16/03/2017 12:36 AM IST

Kansas Shooting Surfaces Tensions Over Trump In Indian-American Community

South Asian Americans Leading Together
Activists and politicians gather on the steps of the Capitol in Washington D.C., on Friday for a vigil to honor victims of hate violence.

At a vigil on the steps of the United States Capitol on Friday, Indian-American activists, politicians and their allies gathered to honor victims of hate violence in their communities.

Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, a representative from Washington state and an Indian immigrant herself, recalled instances in her own life when she was discriminated against and told to go back to her country.

Jayapal said that it was “incredibly important” for members of Congress and the president to speak out against hate violence, but that those words need to be followed by action.

“It doesn’t actually mean anything unless the policies follow that rhetoric, and that has been one of things that has been very troubling,” she said, according to a press release about the vigil. 

Srinivas Kuchibhotla’s shooting death at a bar in Olathe, Kansas, has exposed a divide within the Indian-American community about whether President Donald Trump has responded adequately to hate targeting their community. Trump offered Indian Americans nine words in consolation, during a Congressional speech nearly a week after the shooting.

“Recent threats targeting Jewish community centers 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 policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all of its very ugly forms,” the president said during his speech.

Some Indian-Americans are overlooking the timing of his response and continuing to support Trump’s policies ― specifically his stance on terrorism. But for many others, his words were not nearly enough to assuage fears about their safety, especially as reports of attacks and vandalism continue to surface. 

Kyle Rivas via Getty Images
Alok Madasani and his wife Reepthi Gangula tear up while watching a dedication video during the Prayer Vigil that was held for the victims of the Austins Bar & Grill shooting on February 26, 2017 at the Ball Conference Center in Olathe, Kansas. Adam W. Purinton allegedly shot and killed Srinivas Kuchibhotla and wounded Alok Madasani, and an Austins Bar staff worker, Ian Grillot in what's being investigated as a hate crime.

A few days after the Kansas attack, a Sikh man of Indian origin was shot and injured in Washington state, reportedly after the gunman told him to “go back to your own country.” In Florida, a man attempted to set fire to a convenience store owned by Indians, assuming that they were Arab. And in Colorado, an Indian family’s home was reportedly vandalized with hate messages and smeared with eggs and feces.

Given these incidences of hate, some Indian Americans believe President Donald Trump must do more to ensure that Indians, South Asians and other marginalized groups feel safe in America.

Suhag Shukla, the Indian-American co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation, told The Huffington Post that she had been “deeply and profoundly saddened” by news of Kuchibhotla’s death. 

”While I appreciate [the president’s] condemnation of the incident, my personal opinion is that a stronger and swifter message would have been appreciated,” she said.

The advocacy group South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) said it has documented over 200 incidents of hate violence and xenophobic political rhetoric aimed at South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Arab, and Middle Eastern Americans during the 2016 elections. The group claimed 95% of the incidents were motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment.

Suman Raghunathan, Executive Director of SAALT, told The Huffington Post that there’s been an increase in xenophobic political rhetoric over the course of the year leading up to the election. She believes there’s a direct link between this rhetoric and an increase in hate incidents.

“We have been looking at hate violence for several years now, and only recently, over the past year in our tracking, were we comfortable in tracing this direct relationship,” she said. “We now unfortunately believe this uptick in violence is linked to an uptick in problematic statements about our communities.” 

JASON REDMOND via Getty Images
Members of the South Asian community and others attend a peace vigil for Srinivas Kuchibhotla, the 32-year-old Indian engineer killed at a bar Olathe, Kansas, in Bellevue, Washington on March 5, 2017.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has rejected the idea that the president’s rhetoric has contributed to a rise in hate violence.

“I mean, obviously, any loss of life is tragic,” Spicer said when asked about Kuchibhotla’s death during a press gaggle on Feb. 24. “To suggest that there’s any correlation I think is a bit absurd.”

And for some segments of the Indian-American population, hate violence against Indians haven’t shaken approval of the president.

As a whole, the majority of Indian Americans tend to vote Democratic and are not fans of Trump. A poll taken before the election suggested that only 7 percent of registered Indian American voters planned to vote for Trump. 

But there is a small group of Indian-Americans who have shown support for the president. The “Hindus for Trump” movement has found a foothold in both India and America. Some analysts say Trump’s Hindu supporterssee a similarity between Trump’s America-first rhetoric and the Hindu nationalism espoused by supporters of Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi.

In the United States, the Republican Hindu Coalition is a particularly vocal group. The RHC’s chairman, Shalabh Kumar, was one of Trump’s biggest individual donors during the election. 

Although the RHC has the word “Hindu” in its title and Hindus hail from many different countries, one of the organization’s goals seems to be forging strong ties between India and the United States.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
Republican Hindu Coalition Chairman Shalli Kumar (C) stands with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump (2nd L) to light a ceremonial diya lamp before he speaks at a Bollywood-themed charity concert put on by the Republican Hindu Coalition in Edison, New Jersey, U.S. October 15, 2016.

There’s also an aspect of the “Hindus for Trump” movement that is attracted to Trump’s hardline stances on terrorism.  In India, some supporters believe Trump’s blunt talk on extremism will lead to tougher policy towards Pakistan.

In the United States, the RHC has used Islamophobic rhetoric and imagery to tap into anti-Muslim sentiment. The organization has expressed “full-throated” support for Trump’s executive order on immigration, which targeted immigrants and refugees from several Muslim-majority countries. In a statement about the order relased on Jan. 29, the RHC applauded the Trump administration for “taking this decisive move to protect our citizens from Islamic terror.” 

Dr. Vasudha Narayanan, a professor of religion at the University of Florida, said that she isn’t aware of any other prominent, organized coalition within the South Asian American community that’s similar to the RHC in their public support for Trump. She said that Hindus’ support could be fueled by a number of reasons ― from concern about terrorism to opposition to the Affordable Care Act, to loyalty towards the Republican Party. 

She doesn’t think it’s likely that the Kansas shooting will change their minds. 

“Once people have made up their minds, not too many change them,” she told The Huffington Post.

Indeed, Kuchibhotla’s death does not appear to have swayed the RHC’s support for Trump. Kumar personally condemned the shooting on Twitter. The RHC released a statement that seemed to claim that the RHC’s India ambassador, Manasvi Mamgai, was partly responsible for getting Trump to address the Kansas shooting. 

In an interview with The Hindu, Kumar said that Trump reacted to the Kansas shooting “at the right time, in an appropriate manner.” He claimed the fear that has swept through the Indian-American community was caused by  “biased media coverage,” “a Left-wing campaign to target the President,” and activists and lawyers "trying to make a business out of this.”

“Donald Trump does not have an iota of racism in him. He and his advisers have great love and admiration for India and Hinduism,” Kumar said.

The Huffington Post reached out to the RHC for comment, but did not hear back.

Narayanan believes hate crimes that affect the Indian community are the result of “xenophobia in a chromophobic incarnation.” In other words, “hatred is simply targeted at skin color and perceived ethnicity.”

“People committing hate crimes now are certainly enabled and feel validated by overt, public xenophobic statements as well as by the silent assent of others,” Narayanan said. “There is no getting away from the racism, xenophobia, and chromophobia that led to the tragic death of Mr. Kuchibotla.”

Raghunathan, of SAALT, believes that rhetoric that pits South Asian communities against each other is not only unjust but also unhelpful. Despite the incredible religious, national, and socioeconomic diversity in the community, it’s evident to her from the Kansas shooting and other incidents of hate that for perpetrators of violence against South Asians, that diversity doesn’t matter.

“We’re all seen as a monolith,” she told The Huffington Post. “We’re all seen as part and parcel of the same nationality, or religious community.”  

JASON REDMOND via Getty Images
Members of the South Asian community and others attend a peace vigil for Srinivas Kuchibhotla, the 32-year-old Indian engineer killed at a bar Olathe, Kansas, in Bellevue, Washington on March 5, 2017.

For Raghunathan, the current climate of xenophobia against immigrants makes it more important than ever to promote a pan-South Asian platform ― one that also advocates for the needs of Jewish, Arab, Latino, black, queer, and other marginalized communities. Raghunathan said she’s seen more South Asians coming forward who are ready to engage in issues that affect all of these groups. 

That’s why she sees this era of South Asian American history as a “movement-building moment.”

“We’re just continuing to see increasing levels of interest in engagement,” she said. “And people understanding that the liberation of South Asian Americans is increasingly bound up with the liberation of their ... brothers and sisters [in other communities].”