It was 14 December, 2012, when news broke of a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Indian-American investment banker Shekar Narasimhan recalls that he was at the White House for a party but the mood quickly turned sombre. He says everyone fell silent as details of the horrific attack emerged – 20 children, all under the age of 10, and six adults died in the shooting.
It was also on that day that Mr Narasimhan first met Dilawar Syed, a Pakistani American. “Our hearts met,” said Mr Syed, a tech entrepreneur in California. “I found one person in the room who happened to be a fellow South-Asian American who was as emotional as I was.”
The two soon became close, co-founding the Asian American and Pacific Islanders Victory Fund (AAPIVF), a group that aims to mobilise and elevate voices from these communities in local and national politics. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders account for more than 20 million people in the US, but their voter registration and turnout is said to be lower than the national averages for other communities.
And this is something Mr Syed and Mr Narasimhan hope to change through their organisation.
Indians and Pakistanis are often seen as being at loggerheads because of strained relations between their respective countries. But in the US, the two communities are part of the same South Asian diaspora and often work together during political campaigns.
“He [Mr Syed] has access to different networks that I didn’t,” said Mr Narasimhan, explaining that he wanted to work with Mr Syed precisely because he hailed from a different community and lives in another part of the US.
Their group endorsed Democratic candidate Joe Biden for presidency in January. The two men believe that Mr Biden’s victory will lead to a “more equal, just” America.
Indians and Pakistanis have a lot in common – some of them speak a similar language, northern Indian and Pakistani food shares a history, and both countries are passionate about cricket and enjoy Bollywood. But Mr Syed said that wasn’t the only thing that brought them together: “Our values are the same.”
India and Pakistan also share a complicated and contentious history. Independence from the British in 1947 was accompanied by a bloody partition of the subcontinent. Millions died in the religious violence that followed.
Since then, the nuclear-armed neighbours have fought two wars and a limited conflict over Kashmir. Both countries claim the Muslim-majority border region, which remains the biggest bone of contention between them. But Mr Narasimhan and Mr Syed don’t discuss Kashmir.
“We try and avoid it. We say to each other, look, this election is about domestic issues,” Mr Narasimhan said. Many Indian and Pakistani Americans say thorny issues back home haven’t soured their ties in the US.
Mr Narasimhan said the two communities are far more concerned about issues that directly affect their everyday lives – and that for their children, who were born and raised in the US, the India-Pakistan dispute is not a a big factor.
“My son says what happened 50 or 60 years ago in India and Pakistan, what does that have to do with me?” Mr Narasimhan added.
When it comes to first-generation Pakistani Americans, 9/11 and its aftermath stand out – Mr Syed said it shaped a lot of their experiences in the US. The 11 September attacks led to hate crimes, threats against Muslims, Sikhs and people of Arab and South Asian descent.
Critics of President Donald Trump say that the US has seen an uptick in anti-minority and xenophobic rhetoric since his victory. Mr Syed agrees, adding that Mr Trump is responsible for “a rise in hate, bigotry and anti-immigration sentiment”.
“[With] the events especially in the Trump administration, I did put my faith on my sleeve. I said I want people to know this is what a Muslim American looks like.”
‘What affects us is local’
The Pakistani-American community is nearly a million strong, while Indian Americans are said to total around 4.5 million. Both tend to lean Democratic. According to a 2016 survey, 88% of Pakistani Americans and 77% of Indian Americans voted for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton last election. Only 5% of the former and 16% of the latter voted for Mr Trump, the survey found.
This year members of both diaspora are working together to rally support for the candidate of their choice – not just for the presidential election but also for the Senate and Congressional seats that are on the ticket.
Indian American Manu Mathews and his Pakistani American friend, Rao Kamran Ali, have been rallying support for their local Democratic candidate, Candace Valenzuela, to represent their congressional district in Texas.
“We try and avoid conversations we know we are not going to agree on,” Mr Mathew said, referring to tensions between India and Pakistan.
It’s the same on the Republican side. India-born realtor Raj Kathuria and Pakistani American Shahab Qarni are friends who live 20 minutes from each other. They have both been campaigning online for Mr Trump.
For Mr Kathuria, whose parents migrated from a newly-created Pakistan to India during partition, issues or tensions between the two countries are important and personal. But at the same time, he says, it doesn’t affect his life in the US. “What affects us is the local politics,” he added.
It’s unclear which way Pakistani Americans are leaning, but over 70% of Indian Americans plan to vote for Mr Biden in the upcoming election, according to the 2020 Indian American Attitudes survey. This suggests that the community will largely vote Democrat as always.
This is despite the headline-grabbing friendship between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Mr Trump. Last year in September, they appeared together in Houston at an event named “Howdy Modi”, where Mr Trump declared: “You have never had a better friend as president than President Donald Trump”.
And in February, Mr Trump visited India, where he addressed a crowd of over 100,000 in Mr Modi’s home state of Gujarat.
But according to the survey, Indian Americans “do not consider US-India relations to be one of the principal determinants of their vote choice in this election”. Instead, like many other Americans, they view the economy and healthcare as the two most important issues.
(Source: By Vineet Khare , BBC News, Washington DC)