2017: Indian Americans in the forefront

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India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) gives a bear hug to US President Donald Trump after giving a joint press statement at the White House Rose Garden.,Washington DC, June 26, 2017. Photo:-Jay Mandal/On Assignment.

NEW YORK – Josh Gordon, the Cleveland Browns’ wide receiver has this quote attributed to him, which kind of sums up a tumultuous 2017 – winding down with historic tax breaks for businesses and individuals: “Perhaps the holidays are a way to get away from the pain of the year, creating something people can laugh at. That’s a gift.”

In a year of midnight tweets – thanks to President Donald Trump’s unerring generosity; calculated tweaks – to hallowed immigration laws that were once sacrosanct and only Congress could amend, which residents with visas now realize to their dismay is not the case anymore; and terror, emanating with disturbing regularity, making brown-skinned immigrants wonder if they would be gunned down one fine day by a White, hate-spewing extremist like Srinivas Kuchibhotla was, in Kansas, or fall prey to a mass shooting in a crowd, it’s best to enjoy the holidays, and hope for a better year, in 2018.

Yet, in hindsight, it’s not been an unkind year to many Indian Americans, especially those who aspired for public office, and hired in droves by the Trump Administration.

A prime example of Trump’s penchant to hire Indian Americans is UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, the former Governor of South Carolina, who is now undoubtedly one of the President’s most trusted lieutenants, and a strong candidate for Secretary of State, if and when incumbent Rex Tillerson is forced to call it a day. That, if it happens, would be yet another fiber glass ceiling upended by the community.

SUCCESS IN POLITICS

There was plenty of excitement when Bobby Jindal became the Governor of Louisiana, in 2008, after his successful stint in Congress – the first Indian American to become so not only in the state, but the US, but it pales in comparison to the swirl of frenzied buzz around the rise and rise of Kamala Harris, whose mother is from India, and father from Jamaica.

Even before Harris, as expected, beat her Latina rival Loretta Sanchez, to grab a spot in the US Senate, there was talk of her aspiring for the highest office in the land, something Hillary Clinton incessantly dreamt in vain for years. It proved to be as futile as winning a triathlon with a bout of flu.

In some ways, Harris has perfect roots to emerge on top in the divisive political arena in the US: it’s not just her Indian American origin, but also the fact that she became only the second black woman in the nation’s history to serve in Congress’ upper chamber. As black voters showed their might in Alabama, booting out Roy Moore, they again will be an energized and important lot if Harris decides to run for President in 2020, or wait it out till 2024.

There was also plenty of cheer for some other Indian Americans who savored political victory in races across the country, which in some cases thrust them into the national limelight.

Of special significance was the win of debutant Manka Dhingra, who in winning Washington’s 45th District special Senate election with no prior political record, helped Democrats not only control both chambers in the Legislature, apart from the governorship, but helped tick off the blue corner for the entire West Coast, in favor of the Democrats.

Of similar interest was the win of Vin Gopal, the former Monmouth County, New Jersey Democratic chairman, who in defeating longtime state Sen. Jennifer Beck in the state’s 11th legislative district, tipped the scales in the Democrats’ favor in the upper house of the state. The race was one of the most expensive and closely watched in the state.

Also, in New Jersey, Ravi Bhalla, a turbaned Sikh, created history by winning the Mayoral elections in the town of Hoboken, the first Sikh to do in the Mile Square City and the state, heartening the beleaguered Sikh community, who have strived relentlessly in the aftermath of 9/11 to educate mainstream America of their religion, even as senseless atrocities, bullying and killings mounted.

There was further good news for the Sikh community when New Jersey Governor-elect -Phil Murphy announced he will nominate Bergen County prosecutor Gurbir Grewal as the state’s next Attorney General, the first Sikh to rise to such a position in the US.

Grewal has deep roots in the South Asian community, as he was a past president of the South Asian Bar Association of New York and a member of the New Jersey Asian Pacific American Lawyers Association. It augurs well for the burgeoning community in New Jersey which has often raised issues of rampant racism and police excesses, in past administrations.

Sikh women made their mark too.

Preet Didbal, a sexual assault victim at the age of 19, is now the new mayor of Yuba City in California, the first Sikh American to achieve that distinction in any town in the US. She had shown her mettle early, by becoming the first Sikh woman to serve on the City Council. The future looks bright for her with a run for Congress likely not too far away.

For Bhalla, who was born and brought up in New Jersey, it was also a testament of the local community’s faith in his leadership abilities, after he became the target of a xenophobic, racially motivated, cowardly mail campaign, that tried to define him as a terrorist and outsider. Hobokoners, however, saw beyond Bhalla’s turban, his religion, and color of skin.

Bhalla was not the only target of extremist propaganda, in New Jersey.

Days before, an unknown group sent mailers to homes in Edison proclaiming ‘Make Edison Great Again’, calling for the deportation of Asian school board candidates Jerry Shi and Indian American Falguni Patel. Patel and Shi coasted through, just like Bhalla, after the votes were counted.

While the country is mulling over the new aggressive feminist movement #MeToo, which seeks to redefine sexual harassment laws by opening up narratives, and has led to the  humiliation and tumble of numerous media titans and politicians, for the Indian American community, women who made headlines stood out for their accomplishments in their chosen careers.

Along with Harris, the other groundbreaking Indian American politician Pramila Jayapal – the first Indian American women to become a US Congresswoman, was recognized in the respected Politico’s ‘Power List’, for having assumed the mantle of a House ‘Leader of resistance’.

Yet, despite all the success in politics – with Democrats’ impressive wins in races in Virginia and Alabama, a new sense of national disenchantment with Congress mushroomed in 2017.

For many voters, it felt as if a higher power took over the normal course of politics; authoritarian directives from the White House brutally stamped out the deeds of mere mortals on Capitol Hill.

However, that’s what many others had hoped for in electing Trump, so half of the country is surely pleased. The tax reforms enacted by Republicans can be attributed to the will and machination of Trump, than to any kind of bipartisanship, or carefully crafted work by the GOP.

INDO-US TIES

This was meant to be a year of meeting of the minds, Modi and Trump’s that is.

Both men share both than just abhorrence for alcohol and radical Muslim fundamentalists. They are overwhelming popular in their respective countries, amongst those who believe in their political agenda. They are contrarians though, when it comes to matter of food, what with Trump’s penchant for ice cream and Modi preferring to fast, than savor fast food.

But apart from a hearty embrace by Modi, trying to envelop the bulkier Trump in a warm bear hug, and Trump trying to be as pleasant as possible during the whole interaction on the lawns of the White House during their historic meeting, the story of the year 2017 as far as bilateral relations go between the two countries was more about how India took to Ivanka Trump, and made her feel like a princess.

Defence deals between the two countries, import-export narrative, is now a given, what with the growing business and trade ties between the two largest democracies, catering to the growing affluence of the middle class in both countries.

What really mattered for India was how to leverage Trump in his first term, to speak out against Pakistan and China, force them to cut down on cross-border infringements and terrorism.

To an extent, India succeeded. Yet, they have found the going frustrating too, with Trump’s flamboyance and attitude in staying firm to commitments, unless he sees benefit in it for America, on any given day. Pakistan is getting their arms twisted by Trump, but not handcuffed as yet. That is India’s biggest grievance.

A major hindrance between India and the US is also Trump’s stance on work visas. He has gone hard against H-1B visas, hounded the work permits for H-4 visa holders – the spouses of H-1B visa holders.

This strangely has come about with an almost vicarious pleasure in the process, despite persistent pleas from India, with all its top ministers and even Modi, reportedly, broaching the subject with Trump and his top administration officials; to not create protectionist barriers.

The two issues of the H-1B and H-4 visas will surely become a matter of contention between the two countries in 2018, as new laws come into effect. There is already trouble between the two countries with the US taking India to the WTO over the issue of solar energy, and India, if pressurized further, might take up the issue of work visas to a global court.

For Trump, it’s just be a matter of overturning President Barack Obama’s executive orders, and laws, especially on immigration. But to India, who found Obama, and before that George W. Bush, easier to work with, it’s been a harsh lesson in bilateral play in the Trump era.

Stark realization has dawned, much before this frigid New Year’s Eve: gone are the days of lobbying with Congress paying off. Deal with the boss in the White House now, at your own peril.

What really put sheen to a bond between Indo and the US, and truly warmed Trump towards India, however, was his daughter Ivanka Trump’s visit to Hyderabad, where in an unprecedented, but calculated move, Modi hosted a regal, gala dinner in her honor at the Falaknuma Palace.

The beautiful and charming Ivanka made the most of all the global attention heaped on her at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Hyderabad, with some media speculating she was presidential material.

It was a perpetuation of the love affair with Ivanka and India that started in New York weeks before her trip to India, when she was warmly met by India’s effervescent External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, in New York, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meet.

BIZARRE CRIMES AND SCAMS

It’s hard to contemplate such a bizarre scenario, but the one crime in 2017 where an Indian man was gunned down by a white supremacist, and made global headlines, not just in the US, also turned out to be the most healing for communities at large. America became a better nation in the wake of Srinivas Kuchibhotla’s murder in Olathe, Kansas.

Srinivas Kuchibhotla’s death put sharp national focus on the dangers of leaning too far to the right, buying into the dream of a white nation. Most Americans realized to their horror that the narrative of ‘Make America Great Again’ had been twisted beyond redemption by the murder of an innocent man, whose only fault was that he was of brown skin.

Yet, the heroism that a White American man, Ian Grillot, displayed in trying to save Kuchibhotla from being shot dead by the accused Adam Purinton, was lauded by not just the Indian American community but by people all across India too, apart from Americans of all color. Time magazine recognized Grillot in its list of five heroes of the year. Grillot’s life changed overnight as money poured in for him to start a new life.

Purinton no doubt figures in the long list of villains that sprouted in the US this year, madmen who plotted mass murders and shootings, gave vent to their inner beast; but there were plenty of other evil crimes that shook the faith of humanity.

The brutal and ghastly double homicide of an Indian woman, Sasikala Narra, 38, and her six-year-old son Anish Narra, on March 23rd in Maple Shade, New Jersey, is an inexplicable horror story that has yet to be unraveled by the police.

The duo were found stabbed to death, with both mother and son stabbed repeatedly on their face, after the mother brought her son back from school. The bodies were found by the husband and father of the victims, Hanumantha Rao Narra, a software professional working with Cognizant, at that time.

Although the police have even declared a reward in the case, there have been no breakthroughs as yet.

If the double homicide in New Jersey remains a mystery, the grisly truth that emerged from the investigation surrounding the death of three-year-old Sherin Mathews, in Dallas, Texas, has saddened millions of hearts.

Mathews, who was adopted from India, was reported missing in October and was later found in a culvert near the family’s home. Her father Wesley Mathews is charged with injury to a child and her mother Sini Mathews is charged with endangering a child. There have been several reports of brutality that the child suffered before she died, but full details of the crime is still unspooling as the police investigation continues.

In November, there was yet another senseless killing, of a young dental student, Taranjit Kumar Parmar, who was run over by a man, after an altercation on a road, in New York. Policed have nabbed a suspect. The killing of Parmar exemplified road rage that often rears up its ugly head.

Another young Indian American woman, 25-year-old Harleen Grewal, was trapped and died after a cab she took caught fire after an accident, in Brooklyn, New York. The accused driver, Saeed Ahmad, was caught on camera fleeing the vehicle and hailing down a cab, without trying to help the victim. He was charged with depraved indifference murder and vehicular homicide.

The case of Nausheen Rahman, who threw her new-born baby into trash, shocked the nation too. Rahman has been sentenced to 12 years in prison.

There were plenty of Indian-origin men and women ensnared by law enforcement for devious schemes and scams.

Prominent among them were the likes of billionaire investor John Kapoor, the founder of pharma company Therapeutics, who was arrested on charges of bribing doctors to needlessly prescribe his firm’s opioid painkiller.

Hot yoga guru Bikram Choudhury was in the news for several sexual assault and discrimination cases, and the company has gone bankrupt in the wake of the lawsuits that total over $16 million.

YOUNG HEROES

Around the world, nations wait every four years to throw up heroes and stars, in the sports arena, like the Olympics, but here in the US, the Indian American community is always able to stay in the limelight, through the year, because of the stupendous achievement of their child and teen prodigies.

The year 2017 was no different, with Indian American youngsters sweeping several competitions, showing their vast potential for more glory in a chosen field, down the road.

The Scripps Spelling Bee has been deemed a sport for many years now, and viewership has been growing since live broadcast by ESPN and ABC network.

Ananya Vinay, a sixth grader from Fresno, California, in 2017 became the 13th Indian American to win the competition in a row. Her winning word ‘marocain’, which means a type of dress fabric of ribbed crepe, may be as foreign to most as the ambiguous word covfefe, invented by President Trump, but it exists in the dictionary.

It’s a remarkable achievement, given that 18 of the past 22 winners have been Indian Americans, beginning with the 1999 win of Nupur Lala, featured in the documentary Spellbound. Over the years, it’s become a desi spell fight as the top 10 is now comprised of mostly from the community.

Pranay Varada, a 14-year-old from Irving, Texas, won the National Geographic Bee, another competition which the Indian Americans have dominated in recent years. He is now the sixth consecutive Indian American to win the title.

Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old from Colorado, won the top award at the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, getting the title of ‘America’s Top Young Scientist’ for inventing a quick, low-cost test to detect lead-contaminated water.

Rao told the media she was inspired by the catastrophe in Flint, Michigan, where officials are facing charges including manslaughter over water contamination, and spent three months collaborating with scientists to develop her idea.

Rao’s device uses carbon nanotubes to detect the presence of lead.

In the following pages, News India Times takes a closer look at individuals and incidents that grabbed headlines in 2017, including entertainers like Aziz Ansari and Riz Ahmed, who got plenty of accolades.

We wish our readers a Happy New Year! with these words from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “And now we welcome the new year. Full of things that have never been.”

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