POLITICS

Why The Silence Of Modi Is No Less Disquieting Than Trump's After Srinivas Kuchibhotla Murder

Should what happened to two Indians in Kansas City not have hit even closer home for an Indian prime minister?

02/03/2017 1:02 PM IST | Updated 02/03/2017 1:09 PM IST
Dave Kaup / Reuters
An attendee holds a candle during a vigil for Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian engineer who was shot and killed, at a conference center in Olathe, Kansas, U.S., February 26, 2017. REUTERS/Dave Kaup

Donald Trump finally broke his week-long silence on the killing of Srinivas Kuchibhotla. While addressing the joint session of Congress, the US President said "Recent threats targeting Jewish community centres and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week's shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a nation divided on politics, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms."

The claim of a country "united in condemning hate" rings hollow, since the Twitter-happy President waited almost a week to say a word about it. But still it was something.

However Kuchibhotla's own prime minister, an equally Twitter-savvy politician, is yet to do the same. His external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj has been pro-active. She has rightfully expressed her shock and anguish and extended all support. But Narendra Modi has been quiet.

Dave Kaup / Reuters
Alok Madasani, who was wounded in a shooting that killed Indian engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla, attends a vigil at a conference center in Olathe, Kansas, U.S., February 26, 2017.

In fact, India has just clarified it has not issued any kind of demarche, a diplomatic protest, to the US in response to this attack. The Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson, Gopal Baglay, said there was no need because the authorities in Kansas had already responded pro-actively. "It is important to note that the US authorities are engaged with us on the larger concern regarding safety of Indians in the US, a matter which continues to receive the government's top priority," said Baglay.

It's a "top priority" but almost top secret as well since the Prime Minister has said nothing. Obviously much of realpolitik happens out of sight. Not everything is achieved by a public tantrum. India's foreign secretary S Jaishankar is in the US and will surely bring up the issue. But the fact is, in these Twitter happy times an expectation of a public statement has been created by the likes of Trump and Modi themselves.

Indians use up 60% of the H1-B visas. Trump as candidate had promised a gharwapsi of software jobs. Now that Trump has pivoted to a more nuanced stance, calling for "merit-based" immigration, India would certainly not want to queer the pitch.

No one would have been surprised by the reticence of a Manmohan Singh. In his time when Indian students were attacked in Australia it was enough for external affairs minister SM Krishna to issue a strong statement and a travel advisory for Indians going to that country. But Trump and Modi have used social media to communicate directly to the masses. When they choose not to, and on an issue that's causing great heartburn, that sends a message.

India's careful response is not surprising. Jayanth Jacob writes in the Hindustan Times that "experts say India's reaction is guided by more pressing concerns of the US putting curbs on H1-B visas, which are the lifeblood of the Indian IT industry."

Indians use up 60% of the H1-B visas. Trump as candidate had promised a gharwapsi of software jobs. Now that Trump has pivoted to a more nuanced stance, calling for "merit-based" immigration, India would certainly not want to queer the pitch. The particular tragedy of one H1-B engineer cannot eclipse the larger needs of thousands of H1-B visaholders.

On top of that Jaishankar is supposed to explore the possibility of a Modi visit to the US in the near future. Thus discretion seems to be the better part of valour. Extending all logistical and material help to the bereaved family without making it a diplomatic issue between two countries seems to be the prudent middle path. Therefore Kuchibhotla's death becomes an unfortunate aberration rather than part of any larger worrisome trend like the attacks on Indian students in Australia.

The only problem is, it is hard to be quite so sanguine. Kuchibhotla's story is in the headlines because he died. But there are too many other stories of harassment that make it hard to dismiss Kansas City as one ugly outlier. Trump mentioned the threats to Jewish community centres but not the acts of vandalism, hate graffiti facing mosques, Islamic centers and women in hijabs. The South Asian Americans Leading Together advocacy group has been tracking hate crimes in its Acts of Hate database.

It documents the story of 63-year-old Indian man working in the Park Ridge shopping center in Illinois being subjected to racial slurs. Earlier in February, Saravanan Arunachalam came home in Peyton, Colorado, to find dog faeces smeared across his garage along with the remnants of about 40 eggs thrown at his house and 50 hate messages. Little India restaurant in Colorado found "Hail Trump" spray painted over its sign.

Riya Adhikari of Wesleyan College found "Go Home Immigrant #Trump" written on the whiteboard outside her dorm room. Nicki Pancholy was wearing a bandana in Milpitas, California and found a sign on her car that said "Hijab wearing b_____ this is our nation now get the f___ out."

A Sikh-owned Quizno's sandwich shop had a break-in where someone stole money and wrote "Terrorist" on the wall. Ankur Mehta was attacked in a Red Robin restaurant in Pittsburgh by a man yelling racial epithets against Middle Easterners and saying "Things are different now. I don't want you people sitting near me."

Ian Grillot's act of selfless bravery in Kansas City is more than ample proof that basic human decency exists everywhere.

Things are indeed different now. It does not mean America has turned viciously against immigrants. Ian Grillot's act of selfless bravery in Kansas City is more than ample proof that basic human decency exists everywhere. While we should be thankful for that, we cannot be in denial either about the anger of the emboldened bullies and bigots in America today. The Telengana American Telugu Association has advised Telugu-speaking people not to converse in their mother tongue in a public place. That's where the silence of a Modi becomes disquieting.

The irony is, in her first Facebook post after her terrible loss, Kuchibhotla's widow Sunayana Dumala writes that her husband "was very proud of Mr. Narendra Modi ji and India. He was sure that India had finally found the leader that could make India shine." And he was proud of Sushma Swaraj - "such a brave and courageous woman, and how quick she reacted for those in need. He must have never thought that he would be one among them one day." If nothing else, a statement from Modi, late as it is, would reaffirm Kuchibhotla's faith in his prime minister.

When Omar Mateen walked into that nightclub in Orlando and opened fire, Modi had immediately tweeted "Shocked at the shootout in Orlando, USA. My thoughts & prayers are with the bereaved families and the injured." That was a humane and decent thing to do. But should what happened to two Indians in Kansas City not have hit even closer home for an Indian prime minister?

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