Indian-American community reels from a wave of hate, racism and xenophobia
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, March 3, 2017 – Wrapping up a packed schedule during a four-day visit to the capital city, Indian Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said the Kansas shooting, which claimed the life of an Indian engineer and injured two other men, is the act of an individual and American society is very much against it.
New Delhi’s top diplomat, accompanied by Indian Commerce Secretary Rita Teaotia, arrived in Washington, February 28, to engage with the new US administration on a whole host of issues ranging from regional and global challenges, bilateral trade and economic cooperation, immigration and H-1B visas, the welfare of Indians nationals in the US as well as the Indian-American community.
Briefing reporters at the Indian Embassy on Friday evening about the “productive visit”, Jaishankar said the incident in Kansas is “very tragic” and that it featured in many of their discussions with high-ranking US officials. From “almost everybody we met, even people whose responsibility did not directly deal with this, we heard expressions of deep sorrow and deep regret”, he said. There was “a sense that we should really treat this as an individual act” and that American society as a whole is “very much against it”, he underscored.
The Foreign Secretary was assured by senior US officials that “the American justice system is at work” and “it will bring the perpetrator of this act to justice. It is being prosecuted as a hate crime”, he noted.
According to police accounts, on the evening of February 22, Adam Purinton, 51, a white US Navy veteran, opened fire in a bar killing Srinivas Kuchibhotla and injuring Alok Madasani, both 32-year-old Hindus originally from Hyderabad, and engineers by profession employed by GPS device-maker Garmin. Reportedly, the suspect mistook the two Indian men for Iranians and yelled, “Get out of my country”. A good Samaritan, Ian Grillot, 24, who tried to intervene was also shot and injured.
At the press briefing, Jaishankar drew attention to actions condemning the act of hate and condoling the victims, mentioning President Trump’s reference to the shooting in his first major address to Congress, a White House statement, House Speaker Paul Ryan’s remarks, and “the fact that the US House of Representatives observed a moment of silence”.
The assurances and condolences notwithstanding, the Indian-American community is reeling from what it sees as a wave of hate, racism and xenophobia.
Following the press briefing at the Chancery on Friday, there was an alleged hate crime on the west coast – a turbaned Sikh man, while working on his car, was shot in the driveway of his house in Kent, a suburb of Seattle, Washington. The gunman described as a white male yelled, “Go back to your own country”, before shooting him in the arm. The 39-year-old victim is recovering from his injury which is not life-threatening.
A day earlier, an Indian-origin store owner, Harnish Patel, 43, was fatally shot outside his home in Lancaster, South Carolina. While police are investigating the motive, another young life has been cut short. Patel is survived by his wife and a daughter who attends elementary school.
A few days ago, a young Indian-American woman, Ekta Desai, posted a video on social media giant Facebook in which she is being racially abused and harassed on a train in New York.
Earlier in February, a home in Peyton, Colorado, owned by an Indian-American family was trashed with racist messages, dog poop smeared everywhere, and eggs thrown on the walls and ceilings — a sobering reminder of hate.
On meetings with high-ranking US officials:
During the course of their Washington visit, Secretaries Jaishankar and Teaotia met with a number of senior US administration officials including: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross; Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly; National Security Advisor, Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster; and Kenneth Juster, Deputy Assistant to the President for International Economic Affairs.
On Capitol Hill, they met with: House Speaker Ryan (Republican – Wisconsin); House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Democrat – California); Bob Corker (Republican – Tennessee), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Ed Royce (Republican – California), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; Senate India Caucus Co-Chair Mark Warner (Democrat – Virginia); House India Caucus Co-Chair George Holding (Republican – North Carolina); and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (Democrat – Hawaii).
On H-1B visas:
Responding to a question about the H-1B visa program for high-skilled workers, at the press briefing, Jaishankar disclosed that the subject came up in a number of meetings — with Secretary Ross, Secretary Kelly, and in all the meetings with members of Congress.
“Essentially, we conveyed that the H-1B visa is a category of trade and services which actually helps the American economy to be more competitive”, he said. “If the Trump administration’s intention is to bring back American companies to the US and attract more foreign investment for more growth, it is important that growing America remain competitive. So, there will actually be a growing need for this partnership. I think that is a point which was registered. H-1B visa is really an economic, a trade, business issue”, he emphasized, noting that “in the US context, it is seen as part of an immigration basket”.
The Foreign Secretary pointed out that President Trump spoke of a merit-based approach to immigration in his address to Congress.
“We have heard across the board, a lot of respect expressed for Indian skills and for Indians in the United States”, he said. “We have made our point forcefully and it has been met with a degree of understanding”.
Commerce Secretary Teaotia believed that the H-1B visa program “is not the priority of the US government when they are concerned about immigration issues. Nevertheless, when this is addressed, it will be part of the overall immigration package”, she said.
On the current state of India-US relations:
Reflecting on the visit in the context of bilateral ties, Jaishankar told reporters, “Overall, our sense was that the administration has a very positive view of the relationship and very positive view of India… The sense is that this is a good relationship that the administration is inheriting. India is seen as a very good and solid economic partner, a country with which there are very strong security and foreign policy convergences”, he said.
Responding to a question about the degree of optimism given a new US administration, he replied, “We have a strong sense of optimism and I think, the Trump administration has a very strong sense of optimism about the relationship”.
The Foreign Secretary admitted, “Clearly, there are changes. But, we are not starting from scratch”, he said. “There is a foundation from where the previous administration left off”. The last three US administrations were significantly different from each other, he noted, “and yet, India-US relations grew to a higher level”.
Jaishankar said, “I think it is natural that when any new administration comes in, they take stock of the progress made, set new targets, obviously have bigger ambitions of going further. We saw a lot of goodwill, a lot of interest in taking this relationship forward”.
The Foreign Secretary noted that the “Trump administration looks at the world very differently from its predecessor. We need to absorb that and adapt to it and look at new possibilities of cooperation”, he said, very wisely.
On Capitol Hill, there is strong, bipartisan support for buttressing India-US ties.
“Even as we engage the administration to determine their priorities, understand their thinking and explain ours, where the Congress is concerned, it has been extraordinarily supportive of the growth of this relationship”, Jaishankar said.