Some ‘Indian Americans’ are switching to self-identifying themselves as ‘Hindu Americans’ and plan to announce the rebranded entity as a political force at a ‘summit’ on Capitol Hill, home to the US congress, late September to deliver their message directly to the lawmakers.
Titled ‘Hindu American Summit for Political Engagement’, the event will see the leadership of the “spirited American Hindu community discussing to actively engage in the US political system”, according to a flyer circulated by the organisers that also serves as an invitation.
But the rebranding effort actually reflects growing unease among Indian Americans with being tied to the policies and positions taken by the Indian government and to be seen by Americans as representing them. They also feel the need to assert their ‘Americanness’ while being still attached to their country of origin, by religion now and not politics.
The summit is being organised by ‘Americans 4 Hindus’ and the ‘American Hindus Coalition’, both unabashedly Hindu outfits, and it will be attended by representatives of the national, California and Texas units of the ‘Americans 4 Hindus’; the national, New York and Florida units of the ‘Hindu American PAC’ (political action committee); Hindus of Georgia PAC, Hindu PACT (World Hindu Council of America); Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America; Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh of America and few others.
As a measure of the seriousness of this rebranding effort, organisers have invited only bodies that have declared their religious identity overtly, with the word ‘Hindu’ in their names.
An event to commemorate 75 years of India’s Independence Day — observed by India as Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav — has been relegated to the footnote position in the summit flyer, as a sideshow, because, it is being hosted by the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI), which does not have the word ‘Hindu’ in the name but is a powerful entity nevertheless. It hosted Prime Minister Narendra Modi at its 2020 annual meet that was held virtually because of Covid-19.
Some of the groups involved in the summit have been active politically for a while, raising money and funding candidates in both state and federal elections. These bodies have been individually active for a while, funding candidates running for political office at federal and state level.
Americans 4 (also calls itself ‘for’) Hindus raised $228,311 in the 2019-20 election cycle, according to Open Secrets, which tracks election funding in the US. Most of his money went to Republicans. The Hindu American PAC raised $55,833 in the same period and gave to both Republicans and Democrats.
“For half a century, Indian Americans have maintained strong loyalty with India but its recent diplomatic confrontations with the western countries is forcing us to rebrand ourselves as ‘Hindu Americans’, similar to the ‘Jewish Americans’,” said Shekhar Tiwari, chairman-founder of the American Hindu Coalition, which is co-hosting the summit.
“Unfortunately this change will create distance with India which might only grow with time,” he added. Though numerically a minority, such Indian/Hindu Americans, Jewish Americans wield enormous political clout, with both Republicans and Democrats. They have used this clout to also support Israel and insulate it from backlash to some of its most controversial actions.
Indian Americans have long held the Jewish American community’s clout as a model, and now Hindu Americans are saying they too can be known for their religious identity as the Jewish Americans, not just for their links to India.
India’s refusal to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been the cause of much disquiet among Indian Americans, many of whom have said they have had to bear the brunt of the backlash from Americans, especially lawmakers, casting doubts on their Americanness.
India has become a “toxic word”, a senior lawmaker told an Indian American constituent, who requested not to be identified so as to be able to report the conversation. Another lawmaker asked an Indian American constituent, who also wanted to go unidentified, to look for alternatives to the phrase ‘Indian American’.
India is spoken of in the same breath as China as Russia’s enablers. The US media is closely tracking, and reporting, India’s continuing — albeit escalating — purchases of Russian oil and fertilisers, helping, in the view of Americans, Russia go around crippling sanctions imposed by western countries over the Ukraine invasion.
Sampat Shivangi, co-chair of Americans 4 Hindus, the other host of the summit, acknowledged that many Indian Americans want to switch to Hindu American, but insisted it’s a fierce debate at the moment and not a settled issue.
Though, Shivangi added, he sees not reason for Hindu Americans to not call themselves Hindu Americans like Jewish Americans, who have embraced their religious identity and not countries they came from.
Jewish Americans have long been a model for many Indian Americans, even those that do not want to cut ties to the mother country, for their clout in American politics, which is way disproportionate to their population size.
“We are the most highly educated and wealthiest community in America and we should not be reluctant to call ourselves Hindu Americans,” said Shivangi, arguing Hindus comprise 85 per cent of Indian Americans, who are estimated to be about 4 million. But, he added, he is happy to go with the name Indian American. These are not binary choices for him.
Shivangi is behind the Amrit Mahotsav event that follows the Hindu summit, and said he has commitments of attendance from several Senators and members of the House of Representatives. (IANS)