An Indian-American writer discusses her experiences with other people of Indian descent in the US.

Independence Day parade in Manhattan a man in a white kurta and red scarf holding US and India flagsThe 39th annual Indian day parade in Manhattan/Shutterstock
Voices Opinion Friday, October 16, 2020 - 11:51

It was during the dank and dismal winter of 2008, a few months after I moved to the US, that I had my first encounter with casual bigotry. My family was trying to rent a parking space in a neighbouring home, since our own apartment complex in downtown Jersey City had run out of them. The elderly Indian homeowner, during our introductory chat, asked where in India we were from. Chennai, we said. “Oh, I had assumed you were from elsewhere,” he said, “We already have one too many Madarasis running around in this neighbourhood.”

Try to parse this attitude and you will arrive at the heart of a peculiar dynamic that has become a totem for the Indian-American community in the US: The is-there, isn’t-there north-south divide. I, for one, firmly position myself on the side of ‘there is.’ I am also going to say it aloud: Regional and linguistic bigotry is a persistent lived reality among most of the Indian community. It spans the gamut of language, politics, culture. And it manifests in those pockets of social exclusion where, for example, if you are a non-Hindi speaking tech worker in an office that employs a large number of Indians, you find yourself implicitly excluded from the camaraderie that comes out of sharing a language.

The reality of the discrimination is starker when you view it against the data: as per the US Census of 2012-2016 for the preceding five years, Telugu is the third most spoken Indian language with 3,21,695 US speakers, trailing Hindi and Gujarati. Tamil follows close behind with about 2,40,000 speakers. While the two south Indian languages are spoken mostly by ‘clustered’ populations in prosperous urban centres like the East and West Coasts and in states like Illinois and Washington, the northern languages are more widely distributed. The economic markers of these demographic indicators are telling too: more skilled professionals from south India versus the cross-sectional employment profiles from the north of the country. And the stereotypes follow, like the famous Gandhi-running-a-gas-station gaffe by Hillary Clinton.

Things are getting better than they were a few decades ago, says New Jersey-based popular Tamil blogger and social media influencer Aravindan Kannaiyan. While the surge of techies that came in during the 1990’s dot com boom did push southern languages into the forefront, it also brought with it the entrenched societal structures of the motherland and its political artifice.

Sections of north Indian communities, particularly those that are mercantile, exert a large influence in policy-making circles and in community activities, including those that are supposed to be pan Indian, he adds. As an example, he points to the utter lack of diversity or southern representation in the annual Indian Day parades happening in many Indian conclaves across the US. The pattern, however, has substantially changed with the coming of age of second-generation Indian Americans who are growing up in an environment that is more open to diversity and inclusion. This, along with the increasing economic prosperity of the southern states, would help change the contours of how such events are perceived in future.

But then, another insidious threat has also started manifesting of late, a trend that Kannaiyan finds intensely worrisome. “The mushrooming of caste-based organisations in US,” in the shadows of the Tamil Sangams, the Kannada Kootas and the Telugu Associations. “We’re importing caste into the US,” Kannaiyan says.

His concerns are not too far off the mark. Though there are no distinctly identifiable caste-based organisations in the US yet, the rumblings of the distant storm have already made their appearance. The key findings of a 2018 study, Caste in the United States, by Equality Lab, a South Asian human rights group, presents a radical assessment of how caste narratives are perpetuated. The study polled 1200 people and two-thirds of the respondents who identified themselves as Dalits said they had faced workplace discrimination and a quarter of the Dalits polled said they had faced assaults — some of them physical — because of their caste. The data came from a varied cross-section of Indians, ranging from “a Campbell soup factory in Central valley” to the tech-saturated environs of Silicon Valley.

Prasad Kunisetty, president of Telugu People Foundation, has a different take on the issue. “A divide, if any, exists mostly based on language and state, not between north Indians and south Indians per se. There are quite a few Telugu and Telangana Associations, but not a single South Indian Association. The Gujarati community, on the other hand, calls all its associations as ‘Indian Associations,’ not just as Gujarati.”

Kunisetty also points out that while the southern states have intellectual capital, the northern states have financial clout, both of which influence local US policy decisions. “While Telugu and Tamil communities are the thought leaders when it comes to innovation and technology, the Gujarati and Punjabi communities provide a balance with regard to business ventures and financial investments.”

Throw politics into this mix and the balance skews even more. The dot com influx of techies, many of them from non-urban centers of south India, ensured that they brought with them implied affinities with political outfits from their own states. This pitches them as polar opposites to the pan-national right-wing political affiliations that are, to a disproportionately large extent, characteristic of those from the northern states. Not surprisingly, many of them prefer to sit out the generic euphoria surrounding the regular ‘Howdy Modi’ events when the Prime Minister comes calling to court the diaspora.

Though the schisms within the Indian community in the US are nowhere near the raw, bleeding wounds that animate the Black Lives Matter landscape, wishing the fissures away isn’t going to help either. An acknowledgement that these divisions exist and working towards ensuring that they don’t irreparably rupture may prove to be a more sanguine approach.

To misappropriate that blistering quote from Michi Trota, when you say you don’t see the discrimination, what it really means is that you have willed yourself not to see the difference between the groups from the privilege of your conveniences.

The author can be reached at vani@vanidoraisamy.com.

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