Feelings of vulnerability have resonated with the Hindu American community since the recent murders of Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Kansas and Harnish Patel in South Carolina. Last Friday, I met with a group of young, Hindu friends for dinner. Quickly turning to politics, we discussed how we would interact with TSA agents if they overstepped their bounds. How willing were we to assert our constitutional rights vs. incurring potential retaliation by law enforcement?
Two things struck me about this conversation.
First, this was not a new conversation to have in America. The African-American community has long had to grapple with how to interact with law enforcement. Our TSA conversation paled in comparison to the “Talk” that Black parents have with their children regarding police encounters.
Second, we had striking privilege: casual political talk amongst four educated young professionals in liberal Boston over kale flatbread pizza and craft cocktails.
Hindu Americans have risen up to speak against recent hate crimes. However, these events must be considered in the context of two relationships. The first is the complex relationship between Hindu America and Republican politics. The second is the relationship, or lack thereof, between Hindu Americans and other social justice movements. Resolving the questions surrounding these two relationships is essential to achieving solidarity and developing partnerships to achieve social justice today.
Hindu Nationalism And Trumpism
Historically, Indian-Americans have overwhelmingly supported the Democratic party, with only 16% voting for Mitt Romney in 2012 (data were not stratified by religion). We do not yet have 2016 election breakdown data, but Hindu groups, in the United States and India, supported Donald Trump’s campaign. This support has often been explained by ideological agreement with conservative economic and social policies. The emergence of Trump highlighted uglier aspects of this alliance: anti-Islamic, anti-Pakistani and anti-immigrant sentiments.
Right-wing Hindu Nationalism has a far reach and this ideology shares much with Trumpism. Both paint the religious majority (Hindus in India and Christians in America) as the aggrieved party, facing an onslaught from globalist, liberal, politically correct, minority groups. In Trump, conservative Hindus see a leader in the meld of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a nationalist strongman with concerning ties to violent Hindu terrorists.
A particularly deplorable example of the bigoted elements that drove the Hindu-Trump partnership concerns Huma Abedin, advisor to Hillary Clinton. In the week prior to the election, the Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC) promoted an ad via multiple Indian stations and swing-state direct mailers, smearing Abedin for her Pakistani background. The frenzy surrounding Abedin highlighted a level of conspiratorial accusations and misogyny that would fit right in at Brietbart News.
Indian-Americans And Social Justice
Hindu Americans have played varying roles in supporting other civil rights movements. Encouragingly, Hindu Americans are quite progressive on issues including abortion, same-sex marriage and environmental protection. Yet, a significant generational divide remains among Hindus. There has been a long history of anti-African sentiment amongst Indians dating back to the slave trade, that has influenced modern Indian thought. The legacy of partition and Muslim terrorism in India still influence older generations. As immigrants who came here legally, often on H1B visas, there is a discordance when considering the plight of the millions of immigrants who came here without documentation. In practice, this manifests as a lack of activism relating to non-Hindu issues, be it Black Lives Matter, ICE deportations or transgender rights.
In 2015, three Muslim Americans were killed in their home in Chapel Hill. In response, over 150 interfaith groups came together to write a letter to Attorney General Holder calling for a Federal hate crime investigation. While individual Hindu groups spoke against the attack, partnership and involvement in this effort was absent.
A Path Forward
Given the risks faced by all minority communities, there are various ways that Hindu Americans can enhance their advocacy.
1. Engaging from within: Last year, the Chinese-American community faced a deep divide. Thousands marched to defend Officer Peter Liang after he was convicted of killing Akai Gurley, an African-American in New York City. Asian-American youth responded in force with the “Letters for Black Lives” movement. These letters voiced support for the Black community in language directed at older generations. This effort serves as an incredible model, highlighting the importance of engaging family and community. Their website now includes translated letters in dozens of languages including Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and Tamil. Within the Hindu community, a new American-born generation cannot be reluctant or fearful of respectfully dissenting and challenging the political and social views of an earlier generation. Casual anti-Pakistani and Islamophobic remarks can’t be ignored at the dinner table. Arguments explaining why LGBT rights matter and why undocumented immigrants must be protected would be better received from within the community.
2. Being an ally: Hindu-American advocacy groups must do a better job of supporting the work of others. Solidarity is manifested in writing, calling legislators, marching and engaging with community members on a range of issues. The focus must expand beyond textbooks in California or CNN documentaries. Hindus enjoy a privileged place in the United States and we should translate this into greater action. The growing partnership between the Jewish and Islamic communities in the United States serve as a model. Muslim activists recently raised money to repair the desecrated headstones at a Jewish cemetery in Missouri and Jewish activists have fundraised to repair a mosque that was target of arson in Florida. As a matter of self-interest, solidarity creates coalitions and expands our base of support. I prefer to consider solidarity as a fundamental expression of empathy, something that any Hindu should elevate above all else. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Philando Castile should resonate just as much amongst Hindu Americans as Srinivas Kuchibhotla’s murder.
3. Policies above pride: Indian-American and Hindu politicians have only recently emerged as potent political forces, with a new wave of elected and appointed officials. Pride in the political success of Indians is understandable. Blind support for Indian political actors is shortsighted policy-wise and often antithetical to Hindu values. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) operate at the opposite end of the political spectrum as the trio of recent Trump appointees: UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai and CMS Director Seema Verma. Political representation is a welcome step, but what does the Hindu community feel about Pai’s moves against internet access for the poor and net neutrality? What role will Verma play in the dismantling of Medicaid? What degree of pride should we take in Prime Minister Modi’s nationalist rhetoric? Even on the progressive side, to what extent should we question Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s (D-HI) past statements on Islam and foreign policy or US attorney Preet Bhahara’s prosecution of vulnerable populations? All politicians must be held accountable and evaluated on their efforts to help or harm marginalized communities.
The next four years and beyond will require resilience. Hindu Americans must take a greater role in forging partnerships, based on mutual interest, empathy, a desire to learn from others, and a shared vision for a just community.