Today Indian-Americans are an envied group in the United States. They represent what the American mainstream desires in immigrants – a hardworking, law-abiding community, a community focused on education, family values, assimilation and one that articulates its views in discussions and debates – in short, a group that succeeds in the right way.
But there is one area where Indian-Americans are sorely absent – participation in the political and civic process. Indian-Americans speak up only occasionally even on issues that are of deep concern to them; they rarely call or write to their Congressional Representative. In my experience, Indian-Americans tend to express their discontent in private circles, over dinners, often on Saturday evenings with their close friends. The common expression at these dinners is “someone should do something”. Unfortunately, that someone is most often, if not always, supposed to be someone else.
There are valid socio-historical reasons for this reticence. A vast majority of Indian-Americans came to the U.S. from middle class backgrounds. They were taught from childhood to focus on education and not get embroiled in activities that might distract them away from a good education and career.
As immigrants, success in the U.S. did not come easy for Indian-Americans. Each profession found itself stereotyped at different times in the journey. For example, in the 1980s, American managers routinely stereotyped Indian technology professionals as “good techies” but “not good managers.” This was not deemed to be a racist statement at the time but a rational, reasonable one. Even today, physicians educated in India have to suffer grossly stereotyped statements about the quality of their medical education and clinical experience in India.
Despite all of these obstacles, Indian-Americans have achieved enviable success in America. In this quest, the Indian attributes of keeping one’s head down and focusing on one’s education, career and family paid off.
But, now it is time to get on to the next stage in being an important part of the American society. It is time to bring issues that are near and dear to the hearts of Indian-Americans into the American mainstream. These could be issues of culture, education, employment, history or religion. We Indian-Americans owe it to ourselves and to our next generation to be active and vocal. If we learn to be both, we will obtain a level of political success that we only dream of today. The 2010 mod terms elections were only a preview of what one can expect when the Indian-American community becomes truly political active.
My column today has been triggered by two recent events and the media attention they received. The first shows the weakness of the Indian-American community and the second shows a new spirit among Indian-Americans.
• Mumbai suffered a vicious, horrific attack by Pakistani terrorists in November 2008. This week, according to media reports, a lawsuit was filed in Brooklyn Federal Court by of relatives of four Jewish victims slain in that attack and one survivor. The suit contends Pakistan’s shadowy Inter-Services Intelligence provided support to the gunmen who killed 166 and wounded more than 300 people. The government of Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Taiba are also named as defendants in the suit according to media articles. The plaintiffs are represented by Lawyer James Kreindler, whose law firm successfully sued Libya on behalf of the 259 passengers who died in the attack on Pan Am Flight 103 and the 11 people killed on the ground.
To me, this illustrates the difference between an awake, active Jewish community that lost 4 members in the Mumbai attack and a relatively asleep, inactive Indian community that lost approx 160 people.
• This past Sunday, the second most read article on the New York Times website was Hindu Group Stirs a Debate Over Yoga’s Soul. This article is about the Campaign “Take Back Yoga” by the Hindu American Foundation. As the article states, the Campaign “suggests only that people become more aware of yoga’s debt to the faith’s ancient traditions”. This campaign has generated media articles including a column on the On Faith blog of the Washington Post and an article about the philosophy underlying Yoga titled Bin Ladenism in Religion & The Practice of Yoga.
My objective here is not to discuss the merits or demerits of the campaign but to point out one of the first attempts by a group of Indian-Americans to create in the American mainstream a debate, to an awareness of a topic near and dear to their hearts. I hope we look back at this campaign as the first among many such campaigns by Indian-Americans that impact the American mainstream.
The title of the article is the exhortation by Swami Vivek-Anand to all Indians to Arise and Awake. It is up to each Indian-American to decide what goal he or she wants to reach. But the message, a variation of the ancient exhortation from Kathopanisad, applies to each and every Indian-American.
I believe the country wants the Indian-American community to Arise, Awaken and Participate actively and vocally in the American political and civic mainstream. I sincerely hope it begins to do so.