasibly indict perpetrators of hate crimes; and allowing religious nonprofits to access federal funding to enhance their own security.

[Read Related: Anti-Sikh Hate is on the Rise: Here’s What we can Do]

While 11 years have passed, the effects of the Oak Creek shooting are never far from the minds of Sikh American advocates and the community we serve. SALDEF will not stop taking a stand against senseless violence and hate crimes. We continue to work in unity with our community and movement partners, and fight for better policies that will actively keep all of our communities safe. Through tragedy, we find hope. We know there can be a world where people from all backgrounds and cultures can practice their faith freely and, even though it has eluded the Sikh American community in the past, we still believe this world is possible.

Photo Courtesy of Amrita Kular

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Kiran Kaur Gill is an accomplished professional with exemplary executive experience. In her role as Executive Director, she is responsible … Read more ›