"Do we want to go forward? Do we want to embrace a vision of tolerance, of non-discrimination, of unity, of peaceful coexistence?"
- Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi
Indian Americans comprise slightly more than one percent of the total U.S. population – and less than one percent of all registered voters. Yet it is the second-largest immigrant group in America and has clout beyond its numbers. According to 2020 'Indian American Attitudes Survey' by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and YouGov, the Indian-American vote, while small in numbers, is going to be a defining vote, especially in the battleground states.
In fact, in select swing states, the Indian American population is larger than the margin of victory that separated Hillary Clinton and Trump in the closely contested 2016 presidential race.
Indian-Americans come from so many different faiths – Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Judaism, Jain, and Sikhism – and bring the tenets of their beliefs to an America which needs unity and civility.
'Shoulder to Shoulder', a recent interfaith virtual event organized by the Biden-Harris team showed how the ticket is drawing a vast array of Indians of different religions who may not vote uniformly even in India. The groups include Sikh Americans for Biden, Hindu Americans for Biden, Jews for Biden and Muslims for Biden, as well as Christians and Buddhists.
Why are so many different religious communities from India coming together for Biden?
In a display of unity showcasing the diverse faith traditions in the South Asian Diaspora, prominent South Asian faith leaders emphasized how the faith communities have come together to mobilize under the Biden-Harris umbrella in response to the darkness of the Trump era.
Speakers included U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, Washington Sen. Manka Dhingra, Virginia Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, Dr. Neeta Jain, Biden for President Chief Operating Officer and Senior Advisor Maju Varghese among others.
"It is historical that we are having for the first time interfaith conversations within South Asian America for a presidential candidate," says Khyati Joshi, a scholar of race, religion and immigration and educator at Fairleigh Dickinson University. "We can truly build solidarity and organize around issues that affect our communities. We see with the Trump administration that we, as South Asian Americans, as proud Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs, have been attacked for both our racial and religious identity."
While first-generation immigrants stay with Democrats due to the comfort level, their children and grandchildren, many of whom are activists or in public policy, are with the party for its mantra of inclusion and seeking justice for all.
"In the United States, post-1965 it's not only a second generation but a third-generation, many of them are voting, have been voting and are getting ready to vote. You have many second-generation professionals who view politics and view religion in a way differently than the immigrant generation. It's really important to the second generation folks that we do have these ties across faith with other South Asian Americans. So I think it's a confluence of forces."
Joshi, who is the author of 'White Christian Privilege: The illusion of religious equality in America, ' believes this new generation is working for justice in solidarity with other groups.
She says: "When we are having interfaith conversations within South Asian America, which doesn't happen very often, I think that we can truly build solidarity and be able to organize around issues that affect our communities."
This awareness of the 'other' is very much there with the new generation of Indian-Americans. Valarie Kaur, an activist and documentary filmmaker maker, invokes the values of Sikhism in calling out the injustices to Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in a nation that still sees black lives as disposable.
She points out that the 220,000 people who have died from COVID-19 are disproportionately black, brown and indigenous people, dying in a pandemic that was preventable in both scale and scope.
This adherence to faith traditions exists across generations. Kaur recalled, "My dadaji came to America in 1913, 107 years ago. He arrived by steamship to California, with a turban. He was a simple farm labourer, and yet he joined a generation of Muslim and Hindu and Sikh immigrants who fought for decades against racist laws, just for the right to become a citizen. And once my dadaji finally became a citizen, he never missed an election. Even in his 90s, my father would carry him in his arms, just so that he could vote at the polls and cast his ballot."
Dr. Asha Shipman, a Hindu spiritual leader, offered a Hindu invocation and said, "The attention to maintaining karma or goodness requires constant vigilance. This has always been true, but we recognize how the work is made better and less burdensome by a groundswell of everyday citizens who refuse to look away and pledge their time and resources towards a united venture."
Adnan Zulfiqar, a legal scholar and historian, offered an Islamic invocation. He's an associate professor of law at Rutgers Law School, where he teaches courses on criminal law, criminal procedure and Islamic law.
He's been involved with the Committee of the religious leaders Council of Greater Philadelphia, the Zones of Peace interfaith task force, and the steering committee for the Jewish and Muslim Emerging Leaders.
"Your family is not simply those people who are in your household, or who you share blood with," he said. "They are the people, especially at this moment, those essential workers, postal workers, grocery store clerks, garbage collectors, doctors, and nurses who are taking care of you, taking care of this community. We are family to each other. The people who are protesting for change are your family,"
Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi serves on the Oversight Committee and is the chairman of the Subcommittee on economic and consumer policy, as well as on the House Intelligence Committee. He's a proud Hindu who took his oath on the Bhagavad Gita.
He shared a telling story of being Hindu in America: "When I first ran for office here in Illinois, I said to someone 'My name is Raja Krishnamoorthi.' And the person in Chicago looked right back at me and said, 'Roger Christian Murphy'. And so, it's so nice to be among folks who share a common origin story as myself! I was born in India. I came here when I was three months old. And the rest is history. I'm now in the United States Congress."
Krishnamoorthi said that 125 years ago in Chicago, Swami Vivekananda shared the message that we must embrace all and love all. "Do we want to go forward? Do we want to embrace a vision of tolerance, of non-discrimination, of unity, of peaceful coexistence?" asks Krishnamoorthi. "Or do we want to live in a morass of intolerance, of division, and hate? Regardless of what religion we belong to, what faith we subscribe to, we all believe in values, we believe in our faith system".
Maju Varghese, a Christian, is the Chief Operating Officer, and Senior Advisor for Biden for President. He recalled the basement churches frequented by his immigrant family and said what's on the ballot is the legacy of our families: "I am a fierce defender of the immigrant experience. I saw the ups and downs. We may not be related by blood, but it comes down to community, and fighting for our community."
Senator Ghazala Hashmi, who represents the 10th senatorial district in Virginia helped flip a longstanding red seat and secured a democratic majority in the Virginia Senate. A Muslim, she says, "We stand in neat rows, shoulder to shoulder ideally with no gaps in between the worshipers, and this form of prayer is symbolic in so many ways. It reflects a commonality of purpose, it speaks to the solidarity of those who worship, and it challenges the notion of hierarchy and social distinction. It speaks to the ways in which we are fundamentally united as human beings."
She says this idea of common and coherent purpose has served as a clear reminder of America's bold and unique experiment. The goal of making one unified nation of people who have come from so many different backgrounds and beliefs, and this ideal is the heart of the democratic experience.
The Biden tent shows the best of an imperfect world where Hindus and Muslims and others live together in harmony. In India, this may be true in theory but often not in practice. The support for Biden across the board shows Indian-Americans engaged with the community and concerned about fairness and justice for all.
Dr. Neeta Jain, Democratic district leader in New York, and elected DNC delegate talked about the values of Jainism and the path of non-violence of Gandhi which was followed by Marin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.
"They both adopted a path of non-violence to save humanity, to save human lives. So Jain principles are core values of humanity, which teach us mutual understanding, mutual respect."
South Asians for Biden Advisor Ann Ratnayake Macy who is Buddhist, also shared her thoughts on the importance of getting behind the Biden-Harris ticket.
"President Trump peddles in anger, fear and greed and hatred, lies and delusion, and he spreads them with words, similar to pouring gasoline on an already lit vitriolic fire that's burning," she said.
"All major religions have an internal compass that focuses on cultivating compassion and empathy towards others. As people of faith, we stand together to put out that fire and work to bring policies that help 'the other.'"
Krishnamoorthi gets the last word, "There's an old saying in Washington DC, which is, if you don't have a seat at the table - you're on the menu! And none of us, our families, our communities, and certainly not our priorities can be on the menu. We can't afford that any longer."