In May, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) won a major victory by successfully battling a large and vocal group of academics across the country to stop the California Board of Education from renaming India as ‘South Asia’ in history textbooks. Its Executive Director, Suhag Shukla, penned a heartfelt op-ed in The Huffington Post, and enlisted over 40 professors from fields such as Social Ethics at Saint Mary’s College in California to Religious Studies at Harvard University, to join its call in rejecting this “anachronistic” proposal to rewrite Indian history. Numerous opinion pieces from both sides of the argument were published and countless pleas were sent to the education board. However, the HAF won the battle and successfully thwarted the revision of Indian history in American academia.
However, the Hindu American Foundation is not ready to rest on its laurels. The textbook battle is just one example of the HAF’s efforts to influence public policy. A visit to the organization’s website shines light on its leadership on a wide range of issues – from “applauding” the introduction of the Do No Harm Act, an amendment to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), to opposing mandated prayer in high schools – the HAF, with yearly revenues of over a million dollars, is actively engaged in lobbying for the interests and values of the Hindu American community, a large subgroup within the Indian American community.
Indian Americans, almost 1% of the country’s population, are increasingly stepping up their political involvement. After having already achieved considerable economic success and social mobility – the community has an average family income of over $100,000 (almost double that of white Americans) – the group is actively engaging in and influencing the politics of its new homeland. The United States India Political Action Committee (USINPAC – think AIPAC, but for India), organized a February fundraiser for Katie McGinty, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, and has hosted interactive dialogues with Republican Presidential primary contenders Carly Fiorina, John Kasich, and Donald Trump, to discuss issues important to the Indian American community. One of the organization’s most significant achievements was successfully convincing a bipartisan majority in Congress, including famous “non-proliferation diehards” such as former Republican Senator Richard Lugar and Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi, to vote for the landmark India – United States Civil Nuclear Agreement, despite India’s refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. USINPAC published advertisements in leading newspapers, held receptions on Capitol Hill, and filled buses full of supporters to head to Washington and personally talk to “congressional staffers and harangue their senators and representatives.” The fervor with which the community mobilized around the cause was unprecedented, and signaled a new phase in Indian-American political involvement in Washington.
As put forward by former U.S. Sen. Charles Mathias, “one of the ironies of American ethnic politics is that, just as immigrant groups acquire power and influence only in the new land, it was here too that many acquired an affection for and awareness of the old country that they probably had not felt when they lived there.” This could not be more clearly evidenced by the Indian-American community. The enthusiasm the community harbors for India is palpable. When newly inaugurated Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to New York in 2014, 19,000 Indians and Indian-Americans enthusiastically cheered him on in Madison Square Garden. The New York Times reported, “his hero’s welcome must have seemed slightly stunning to the three dozen or so American elected officials who turned up to greet him, including several senators, 30-odd representatives and one governor, each of whom strode onstage to no more than polite applause.” The packed house in one of the country’s most prominent concert locations showed how enthusiastic and capable the community is of organizing. While Modi himself splits opinion among the diaspora, the reception to his visit was less about him, and more about the country he leads. The rock star Prime Minister, joined on stage by Hugh Jackman, signaled a new phase for the community in American life – that this ‘model minority’ was finally beginning to flex its muscle. As University of Pennsylvania Professor Devesh Kapur notes, “the hype and excitement isn’t just about Modi, it’s a signal from the Indian-American community that it has arrived.”
Similar to how Jewish-Americans used their economic success in creating a wide array of political influence groups to advocate for the needs of Israel, the Indian-American community is replicating this path, and “uniting around certain causes close to the heart of the population, like the well-being and future of India itself.” As India and the Indian-American community continue to grow, so will its influence in public and foreign policy.
Vivan Marwaha is a rising senior at Claremont McKenna College.