This morning, I woke up to a range of reactions from friends about the news that the Indian people have elected Narendra Modi as Prime Minister of India and the Bharatiya Janati Party (BJP) to a majority of seats in the Indian Parliament. Should the Indian election results be a wake-up call for those of us of Indian descent living in the United States?
As the new government in India is formed and starts to govern, it will be important for Indian Americans to be vigilant and prepared as well. Historically, Indian Americans have focused their advocacy around India on issues of foreign policy, immigration, and trade. Slowly, this tide has been shifting with Indian Americans becoming more vocal and engaged on issues such as the treatment of religious minorities in India, migrant workers trafficked from India, domestic workers being hired by Indian government officials in the US, and rights of LGBT communities in India.
Now, the elections in India give us another opportunity to be ready to raise our voices – and with an eye towards values and issues of religious pluralism, social justice and equality. This is particularly important in light of concerns that the new Indian leadership could divide the country through a brand of governance that disregards equality along faith, gender, sex, caste and class lines. These concerns are rooted in the legacy of Modi’s own leadership in the state of Gujarat, specifically with regard to the 2002 riots there that targeted and displaced Muslims, and was a primary reason for being denied a visa to visit the U.S., as well as the BJP’s own principles, which many have criticized as advocating Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism at the expense of religious minorities. In fact, just last month, at a hearing by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on The Plight of Religious Minorities in India, leadership from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom testified that a BJP victory could “be detrimental to religious freedom” in India.
Given this context, and given our own experiences as immigrants and people of color in a post 9/11 environment in the United States, here are three ways in which Indian Americans and other South Asians can be a conscious voice around issues of justice and equality.
- Monitor and call out xenophobic and divisive remarks and policies that alienate or demonize communities based on their faith, caste, or political affiliation.
South Asians in the U.S. have faced the impact of rhetoric and policies that seek to divide people based on their religious faith, immigration status, or national origin. Since 9/11, xenophobic and anti-Muslim rhetoric in the United States has helped to sanction racial and religious profiling, surveillance, strict immigration policies, and distrust between communities and law enforcement. Hate violence against Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims has also been on the rise in the United States since 9/11. Given our own experiences in the United States in the decade following the 9/11 attacks, Indian Americans have a unique role – and responsibility – to play in speaking out against rhetoric and policy that alienates people based on their faith, caste, or political affiliation here at home, and in our country of origin.
- Ask groups whose mission includes what’s happening in India – such as the United States India Political Action Committee, Hindu American Foundation Global Organization of People of Indian Origin, the Coalition Against Genocide and others – to identify benchmarks for assessing Modi and the BJP around issues of justice and equality, and to speak up against divisive policies and rhetoric.
- Engage around these issues in public forums, conversations with friends and family, campus discussions and media outlets, with an emphasis on values of pluralism, equality and justice. I know from personal experience that there are many differences of opinion within our own families around the rise of the BJP and the victory of Modi. Informing and educating ourselves, and sharing views and ideas will help us reinforce our values of pluralism and justice, and build stronger coalitions to withstand attacks on those ideals here in the US, or in India.
As we continue to process the impact of the Indian elections, here’s a poem by Rabindranath Tagore that has always resonated with me, first as a child growing up in India and then as an activist making my home here in the U.S.:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
Please add your own ideas below on how Indian Americans can engage with the Indian elections and make our voices heard.
Disclaimer: This post reflects only my personal views, and not of any organizations with which I am affiliated.