by Karishma Mehrotra
As the Republican nominee, Donald Trump had made a point of courting a new bloc, the Hindu American vote, in 2016. In 2020, for the first time ever, a US Democratic presidential campaign has an official Hindu American coalition, taking a leaf out of the Republicans’ book.
Murali Balaji, the head of Hindu Americans for Biden, said the creation of his organisation is a “recognition by the Democratic Party that you can’t take these coalitions for granted”. Alongside Indian Americans for Biden and the campaign’s Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Outreach, Hindu Americans for Biden comes in a long line of ever-shifting campaign categorisations, reflecting ongoing identity contestations in the community.
“The articulation of Hindu American identity has become more urgent as more Hindus are identifying outside of the Indian subcontinent … I don’t have strong Indian ties nor really understand the country. However, my faith identity has been a strong part of who I am. There are probably many like me who don’t feel as strongly about their place of ancestry but may feel strongly to their faith,” Balaji said.
With Democrats identifying in overlapping ways, the campaign juggles many coalitions. “Certainly when I was at the Democratic National Convention (in 2016), you saw the claims from the Hindu Americans for Trump,” said former DNC CEO Seema Nanda. “I think what Vice President Biden and Senator Harris is trying to do is really reach people where they see themselves on their different identity levels. For some, it’s Indian American. For me, I’m Hindu but I identify much more as an Indian American. It’s an organisation I would be more likely to join than a Hindu Americans for Biden. It’s about outreach.”
Progressives, however, find the term to be directly linked to India’s Hindutva. “It’s a bogus category. We used to have regional language organisations, like the Telugu society. This Hindu platform is anti-Muslim; it’s a negative thing not a positive thing,” said Vijay Prashad, author of the book “Karma for Brown Folk”.
Romesh Jhapra, the founder of Americans4Hindus, said: “Our organisation is not just for people from India but for the minorities in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka. The Indian Americans were infiltrated by the Islamists and became messy. But if we keep it more pure as Hindus, they don’t infiltrate.”
But, Balaji said the Hindu American label shouldn’t just be a “a domain of the right”. “One of the challenges has been to try and disentangle this idea that Hindu Americans are all jingoistic which is not true,” he said.
The Hindu American Foundation, founded in 2003, was a prominent step in the identity formation, following in the footsteps of other faith-based lobbying groups such as the Jewish American Anti-Defamation League. “We deliberately built something around a Hindu American identity because our college experiences showed us that Indian organisations shied away from celebrating Hindu holidays to be respectful to the Muslim Indians or Christian Indians,” said Suhag Shukla, co-founder of HAF. “Donors did ask us why we have to say Hindu and not be Indian American, but we wanted to take on issues unique to faith that Indian organisations might not.”
However, the identity layers peel back even further. More than a decade ago, “South Asians for Obama” was the beginning of transitions away from solely “Asian Americans” categorisation. “South Asian refers to the sociological experience of being a brown kid in a white environment,” said Prashad. Before that, the label Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) had been the most prominent and longstanding moniker in the community — ranging from campaigns to Congress caucuses. Still, very little government data exists beyond an Asian-American category level.
Sree Sinha, co-founder of South Asian Sexual & Mental Health Alliance, has argued about the term “Indian American” with her sister. The 27-year-old said her choice of a “South Asian” identity distinguishes her from the “reductive” Asian-American label, but also speaks to a similar American experience of having to choose between Black and White social groups in school. “The psychological process of identity development has a lot to do with how a child sees the world around them. We are not as indoctrinated with the politics and regional divides of the home culture. The partition and historical moments are not as prevalent in my life. Here, we have to bind together in a different way.”
Arnivan Chatterjee, a historian focused on South Asians in California, said “South Asian as a term is really having a moment. It’s gained currency over the last couple of years. It’s clean, neutral, unoffensive.”
These labels have always carried political meanings, and will continue to do so, Chatterjee said. “In the 1900s, they called all of us Hindu, in a reference to Hindustan rather than the Hindu faith. At some point, that became Asian Indian.”
In the fluidity of labels, Chatterjee prefers to stick to “desi”, made aptly popular by the acronym ABCD — American Born Confused Desi. “It’s a word of the community. It’s not externally imposed. There is something really lovely in a term that we fought for and chose,” he said.