Indians in the US have felt animosity for 100 years, now a feeling of déjà vu creeps in


NEW YORK – If the Indian community feels increasingly vulnerable and targeted by the Trump Administration, on the immigration front, it’s nothing new in the United States. Animosity towards Indians has been brewing for more than a century, points out Prema Kurien, Professor of Sociology at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, in the recently published book ‘Asian American Matters – A New York Anthology’ (Asian American / Asian Research Institute of City University of New York; 256 pages; $25).

The Indian community was viewed as a ‘bigger threat than other Asiatic groups,’ in the beginning of the 20th century. In 1910, a Senate Immigration Commission declared that Indians (then called ‘Hindus’) were “universally regarded as the least desirable race of immigrants thus far admitted to the United States”, Kurien, the author of ‘A Place at the Table: Multiculturalism and the Development of an American Hinduism,’ says in a commentary piece in ‘Asian American Matters’.

Between 1913 and 1914, Congress attempted to come up with a way to exclude Indians from the US without specifically using race, ethnicity, or national origin, for fear that overt discrimination could cause unrest in British India. By this time, Australia, Canada, and other British colonies had already started excluding Indian immigrants using indirect criteria.

In a letter to the Speaker of the House, Secretary of Labor William Wilson asked, “Can we, who are not connected by governmental ties or obligations with the Hindus, afford to do less for our people and country than those who are bound by a common citizenship under the Imperial (British) government?”

A series of Congressional hearings on ‘Hindu Immigration’ were held in 1914, and Denver S. Church, a Congressman from California, suggested a bill defining Asia based on geography rather than race, says Kurien, in the anthology – comprising of essays by 40 US scholars.

More than 100 years later since the Indian community were seen as a ‘bigger threat’, there’s a sense of déjà vu for the Indian community.

The Trump Administration seems to be clamping down hard on the legal immigration front, be it workers on visas or family chain migration, majority of which benefit the Indian community. While immigration levels have not drastically dipped, there’s a perception that the government wants to quickly put in place new rules and regulations to curb the flow of immigrants from India, specifically.

It’s a different matter – and up for contention – if unlike the country-to-country bond which was lacking then, bilateral ties with India and the US will play a role in hampering some of the moves by the Trump Administration.

President Trump, it seems, doesn’t really seem to care much about what Prime Minister Narendra Modi thinks, is confidently heeding only to his base of conservative Americans, who have watched with dismay multiculturalism pervade America during the Democrat-run administrations, put Caucasians in danger of being a minority in another three decades.

However, America seems to still care about not being seen as overtly racist or discriminating against a particular community, like it was 100 years ago. A case in point: the about turn earlier this week by the Department of Homeland Security on the proposal to end extensions to the H-1B visa, which would have affected more than half a million Indian workers, apart from their family members.

‘Asian American Matters’ has several other thought provoking essays, with one by Erik Love, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, and the author of ‘Islamophobia and Racism in America’, highlighting the perpetuation of the xenophobia angle in the brutal murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a turbaned Sikh American killed on September 15, 2001, the first post 9/11 hate crime victim.

“At the time of his death, and for many years after, it was often said that he was “mistaken for Muslim”. Even today, that is how this tragic story is retold – as a case of mistaken identity. There is scant recognition that Sodhi was murdered because his physical appearance was linked to a socially constructed racial identity which made him a target of racism,” writes Love.

He also adds the examples of the 2010 attempted murder of taxi driver Harbhajan Singh, the 2012 massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and the beating of Prof. Prabhjot Singh in 2013.

The racism – or xenophobia by white supremacists, as many Americans would rather believe to be so, like cause and effect – is what led to the shooting of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, in Olathe, Kansas, last year. Except that, under the Trump Administration, the new poster villain on the block is not a turbaned man with a long beard, but a brown man or woman perceived to be the ‘stealer’ of American jobs, likely prosperous, to the detriment of white Americans, and their future generations.

“…officials and the media often unquestioningly categorize violence carried out by non-whites as acts of “terrorism”. But politically motivated attacks carried out by whites are usually treated as aberrant or the work of “mentally ill” individuals,” writes Love.

Allan Punzalan Isaac, Chair of American Studies, at Rutgers University, in his essay, delves into the subject of how the Trump era is empowering Whites, while demeaning minorities.

“For many the castigatory taunt of “Trump, Trump” or “Build the Wall” during and right after the election is an assertion of propertied whiteness and the extension of that whiteness to the space that the sound attempts to fill,” writes Isaac. “What I also hear from the taunt is the resounding erosion of the value in whiteness and its proclaimed territory. If such whiteness needs to constantly and insistently assert itself, this implies that various insurgencies are in fact chipping away at this power. The white taunt, much like the racial epithet, must continually produce itself in its pronouncement to insist and accrue value to what it believes to be right.”

Isaac analyzes the vexatious H-1B visa issue, saying it “threatens the space and place of whiteness,” and “changes the naturalized trajectory of whiteness.”

“The taint exclaims, ‘I must put you in your place, so I can be sure of mine.’ Excludable and disposable labor, as exemplified by the Southwest, East and South Asian immigrants, is supposed to create value for the white settler and then leave the territory. To paraphrase historian Ranajit Guha, “Read as an immigrant – with the perfect prefix im – to register the change in her status as one no longer waiting outside – the sense of time she brings with her is the child of another temporality.” The immigrant figure brings with her a different history and threatens to transform the time and space of the U.S. nation-state,” writes Isaac.

In his essay, Vinay Lal, Professor of History and Asian American Studies at UCLA, notes for long Indians in the US have complained of their “invisibility.”

“Among them, the feeling persists that India is generally ignored, only making it to the news as the site of religious killings, endemic poverty, and uncontrollable pollution,” writes Lal, the author of ‘The Other Indians: A Cultural and Political History of South Asians in America.”

Ironically, though, today, the Indian community feels exposed, laid bare in the open by President Trump and his legion of immigration officers. The palpable fear that has swept over the Indian community must surely make them wish they had stayed ‘invisible’ to Trump, in the new America he’s carving.



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