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Promoting politicization for Indian Americans

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Special to the Daily Californian

AUGUST 17, 2023

In August 2021, I arrived in the United States. At the same time, the world’s largest democratic protest was taking place in my home country, India.

Thousands of farmers had laid siege to New Delhi’s highways for an entire year, facing water cannons, police brutality, cold winters and a torrid summer as they protested against the new private sector-friendly agriculture laws. 

The eventual success of the farmer and labor unions stands as a mammoth — yet rare — victory for protestors in India against the neo-liberal regime of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. Since becoming the ruling party in 2014, the national government under BJP has increasingly turned dictatorial and majoritarian. This claim is well documented by several indexes, including Freedom House.

While the movement’s success chiefly belongs to every Indian farmer and worker who camped out on the borders of the capital city, the contributions of the Indian diaspora, especially in North America, cannot be overlooked. 

The Indian diaspora in the U.S. actively politicized throughout the duration of the protest. From creating awareness through mass mobilization and catching the attention of legislators (as well as Rihanna), funds were raised to support the cause abroad. At UC Berkeley, we saw several South Asian organizations raise awareness for the cause as signs of “No Farmer, No Food” adorned Sather Gate. 

Yet, this event was an outlier. 

The Indian American demographic is often associated with apoliticism toward India, with 40% of Indian Americans maintaining an arm’s length from everyday politics and another 30% endorsing BJP’s policies. In other words, nearly three-fourths of the Indian diaspora in the U.S. either condone or are indifferent to a rising exhibition of neo-fascism that results in attacks on minorities and “lower” caste individuals in India. 

Why is this so?

Geographical distance does little to explain this. Most Indian Americans continue to maintain deep ties with India — nearly one-fourth of global remittances to India coming from the U.S. Many Indian Americans own tangible and intangible assets in India, which range from ancestral property to stock, in addition to having several family relations in India. 

Therefore, it may be inaccurate to claim that neo-fascism and the erosion of democracy in India do not affect the Indian diaspora in the United States.

The missing piece of the puzzle that can explain Indian Americans’ apoliticism towards the dismantling of the world’s largest democracy — to which they have great financial, cultural and familial ties — may have something to do with identity.

Nearly 80% of Hindu Indian Americans that identify with a caste belong to an “upper” caste. Among cultures in India where a formal caste system may not exist, it is similarly safe to assume that it is those in positions of power and privilege who can immigrate to the U.S. In contrast, 68% of the population living in India identify with the “lower” castes.  This results in the Indian diaspora in America being overwhelmingly disproportionate in its representation of “upper” caste individuals — a class that is historically wealthy due to the traditional oppressive caste system in India. 

When the BJP-led government pushes for neo-liberalism at the cost of oppressing marginalized groups and empowering the already-advantaged sections of India, privileged Indians abroad become beneficiaries of the system as well. 

In fact, the demographic that has emerged as the most important donor to BJP is the Indian diaspora abroad. In 2018, BJP passed an amendment that makes political parties exempt from scrutiny of past foreign donations. The same amendment also allows the diaspora and foreign companies to donate any amount of money anonymously. In other words, BJP finds its greatest financial support for its majoritarian policies not from Indian citizens, but from those well outside of its jurisdiction.

Was the politicization during the Farmers’ Protests exceptional then? No. 

In this particular incident, BJP’s neo-liberal agenda of deregulation and corporatization of farmlands was in direct conflict with the interests of the diaspora. Many people from North India — Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana — come from farming families who faced the risk of losing land and income from these laws. Therefore, the apoliticism held by many in the Indian diaspora is problematic, since members have the potential to combat India’s trajectory towards authoritarianism, but only do so when it’s in their best interests. 

Their voices can reach a global audience, and more importantly, they have a voice at a time when India is imprisoning its critics and intellectuals for years without trial.

On campus, the several cultural organizations associated with India can educate and politicize themselves. They can also take inspiration from the Iranian or Armenian Student Associations, among others. These organizations have not only actively politicized themselves to injustices via demonstrations and social media, but have also managed to educate the wider Berkeley community. 

From fighting apartheid to the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, Berkeley has played an active role in numerous battles for social justice and civil liberties. At the time of writing of this op-ed, the Indian state of Manipur has been witnessing brutal ethnic violence, killing nearly 200 and displacing thousands since May 3. The BJP government has chosen to remain silent over the ongoing pogrom.

The world is waking up to what is happening in India. It is high time the diaspora and the community of Berkeley does so as well.

Adhiraj Ahuja is a junior at UC Berkeley studying political science and human rights. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected]

AUGUST 17, 2023