Their support is pivotal to US-India relations. For the sake of the future, the present should not affect the relationship
By Frank F Islam
There are five Indian-Americans currently serving in the United States (US) Congress — the largest number ever. They are normally a reliable advocate for India’s positions. That’s the good news. The bad news is their support for India is eroding. This is due to India’s actions in Kashmir, the enactment of the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), and fear that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is being expanded.
The five Indian Americans are all Democrats. They are: Raja Krishnamoorthy, Pramila Jayapal, Ro Khanna and Ami Bera who serve in the House of Representatives, and Kamala Harris who serves in the US Senate.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the US, the only one who participated in his wildly successful “Howdy Modi” rally in Houston was Krishnamoorthy. One of the reasons the other Indian-American lawmakers stayed away was the presence of President Donald Trump, a Republican, whose name is toxic among their party’s base.
Another more significant factor most probably was India’s security crackdown and communication blockade in Jammu and Kashmir, which is unpopular among progressives and liberal Democrats. Sharing a platform with Modi, barely seven weeks after New Delhi’s controversial action in the troubled Valley, would have been seen as an implicit endorsement by these lawmakers of his government’s Kashmir policy. These Indian-American legislators have not stood by in silence. They have also been outspoken critics of those policies with which they disapprove.
In a tweet in September, Khanna, the Congressman representing California’s Silicon Valley, strongly denounced Hindutva ideology, saying that it is “the duty of every American politician of Hindu faith to stand for pluralism, reject Hindutva, and speak for equal rights for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhist and Christians.”
In an address at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC, in December, commemorating the 60th anniversary of President Dwight Eisenhower’s visit to India, Bera, the longest-serving Indian-American Congressman, reminded New Delhi that India was founded on the “value of being a secular democracy and holding on to that identity is incredibly important” and “the strength of any democracy is protecting the rights of the minority.”
The most vocal critic over the past five months has been Jayapal, the first Indian-American woman to get elected to the US House of Representatives. She introduced a resolution in December, urging India “to end the restrictions on communications and mass detentions in Jammu and Kashmir” and “preserve religious freedom for all residents.”
It appears that it is Jayapal’s criticism that has annoyed India the most. Last month, external affairs minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, cancelled a scheduled meeting with members of the influential House Foreign Affairs Committee because of the Congresswoman’s presence.
Prior to Jaishankar’s snub, Indian-American supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tried to launch a grassroots campaign against the Congresswoman for her “anti-India” stands. Similarly, Khanna was also at the receiving end of BJP supporters’ ire for his strong denunciation of the Hindutva.
But those efforts are unlikely to succeed as their two districts are heavily Democratic, and the two lawmakers’ stand is a strong reflection of the positions of their constituents. Jayapal represents Washington’s 7th congressional district, one of the most liberal districts in the United States. Khanna was re-elected from California’s 17th district, which is also heavily Democratic.
It’s not just the elected representatives, a number of Indian-American academics teaching in US universities have also voiced strong opposition to the CAA and the Kashmir crackdown. The ranks of critics include the newly announced Nobel laureate, Abhijit Banerjee, and a number of influential professors from some of America’s elite universities.
Though they have cheer-led most of Modi’s policies, his Indian-American backers have also not come out in support in large numbers since Howdy Modi. Even when they have demonstrated, they lacked the intensity and conviction of the anti-CAA protesters, who rallied against the law in Washington, New York City, San Francisco and other US cities.
Given this, and the criticism of India in the US Press and by civil and human rights groups, it is important for India to keep a channel of communication open with congressional critics, even if they come from within the Indian-American community. They are looked to by their colleagues in the Congress to “explain” what is going on in India and asked for their opinions.
A government that prides itself on taking “the diaspora diplomacy” to new heights should not treat those who disagree as enemies of India. Those in the Indian-American congressional delegation are India’s natural friends and allies. They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect even when there are disagreements about policies.
If they are not, the consequences could be not only the loss of their support but that of the entire US Congress. That support is pivotal to US-India relations. It should not be sacrificed in the present because of the enormous future costs.
(Frank F Islam is an entrepreneur, civic leader, and thought leader based in Washington, DC The views are expressed are personal)