- Creating sociopolitical unity across the expansive backgrounds of the Indian American community is difficult due to the level of religious, cultural and linguistic diversity.
The Indian American diaspora is often mistakenly lumped into a monolithic socio-political cultural group. On the contrary, the experience of being Indian American and a member of one of its subgroups comes with its own intersecting set of influences. In many cases, different marginalized groups find common ground for the purpose of fighting discrimination, as seen in the Women’s March, where women of different racial backgrounds and women from the LGBT community united for a common political purpose. However, creating sociopolitical unity across the expansive backgrounds of the Indian American community is difficult due to the level of religious, cultural and linguistic diversity that dates back historically many generations from India.
One of the most incontrovertible sources of division within the Indian American community is religion. While a majority of Indian Americans practice Hinduism, a significant minority also practice Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism. Such religious diversity forms a major obstacle to unifying Indian Americans in common goals. Religion fosters a strong sense of interconnectedness and prompts obligatory commitments among members of the same religion. While groups of Hindu Americans often meet at the mandir (temple) for not only religious purposes but also social gatherings in adjacent community halls, likewise similar social bonding occurs in the other religions represented amongst Indian Americans.
This forged separation, which has simmered from hundreds of years of tumultuous religious history, only adds to the underlying regional heterogeneity found in India and which has traversed over to the United States with Indian emigrants. With 22 recognized native languages and hundreds more unrecognized languages and dialects, India is one of the most linguistically and religiously diverse countries in the world. With Indians immigrating in large waves in the latter half of the 20th century, as well as ongoing immigration in great numbers, new immigrants naturally have held onto their religious, linguistic and regional differences more closely compared to those who have been in the United States longer. These ethnic subculture differences can be seen across the socioeconomic levels of the community.
It is not surprising that with such large religious, linguistic, and ethnic differences here in the United States, Indian Americans continue to be divided about their allegiances to ‘motherland’ India’s homegrown politics. In his book “Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans,” Sangay K. Mishra describes how religion played a key role in determining which Indian Americans were more sympathetic to Narendra Modi when he was denied a visa to visit the United States during his stint as the Chief Minister of Gujarat. The decision highlighted key approaches to U.S. policy in India and key differences in the way Indian Americans in the U.S. judged these policies. The strife between Indian Americans regarding Modi’s visit in 2014, as Prime Minister, highlighted the simmering tensions between members of this increasingly vocal community, who because of closeness to politics in their ancestral country and the enhanced prominence of U.S.-India relations, were due for a discourse and debate as to what being Indian American really means.
Colonialism and the Indian American Identity
It is important to understand the divisions in independent India which were created by colonial powers who sought to capitalize on identity differences of Indians and India’s emigrants. In her book, “White Christian Privilege,” Dr. Khyati Joshi explains the power of White Christians both in the United States and in Europe during the era of colonization. She provides the example of the now debunked Aryan Invasion Theory, which was first put forward by Western scholars during the colonial time. It maintained that a race of European or Central Asian “Aryans” invaded India, introduced bedrock aspects of Indian language and culture, and drove the darker aborigines into South India. This colonialist-based and racist perspective has been a source of division between subregions of India, despite being subsequently debunked by ample scientific and anthropologic evidence. The misrepresentation of Indian as a formless mass, birthed from a “savior” Aryan invader, has for long stood as a stark example of an oppressive, neocolonialist mindset, which deepens divisions in the Indian American community as well.
The reimagining of Indians and Indian Americans from a colonialist lens has reemerged in current media reporting and academic discourse. Actions taken by Indian government purportedly to eradicate rampant corruption or strengthen its porous borders with combative nations are presented merely as extremist ideology and right-wing policies rather than delving into a balanced analysis of the pros and cons of such decisions. As such, anyone who supports decisions for the sake of promoting Indian national integrity are often branded as extremists and fascists in direct comparison to Hitler’s Germany. These simplified and stereotyped Western media generalizations appear more interested in stirring divisions and creating controversy than in reporting on factual issues and data that may impact Indian American perspectives. Engaging in dialogue to truly understand individual perspectives of Indian Americans from varied economic, regional, and political perspectives can lead to a nuanced discussion of complex topics.
The 2020 Election
A contemporary example of the importance of context and nuance to understanding the varied perspectives within the Indian American community occurred when 2020 Democratic party Presidential candidate Joe Biden chose Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate. Being biracial, with a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, Kamala Harris has been hailed by many as the voice of Indian Americans and Black Americans, particularly by women of both communities. Yet there are others who feel that Harris does not represent Indian Americans adequately, claiming her Black heritage has been more widely celebrated than her Indian Hindu heritage. This can be witnessed when she was hailed as the second black woman in the Senate, yet many failed to mention her Indian heritage. For Indian Americans who are supportive of the current Government of India, Harris is seen as another candidate who has thrown her lot in with the progressive left to denounce all actions of India’s ruling party without studying the issues relevant to those actions within the subcontinent. Her casual ease with actor Mindy Kaling in a viral cooking video also led to a range of opinions, some in support of her exposure to Indian cuisine and others thoroughly opposed to what was viewed as paying token homage to her culture and homeland without truly standing up for ‘Indianness’ in more substantial ways.
In conclusion, as Indian Americans grow in number, the group as a whole are facing more divisions in the United States in terms of religion, language, and how their views of U.S.-India relations inform political affiliations here in the U.S. In 2020, a more critically nuanced and less generalized approach to the Indian American experience is required to explain the intersectionality of these various identities and affiliations in order to better grasp and define the challenges (and unique advantages) each group of Indian Americans face as a minority group. Research on the intersectionality of the Indian American community requires a greater comprehension of similarities and differences between members of this community, including religion, ethnicity, and language, which impact social interactions, community relations, and political alignments. The absence of such understanding undervalues the truly magnificent aspect of this community — its great diversity of cultures and breadth of thoughts and opinions.
Suraj Raman Pandit is a 17-year-old high school senior from Houston, Texas and a third-generation Indian American dedicated to religious pluralism and social justice. He has coordinated joint forums between Asian American, Indian American and African American students at his high school in the interest of raising awareness surrounding the lack of inclusivity and equity in the educational space. He has volunteered with the non-profit group Hindu-American Foundation since age 12 to help promote mutual respect and understanding in a pluralistic society. He is fluent in four languages and looks forward to a career in international relations and public policy.