Vincent Xavier Palathingal, a businessman from Kerala, now living in the United States, has attracted a lot of attention in our media. He was noticed waving an Indian flag at the Trump rally in Washington DC on January 6, which turned violent as it attacked the Capitol building, resulting in deaths. He told our media that he had migrated to the US in 1992 after his education in the Government Engineering College, Thrissur. He claims to be a member of the State Central Committee of the Republican Party in Virginia and had gone to attend the Trump rally to protest against a ‘stolen election’. He added that he was formerly a Democrat and had voted for Barack Obama twice.
Vincent claimed that a few delinquents had infiltrated the otherwise peaceful rally and committed acts of violence. He told a Malayalam news channel that the lawbreakers appeared to him to be from the left wing ANTIFA (Anti-Fascist and Anti-Racist Front) or BLM (Black Lives Matter). This was the fifth time he had attended Trump’s rallies and the first one which ended in violence. Trump had always blamed ANTIFA for violence during the “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations.
In any case the US Justice Department is probing the incident in cooperation with the Capitol Police, who would no doubt investigate the claims made by Vincent too. Latest reports from the US indicate that the man with a painted face with “Viking” horns, whose face was beamed all over the world was identified as Jake Angeli from Arizona, a regular Trump supporter belonging to the Far Right wing “QAnon”. However, the purpose of this piece is not to look into the incident at Capitol Hill but to offer a retrospective of the political activities of Indian Americans based on my personal experience in the US and how it transformed from the original bipartisan movement into a community deeply divided on religious lines.
The Indian diaspora in the US was politically active during the 1920s-30s under the leadership of Taraknath Das, Har Dayal, Mubarak Ali Khan, J J Singh and many others. Their canvassing efforts paved the way for the election of Dalip Singh Saund, the only Indian to be a part of the US Congress (1957-63) till the 1990s. However, it was an epic struggle as all immigration was stopped during the Second World War. In 1946 the Luce-Cellar Act 1946 allowed Indians to be considered as a special category for immigration. This was due to the bipartisan campaigning with Congressmen by J J Singh, president of the India League. Others who supported this legislation were famous scientist Albert Einstein, noted writer Pearl S Buck and former California governor Upton Sinclair.
However, the 1946 law re-introduced the quota system established under a 1924 Act. It was heavily in favour of Northern and Western Europe. Notwithstanding this limitation, the 1946 law benefitted 3,000 Indians already living in the US, and helped them get naturalised. The McCarran-Walter Act, also called The Immigration & Nationality Act, passed in 1952, continued quota-based immigration. Asian countries were given a meagre quota of 100 visas each per year.
The real benefits occurred under the presidentship of Lyndon Johnson when the 1965 Immigration & Naturalisation Act (Hart-Cellar Act) gave preference to reuniting immigrant families after abolishing the quota system based on national origin. However, the arrival of a large number of South Asian families led to a peculiar cloistered style of living, confining their activities around temples or mosques and celebrating South Asian festivals. This was the period of the ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) syndrome. The growing Indian community remained only a fringe group in national politics since they made no attempts to integrate into the American mainstream by taking part in the political process.
It was Dr Joy Cherian, a former Youth Congress activist, and his colleagues like Krishna Srinivasa, Gopal Bashist, Dinesh Patel, Dr Suresh Prabhu, Swadesh Chatterjee and many others belonging to the Republican and Democratic parties who exhorted Indian Americans to join American political activities in the 1980s. They replicated the tactics of the Jewish bipartisan lobby group American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), founded by Tom Dine in 1963 to build constituency pressure on American Congressmen to look after the interests of Israel. In a similar way the bipartisan Indian American leadership established the Indian-American Forum for Political Education (IAFPE) in 1983 to further the interests of India.
Other Indian American activists like Dr Thomas Abraham and Inder Singh widened the ambit of Indian Americans to several countries like Fiji, Guyana, Surinam etc which were the destinations of old Indian indentured labour. They did so by establishing a global Indian diaspora platform named Global Organisation of Indian Origin (GOPIO) in 1989. The visibility of the Indian diaspora improved. All of them were secular, bipartisan groups belonging to all religions and communities.
Unfortunately, the first blow to the bipartisan movement of the Indian American Community was given by, of all persons, senior Congress leader the late Siddhartha Shankar Ray as Indian Ambassador to America. In 1993, he excluded the “Overseas Friends of BJP” from the “1893 Vivekananda Chicago Speech Centenary Celebrations” in America, with the bureaucratic reasoning that it was strictly an official programme of the Indian government. Since then, the BJP segment of Indian Americans, seen taking an active part in all the bipartisan programmes of the Indian American organisations earlier, started staying away.
This schismatic trend was reinforced after Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed power in 2014. Only pro-Bharatiya Janata Party or pro-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Indian Americans were involved in prime ministerial and high-level visits. Others were not invited. Just prior to the 2016 American Elections, a new organisation named “Hindus for Trump” came on the scene. The old bipartisan group felt left out. In the process, the Indian lobbying power in the US has suffered to Pakistan’s advantage because of the exclusion of non-Hindus from the mainstream of Indian American activities.