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Disjunctured Identity of Indian Americans: Part - I

-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao

Looking out my office window now at the lush green lawns of our university quad and across at the fancy library building, I am reminded of those moments, early upon my arrival in the United States, looking out the window of the communication department library at the University of Southern Mississippi and thinking: "Am I in the US and what am I doing here?" Or I should say that I was not thinking as much as feeling a strange exhilaration, combined with a disturbing and queasy/uneasy feeling. That was more than fourteen years ago. But the "Picture" is still imprinted in my mind and despite the distance of a decade plus from those first days at Hattiesburg I still am sometimes haunted by the "Thrill/ Anxiety Combo" of the sojourner experience. I don't know how many of you are first generation immigrants. And I don't know what brought you to these United States. Depending upon whether one is white, black or brown (or any combination of the three) and depending upon whether they came here for economic, political or religious reasons, the reactions and responses to being here may differ. What is the experience of the peoples from India who came to the US? In this essay I will document the migration of people from India to the United States. The migration of peoples from the South Asian region and especially from India since 1965, to the US is not very well chronicled and their experiences here have attracted little scholarly attention. Since experiences mold and give shape to identity, both individual and group, here is an attempt at recounting those.

The earliest known visitor from the Indian sub-continent to the USA was supposedly a man from Madras, who visited Massachusetts in 1790. Analysis of data developed by the Census Bureau shows that there are currently more than a million Asian Indians in the US Between 1980 and 1990, the community grew by 125.6 percent. With a mean family income of $59, 777, the highest of any Asian group in the US and with an average per capita income that is more than 25 percent higher than the national average, the economic power of Asian Indians in the US is indisputable. The census data also shows that 14 percent of this group is engaged in work related to science, medicine, engineering and technology. A significant percentage (19.3) of them can be found in managerial, administrative, sales and teaching positions. More than 5, 000 Indian-Americans are currently faculty members at American universities. In certain industries, they have had a notable impact. It is estimated that about 25 percent of all small hotels and motels in the US are owned by Indian-Americans. Also, this group is now a significant player in the world of computer software and in certain sectors of California's farm economy.

Most Indians came to the US after the 1965 Immigration Act took effect. These immigrants now constitute the fourth largest Asian American group. Only recently has there been an attempt to formulate some questions about this group and answer them. Sheth (1995) provides answers to questions like - when and why Asian Indians immigrate/d to the US; how they were treated by the host society; what are the patterns of residential distribution of this group; what is their socio-economic profile and is it undergoing change; are there any changes in their ethnic identity; and what are the future prospects for this group?

Mainstream social-psychological studies as well as history gives short shrift to Indian-American identity issues. New attempts, however, are being made to tease out the myriad and fascinating issues concerning non-white immigrants' struggle to deal with their (dis) connected selves in the new environment. Chen (1994), Nakayama (1994), Noor Al-Deen (1994) and Tanno (1994) have tried to reformulate the problem of identity. For Indian-American identity issues one has to look at sources like Indian newspapers and magazines published in the US. I have used them to construct and analyze the peculiar and the different identities of Indians in the US Agarwal's (1991) book will also provide me some salient issues for discussion.

A quick history of Asian Indian immigration to the United States:

Very few Indians migrated to the US before 1904. Most of them came after the 1965 Immigration Act. Sheth (1995) divides the history of Indian immigration into two phases: (a) early migration from 1907 to 1924 and (b) the post 1965 immigration. Jensen (1988) provides much of the detail of early immigration. A few Parsi merchants and some sailors came to the US early on. Some of the sailors were brought to the US as indentured servants and some were sold into slavery. Between 1820 and 1870, about 200 Indians, mostly Punjabis arrived in the US By 1910 there were about 5, 000 people of Indian origin here and by 1924 their number increased to about 13, 000. With the enforcement of the Asiatic Exclusion Act only about 100 Indians arrived on the shores of the US in the 1930s. In the 1920s more than 1, 000 Indian students arrived in the US and settled mostly on the West Coast. About 40 of them, activist students, started an Indian liberation/freedom movement called the Gadar movement. Sheth (1995) notes that the Indians' decision to emigrate at the turn of 1ast century was propelled by a number of factors including financial hardships caused by British colonial oppression, by the displacement of people from their traditional occupations and by the perceived opportunity to work for the Indian independence movement.

Beginning in 1907, a number of discriminatory laws and regulations barred Indians from entering the US The media, trade unions, politicians and white workers all collaborated and colluded to pressure the government to pass exclusionary laws against Indians. Two laws, the Barred Zone Act of 1917 and the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924 were mainly responsible for restricting migration from India. Only in 1946, with the Luce/Celler Bill did Indians get the right of naturalization. However, there was minimal migration between 1947 and 1964 from India to the US.

Starting from about 600 new immigrants from India in 1965 an average of 20, 000 Indians enter the US each year (Sheth, 1995). Also, about 70, 000 refugees from Uganda of Indian origin were admitted into the US in the early 1970s when they were driven out of that country by Idi Amin. India is fourth among 67 countries that sent students to the US during 1990-91. Both because of professional prestige and the upper-caste, Brahmin culture of education and their middle class quest for financial security and stability, the popular field of study for students who came to this country in the 1970s was engineering. While the number of American engineers grew about 23 per cent to 1.87 million during 1980-1990, the Asian immigrant segment during this time almost doubled from 68, 000 to 128, 000. Of these nearly 30, 000 were Indian, the second largest after the Chinese at 34, 000. Recently, there has been a shift and business and information science have replaced engineering. During the 1980s when the number of American mathematicians and computer scientists doubled, Asian Americans in these fields more than quadrupled, from 11, 000 to 48, 000. Nearly a fifth of these are Indians, second once again to the Chinese at 16, 000. More immigrants from India and China have entered as students and adjusted their status to permanent residents or citizens.

While the majority of Indians emigrating to the US are Hindus, there are significant numbers of Sikhs, Muslims, Christians and Jains entering the country. The educated immigrants are predominantly from three states: 60 percent are from Gujarat; 30 percent are from Punjab; and 10 percent are from Kerala. Typically, most of these immigrants are fluent in English, unlike other Asian émigrés.

Discrimination against Asian Indians

From the early discrimination of Indians by the white majority to present day subtle expressions of prejudice by the same group and to the more overt discrimination and violence perpetrated by other groups, Indian-Americans have been no less prone to experiencing the harsher realities of life in this country than other groups (Jensen, 1988; U. S. Commission on Civil Rights, 1992). Federal policy on immigration and citizenship as well as state regulations on marriage, land holding and voting were fashioned to discriminate and enforce restrictions on Asian groups. The British in India, in collaboration with local US and Canadian authorities formulated racist policies and practices against early Indian immigrants. Early Indian immigrants into northwest US and Canada were from Punjab and they initially gained employment in lumberyards. Also, a large number of them worked on laying the railroads in the western states. Their main reason for being in the US was to earn and save money to pay the taxes imposed on them by the British. Droughts had destroyed their crops, but they were still expected to pay taxes. Delinquency led to confiscation of lands by the British. Lacking any employment opportunities in India, they sought livelihood elsewhere.

The lumber mill owners liked these immigrants because they worked hard for longer hours and lower wages (about half of what the European workers got paid). But with increased immigration from Europe, Indian workers were seen as "Not Really American" and a movement was started to ban them from working in the lumberyards. This was the beginning of the Asian Exclusion League (AEL). The workers so laid off moved to California and with the money they had saved bought land (land thought unfit for the white man's habitation).

The US government never allowed Indian women to immigrate because that would mean Indians could "Put Down Roots". The California state government passed a law which made it illegal for non-citizens or naturalized non-white citizens to own land. The Indians got around this hurdle by organizing cooperatives which ceded ownership to some Indian children born in the US Further, some Indians entered into agreements with local white people who were given a share of the profits for saying they owned the land. But a large number of such agreements ended in the white partners claiming, at harvest time, that the whole crop was theirs (Jensen, 1988). The British would inform US authorities of any Indians sailing to America and the AEL was then responsible for organizing mobs to prevent the offloading of Indians who were traveling from Hong Kong and who wanted to come study in the US Most Indians know of the infamous "Komagatu Maru" incident wherein 375 Indians sailing on that ship arrived at Angel Island and were denied food and water and were turned away. The British also stationed a full-time secret agent named Hopkinson to monitor the activities of Indian students on California campuses. The US authorities colluded with the British in deporting any Indian who was "Accused" of planning a revolution in India. Hopkinson was assassinated in a US courtroom when he was testifying against an Indian (Jensen, 1988).

By the early 1900s the move to formalize the exclusion of Asians from the US was gaining momentum. The Chinese were excluded through the Chinese Exclusion Act in the late 1800s. A senator from California had mounted a campaign to exclude Indians. He got support from Washington when Congress passed the "Immigration Regional Restriction Act" in 1917 over the veto of President Woodrow Wilson. It basically drew a line around the areas in Asia from which Indians and Filipinos were immigrating and banned such immigration. Not satisfied with this, the exclusionists wanted to deny citizenship to the Indians in the US, take away citizenship from Indians who had already been granted citizenship and to apply the Regional Exclusion Act retroactively to deport all Indians in the US A large number of Indians left, many were denied citizenship and on February 19, 1923 Justice George Sutherland at the Supreme Court held that East Indians were not eligible for US citizenship because they could not be considered white or Caucasian. Of course, we know that in the 1920s immigration to the US was the heaviest and virtually all of the immigrants came from Europe. A large number of Americans now trace their ancestry to these 1920s immigrants.

Near the end of the second world war, President Roosevelt started to lift immigration restrictions on Asians. While the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed easily, the Indian Regional Exclusion Act got stuck in the congressional committee web. Roosevelt had to send a personal envoy to the Hill to lift the ban on Indians (Jensen, 1988).

With the changes in immigration laws and in the context of a new global reality Indian-Americans have found a place in the US and many of them are doing very well. However, Indian immigrants continue to suffer from personal prejudice and institutional discrimination (Sheth, 1995). The discrimination ranges from being denied admission at select universities to lack of mobility in employment/workplace. The "Glass Ceiling" bars Indians from breaking through the middle management level to upper management. Discrimination in universities and at the workplace is not perpetrated just by white Americans. For example, a report released by the US General Accounting Office in December 1995 confirmed that Asian American students suffered because of race-based or quota-based college admission policies (Hudson, 1995). A doctor in Los Angeles' Martin Luther King Hospital battled for over a decade against racial discrimination perpetrated by the hospital's black administrators. In February, 1996 the Los Angeles Civil Service Commission unanimously concluded that a pattern of bias and racism was found at the hospital, which in 1986 stripped the Indian doctor of his post as chairman of emergency medicine in favor of a black physician in the mostly black health care facility. The doctor was also denied promotion in 1993 (Gune, 1996).

Indians have also been harassed in the communities they live in. In north and central New Jersey, Indian women have been the target in what has been called the "Dot Busters" incidents (Indian/Hindu women wear a red mark on their forehead, which symbolizes the God Shiva's protection of the woman, as well as indicating her marital status). Navroze Mody, an Indian professional, was killed by a gang in 1987 in Jersey City. The racial harassment, the ethnic slurs and more seriously, the violence that is racially motivated have not been countered by local authorities who have been lax in prosecuting the assailants and in enforcing the law. Sheth (1995) lists the following factors as contributing to anti-Indian sentiment and the harassment and violence directed against Indians: Geographical Concentration (large numbers of Indians concentrated in particular localities); lack of communication skills (especially of those blue collar and small business people); speech accents; cultural differences, including religious diversity and the perception of Asian Indians as a model minority.

Originally published on Tuesday, October 5, 1999.

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