US and them

Indian-American activism is acquiring critical force

Immigrants and their children now comprise almost 25 per cent of the US population and their political involvement is beginning to transform the country. This was evident in the 2012 elections and now in the bipartisan immigration bill, which was recently introduced in Congress and will be put to the Senate. While lacking the numbers of Latino groups, Indian Americans are viewed as a rising political force due to their financial clout, their high-profile members in elected and appointed political positions, and increasingly, their organisational success. The growing geopolitical and economic importance of India is certainly an important factor as well.

Indian American activism presents an interesting paradox. While residential concentration and unity around national-origin organisations are considered prerequisites for successful influence, Indian Americans are the most dispersed ethnic group and have multiple advocacy organisations. There are Indian American, South Asian American, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim organisations. There are organisations for Indian American Democrats and Republicans. Finally, a growing US-born generation is getting involved in activism in very different ways from their parents.

Indian American organisations have generally been established by the immigrant generation. The first organisation was formed in 1967 around domestic issues, specifically, getting a census category for Indians. Most contemporary organisations focus on foreign policy issues that have a bearing on India. Indian American activists were able to shift the US to a more pro-India stance in the post-Cold War period, "decouple" the Indo-Pak hyphen and develop the largest ethnic caucus on the Hill. They also rallied around the US-India nuclear deal and were crucial in getting the deal through Congress.

South Asian American organisations, generally comprised of the American-born generation, started forming in the early 2000s. Since Indian Americans comprise well over 90 per cent of the South Asian American population, most of the founders and many activists of South Asian American organisations are Indian Americans. Individuals who identify as "South Asian" tend to be people explicitly against the religious nationalisms in South Asia and who think subcontinental politics are irrelevant to their lives. Most South Asian American organisations are focused largely on domestic issues. These organisations have mobilised around hate crimes, particularly after 9/11, and against racial and religious profiling. They also work on voter registration and on encouraging and monitoring the participation of South Asians in elections. Finally, they have played an active role in recent immigration reform debates.

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