by Debadrita Chakraborty
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is here to stay. Catalysed by one of the most heinous racial homicides of the twenty-first century, BLM protests have since snowballed into one of the greatest ‘domino’ resistance movement in the U.S. The sustained nature of the movement and its organized approach towards decolonising the Global North’s white-washed history and curriculum have resonated with other minority and racially targeted communities as well. While expressing solidarity by dissenting against institutional racism and police brutalities, some of them took to reflecting on their own complicity in anti-black racism. Acknowledging their participation in promoting colourism and anti-black prejudices, many Arab and Latino activists have come forward to educate members of their own communities about the history of slavery and the nature of systemic racism in America. However, a visible and prominent minority group that has remained relatively apolitical in a deeply political time, despite its own history of colonial oppression and state-sanctioned policing, is the Indian migrant community in America.
Before George Floyd’s death,1 and even before the emergence of the BLM movement in the Global North, India has grappled with its own civil rights protests around the controversial Citizen Amendment Act (CAA).2 The CAA aims to ethnically profile and label Muslim minorities as ‘outsiders’ in a supposedly Hindu nation. Upon government directive, peaceful anti-CAA protestors, especially Muslim activists and students, were targeted and profiled as criminals by the Delhi police. Some were charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), which empowers the state to proscribe individuals as ‘terrorists’. While India’s unconstitutional, anti-secular move was resisted by Indian student-led and activist groups across American cities, the majority within the Indian migrant community who still maintain strong ties with their home country have either remained silent or they have openly supported Indian administrative and police actions against the protesters back in India.
Given this complicity (both active and passive) in systemic racism and police brutalities in their home (India) and host (America) countries, it is important to understand what contributes towards this ‘moral deficit’.
Brown Privilege, Brown Complicities
Non-Muslim Indian migrants in the United States include both highly skilled professionals and a sizeable segment of working class and lower income groups. As a minority community, they have had their own share of racial discrimination, ethnic violence and marginalisation within the American public sphere. However, the Indian community soon gained prominence within American mainstream society, positioned as ‘a model minority’ – a label that placed them socio-politically a notch above other minority groups, especially black communities. The perpetuation of this idea of being part of a model minority rendered invisible the socio-economic struggles of the lower classes. Instead, it chose to view the wider Indian community through the lens of the higher income group and their apparent economic accomplishments. Moreover, professionals who migrated from postcolonial India did so with the baggage of caste, colour and class differences, contributing to a visible disregard and further marginalisation of lower income Indian groups.
These underlying tensions among different sections of the Indian migrant community have disrupted a collective move for racial justice, which would help create the possibility of dismantling the model minority discourse that pits minority communities against each other and endorses hierarchies of citizenship.
For privileged class and caste-conscious Indian migrants, the preservation of their model minority and assimilationist status has entailed ‘political incorporation’3 through complicity. What began as simple compliance to state rules and policies soon turned into complicity in structural injustices when upper-class Indian migrants, especially Hindus, distanced themselves from Muslims after 9/11 by over-emphasizing their American-ness alongside their Hindu identity. ‘Political incorporation’ also meant the realisation of vested political interests and long-term economic ambitions for the elite Hindu upper class (according to reports about 20% in the Indian community is said to have voted Trump in 2016), which for some was attainable by electing an anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant Trump to power. Among these powerful upper-caste Hindu migrants are those who have supported the political camaraderie of Trump and Modi and have actively contributed towards organising the much talked about ‘Howdy Modi’ event held in Houston in 2019. Affiliated to Hindu nationalist organisations in India, these influential migrants have been complicit in promoting Hindutva nationalism, defending Modi’s authoritarian regime in India in the hope of a Hindu cultural revivalism that would privilege upper caste Hindus over religious and cultural minorities in India. In order to be conferred with socio-political and economic benefits and to strengthen the presence of Hindu nationalist organizations with its anti-Muslim agenda, influential Indian upper-class and caste migrants have ticked most of the boxes of complicity.4 In other words, this group has contributed to the ensuing structural and institutional injustices which in recent years have been meted out to politically and racially disadvantaged minorities in America.
Then there are those among the upper- and middle-class Indian community who, not playing a causal role in Trump’s victory and having shown no signs of political aspiration, support and comply with state policies even as they are cognisant of the foreseeable consequence of racial injustice and inequalities. This section largely identified as Democrats, having voted Hillary Clinton in the 2016 elections, showed their support to Modi’s nationalist agenda by attending the ‘Howdy Modi’ event. It is this category of privileged upper caste Indian migrants that have condoned the far-right Indian government’s revocation of Kashmir’s autonomous status and have preferred to remain silent (and hence complicit in the state’s actions) vis-à-vis mass arrests of protestors who have resisted against the government’s decision on Kashmir. It is this group who, over years, has passively perpetuated the disenfranchisement of Dalits, Adivasis (tribals), religious minorities and student activists. Such compliance happens, I would argue, because they have benefited from caste and class privileges prior to migration from India to America. As such, they have found it easier to ignore narratives of oppression, discrimination and violence on ethnic and religious minorities both in India and America. Such compliance and obedience to state injustices are mainly because as an upper-caste, highly-skilled class of migrants, they have been recipient of caste and class privileges prior to migration from India and have been conferred with material benefits post their professional success in America. In a bid to maintain this status quo, this segment of the Indian community has found it easier to ignore narratives of oppression, discrimination and violence on ethnic and religious minorities both in India and America.
Lived Experiences beyond the Single Axis Framework
The Indian migrant community is perhaps slowly coming to terms with what I am describing as its ‘complicity,’ thanks in large part to first and second generation Indian-Americans like Rahul Dubey, who sheltered BLM protestors from police violence, and Hassan Minhaj, who in a recent political commentary called out the Indian community for their perpetuation of anti-black racism. However, in order for the community to come out collectively in solidarity with the BLM movement to fight systematic discrimination, it needs to begin by recognizing and addressing intersectionality.5 In recent years, Dalit activists like Thenmozhi Soundararajan, the executive director of Equality Labs, have mobilized U.S. lower caste and Dalit communities around their rights. Besides this, last June marked a watershed moment for caste-oppressed Americans with the 2020 lawsuit against Cisco for caste discrimination towards an Indian American engineer. While such initiatives have been undertaken by members of the lower caste communities, including Indian feminist and queer groups, it is important to question whether such movements have had far reaching effects in Indian upper-caste and upper-class homes in America.
Having migrated from India where lived experiences are treated as generic and undifferentiated, without acknowledging the multiple forms of discrimination based on colour, caste, class, religion, gender and sexuality that overlap to create different experiences for marginalised communities, the upper caste and privileged classes within the Indian migrant community in America have so far deprived the marginalised of their rights and agency. In order to support a movement, it is imperative to first lift up those who have fallen through the cracks of society that privileges a select few. The intersectional approach is among the first of many steps that privileged U.S. Indian migrants need to undertake to be constantly reminded of their privilege and complicity in both America and India’s socio-political injustices.
Debadrita Chakraborty is a research scholar in Literature, Gender and Culture Studies at Cardiff University. Her research focuses on examining the shifting nature of the construction and performance of South Asian masculine identities catalysed by major political and socio-cultural events from the 1980s until the contemporary period in Britain. She has contributed papers in the fields of postcolonial theory, decoloniality, diaspora literature and culture and subculture narratives.
1 “How George Floyd Was Killed in Police Custody”, The New York Times, May 31, 2020 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/31/us/george-floyd-investigation.html
2 “Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019: What is it and why is it seen as a problem”, The Economic Times, December 31, 2019 https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/et-explains/citizenship-amendment-bill-what-does-it-do-and-why-is-it-seen-as-a-problem/articleshow/72436995.cms?from=mdr
3 Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur, Nirvikar Singh, “Becoming American” The Other One Percent: Indians in America, (Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 131 – 182.
4 Sanjay K. Mishra, Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans, (University of Minnesota Press, 2016).
5 “She Coined the Term ‘Intersectionality’ Over 30 Years Ago. Here’s What It Means to Her Today,” Time Magazine, February, 20, 2020 https://time.com/5786710/kimberle-crenshaw-intersectionality/