Where is the Outrage in the Indian-American Diaspora?

That roar of rage in response to the recent gang rape and murder of a young woman in New Delhi caught many in India and around the world by surprise. But equally deafening is the perplexing silence within the Indian diaspora in the US.

Members of Praja Rajakiya Vedike (PRV), Students Islamic Organisation (SIO), Karnataka Sexual Minorities Forum (KSMF), Eastern Fare Music Foundation (EFMF) and different other organisations of Bangalore protesting outside Bangalore Town Hall on Sunday, December 30 demanding justice for the 23-year-old student who died on 29 December. (Photo - Jim Ankan)

Members of Praja Rajakiya Vedike (PRV), Students Islamic Organisation (SIO), Karnataka Sexual Minorities Forum (KSMF), Eastern Fare Music Foundation (EFMF) and different other organisations of Bangalore protesting outside Bangalore Town Hall on Sunday, December 30 demanding justice for the 23-year-old student who died on 29 December. (Photo - Jim Ankan)

That roar of rage in response to the recent gang rape and murder of a young woman in New Delhi caught many in India and around the world by surprise. But equally deafening is the perplexing silence within the Indian diaspora in the US.

At the height of the massive protests in early January, some thought an Arab-spring for women’s rights in India was brewing. Although many centuries late, there seemed to be a growing momentum against gender oppression that is often manifested in rape, domestic abuse, dowry killings, and the mass scale ‘genocide’ of female fetuses and infants. This grassroots activism is still taking shape: while some call it soul searching, many see the promise of change.

But surprisingly the response in the usually vibrant Indian community in the US has been at best lukewarm: no noteworthy protests, candlelight vigils, or other tokens of solidarity with the thousands of Indian demanding stronger penalties for rape and an end to gender-based discrimination.

The few public protests reported from around the country were hardly reflective of the community’s demographics. A protest outside the Indian Consulate in San Francisco is reported to have drawn a bare 70 and another in nearby Fremont counted a little over 100.

The response of Indian-American media was no less subdued. Newspapers ran bold headlines that shouted ‘India Outraged’— but they were reports of a roiling in a faraway place. With hardly any editorial outcries or outrage of their own, the distance these publications placed between the story and the telling of it was more than geographic. In no time, it has faded into single-paragraph reports that merely track ongoing court procedures against the perpetrators.

There’s also not much of a whiff of an Arab Spring where you would expect to see the most support for one: the numerous US run largely by Indian-Americans and dedicated to empowering and rescuing South Asian women from domestic abuse. With the exception of a handful, these groups have not so much as even issued statements denouncing the brutal bus assault or made reference to it on their websites.

If there were a ‘fruit seller moment’ in all of the sound and fury taking place in the home country, it seems to have eluded the diaspora.

Is there a disconnect between India and her overseas diaspora?

By way of explaining this dispassion, Manjusha Kulkarni, a second generation Indian-American who heads the South Asian Network, a leading community organization based in Artesia, Southern California’s “Little India” said: “Perhaps being far removed from that scenario they don’t feel so strongly. They are not living in that community and the issues [in India] are no longer their issues. The context is different.”

The head of another women’s group with a South Asian constituency echoed the same, emphasizing that she had left India several decades ago and was not following events in the home country closely. Besides, she added, rape and the gender discrimination are universal problems and singling out India is unfair.

An inescapable reality is that among G20 nations India has been labeled the worst place to be a woman and it doesn’t rank much better among world nations. According to a 2011 survey compiled by Thomson Reuters Foundation, India is the fourth worst place for women, just slightly better than Afghanistan, the DRC, and Pakistan, and worse than Somalia and other impoverished nations.

How big is the ‘missing girls’ phenomenon among Asian Indians in the US? While not big enough to skew the balance of gender populations in the nation as a whole, one of the few studies providing empirical evidence in this area points to gender preference abortions in both the Chinese and Indian communities. The 2008 study by Jason Abrevaya of the University of Texas at Austin analyzed comprehensive birth data that showed unusually high boy-birth percentages after 1980 among later children (most notably third and fourth children) born to Chinese and Asian Indian mothers. Using maternally linked data from California, the study found Asian Indian mothers to be significantly more likely both to have a terminated pregnancy and to give birth to a son when they have previously only given birth to girls.

In regard to dowry harassment, only extreme cases come within the radar—such as that of Divya, 21, whose hacked body was found packed in suitcases in Herndon, Virginia. Her husband K. Praveen Kumar was accused of killing her after abusing her demanding more dowry. Or Subhashini Narne, 25, of Woodbridge City, NJ, married to a software professional, who was driven to suicide allegedly by her husband’s constant harassment over dowry. While nonprofits dealing with domestic abuse report seeing dowry harassment the true extent of its prevalence in the US is an unknown.

The excuse cited by US activists – that the newer generations of Indian Americans are disinterested in issues from the homeland – is at variance with the profile of a politically vibrant community ambitiously advancing India’s quest for world power status.

The most telling success of the Indian-American diaspora’s quest to propel their homeland towards world power came with the President Obama’s visit to India in 2010. During the much-publicized visit two years into his first term, President Obama drew India into a snug embrace with defense, technology, and business partnerships. At the end of that historic 4-day stay that included the now-famous photos of Michelle Obama playing hopscotch and shaking it up with disadvantaged Indian children, the US leader endorsed the South Asian nation for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. India was left giddy with the assurance it had now entered the ranks of a world power.

The obvious question is why despite the strenuous involvement and stellar achievements in the pursuit of putting New Delhi on par with world powers, Indian Americans profess detachment from homeland affairs when it comes to righting social inequities. Is it mere indifference to social injustice or a continued silence that surrounds centuries-old taboos?

As a New Delhi protester said, “This is not an isolated incident. This is the story of every Indian woman.” It is a story that exists in the diaspora, waiting to be embraced and waiting to be told.

Hassina Leelarathna is Editor of LA Beez and publisher of CivicLA.

Photo from Wikipedia.

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