Dear Indian Americans: Our voices matter during Prime Minister Modi’s visit

Dear Indian Americans: Our voices matter during Prime Minister Modi’s visit

Published in India Abroad. Written with Saira Rao.

Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, is visiting the United States this week. As Modi makes his way from Houston to New York City for a series of events, Indian Americans must be vocal about the human rights violations occurring in Jammu and Kashmir, Assam, and other parts of India under his leadership. And we certainly should not be rolling out the red carpet for him.

Modi is visiting the United States during a time of turmoil both in India and here at home. We all know the phrase – “India and the United States are the world’s largest democracies” – that is often used to emphasize the connections between the two countries. Now, it seems that India and the United States have something more in common: their leaders and governments are human rights violators. 

Here in America, many Indian Americans are understandably concerned about the political climate and believe that the Trump Administration’s immigration policies are hurting Indian immigrants. We are worried that our relatives will not secure H1B visas to work here, that our spouses and children on H4 visas will not obtain green cards, or that we may be seen as second class citizens even though we have American citizenship. We are aware that there has been an uptick in hate crimes and discrimination targeting communities of color and immigrants. The name of Srinivas Kuchibotla, killed by a bigot in Kansas in 2017, is one that many Indian Americans know. 

If you are disturbed by any of these situations, then the following facts should bother you as well. 

Since August 5, Jammu and Kashmir has been essentially cut off from the world through communications blockades, and the Indian government has stationed thousands of soldiers in the region. Residents are being denied basic benefits, and children are being detained by the Indian military. Meanwhile, in Assam, millions of people, primarily Muslims, are being told that they aren’t Indian citizens. Across India, minority populations- Sikhs, Muslims, Dalits, Christians- are facing high levels of discrimination, violence, and exclusion. This isn’t fake news. Human rights organizations in India and the United States, journalists, and elected leaders have all raised concerns about the dire situation in Kashmir.

Indian Americans can’t shake our heads in dismay at what is happening in America while at the same time, simply close our eyes to what is happening in India. After all, the discriminatory tactics and policies happening in America and India are rooted in the same belief system: that a particular race, culture, or faith is superior to others. Here in the United States, we have become familiar with white supremacy, the notion that America must return to being a country for white people only (completely erasing the histories of Native Americans and African Americans on this land). White supremacists perceive Black and brown people – including Indian Americans – as threats, outsiders, and undesirables who should be removed from America, whether it’s by closing the border or marching through their neighborhoods.

This idea of supremacy is also found in Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, which is defined by the International Commission on Religious Freedom as a “national narrative with a singular focus on the rights of Hindus.” In India, Hindutva principles have become part of several political parties, including the one that PM Modi is affiliated with, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).  Hindu nationalists believe that India should be a land for Hindus. 

The white bigot who shot and killed Srinivas Kuchibotla in Kansas in 2017 looked down upon brown immigrants in the same manner that a Hindu nationalist discriminates against Dalits or Christians in India. But Indian Americans must not loudly condemn white supremacy and Islamophobia in America just because we are potential targets – and then shrug our shoulders about similar discrimination and exclusion in India.

You might still be wondering: Why should I care? I don’t live in India, and it doesn’t matter what I say anyway. 

We should care because we are Indian Americans, ambassadors of our country of origin in the United States. Our use of the hyphenated identity should not be reserved exclusively for showcasing our culture, customs, art, and heritage in America. It should empower us to speak up about any violations of human rights and dignity. We should care because we are part of a globally connected world, where it is impossible to create silos and boundaries. And, we should care because there are organizations here in America that are speaking for Hindus and Indian Americans through the language of Hindutva, and not the vernacular of human rights. If we don’t speak up, then others will carve out the narrative to benefit their own goals.

This is why Indian Americans must raise our voices as PM Modi makes his way from Texas to New York for various events. PM Modi’s visit starts in Houston at the “Howdy Modi” summit hosted by the Texas India Forum. It is unfortunate to see groups such as the Hindu American Foundation and Indiaspora as well as student associations support this event. PM Modi then moves onto New York City where he is expected to receive an award from the Gates Foundation. He is scheduled to speak at the United Nations General Assembly and to inaugurate a Gandhi peace garden at SUNY-Westboro.

Already, different sectors of American society are raising concerns. South Asian philanthropists, civil rights organizations, and three Nobel laureates have asked the Gates Foundation to rescind its award to Modi and redirect it to a community-based group in India. Actors Riz Ahmed and Jameela Jamil who were scheduled to speak at the Gates Foundation event have removed themselves from the lineup amidst pressure from community groups and activists. And, representatives Pramila Jayapal (WA), Rep. Rashida Tlaib (MI), Rep. Ilhan Omar (MN), Rep. Ted Lieu (CA), Senator Bernie Sanders (VT) and many other elected leaders have condemned the actions of the Indian government in Kashmir and have called for self-determination there. 

The rest of us must do the same in our own communities and in our own way. Here are three steps to becoming a human rights defender:

Raise awareness in your community. Talk to your friends and family in the United States and India. We Indians are taught at birth not to “talk politics,” especially when there are disagreements. Human rights violations aren’t politics. Hate and violence aren’t political. These are humanitarian issues and we need to be on the right side of history. Check out resources developed by Stand With Kashmir, Human Rights Watch (India), and the Polis Project. 

Speak Up. Tell Bill and Melinda Gates that their foundation must not honor Modi with an award. Share your concerns with the groups and elected officials who are sharing a stage with PM Modi in Houston.

Organize a teach-in on your campus, place of worship, or community center. Put together a reading list, invite local academics and activists to speak, and engage in a learning conversation to understand what is occurring in India right now. Build links between the policies of exclusion in India and those in the United States such as immigration restrictions, the Muslim ban, and the uptick in hate violence. What is similar and what isn’t? How can we respond to the strands of nationalism and exclusion by standing in solidarity with vulnerable communities?

Most importantly, please do not turn away. We need every single Indian American human rights defender to speak up for equality, liberation, and justice about what’s happening in the United States and in India. 


Deepa Iyer is a civil rights lawyer and the author of We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future. Saira Rao is a former congressional candidate and co-founder of In This Together Media & Race2Dinner. You can find them on Twitter @dviyer and @sairasameerarao.

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