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Indiscriminate discrimination (Hindu.)

The tools of prejudice, once unleashed, do not differentiate one community from another

U.S. President Donald Trump, in his address to Congress, may have denounced the killing of Indian engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Kansas, but it is hard to ignore that his own polarising presidential campaign has directly led to the current intolerant climate in the U.S.

On the surface, this killing may seem like a case of mistaken identity. In a misguided stab at self-preservation, some NGOs have recommended to the Hindu community in the U.S. that they should appear more “assimilated” or highlight their identity. But doing so would be to ignore a crucial lesson from this tragedy: the tools of prejudice, once unleashed, can be indiscriminating in choosing their targets.

Historical persecution

The first Indian migrants to reach the U.S. understood this lesson well. Arriving in the beginning of the 20th century, they faced severe persecution and bigotry. For decades before their arrival, American society had been perfecting the mechanisms of oppression against various communities: the Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, African-Americans and Native Americans. Now these tools could be turned against the Indians.

The first wave of Indian migrants to the U.S. was a few thousand in number, consisting mostly of unskilled farmers from Punjab and former soldiers of the British empire. Making their way via Canada, these migrants first arrived in Washington where they found work in the lumber industry. Just months after their arrival, they became the target of resentment from white workers who were afraid of cheap Asian labour. On September 5, 1907, a mob of several hundred white people rounded up about 700 Indian workers and forced them to leave the town of Bellingham. Two months later, 500 Indian workers were similarly driven out of the town of Everett. Indian workers in Tacoma were attacked by another mob, although in this case they managed to fight back.

The total number of Indians in Washington could not have been more than 2,000, which was hardly an economic challenge to the state’s population of over one million at the time. Yet the xenophobic mob was quick to act and could do so with impunity because it was an established practice in the state for over two decades. It had begun in 1885, when 500 Chinese workers were similarly driven out of Tacoma.

Marginalisation of Indians was widespread. They were not allowed into local unions or churches. In many towns, local real estate agents refused to sell them property. Collectively referred to as Hindus — although most early migrants were Sikh — they were mocked by the media. Several local politicians and officials openly endorsed violence against them to keep “the East Indian on the move”. Immigrants from other parts of Asia had been facing such persecution for many years; Indians were just added victims.

By the turn of the decade, most Indians had been driven out of Washington. Along with new immigrants, they made their way to California, where the Indian population reached close to 3,000. However, here too, the forces of racism greeted them. A pre-existing ‘Japanese and Korean Exclusion League’ was quickly renamed as the ‘Asiatic Exclusion League’ and its members trained their guns on Indian immigrants. “Wholesale landings of large number of Hindoos” was widely decried.

Racial theories

At first, Indians proved to be a challenge to the half-baked racist ideologies prevalent at the time. South Asians were believed to be of “Aryan descent”, the same as Europeans. But this obstacle was quickly overcome. Racist propaganda admitted that the Americans were distant cousins of northwestern Indians. However, “our forefathers pressed to the West, in the everlasting march of conquest, progress and civilisation. The forefathers of Hindus went east and became enslaved, effeminate, caste-ridden and degraded,” one exclusionist leader wrote. Partly due to such propaganda, by 1917, immigration from India and other Asian countries was practically barred.

These absurd racial theories reached their crescendo over the struggle for naturalised citizenship. In 1922, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that “white persons” eligible for American citizenship had to be of the Caucasian race. The decision was aimed at excluding the Japanese. Indians, hoping to circumvent the ruling, made the case that “high-caste Hindu, of full Indian blood” were, in fact, Caucasian. In 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind that intermarriages between Aryan invaders and “dark-skinned Dravidians” over the centuries had destroyed the purity of Aryan blood in India. Hence, Indians could not be considered as “free white persons” and given American citizenship. In 1926, the Indian central legislature banned Indian citizenship to American citizens in response. However, it was little more than a symbolic gesture.

Over the next decade, the U.S. government used the Supreme Court ruling to strip citizenship of many Indians who had been naturalised. The ruling was reversed only in 1946, allowing a hundred Indians to immigrate to the U.S. every year. But it was not until 1965, when American immigration laws were reformed, that the second wave of Indian migration to the U.S. could begin.

Tools of prejudice

The hostility that early Indian migrants to the U.S. faced was not due to their actions or the history of their country of origin. It was a mechanism already in place, actively oppressing other communities for decades. Given the circumstances, it was almost natural that the hostility would turn on Indians when they reached American soil. It is ironic that discrimination, when choosing its victims, can be highly indiscriminate. In early 20th century U.S., the same forces of oppression that targeted Indians were also persecuting other communities. It is this history that’s in a way, tragically, illuminating today.


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