The SJ Mercury dissects the conflict between Indian American technocrats and religious/cultural leaders in the Bay Area. This may well be a microcosm of what we’ll soon see in other areas of the country where large Indian American communities exist:
When Dr. Romesh Japra was building his cardiology practice at Washington Hospital 25 years ago, Hindus wanted their own temple. Fremont’s then-mayor, the late Bill Ball, told the doctor the Seventh-day Adventists were moving out of their church. Japra wrote a personal check for $10,000 to cover part of the down payment and the Fremont Hindu temple was born. The first in the Bay Area, it became part of the bedrock for Silicon Valley’s Indo-American community.
Since the late 1970s, when Japra established himself as a leader in the Indo-American community, thousands have arrived from India, many armed with engineering degrees. The 2000 census revealed that 40 percent of all Bay Area high-tech workers were Asian, and many high-profile Silicon Valley companies were founded or co-founded by Indians.
Despite their land of common origin — which they remind outsiders is a complex mix of more than 1 billion people — the high-tech engineers and the Indo-Americans who preceded them are not united. Some old-timers say the technocrats care more about making money than about the grass-roots community. And to some highly skilled high-tech workers, Japra is a maharaja — Hindu prince — who reflects a past they came to America to escape.
The rift has played a part in preventing the community from realizing its shared goal: gaining political power.
“We have to stop backbiting,” said Mahesh Pakala, 40, a Fremont entrepreneur who is friends with both groups. “We’re killing ourselves. We have to think big. We have to get ourselves a politician.”
We’ve all observed this sort of thing before. It’s the classic old world mentality vs. new world mentality that we see in discussions with our parents. The technocrats have an organization that they claim to run like a “start-up” and the old-timers put on their yearly fair for networking and building community ties. In theory the former is run with business-like efficiency and thus can influence big time politics with money and connections. The latter relies on “who you know” and a turning-out-the-vote model.
“We’re struggling to get a political agenda,” said Yogi Chugh of Fremont, senior vice president of the Indian American Forum for Political Education, a group that Japra used to head. “I just wish the leaders would get together. We won’t accomplish much if we do it alone. We need to work together and define a strategy for the next decade. Otherwise we’re going to be taken for granted.”
That agenda could emerge from an unprecedented conference of at least seven major Indian groups and about 50 congressional leaders June 29 in Washington, D.C. Physicians, hotel owners and business leaders are hashing out an agenda that will include core issues like speeding up family reunification visas, repealing portions of the Patriot Act, bettering U.S.-India relations, and pouring federal funding into math and science education.
Most important to many leaders is just being accepted in the mainstream.
“The community is searching for equality, a seat at the table,” said Triloki Pandy, an anthropology professor at the University of California-Santa Cruz. “Even though they have made a lot of money, they realize that to tell the story that `Yes, we have made it’ in the American context means that they have to somehow convert their economic will into political power.”
I worry a great deal about the attitudes expressed above. There seems to be a naive belief that there can be some sort of consensus among all Indian Americans as to what should be part of a political agenda. It should be easy to find issues of importance that all groups have in common but the ambition here seems to go further and believe that everyone is after the same ends. If reading SM has taught us anything it’s that there are both left of center and right of center South Asians on almost every issue. Some of the contingents above seem to believe that just getting brown folks elected is an end in itself. Off-center folks however will resist even that seemingly “basic” agenda item. The following quote is sure to rile some:
The community has made small political gains in the last year or two. Nationally, Bobby Jindal, a Republican from Louisiana elected last year, is now the only Indo-American congressman. There are six Indo-American state legislators throughout the country, and this year in Fremont, Anu Natarajan became the first Indo-American appointed to the city council. A smattering of Indo-Americans sit on Bay Area special districts and school boards.