Re-Imagining the Idea of India: Negotiated Aspirations and Political Spaces Among the Indian-American Diaspora

Bidisha Biswas

In February 2020, the Seattle City Council[1] voted to approve a resolution that condemned the Indian government’s authoritarian and Hindu majoritarian policies. The resolution was passed as a symbolic signal of support to ongoing peaceful protests in India against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) efforts to change citizenship policies in ways that would dilute the secular fabric of the Indian republic. Following Seattle, at least six other cities passed similar resolutions. On the surface, these resolutions appeared quixotic: local city councils have no jurisdiction over US diplomatic matters and cannot directly influence the domestic politics of a sovereign nation. Yet, the resolutions generated heated debate, polarization and mobilization. Prior to each vote, Indian-American groups – those who supported the resolutions and those who opposed them – held public demonstrations, wrote petitions, contacted city officials, and organized fierce social media campaigns. The Government of India, through its Embassy and consulates, also exerted significant effort, including writing to the mayors of the concerned cities, towards stopping the passage of the resolutions. Watching these events unfold, I found myself wondering—why was so much emotion and energy being expended over non-binding, non-enforceable resolutions? Furthermore, what do pluralistic Indian-Americans hope to achieve by advocating for city-level criticism of the Indian government?

This research project is the product of my effort to answer these questions. I explore the motivations and actions of Indian-American activists. My research focuses on pluralistic Indian-Americans, that is, those who support a vision of a democratic and inclusive India, where people of all religions enjoy equal rights. I find that they are widening political spaces in novel ways. These spaces are distinctive in that they are shaped by aspirations rooted in the founding principles of the Indian republic. Pluralistic Indian-Americans are deeply concerned that India’s current authoritarian turn is threatening the democratic aspirations of the country. Through their actions, they are giving voice to their own faith in, and identification with, these aspirations. Using these ideas as their base, the activists are engaging in highly localized forms of moral signalling. At the same time, they are targeting numerous audiences in multiple spaces—local, national, international, and transnational. My research provides pathways for understanding the complex political interplay of aspirations, identity, memory, and legacy in diaspora politics.

 

Hindu nationalism and Indian-Americans

About 4.2 million people of Indian origin reside in the United States. Of these, about 2.6 million are US citizens, with the remaining being permanent residents or visa holders. Indians are among the most recent immigrants to the US, with about 60% of them having arrived in the 2000s. As a result, many continue to maintain close ties to the homeland. Indian-Americans are one of the wealthiest immigrant groups in the US, with considerable financial clout and increasing political power.

The BJP and its allied organizations, together called the Sangh Parivar, have long courted the Indian diaspora for support. Since coming to power in 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made diaspora outreach a key element of India’s foreign policy—and of his own, carefully managed persona as a charismatic, worldly leader. Modi has been particularly assiduous in his attempts to woo Indian-Americans. The popular media and existing academic literature have also focused on pro-Modi sympathies among Indian-Americans—partly as a result of the Indian’s government’s own astute and selective use of social media. This gives weight to the widely held perception that Hindu nationalism enjoys broad support among Indian-Americans.

My research has shown that this perception is misleading. While Mr. Modi remains popular among many Indian-Americans, a significant number also question him and his party’s muscular agenda. Opposition to Prime Minister Modi’s Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) policies goes back several years. In 2005, pluralist groups were able persuade the US government to deny Mr. Modi a visa to enter the US because of his poor track record in human rights. This ban stayed in place for almost a decade and was lifted in 2014, when Mr. Modi became the Prime Minister of India. Between 2014 and 2019, as Mr. Modi cemented his powerful position in Indian politics, the pluralistic diaspora was relatively quiet, although not entirely dormant. However, after peaceful protests swept India in December 2019, anti-Hindutva groups in the US (and elsewhere in the world, including in many European cities) became increasingly active. They organized marches, petitions, social media campaigns, and outreach to legislators, all to call attention to India’s declining democratic status. Recognizing that the Trump administration was unlikely to take their side, these groups turned to city resolutions as a way to signal that the US government should, normatively, express its concerns over the changing political currents in India.

 

Understanding diaspora motivations: the importance of history

My research has shown diaspora movements are most effective when there is a single mobilizing issue, such as the 2002 anti-Muslim violence in Mr. Modi’s home state of Gujarat or the 2019 protests that swept India. Moreover, in their actions, diaspora groups tend to be reactive — responding to, rather than shaping, the politics of their home country. At the same time, their underlying commitment has deeper, ideological roots.

In describing their motivations, pluralist activists often referred to the ideals outlined in the Constitution of India, adopted in 1949, which enshrined democracy, fraternity, equality, and justice as the core principles of the Indian state. Such a vision, given the country’s high poverty levels and intense sociopolitical divisions, took significant ambition and political imagination.

These principles represented not the reality of the country at the time of its founding, but the aspirations that were to guide it. Aspirations are large, future-oriented, transformative goals which can only be achieved through sustained commitment and action. The activists I have spoken to all expressed the fear that these aspirations faced an existential threat from authoritarian and majoritarian forces within India. Often, they would often refer to their pride, as Indians, in the Constitution and in the extraordinary intellect of those who drafted it. One respondent described the framers, and, in particular, Dr.B.R. Ambedkar, India’s first Law Minister and Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first Prime Minister as the country’s ‘greatest generation’. Another said that he felt ‘so much pride in Indian democracy, which was a unique and bold experiment in history’. This respondent lamented that, now, he ‘had to keep a little bit quiet about that’.   Activists affirmed that they had a responsibility, both as Indians and as Indian-Americans, to extend support to those who, in India, were engaged in a struggle to preserve those very aspirations. While right-wing nationalists refer to a glorified, sanitized vision of the past as their guide, pluralists are basing their actions on a more modern history—that of the aspirations that framed the founding of the Indian Republic in 1947. Furthermore, their current concerns tie directly to the global wave of authoritarianism and right-wing populist policies: almost all the activists I interviewed connected Prime Minister Modi to other strongmen leaders, such as former US President Donald Trump and the President of Turkey, Recep Erdoğan, among others.  

 

Aspirations and multiple spaces

Aspirations are, by their transformational nature, difficult to realize and might, in fact, seem very remote and abstract. In order to mobilize the larger public, activist leaders must find ways to translate these ideals into actions. This is where high-publicity events come in: they help frame immediate steps that can be taken in the interests of supporting or preserving larger aspirations. For example, signaling support for peaceful protestors in India becomes a tangible way for the Indian diaspora to stand up for democracy.

The diaspora occupies a blurred geographic space, caught between the homeland, the adopted country, and the many bridges between the two. As such, pluralists seek to be heard in political spaces that are local, national, international, and transnational. At the local level, where they arguably have the most political access, activists are exerting their influence on officials in their community as a form of moral signaling. These local activities, in turn, are expected to influence decision-makers at the national level. For example, while expressing support for the resolution criticizing the Modi government, Seattle city officials called on the United States Congress, which does have jurisdiction over foreign policy, to pay heed to the deteriorating democratic conditions in India. In addition, pluralist groups have also formed coalitions to collectively ask the US State Department to raise their concerns with the Indian government. Here, the goal is not to alter the arc of US-India relations, but to use US-India bilateral cooperation as a platform to raise normative questions. At the international level, the diaspora is also directly challenging the Modi government’s claims to enjoying broad diaspora support. It is important to note that most Indian-Americans are not seeking an overthrow of the government. Rather, they are signaling to the Indian state and society that they oppose the policies of the current government. Because Mr. Modi has invested considerable effort in building up his own global persona, and linking his image to India’s reputation as a country, this counter argument is seen as vital. Transnationally, activists are using social media and direct communication to build coalitions with diaspora groups in other countries, with the goal of applying larger, and louder, normative pressure on the Indian state.

 

Conclusion

My preliminary findings provide some interesting pathways forunderstanding diaspora motivations, frames, and actions. First, diasporas can be deeply motivated by transformative aspirations, rooted in the history of their home country. At the same, while their ideals are shaped by the past, they are not determined by it. Pluralistic activists are keenly attuned to the path-dependent processes by which democracies consolidate or wither. Second, activist leaders are availing of changing political opportunities both in India and the US to translate those aspirations into a clear articulation of the actions necessary to protect the ideals they see as being under threat. Third, while diaspora populations indicate respect for India’s sovereignty and take pride in aspects of India’s history, they occupy an amorphous political space which transcends national boundaries and static views of citizenship. Furthermore, pluralistic activists believe that, through their actions, they are strengthening both the idea and the practice of democratic India. As one respondent told me, ‘the Constitution [of India] was definitely designed to be inclusive, and the current government’s policies are exclusionary…. I’mfighting… [to protect] the spirit with which the Constitution was written, to get back to an inclusive concept of the people of India’.
 

[1] Located on the West Coast of the United States, the city of Seattle is the headquarters for a number of technology companies, including Microsoft and Facebook. The Seattle area hosts a large population of Indian origin