Anti-Muslim hate crimes rock South Asian communities while Trump and Modi look away

Will new legislation and a surge in violence impact relations with India?

A girl holds a placard as she joins parents of Indians living abroad and others in a candlelight vigil to pay tributes to Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Hyderabad, India. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.
A girl holds a placard as she joins parents of Indians living abroad and others in a candlelight vigil to pay tributes to Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Hyderabad, India. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.

It’s hard being South Asian in Trump’s America. For weeks, it seems, the hate has swelled.

The man stalking Indian families in Ohio and posting videos of them online. The Indian-run store a Florida man attempted to burn down. The driveway shooting of Deep Rai, an Indian national living in Washington, who was told to “go back” to his country. An onslaught of feces, eggs, and racial slurs left on the home of an Indian family in Colorado. The ransacking of a Pakistani family’s home in Virginia, where a Quran was torn and graffiti was left on walls. Most tragic are the murders — of South Carolinian Harnish Patel, and, only a few states away, of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, whose friend, Alok Madasani, survived with a bullet wound.

Patel’s killer is still unknown, but in the case of Kuchibhotla and Madasani, the suspected shooter is a white supremacist whose motives were similar to those in other incidents: he thought his victims were Muslim.

Throughout the 2016 election cycle and into the opening chapter of Donald Trump’s presidency, hate crimes against minorities have been on the rise, as ThinkProgress has documented. Directly targeted by Trump, Muslims are facing disproportionate uncertainty. But for South Asians, a diverse diaspora, the situation can seem like a case of mistaken identity, one that recalls a time not so long ago, when all people seen as Arab or Muslim lived at the whim of American misperceptions.

“These attacks have been happening for years,” Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center’s Asia Program, told ThinkProgress. “I would contend that since the 9/11 attacks, we’ve seen an upsurge in hate crimes. [South Asians] are mistaken for people from the Middle East, [and the] assumption is that they’re Muslim.”

That South Asians are seen across the board as Muslims is a twist of irony. Among other faiths, many are in fact Hindu, especially those with roots in India. The United States boasts one of the largest Indian populations in the world outside of India, and Indian parents consistently send their children to study abroad in America, where many stay. India is second only to China in the number of foreign students it sends to American colleges, and Indians receive the highest number of temporary work visas, or H-1Bs.

Perhaps because of their large presence, South Asians have also been among the biggest victims of xenophobia in recent U.S. history. After the September 11 attacks, South Asians were particularly vulnerable. The retaliatory murder of an Indian Sikh immigrant in Arizona was quickly followed by the Texas killing of an Indian Hindu and a Muslim Pakistani, as well as the shooting of Bangladeshi immigrant Rais Bhuiyan. After several years, the attacks seemed to slow — until the recent election cycle. As Trump’s rhetoric against Muslims ramped up, South Asians increasingly came under attack.

This trend made some of the Indian diaspora’s support for Trump during the 2016 election even more curious. But almost all of that support seemed to stem from the hardline Hindu nationalist movement that has taken root in India. Trump’s rhetoric on Islam struck a chord with the same people who found an appealing figure in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, both leaders who have championed nationalism, often at the expense of Muslims.

Hindu nationalism’s role in contemporary Indian politics cannot be understated. In 2014, a tidal wave of Hindu nationalism, as well as a growing dissatisfaction with the long-reigning Indian National Congress (INC) party, swept Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power. Modi’s victory was seen as unprecedented; legend asserts that Modi once worked as a chaiwala, or tea seller, and his image as a salt-of-the-earth candidate from humble roots struck a chord with India.

But Modi had another asset working in his favor: Islamophobia.

Before being elected prime minister, Modi served as Chief Minister for the state of Gujarat, and a member of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing Hindu nationalist volunteer organization. His time in Gujarat has long been overshadowed by the 2002 Gujarat riots, which targeted Muslims and resulted in at least 1,000 deaths, and, by some measures, potentially over 2,000. Many argue Modi encouraged and condoned the violence, and his 2014 election was greeted with fear and anger by many Muslims as a direct result.

Since the BJP rose to power, the party’s supporters have lashed out at Muslims, working to pass laws banning the slaughter and consumption of cows, targeting mosques, and encouraging Hindu teachings in schools. Much like crackdowns on Islam across the Western world, this curtailing of Muslim rights has been seen as a necessary step towards enshrining a national (and in this case, Hindu) identity.

Activists belonging to ‘Hindu Sena’ or Hindu Army celebrate in anticipation of Trump’s November victory. CREDIT: AP Photo/Manish Swarup
Activists belonging to ‘Hindu Sena’ or Hindu Army celebrate in anticipation of Trump’s November victory. CREDIT: AP Photo/Manish Swarup

Similar rhetoric has worked in the United States — and appealed to some in the Indian diaspora. Trump made a play for the Hindu vote several times while campaigning, and Indian American billionaire Shalabh Kumar, founder of the Republican Hindu Coalition, worked hard to elect him after the two men bonded over their appreciation for two things: Modi’s leadership and fear of “Islamic terrorism.” It was Kumar who invited Trump to at least one Bollywood star-studded event in Edison, New Jersey, attended by numerous potential Trump voters.

Once there, Trump uttered a famous endorsement of his audience: “I am a big fan of Hindu, and I am a big fan of India,” he asserted. “Big, big fan.”

Being a big fan hasn’t translated to much. Advocacy group South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) documented over 200 incidents of hate and xenophobic violence aimed at South Asians in the United States during the 2016 election cycle. Of that number, a staggering 95 percent appear to have been motivated by Islamophobia.

Unsurprisingly, many South Asian Muslim Americans foresaw the events currently unfolding.

“At that time I had made comments to these guys, saying, [you know] there is no difference between you, a Hindu, versus me as a Muslim. We both look the same to them. You have to recognize that fact.”

In January, the partly-constructed Islamic Center of Lake Travis in Austin, Texas was destroyed by a fire. The cause of the fire has not been determined (and may never be known), but many in the area’s Muslim community suspect arson. Shakeel Rashed, an Indian American and an executive board member of the center, told ThinkProgress that the incident, much like others across the country, has made Muslims more visible, but it still hasn’t necessarily united non-Muslim South Asians with their wider community.

“When this whole election campaign was happening, there were a group of Hindus who were supporting Trump,” said Rashed. “I do have some really close friends who are also big supporters of the GOP overall, [although] not necessarily Trump. At that time I had made comments to these guys, saying, [you know] there is no difference between you, a Hindu, versus me as a Muslim. We both look the same to them. You have to recognize that fact.”

Looking the same increasingly means paying the same price.

Trump’s rhetoric on immigration is targeting South Asians in the United States regardless of religion. A spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs confirmed last week that over 270 Indians have been targeted for deportation after either overstaying their visas or committing some form of criminal activity, a move some fear is part of a larger crackdown on immigration. The U.S. Congress is also currently considering higher eligibility requirements for H-1B visas, which would have enormous implications for the South Asian community. And while the administration’s Muslim ban has not touched South Asia yet, residents of Muslim-majority Pakistan and Afghanistan feel particularly precarious. (Many will also be impacted by recent electronics restrictions on flights out of major airports in the Middle East and North Africa, which South Asians rely on when visiting the United States.)

The targeting of the South Asian community in the United States is seeing tepid responses abroad. Smaller South Asian countries have tread carefully around Trump so far, in no small part because a rift could mean economic catastrophe. In regional giant India, hate crimes alone haven’t been enough to garner attention from leaders like Modi. Arguably the closest Modi’s cabinet has come to acknowledging the issue are the tweets of condolence from Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj, who offered assistance to the bereaved families of Indian citizens killed abroad. Meanwhile, an RSS functionary told Indians in the United States to stop complaining.

But attacks coupled with economic implications could shake an otherwise steady dynamic.

Kugelman said that the Indian diaspora has played a critical role in keeping ties between the two countries strong, but the more unsafe South Asians feel in the United States, the more pressure other leaders in the region will feel. “If this pattern continues…and the [Trump administration] continues to offer a lukewarm response at best, other governments will become more vocal publicly, [maybe] condemning that these attacks are happening, and asking what the administration is doing.”

Indians in Hyderabad hold placards in front of the cremation pyre of Srinivas Kuchibhotla. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.
Indians in Hyderabad hold placards in front of the cremation pyre of Srinivas Kuchibhotla. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.

Perhaps because of their governments’ silence, South Asians outside of the United States are taking matters into their own hands. The father of the man who survived the Kansas shooting went so far as to explicitly warn Indian parents not to send their children to America. The New York Times also interviewed several Indians who were either rethinking their decision to go to the United States, or were under extreme family pressure to rethink going. Indian media, too, is vocal in its criticism. The English-language Indian news portal The Wire recently ran an article both condemning Modi’s refusal to speak out about the hate crimes and calling out the prejudice in both the Indian and U.S. governments.

While some wait on leaders both domestic and foreign to condemn the violence, others are focused on changing hearts and minds.

Since the fire that damaged his center, Rashed has spoken out more and more about his Muslim identity in an effort to challenge stereotypes. At times, it can be a lonely task, as it is for many Muslims, who, he said, “are bearing the brunt” of the vitriol, especially those who are more visible. Still, he argued, there is more that unites people than divides them, regardless of their background. It is that connection that will empower minority communities as they enter an increasingly precarious and bleak new reality.

“My day job is to work with start-ups,” he said. “I love the excitement of what technology brings to this world. Overall that’s the contribution I’m interested in: making sure that we leave this place better than we came in.”