by Namrata Verghese – Follow @browngirlmag Last summer, during the early hours of morning, many of the most powerful people in D.C.—and, indeed, the world—were clustered in a tense Senate chamber, waiting with bated breath as the vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or, colloquially, “Obamacare”) played out. Every Democrat and two stalwart moderate Republicans, Senators Collins and Murkowski, had been vocal about their opposition to the so-called “Skinny Repeal,” which would roll back the ACA without a replacement. The fate of millions, it seemed, rested on one man’s vote—the one additional Republican voice needed to kill the Skinny Repeal.
It was almost 2 a.m. when the clerk read the Arizona Senator’s name. McCain walked to the front of the chamber, raising his hand in the air.
he said, with an emphatic thumbs-down.
And just like that, the Skinny Repeal was dead. In the gallery, journalists let out a collective gasp, brightening the dim chamber with dozens of flashing cameras. Across the nation, viewers of C-SPAN let out a wavering breath. It was over—for now.
Former U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, described the entire process as “emotionally wrenching.”
The 2017 fellows of the Washington Leadership Program, an initiative that supports South Asian students interested in policy, had the opportunity to speak with Murthy just a few days after the Skinny Repeal was crushed. Sitting in a coffee shop, we leaned closer to hear him over the background music. He’s soft-spoken, but incredibly articulate. Every sentence he said sounded like a quote embroidered onto a throw pillow.
“We can’t allow the healthcare of millions of people to hinge on one person,” he said. “That is unacceptable.”
During his tenure as the 19th Surgeon General of the United States, Murthy worked tirelessly to implement the health-care policies under attack by the current administration.
“It’s heartbreaking, because I could see how the ACA had a profound impact on lives. I went through the process with my own mother,” he said.
He acknowledged that the ACA had its problems—a high deductible, for instance, which left his “thrifty immigrant mother” balking at the out-of-pocket cost of a checkup. However, he stressed that the emphasis should be on improving the existing policy, not stripping it bare “without a coherent plan moving forward.”
When asked how he recovers from the attempts to undo the progress he made during his time in office, Murthy highlighted the importance of self-care.
“Self-care is one of the hardest things to do, but one of the most important things to do if you want to care for others,” he said. “In times of hardship, it’s important to bring yourself away from a place of fear and towards a place of love and gratitude. Emotional fitness is just as important as physical fitness.”
In difficult times, Murthy often turns to inspirational videos and sports movies to “re-center himself”—in fact, during his lengthy confirmation process, he frequently watched clips from Miracle to emotionally recharge. The process was nerve-wracking, but Murthy stuck it through, saying,
“Although it sounds cliche, it was almost as though I were destined to do this.”“We don’t always know our destiny until it comes knocking, he said. “This wasn’t a gradual deliberation, for me. It came in an instant, and it came from a place of intuition and inspiration.”
Inspiration has played a critical role in Murthy’s decisions throughout his life; at every crossroads, Murthy asks himself, “Am I inspired to do it?” He emphasized the importance of making choices not solely based on intellectual analyses, but visceral feelings.
“Sometimes we plan for life, but sometimes, life has plans for you,” he said. “If you are lucky, you will find inspiration. If you are wise, you will follow it.”
Murthy has always pursued his inspiration—but, he stresses, that often entails taking risks that don’t ultimately work out.
“You don’t often hear about the failures that precede success,” he said. “I could tell you about many lonely nights spent writing out ideas on a yellow pad of paper. Those ideas may not have worked out, but the pursuit of them led to my path today.”
He compares inspiration to love:
“Once you’ve felt it, you recognize it.”
Murthy first felt inspiration as an eighteen-year-old, when he and his sister founded VISIONS Worldwide, a nonprofit centered on HIV/AIDS education in the U.S. and India. He has allowed this feeling to guide him throughout his personal and professional trajectory, drawing upon it later in life when he felt compelled to co-found the organization that would become Doctors for America and put him on the radar for the position of Surgeon General.
After volunteering on the Obama campaign, Murthy noted that “there was an important perspective missing” in the conversation surrounding healthcare. The initiative, then dubbed Doctors for Obama, aimed to energize and mobilize a network of physicians and medical students across the nation to rally for comprehensive healthcare reform.
“Obama’s campaign was grounded in a message that reminded me of why my parents came to this country,” Murthy said. “Working for him was the first time I experienced democracy in action.”
His involvement in the campaign put Murthy in the right frame of mind to be open to the position of Surgeon General. Furthering his metaphor, Murthy said,
“If you’re not open, the perfect partner for you may pass you by.”
For this reason, Murthy has always allowed himself to take risks.
“We tend to overestimate risks,” he said.
When he initially proposed taking time off after medical school to pursue his business ideas, many of his close mentors and friends cautioned him against going “off-path.”
“But it comes down to asking yourself this,” he said. “If you take this risk and it ultimately fails, where will you be? In this case, the worst-case scenario was that I practice medicine for one less year. At the end of my career, if I practiced medicine for forty years instead of forty-one years, how much of a difference would that one year ultimately make?”
Moving forward, Murthy plans to keep this advice in the forefront of his mind. When asked “what’s next?” he merely smiled.
“When I came out of office, I was burnt out,” he said. “Now, I’m focusing on replenishing myself.”
Among other things, Murthy has dedicated his time to writing, an activity he loves but wasn’t able to make much time for during his tenure as Surgeon General. He is also “detoxing” from social media, noting that, although people tend to think platforms such as Facebook and Instagram enhance connectivity and therefore turn to them when they’re feeling down, studies actually show that they can increase feelings of loneliness.
“It’s best to use social media as a waystation instead of a destination,” Murthy observed. “For example, if I’m in New York and I post about meeting up or restaurant recommendations, that is more fulfilling than aimless scrolling and liking.”
In general, however, Murthy isn’t overly concerned about the next step. For now, he wants to get into the right mindset to “receive inspiration when it comes.” He’s been reading, having conversations with his mentors and friends, and thinking about what matters to him: most of all, his family.
As soon as Murthy got the call that changed his life, he immediately phoned his wife to tell her. Before he could break the news, however, she asked,
“Did they just ask you to be Surgeon General?”
“It comes back to intuition,” Murthy said. “Her intuition told her that this was something that was in the cards for me. My intuition told me the same thing. That feeling, that spark, is why I compare inspiration to love. When something feels meant to be, it probably is.”
Murthy has no doubts that he will feel that spark again.
“In the future, I see myself writing and building something from the ground up. I don’t see myself working for anyone else, or starting a foundation with my name on it. I don’t think that’s my calling.”
But until then, he’s content with ambiguity.
“Something that often pushes people into wrong decisions is the inability to stick with uncertainty, he said.”
So, for now, Murthy is living by his own advice: he is taking risks, pursuing inspiration, practicing self-care, and “making space in his heart and mind to bump into the unexpected.”
Namrata is a rising junior and Robert W. Woodruff Scholar at Emory University, pursuing a double major in English/Creative Writing and Psychology/Linguistics. An aspiring writer, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in storySouth, Litro Magazine, NY Literary Magazine, VoiceCatcher, Paper Darts, and elsewhere. She loves reading, coffee, and Bollywood music (and combining all three at the same time!).
We write this letter in a time of deep, continued emergency — an open letter to our community, fellowdominant-caste Indian Americans of Hindu descent. As we speak, there is a genocide happening on the ground in Gaza, Palestine. More than825 bloodlines have been wiped from the family registry, more than50% of homes have been flattened, the death toll is more than 11,500 (and rising) in the last month alone and a child is killed every 10 minutes. It is much too late, and yet the most urgent and precisely right moment to have this conversation.
It is the moment to respond with the utmost urgency because we are witnessing a genocide, what Gazans are terming a “second Nakba.” As popular movements have told us, “Mourn those who have passed and fight like hell for the living.”
We write this to our community as two Brahmin people of Hindu descent and as community organizers working in South Asian movements and movements in solidarity with Palestine. We mention nationality, caste, and faith positionality, here because we believe these identities task us with specific responsibilities to speak up at this moment. We write to you hoping that addressing our community directly will encourage more of us to not only speak out, but show up in civil disobedience and direct action in solidarity with Palestinian people. We are also guided by the fundamental belief that it is the responsibility of those of us who have privileged identities in this moment to have this conversation with each other, while following the lead of Palestinian, Kashmiri, Indian Muslim, Dalit, Adivasi, Bahujan, and other marginalized organizers.
So — if you are a seasoned supporter of the movement in solidarity with Palestine (of whom there are many in our community), if you have been marching, speaking up, screaming at the rooftops for Gaza — we are grateful and inspired by you. More power to you; we see you, we are with you. If you are new to this conversation, we invite you and we say, there is still time to make a difference. We need you. If you are confused, questioning, or afraid, we ask that you take a few minutes of your time to read further.
Over the past few weeks, many of us — led by Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, Kashmiri, working-class, Indo-Caribbean, and anti-Zionist Jewish organizations — have risen up inprincipled protest. We have marched in D.C., signed petitions, called our representatives, and spoken up in our social circles. Yet, some of us have remained silent. Though there have been many new outpourings of support, a culture of silence or neutrality still seems to be apparent amongst large sections of our community. We are especially thinking here of notable public figures such as celebrities, who capitalize off of “representation” politics and have previously spoken about anti-racism and superficial “decoloniality,” but have not raised their voices for Palestine. While some South Asian celebrities have chosen to celebrate Diwali at the White House, we commend the principled stance of others who have opted to boycott presidential celebrations in this moment of state-sponsored genocide instead. As a community, our analysis of white supremacy, privilege, and colonization cannot stop at “chai tea is tea-tea.” This is the trend we seek to interrupt, gently but firmly, in this writing. For those who have spoken out tentatively or fearfully, we hope we can embolden each other to unapologetically show up for Palestine, and empower each other to risk with our words and actions, what we hold dear, both ideologically and materially, in the name of justice.
We do want to note that there is a very real — and credible — silencing of those who speak out in favor of Palestine.Students have been doxxed and threatened with expulsion andretracted job offers. Othershave been terminated from employment for simply speaking out in support of a ceasefire and of Palestinian life. There are entire institutions that exist solely to target people — especially Black, Indigenous, racialized, Muslim, and/or queer people — who speak out against Israel. The United States also has a dangerous Cold-War era history ofMcCarthyism, in which alleged communists were extensively targeted by the government leading to job losses, social ostracization, and other consequences. The fear is real.
Even between the two of us, we have faced regular doxxing and harassment. But this swift and unrelenting censorship of so many voices shows us that the tide is turning, and institutions deeply invested in genocidal violence and suppression of truth know that they are losing. They seek to wield fear — the last tool they have — to silence us. Though they can target one voice, they cannot target us all. The masses of people worldwide — across race, nationality, religion, etc. — are rising up in protest to demand a ceasefire.
There have been many individuals who have justified their silence by a claim that as neither Muslims nor Jews, we must “remain neutral.” Morally, this argument overlooks the fact that we do not need to be directly impacted to call a spade a spade, and a genocide, a genocide. More specifically, as Indian Americans with caste privilege and of Hindu descent, we cannot be neutral, precisely because our existence is inherently not neutral; our heritage intertwines us with the violence of occupation.
We understand that much of this information may be difficult to grapple with or ask us to question fundamental beliefs we have held or been taught for much of our lives. Being people of conviction means not looking away from difficult truths, whether they are happening in Palestine or in Kashmir. The entire history of this partnership and its origins are beyond the scope of this article, but we have linked resources below directly from Kashmiri scholars and activists that we encourage our community to learn more.
By asking these difficult questions, we see that as Indian Americans of Hindu descent, we are not neutral because of the violence done in our name. Thus, we call on our community to use this moment as an invitation to direct action — for all liberation movements around the globe. No business as usual at a time of genocide. In line with the calls being put forth by Palestinian organizers, sit-ins, blockades, and strikes are the call of the hour. Brave activists have been rising to this call — as we saw in theBlock The Boat Action at the Port of Oakland; the mass sit-ins of Jewish protesters atGrand Central Station andCongress; and theshutdown of Elbit Systems’ office in Boston.
There is a powerful history of direct actions and civil disobedience in South Asian movement histories. Most recently, it has been used by courageoustransgender activists fighting for Horizontal Reservations in states like Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu;farmers and laborers in Punjab demanding a repeal of oppressive laws; and now,pro-Palestine crowds flooding the streets of major cities across India. We lean on this history and say, it is time to put ourselves on the line for Palestine. Until a complete ceasefire is achieved; until the unlawful Israeli occupation and US aid to it ends; until Palestinians can live with dignity and freedom. We say “Free Palestine” with our full chest.
Here are some of the many ways to show up in direct action for Palestine:
DIVEST:Workers in Palestine have released this incredibly useful guide for tracing institutional ties to Zionism and organizing for divestment as a strategy. Agitate to end these complicities in your sphere of influence.
Even in the face of fear, we are reminded of the dire need to keep pushing against repression, in line with the unrelenting courage of the Palestinian people. Whether we look like the oppressed or the oppressors, let us stand on the right side of history to stop an ongoing genocide unfolding in front of our eyes.
Now is the time to put ourselves on the line for Palestine. We say: Free Palestine, Free Kashmir. Ceasefire Now. End the occupations. Join us!
This article has been written by Meghana N. and Nikhil Dharmaraj.
Meghana (she/her) is a Telugu community organizer and researcher from the deep South. Her work lies at the intersection of trauma-informed healing and movement-building. Meghana has worked in progressive South Asian organizing for the past decade, and her past writing has integrated research and movement work for various audiences.
Nikhil Dharmaraj is an emerging graduate researcher, creative, and aspiring accomplice/organizer. Nikhil’s work explores the intersection of technology and power, particularly along the lines of race, caste, gender, class, and national identity.
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.
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 eventcentered 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.
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
The following open letter is written by Hindus for Human Rights, an organization advocating for pluralism, civil and human rights in South Asia and North America, rooted in the values of Hindu faith: shanti (peace), nyaya (justice) and satya (truth). They provide a Hindu voice of resistance to caste, Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), racism, and all forms of bigotry and oppression.
Dear President Biden,
As Indian-Americans, human rights organizations, and concerned allies, we are writing to urge you to engage publicly and meaningfully to push back against the Indian government’s escalating attacks on human rights and democracy, especially ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the United States.
Despite objective evidence that India’s democracy is under critical attack, you have not spoken out about this crisis. In early 2023, Indian authorities conducted retaliatory raids on the BBC’s Delhi and Mumbai offices for releasing a documentary about Prime Minister Modi. The week before the Summit for Democracy, the Indian government made three successive attacks on Indian democracy. First, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party expelled Rahul Gandhi from Parliament. Second, the Indian government shut the internet down in Punjab, severely impacting the rights for Sikhs to peacefully organize and protest. And third, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that Indians can be found guilty by association for terrorism. And yet, not one representative from the Biden Administration said anything about even one of these developments. Instead, while Islamophobic violence gripped India in late March, you invited Prime Minister Modi to speak at the Summit for Democracy. Mr. Modi visits DC at a time when the state of Manipur has experienced heavy communal and anti-Christian violence after Modi’s ruling party pushed an initiative to undermine Indigenous rights in the state.
“As privileged members of the diaspora, it’s our duty to challenge the repressive practices of the current regime in India. We stand in solidarity with those … opposed to the government’s attempt to reshape the country into a Hindu nationalist state. https://t.co/RxU9wUy2Zy
Even when confronted with questions by Indian reporters about human rights in India, your administration has only had private two-way conversations about how both of our governments can always improve. Quite frankly, we find it unacceptable to see such equivocation on Indian democracy from an administration that has been strident in its defense of American democracy and the rule of law.
India is one of the fastest autocratizing nations in the world, mostly thanks to the current government. Freedom House has rated India as a “partly-free” country for the past three years, and has blamed Prime Minister Modi’s government for a rise in discriminatory policies, including persecution against Muslims and caste-based violence against Dalit and Adivasi communities; harassment of civil society, protestors, academia and the media, and the targeting of political opponents. It has also rated Indian-administered Kashmir as “not free,” citing violations of human, civil, and political rights after the Modi government revoked the territory’s autonomous status. In Reporters Without Borders‘ press freedom ranking, India has dropped to 161 out of 180 countries in 2023. India has appeared in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Index — which examines accountability for unsolved journalists’ murders — every year for the past 15 years and currently ranks in 11th place worldwide. According to PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, in 2022, India was one of the top 10 countries that jailed writers globally. The Varieties of Democracy Institute characterizes India as an “electoral autocracy” and blames India’s descent into autocracy on Prime Minister Modi. And the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has said India has been one of the top 15 countries at risk for a mass atrocity event every year since 2017, which reflects the toxicity of Indian politics under Modi.
“If the President meets with PM Modi, then the protection of the Muslim minority in a majority Hindu India is something worth mentioning…if you do not protect the rights of ethnic minorities, there’s a strong possibility India starts pulling apart.” Thank you @BarackObama! https://t.co/RhcMNfiqaR
Given the magnitude of this crisis, we ask you to engage directly with Indian-American and human rights civil society leaders to explore solutions to address India’s human rights crisis. We also ask you to employ the tools at your disposal to ensure that the Indian government cannot attack Indians’ human rights with impunity. As the 2022 Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor report details, several government individuals have committed human rights violations that, under U.S. law, would qualify them to be sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act. Indian security forces that have engaged in human rights violations should have security assistance rescinded, under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.
Finally, we urge you to publicly call on the Indian government to honor its commitments to human rights, including calling on Prime Minister Modi and his cabinet to halt the use of anti-terror laws to arbitrarily detain political critics. You can publicly denounce the rising numbers of political prisoners and the weaponization of the rule of law in India to shut down criticism. Even if you are not willing to personally criticize the Prime Minister, you have ample opportunity to criticize the Indian government’s misuse of public trust and public institutions to consolidate power and undermine the will of the Indian people.
This morning in DC, on the lawn of The White House at the welcome reception for Modi.
As President of the United States of America, you hold a unique position to lead the fight against authoritarianism. Prime Minister Modi will listen to you when you speak. But he and his allies will only change if you take a stand publicly. We urge you to listen to those of us who care about India and ensure that one man cannot steal the futures and the rights of our loved ones in India.
— Signed by countless organizations and individuals leading the charge (linked here).