Migrations have defined the story of humanity. From the great exodus out of Africa to taming the Patagonian wilds, layer upon layer of settlement would create continuums of people across the world. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, would describe this layering of society as a palimpsest, a parchment on which the original writing had been reused or refaced with new writing yet fragments of the old remain. No two societies fulfill this idea of a palimpsest better than India and America, albeit in different ways. Rhodes and Romans and the Renaissance and Rousseau would form a chain of thought bursting into a revolution as America recognized the Atlantic and ripped itself from Great Britain. Integral to this upstart nation was immigration. Echoing their fantastical Roman roots, Americans would be raised by wolves in this new wildland and welcomed any man dogged enough to join their ranks.
A dream was promised and sung across the world of this virgin country of opportunity and tenacity. This torch-bearing democracy would soon attract denizens of a land that hosted one the earliest forms of democracy in the world. Small numbers of Indians would settle on the golden coast of California in the 19th century. The iconic American revolutionary zeal and thirst for democracy would inspire some Indians to found the Ghadar Party in San Francisco in order to fulfill the destiny of a free India. Bhicaji Bhalsara, a Parsi from Bombay, was the first Indian to gain naturalized US citizenship in 1909 after a lengthy court battle. A small trickle of immigration would continue until the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act did away with national quotas paving the way for larger amounts of Indians to migrate.
Thank You, Come Again!
Today Indian immigrants are characterized as people of privilege. While it is true that many recent Indian immigrants come from the upper echelons of society (a still fairly poor society at that), earlier Indian immigration would come through familial connections via chain migration with 55% of Indian immigrations coming via a relative. Extroverted and proud Punjabis would escape a border state simmering with clashes between separatists and the Indian state while enterprising Gujaratis crossed the Atlantic rather than the Indian Ocean as their early diasporic ancestors had. Both were particularly mercantile and not exactly coming from the cream of the crop of their states. A smatter of other Indian ethnicities would join the caravan into Americana as an Indian presence slowly built up in a country found in the search for India itself.
Growing up in this era made me an eyewitness to the difficulties of these new immigrants. Every Indian uncle of that era has a story of landing at the airport with $20 in their pocket (debatable details but the stories thereafter captured the ethos of that statement). Thereupon, they were picked up by a relative and lived in a relative’s basement or a crammed single-bedroom apartment with other families in the bad part of town. They couldn’t score jobs in their field so they had to work overtime or multiple jobs at random minimum wage gigs. It was a difficult life filled with penny-pinching and forgoing notions of “fun”. But these early sacrifices would lay the roots of future success. As I grew older, I witnessed wealth-building in real time. That 15-year-old Toyota Camry run into the ground would be replaced by a fancy German car or nowadays a Tesla. The apartment that made a rickshaw look spacious as a Rolls Royce would transition to a quaint townhouse which eventually gave way to classic American Dream single-family houses. The uncles still wear their old faded shirts from the 90s and keep to their miserly ways, just now they do it in a bigger house and nicer car. Calling these people “privileged,” something many activists do today, is a mockery of a term that is already needlessly presumptive and banal.
Later on, skill-based immigration burgeoned allowing more high-skilled labor to join their fellow countrymen who were just starting their first businesses such as convenience stores, franchise restaurants, and motels after learning the ropes as ordinary employees. Once software began taking its first bits and bites out of the world, temporary work visas would allow another wave of Indians, many from southern states, to layer another chapter onto the Indian-American story. Bred in the hyper-competitive world of Indian education, these new immigrants would ascend across corporate ladders to become CEOs and begin founding companies at a record pace. This type of immigrant success is quintessentially American, but usually prior successful immigrants would pass the brown paper bag test. Over the years, a strong streak of entrepreneurialism, a widespread pedigree in STEM education, and a tenacious immigrant work ethic combined to make Indian Americans amongst the wealthiest of American ethnicities.
A Paper Tiger
The rise of Indian-Americans is in so many ways a fulfillment of the American Dream. Doubly so in that they are visibly colored minorities who observe a culture fairly alien to usual Western immigrants. Yet despite high education levels, economic success, and ascension into the upper echelons of elite institutions and companies, Indian Americans have the political pull of Alex Jones’ and Ilhan Omar’s lovechild.
Yes, they are a tiny and demographically irrelevant minority; but other small minorities are much more effective in lobbying for their interests. Additionally, one can point to the rise of Indian-Americans across not just politics, but also in tech, business, and other sectors in American private and public life. What’s there to complain about?
Over the past decade, American mainstream media has warned of India experiencing an impending genocide, economic meltdown, dictatorship, civil war, and various other omens of doom. Yet none occurred. The initial critique was directed at the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, but slowly the critique began extending to the entirety of the Indian state. Then it became Indian society. Then Indian culture unto the religion and finally to the people themselves. Harkening back to the colonial era takes of a “beastly people following a beastly religion,” this time rhetoric was dressed in liberal internationalism rather than European race science.
Example of the discrepancy between coverage of Hindus, Muslims, and Christians in The Washington Post
But since most Americans don’t care about foreign policy, none of this was really impactful to Indian Americans. This has begun to change with the twin ascent of DEI as well as Indian-American fortunes. The transition from mostly seeing Indian-Americans as clerks at 7/11’s to now the helms of C-Suites has resulted in more of a spotlight on a community that increasingly defies mainstream narratives on race and America. Attention for most and anxiety for some has now been capitalized on by DEIites as they seek to correct the wrong type of diversity forming in American companies. Narratives about a subcontinent half a world away are now coming home to America. And much of this water is being carried by Indian Americans, or we should rather say by South Asians, themselves.
The “South Asian” sees the nations of the Indian subcontinent as an accident of British colonialism. The Indian sees a divine geography united over millennia by culture and religion, namely Dharmic religions and especially Hinduism. Pakistan and Bangladesh are seen as religious rejections of this united identity, something Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, would surely agree with. The South Asian views newly made regional states as historic identities, yet the history of these identities are fairly new versus the numerous mentions of India in ancient texts. The South Asian views India as an imperial project. The Indian views India as a civilizational state on a quest for true decolonization. This conflict, between the South Asian and Indian, highlights the factionalism in the Indian American community. Besides Indian Americans, many non-Indian South Asian diaspora (IE Pakistanis and Bangladeshis) are just cynically settling scores abroad by bashing India. Simple as.
Trouble in Paradise
The primary allegation that the disciples of the New York Times allege is that Indian-Americans are bringing Hindu Nationalist extremism and their caste system to America. Yes, that Diwali party you attended was a fascistic ritual oppressing lower castes of whom you’ve never heard of. Due to the near vice grip on media and the ability to magnify a drop of an anecdote into an oceanic narrative, this notion is relatively unchallenged for many. These strange people are bringing their strange customs that enable their strange success. But one simply needs to scratch the surface of this rhetoric to reveal a relatively innocent truth.
Only about 51% of Indian Americans identify as Hindu, compared to around 79% in India. Only 47% of those Hindu Indian-Americans identify with a caste. Of those that identify with a caste, around 83% identify as General Caste, 16% OBC, and 1% each for Scheduled Tribe and Scheduled Caste. This data omits those that identify with caste amongst other religions, but one can clearly see that caste affinity is low among Indian Americans. Eight out of ten Indian-Americans marry within their race but this marriage frequently occurs across region and caste, a relative taboo for Indians of the subcontinent. All this data points to the fact that caste just is not a big phenomenon amongst Indian Americans.
But some organizations seek to paint a different picture. Equality Labs, a group that has spearheaded agitations for awareness of caste discrimination and promotion of caste consciousness, relied on a survey with a methodology that included sourcing respondents from extremist activist organizations, targeting only specific communities for surveying, erroneous caste identification, and most egregiously as well as simply, an unrepresentative sample in ethnic composition, age, and sexual orientation. This survey has served as the bedrock of many frivolous lawsuits and policy recommendations by caste activists across America which simply serve the purpose of harassing and singling out the Indian-American and particularly Hindu-American community. Under a more rigorous surveying methodology such as from Carnegie, only 5-6% of Indian-Americans report being discriminated based on their caste with only 1/3 of those who alleged caste discrimination saying it came from Indians!
As for Hindu Nationalist extremism, there simply hasn’t been a religiously motivated terror attack committed by a Hindu in America. Nor any widespread accounts of discrimination. So there’s that.
So why the hubbub? Who is concocting this narrative and why?
Manu Joseph, a famous Indian writer, has noted that the right can never be as internationalist as the left. Leftism is a global and elite movement. A leftist from the posh parts of Mumbai will find much more in common with a Manhattan leftist rather than a Marathi a few kilometers away in some village. A central tenet of leftism is a critique of the majority culture and superstructure of politics, economics, and society. In India, this manifests as an extreme oikophobia where all of India’s evils are traced back to Hinduism. What is good in India is said to have been inherited from foreign conquerors whether of the Islamic or European variant.
Indian leftists gained mindshare in elite Indian institutions during Indira Gandhi’s government which required a coalition with the Communist Party of India to secure enough parliamentary seats. Part of the deal was access and later domination given to the Communists in academia and adjacent cultural organizations. As such, Western elites would interact with Indian “intellectuals” who almost exclusively came from a leftist bent. This has continued even to this day as dismantling this institutional vice grip is proving very difficult for the current government which is the sworn nemesis of these leftist elites.
This means that American media, academia, and other sections of the Cathedral rely almost exclusively on Indian leftists for their perspective on India. This creates a fundamental disconnect in understanding India as leftist parties have been resoundingly rejected in Indian politics while their ideology has been reduced to animating violent agitations as democratic gameplay isn’t their forte.
The animus towards Hinduism is now trickling down into America beyond just lecture halls and media sites. As mentioned before, DEI adherents find a momentous opportunity to scaremonger companies into hiring them for “consulting” in order to deal with this brown menace that doesn’t really exist. So issues are created out of thin air. Activists such as those in Equality Labs point to ridiculous claims such as Hindu vegetarianism is practicing casteism, that celebrating Hindu festivals is casteist, video games related to India are fascistic, and so on. Those issues become concocted fuel for puerile caste legislation such as that enacted in Seattle or SB403 in California, which explicitly singles out Indian and Hindu Americans legally. Some organizations even seek to integrate caste catalogs and quotas categorizing Indian Americans by their last name in the quest for “diversity.”
We now have a perfect feedback loop. Indian leftists supply apocalyptic visions of India and Indians to the West. Western outlets give them prestige and coverage. The South Asian diaspora capitalizes on this scaremongering to frivolously point out that the Hindoo menace has been exported to America and already penetrated the very heights of American society. White Liberals of course want to amend any form of oppression one can sift from their behind and also get to peg down those uppity browns. 2 birds, 1 stone. Indian leftists become more famous, diaspora activists get more paid, and white liberals get to play savior and cut the competition. Win, win, win.
Ultimately, Indian Americans will have to organize ruthlessly to combat this well-oiled machine. Hindu temples are mostly apolitical community centers that don’t engage in political activism as other “South Asian” centers of worship do. Differences in region and ways of worship will have to be put aside and a concerted effort from a united minority (with plenty of cash thrown in the hat) will have to answer continued misrepresentations and maliciousness towards their community. Luckily, Indians are crafty people. No wonder they’ve lasted for millennia. And if there is anywhere that determination can make an impact, it is the land of opportunity, the U.S. of A.