A family member waits in Hyderabad, India, for the arrival of the body of Srinivas Kuchibhotla from the United States in February (Mahesh Kumar A./AP)
In September, a few days after the first presidential debate, I was on tour preparing to give a performance in Lawrence, Kan. — a quaint college town that seemed to wear its liberal free-spiritedness on its sleeve. As one concertgoer later pointed out to me, surrounding Douglas County is one of only two blue strongholds in an otherwise conservative state.
Recently I was reminded of Lawrence for the most heartbreaking of reasons. As it turns out, I happened to be just a half-hour drive from Olathe, the demographically shifting Kansas City suburb where Srinivas Kuchibhotla was killed last month in what authorities are investigating as a hate crime. The gunman reportedly shouted, “Get out of my country” before taking Kuchibhotla’s life and wounding his friend, Alok Madasani — both engineers of Indian origin employed at the nearby headquarters of GPS technology company Garmin.
Since then, there has been a rising chorus from around the world demanding that President Trump respond directly to the tragedy. It took almost a week for the administration to address the shooting, and the president made only a vague mention of the incident during his recent speech to Congress.
To be honest, I far prefer this administration’s silence.
Under different circumstances, I’d want Kuchibhotla’s mother to know that she has the sympathies of our highest political office as she lays her son to rest just a few weeks shy of his 33rd birthday. But what’s the point of boilerplate platitudes — or even a forceful denouncement from the Oval Office, not that one appears to be forthcoming — when each new executive order signed by the president tells a different story entirely? In the end, no apology is always better than a non-apology.
The newly revised Muslim ban shows that Trump isn’t sorry. The continued push for a border wall and the formation of a federal program called Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement — VOICE — show that he’s not sorry. The appointment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who once declared on the Senate floor that most Dominican immigrants lack any useful skills, shows that he’s definitely not sorry. The repeated scapegoating of Muslims and Latinos ultimately fosters distrust and resentment toward all minorities. It’s no wonder that indiscriminate acts of violence against Indians and other minority groups are also on the rise.
The recent rash of attacks on people of Indian origin has incited an all-too-familiar mix of anger, sadness and fear in our community. In 1988, when I was 7 years old, a hate group called the Dotbusters began threatening and attacking South Asians in Jersey City, near where I grew up. Their name comes from the traditional bindi that Indian women sometimes wear on their forehead. Over the course of several years, this loosely organized group terrorized the Indian community in New Jersey and New York with an escalating campaign of vandalism, burglary and murder. At the height of their attacks, I can remember sitting in the back of our family car, panic-stricken as my dad drove us to a Hindu puja celebration in downtown Jersey City. I was one of the only brown kids at my school, and the climate of otherization created by the Dotbusters made me feel even more alone. Today, the senseless murder of Kuchibhotla is undoubtedly creating a new generation of South Asian children who, despite their best efforts, don’t feel like they belong.
During an October 2016 campaign fundraising stop in Edison, N.J. — a suburb not far from the epicenter of Dotbuster activity two decades earlier — then-candidate Donald Trump held court with a glitzy audience of Indian business executives and Bollywood actresses. South Asians voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in last year’s election, but Trump’s anti-Muslim, hyper-nationalistic message resonated with some who found it complementary to their views on politics in India. The event featured performances by Bollywood stars such as Malaika Arora Khan — and a choreographed sequence in which dancers were attacked by “terrorists” wielding lightsabers, then rescued by fake Navy SEALs, who later danced to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” The details of the performance, which I couldn’t have made up if I tried, reveal the Islamophobic undercurrent of the night’s proceedings. When Trump finally took the stage to address the audience, he boorishly proclaimed, “I’m a big fan of Hindu,” and went on to promise that as president, “the Indian and Hindu community will have a big friend in the White House.”
Just a few months later, the attack on Kuchibhotla and Madasani, who were reportedly mistaken to be Middle Eastern by their assailant, has barely elicited a reaction from my community’s “friend” in the White House. Meanwhile, the mood among many South Asians is decidedly one of foreboding. Indian families are urging their loved ones working and studying in the United States to return home. As a second-generation Indian, born and raised in America, I find myself operating at an elevated level of vigilance. Lately, when I walk into a bar or gas station and survey my surroundings, I get those familiar pangs of anxiety I felt as a kid in my parents’ car.
Back in the early ’90s, the Dotbusters were eventually quelled only by grass-roots organizing among the South Asian Hindu, Sikh and Muslim communities — setting aside their differences as they were collectively jarred into political action by more than 58 attacks in 1990 alone. Today, Indian Americans need to follow suit. Instead of agonizing over Facebook posts that beg for acknowledgment, we need to organize and insist on outreach and cooperation when it comes to bias-motivated crimes, immigration policy and other issues that affect the South Asian community at large. Instead of posing for pictures with politicians who take our money and then proceed to ignore us, we need to run for political office in greater numbers. This doesn’t end with our own community, either. The tone from the top has set a collision course for otherization, and hate crimes are on the rise against Muslims, Arabs, South Asians and Jewish Americans alike.
If we learn anything from Srinivas Kuchibhotla’s tragic death, it should be that we’re all in danger as long as anti-immigrant prejudice exists. And as I prepare for another turn of performances in the Midwest later this year, it’s hard not to be more than a little on edge.