Trump, ‘Howdy, Modi!’ and the Diaspora: Do Indian Americans Support a Hindutva Agenda?

Events such as "Howdy, Modi!" need to be put in perspective—they are highly mediatised, scripted spectacles financed and designed by teams of dedicated Modi supporters, many of whom are major players in the American branches of the Hindutva movement. Through this article, we explain why the Howdy, Modi! spectacle was neither a turning point in Indian-American politics nor even an accurate reading of where Indian Americans stand with regard to politics and democracy.

As the din over the “Howdy, Modi!” event in Houston settles, many questions have been raised about the Indian prime minister’s clumsy “Ab ki baar Trump sarkar” slogan. There were loud cheers from some in the crowd, but many in attendance may have been less than impressed. Has there been a shift in the Indian American political consciousness, so as to suggest the diaspora’s embrace of one of the most racist and xenophobic American presidents in recent memory? 

The 2016 post-Election National Asian American Survey (NAAS) found that 77% of Indian Americans voted for Hillary Clinton, and only a  mere 16% voted for Donald Trump (Ramakrishnan et al 2018). Indeed, as polling and voting data has repeatedly demonstrated, Indian Americans have historically favoured the Democratic party[1]. At about 1% of the overall United States (US) population (of which approximately  half are citizens, with fewer actually voting), Indian Americans do not constitute a voting group significant enough to influence elections in favour of the Republicans, especially given that the largest concentrations of Indian-American voters live in heavily Democratic areas like California, Illinois, and the Northeast (Chakravorty et al 2017). Indian Americans might constitute a target for both parties owing to their status as the nation's wealthiest minority group, but as the 2016 NAAS data shows, Indian Americans, and Asian Americans in general, are less likely to be contacted by political parties than are white or black voters. 

Therefore, “Ab ki baar Trump sarkar” was at best a self-aggrandising fantasy, meaningful only to a niche constituency of Hindu nationalists whose solidarity with Trump’s white nationalist base converges on a shared hatred for Muslims. It is therefore premature to read Trump’s presence in Houston as signaling a change in the Indian-American electorate. Rather, the event should be seen as an opportunity for a closer examination of Yankee Hindutva[2] in the Trump era. 

Political Organisation of the Hindu-right in America

The Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC) and its support for Trump is richly illustrative of many of the awkward ironies, contradictions, hypocrisies and strategic silences of Yankee Hindutva. The RHC was founded and funded by the Indian-American businessman Shalabh Kumar who claims political inspiration from both John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, and also from Bhagat Singh and Modi. In February 2018, the RHC organised a rally in Washington DC in support of Trump’s immigration policies (Haniffa 2018). Invoking Trump’s promise of a “merit-based” immigration system, participants in the rally asked for quicker processing of green cards for the “skilled” and the “best and brightest” applicants (evidently referring to applicants such as themselves). The RHC even volunteered to raise $25 billion to fund Trump’s US–Mexico border wall (Kumar 2018). Moreover, the fundraising also included an offer to pay a special application fee—a deeply cynical and opportunistic, if also ingenious scheme where deserving “legal” immigrants (such as themselves) would pay to stop “illegal” immigrants. This rhetoric derives from a model minority discourse that claims that hard-working immigrants and good capitalist subjects such as themselves ought to be exempted from anti-immigrant policies on account of “merit.” Tellingly, this posture is also wholly consistent with the politics of class- and caste-privileged Indian immigrants who oppose affirmative action/reservations on the grounds of merit in India.

However, pouring cold water on the RHC’s expectations, a series of policy changes by the Trump administration has actually made it even tougher for immigrants to obtain an H-1B visa (which facilitates legal employment). Further, the H-4 visa (which authorises employment for spouses of H-1B workers) has been on the chopping block ever since Trump proposed to rescind the category (Da Silva 2019). The new restrictions stand to impact the Indian community significantly: In 2018, three-fourths of H-1B visas were given to applicants of Indian origin (Press Trust of India 2018), while 6,130 out of 6,800 H-4 visa applications were from Indian immigrants (Kably 2018). While the 2018 data is consistent with the historical trend of a large majority of H-1B & H-4 visas being given to applicants of Indian origin, it is now significantly more difficult for both individuals and companies to get visas. According to immigration data analysed by the National Foundation for American Policy, the denial rate for new H-1B petitions for “initial” employment from 2015 to 2019 has quadrupled from 6% to 24% (Anderson 2019). The denial rate for H-1B petitions for “continuing” employment has also quadrupled (from 3% to 12%), and is much higher for Indian tech companies like Infosys, Mahindra, and Tata Consultancy Services than for US companies like Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft. In other words, neither the RHC’s fervent petitioning—via public rallies and other lobby efforts—nor the apparent bonhomie between Trump and Modi (most recently on display in Houston) has had any impact in helping Indian applicants or Indian companies, with both of their applications being turned down four times as often as before (Sohrabji 2019).   

While the H-1B numbers illustrate India’s position as the second largest source of lawful US immigrants, they do not tell the full story. The Pew Research Center estimates that there are about 500,000 undocumented Indian immigrants in the US, and also identifies India as the source of the fastest-growing population of illegal immigrants (Ananya 2016). Clearly, the upwardly mobile “legal” tech worker does not represent all Indian immigrant workers—not the mail carriers, gas station/convenience store clerks, nor the taxi drivers who might have arrived in the US through family reunification visas (or “chain migration”: Trump’s derisive title for the immigration programme, a slogan that has been adopted by the RHC), or might even be undocumented. It is important here to note the NAAS’s findings that 65% of Indian Americans actually agreed that undocumented immigrants should be allowed to have an opportunity to eventually become US citizens. This is a far cry from the RHC’s hardline position on immigration, and is but one aspect of the diversity of the Indian immigrant experience that resists the RHC’s attempts to speak for Indian Americans as a group.
  
The RHC is unable to acknowledge, let alone address Trump’s repeated and openly expressed racist contempt for immigrants and minorities, the broader legitimisation of white supremacist ideology, or the long history of racist violence against immigrants in the US. The RHC’s October 2016 event for Trump, held at the New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center, is located only a few miles from Jersey city, where Trump (in what can only be referred to as a classic of the fake news genre) claimed to have seen thousands of American Muslims cheering for the fall of the twin towers on 9/11 (Kessler 2015); it is also the site of racist attacks by the “Dotbusters” of the 1980s who targeted Indian-American immigrants. However, the RHC’s ability to voice support for Trump while remaining conspicuously silent on his hate politics, is not merely a matter of political expediency. While slogans and placards at these rallies foreground apparently economic issues such as visas, employability, or US-India trade, Trump’s Hindu nationalist fans seemingly have no ideological or ethical quarrel with his social agenda, racism, misogyny, homophobia or Islamophobia. Moreover, the historical record shows that wealthy Indian-Americans like Kumar—and others of his class—make common cause with Republicans around shared class interests such as fewer taxes, or professional objectives such as tort reform, where Indian-American physicians, who were among George W Bush’s top donors, petitioned Bush to float the Indian-American Republican Council in 2001 “to pursue legislation on medical malpractice and small-business issues (Nordlinger 2005).” 

Not Indian, but ‘Hindu American’

The growth of Hindutva as a popular cultural current among Indian Americans has been well-documented over several years (Mathew and Prashad 2000; Kurien 2007; Bhatt and Mukta 2000; Bose 2008; Kurien 2006). Since the 1970s, Houston has remained the headquarters of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) US wing, the VHP America, the main force behind a host of Sangh Parivar organisations[3] that have replicated much of the Parivar’s organisational structure in the US. While these efforts have, over decades, built support for a Hindu supremacist vision in India, it has also meant simultaneously staking and defending a space within an American multicultural space that privileges cultural identity as key to social membership. This is the context in which the RHC and its cognates such as the Hindu American Foundation attempt to invoke the category of “Hindu American” as an identity distinct from the Indian American. The Hindu American is one who signals ideological affinity with, and political support for the Hindutva project in India. This has translated over the years into fundraising for various organs of the Parivar on the one hand, and also into helping rehabilitate Modi in the US political establishment after he was effectively banned from visiting the country in 2005, given his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots (Campaign to Stop Funding Hate 2002; Coalition Against Genocide 2005). 

However, today, Yankee Hindutva is far more assertive and public, as evidenced by the massive spectacles organised by Modi’s well-heeled supporters. This public assertiveness is also increasingly manifesting in small, but disturbing acts of violence by supporters. At the Howdy, Modi! event, Al Jazeera reported that their media crew was physically assaulted by those attending the event. The attendees were apparently “riled up” by those protesting against Modi outside the venue, and attacked a photographer’s media credentials and damaged his camera (Halkett 2019). This event was reminiscent of another incident of intimidation and assault experienced by the Indian journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, who was assaulted outside New York’s Madison Square Garden when reporting on Modi’s visit to the US in September 2014. As video clips[4] and photos showed, a mob of aggressive men encircled Sardesai, shouted him down with chants of “Modi, Modi,” and assaulted him. The attack made news, and the New York Times dryly noted that Sardesai was targeted by Modi supporters “...because of his failure to share their enthusiasm for Mr. Modi” (Robert 2014). More recently, in September 2018, young Indian American women belonging to the group “Chicago South Asians for Justice” were peacefully protesting at the World Hindu Congress (WHC) when they were kicked and spat upon by attendees of the event. Senior BJP leader and former lawmaker Vijay Jolly, who was present at the WHC, shouted “We should have bashed them up” even as the protesters were being escorted out by the police (Varghese 2018). Such public confrontations with members of the media and/or protesters underscore what has been amply and frighteningly demonstrated in India, that members of the Sangh Parivar—and its sympathisers—have been increasingly emboldened to employ physical violence and intimidation, especially against fellow Indians who disagree with them about Hindutva or Modi. Yet, these miscreants in the US also recognise that they do not enjoy the impunity that their counterparts in India do. One man who spat on the protesting women was promptly arrested by the police and charged with battery (Mudur  2018). 

Since Modi’s rise to power in 2014, Hindutva supporters have attempted to project him as a larger-than-life figure, and controlled mega-events like Howdy, Modi! are intended to project him as a superstar. However, beneath the sheen, and beyond the cacophonic adulation for their “great leader,” such events speak to the utter bankruptcy of the imagination that spurs a section of Indian-Americans who have locked their fortunes with Modi and the Hindutva agenda. Howdy Modi provided entertainment for some, and darshan for the devout. The event was unabashed with narcissistic excess, where the messenger and message are often indistinguishable, like in a mega-church extravaganza led by superstar millionaire preachers, a common phenomenon in Houston where capital and Christian fundamentalism live in peaceful harmony. Massive rallies have always been the preferred mode of public engagement for authoritarian leaders, and Modi, like Trump, seems to prefer the sound of cheering crowds to that of real questions from reporters. Be that as it may, neither the Bollywood superstar nor saffron-robed mendicant personality that Modi straddles appeals to a significantly large number of Indian Americans. In fact over the last few years, many Indian American politicians have been forced to take positions on Hindutva, especially its penchant for anti-Muslim violence.

Political Response to the Hindutva Project

California Assembly member Ash Kalra, North Carolina’s Senate member Jay Chaudhuri, and US Congressperson Ro Khanna, all of whom were invited to the WHC in 2018 and were featured as speakers on their website, declined to attend the event. Others like Ram Villivalam, a member of the Illinois General Assembly, also refused to attend the event.

I do not support any group and/or an event arranged or led by organizations that intimidate minorities, incite discrimination and violence, commit acts of terror based on race or ethnic background, promote hate speech, and/or believe in faith based nationalism (Villivalam 2018). 

Chicago Alderman Ameya Pawar also declined to attend the WHC.

 

Further, Ro Khanna has also tweeted against the Modi government’s agenda.

 

Several of these politicians were in fact urged to take public stands on Hindutva by their own constituencies and several other Indian-American community groups. Congressperson Pramila Jaypal has also expressed concern about the human rights situation in Kashmir (National Herald 2019) following India’s abrogation of Section 370. 

Indeed, thanks to the sustained efforts of a broad coalition of left and secular groups across the country, Democratic Party presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard, a well-known supporter of Modi who enjoys substantial backing from US Hindutva groups, was forced to back down from being the keynote speaker at the WHC, and (very) publicly distanced herself from the event despite substantial evidence showing that she enthusiastically accepted the role (PTI 2017; News18 2018).

Similarly, when Raja Krishnamoorthi, a pro-Modi politician who represents Illinois in the House of Representatives spoke at the WHC, he found that his invitation to a major congressional briefing organised by one of the leading South Asian organisations, South Asian Americans Leading Together, was promptly rescinded. The briefing was to mark the anniversary of 9/11 by convening a dialogue between lawmakers and community organisations on issues of national security, detentions, Trump’s Muslim ban, and other discriminatory policies against Muslims, Arabs and South Asians. In short, many Indian Americans are also taking their politicians to task on the hypocrisy of waxing eloquent about minority rights in the US while remaining silent on, or sometimes wholeheartedly, endorsing majoritarian nationalism in India. 

The Real Impact of the Indian Diaspora

Beyond the spotlight of the US political establishment, Indian Americans have made a mark as organisers of labour and social activists, working in solidarity with other working-class and marginalised communities around issues of social and economic justice. For instance, the country’s most active taxi workers union, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, has since its inception seen the vibrant involvement of Indian-American organisers, as has the immigrant rights organization Desis Rising Up and Moving. A host of youth organisations and initiatives have shaped the coming-of-age of thousands of young Indian Americans in the last two decades: Organisations such as Youth Solidarity Summer, Bay Area Solidarity Summer, Chicago Desi Youth Rising, East Coast Solidarity Summer, Los Angeles Solidarity Summer Institute, and South Asian Youth in Houston Unite. These organisations are not only significant for their unambiguously leftist politics and rejection of racial, religious, and gender discrimination, but also for the fact that they provide the South Asian American youth a platform to link their own lived experiences with working-class, minority, and various forms of social justice struggles across the country. Moreover, a number of Indian American progressive organisations are challenging the deep-rooted discrimination on the basis of caste, gender, and sexuality. These include various Dalit Bahujan groups, feminist and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) formations such as the Ambedkar King Study Circle, Ambedkar International Mission, various Ravidasi Gurudwaras, Sakhi for South Asian Women, Maitri, Trikone, South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association, and many others.

Perhaps the most famous socialist in the US today is Kshama Sawant, a Seattle city council member who recently won a third term in office, defeating Egan Orion, a candidate heavily-backed by Amazon, who spent upwards of $1.5 million to unseat her. Sawant spearheaded the fight for raising the minimum wage in Seattle nearly a decade ago—years before the “fight for $15” became an acceptable slogan for mainstream Democrats. Her open advocacy of socialism, and the need to curb the enormous power of Seattle’s corporate behemoths—chiefly Amazon, Boeing, and Microsoft—has won her glowing praise and recognition across the US. For all the talk about a rightward lunge in Indian America, Sawant’s victory shows us that another Indian America remains, one that is rooted in the promise of socialism and democracy.

Despite the commotion that Howdy, Modi! parades, or the petty delusions of Modi’s devout followers in the US, others in the diaspora continue to walk in the path hewed by the histories and legacies of the Komagata Maru incident and the Ghadar Party.

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