NEW YORK: The first Indian recorded to have reached the shores of the US is a man from Madras (now Chennai), the area from where the family of Shyamala Gopalan, mother of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, hails. From the time of his long journey on a sailing ship in 1790 to now when Gopalan’s daughter is going to be Vice President, it is also a long political journey for Indians in the US.
In that period, Indians have been excluded as immigrants, given and refused citizenship, and faced discrimination, but they have also gained political rights, been elected to offices from local councils to governorships and the Vice Presidency, headed some of the largest companies, won Nobel prizes and led universities.
Along the way they have become the ethnic group with the highest income and educational attainment, making up a little over 1 per cent of the US population and becoming one of the fastest growing. A wave of Indians, most of them Sikhs, came to the US, many via Canada, to work on the railroads, lumber mills and farms at the beginning of the last century.
They, along with other Asians like the Chinese, were subjected to racial attacks culminating in the Immigration Act of 1917 that banned immigration from most of Asia. An 18th century law limited citizenship to “free White persons”, but for a while after 1910 some Indians were allowed by courts to get citizenship because they were considered members of the Caucasian race.
That ended in 1923 when Bhagat Singh Thind, who had served in the US Army, was denied citizenship and the Supreme up ruled that though they may be Caucasians, Indians are not considered White. The citizenship granted to many Indians was also revoked, while they were allowed to stay on in a nationality limbo.
But Thind regained citizenship in 1935 when a new law granted it to all former service personnel regardless of ethnicity. Meanwhile, many Indians came to the US to study or for business or as religious teachers and some stayed on. One of them was Dalip Singh Saund, who came to do his PhD at the University of California, Berkeley.
A 1946 law set an annual immigration quota of 100 for Indians with a path to citizenship and Saund became a citizen. Later he made history as the first Indian-American elected to the US House of Representatives in 1956 and won re-election twice.
On the heels of the civil rights movement in the 1960s that brought attention to inherent racism in the US system, a 1965 law overhauled the immigration machinery and all countries except the neighbours were given an annual quota of 20,000 immigrants opening the way for Indian immigration.
People with higher education and occupations received preference for the visa and tens of thousands of Indian professionals like doctors came from India and others studying here received their Green Cards or immigration visas. They were followed by thousands of relatives allowed under the system.
The next big wave of Indians came in the late 1990s when there was a great need for computer professionals to fix the Y2K bug, a computer glitch that was expected to strike hundreds of thousands of computer programmes and systems when the new millennium started.
The gateway for most of them was the H1-B temporary work visa and having established their credentials in technology, more Indians flowed in to work in the technology sectors on those visas.
While tens of thousands went on to get their Green Cards and, eventually, citizenship, many thousands of H1-B visa-holders are left hanging because the immigration quota is overburdened.
Gaining from the educational infrastructure of their country, Indians were able to take advantage of the educational and job preferences in the immigration system and this is reflected in the community’s profile.
“The story of Indians in America is one of selection. While this is true for all immigrants, those from India stand out for the degree of selection on human capital relative to both the destination country and the country of origin,” according to “The Other One Per cent”, a landmark study of Indian immigration by three academics.
Now there are about 4 million Indians in the US, making up about 1.2 per cent of the population, according to the Census Bureau.
Seventy-two per cent of Indian immigrants have a Bachelor’s or a higher degree compared to 32 per cent for all Americans, and Indians had a median annual household income of $100,000, nearly twice that of all American households, according to the Pew Research which studies demographic trends.
That’s a far cry from when they were mostly labourers and farmers. There are three areas where Indians touch the lives of a broad swath of Americans and their presence is felt: medicine, academia and hospitality industry. In medicine, they are at the forefront of fighting Covid-19 pandemic as doctors and nurses and as experts, like Surgeon General-nominee Vivek Murthy directly framing policy or making analysis and developing solutions, or as scientists working on vaccines and cures.
Indian doctors numbering over 80,000 make up about 8 per cent of all the physicians in the US, and there are also 40,000 Indians doing their residency or studying to be doctors. One in every sixth or seventh patient is seen by an Indian doctor, according to Suresh Reddy, President of the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI).
In addition, there are tens of thousands of nurses of Indian origin. Another area is academics where almost every institution of higher learning has Indians on the faculty and most Americans who have been through college could recall at least one Indian teacher. At Harvard University’s Business School, Srikant Datar is succeeding Nitin Nohria as the dean. Madhav Rajan is the dean at another top tier institution, Chicago University’s Booth School of Business.
The Ivy League Harvard College is headed by Rakesh Khurana. Three Indian academics at US universities have won Nobel Prizes, Hargobind Khurana for medicine, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar for physics and Abhijit Bannerjee in Economics. Manjul Bhargava and Akshay Venkatesh have won the Fields Medal for Mathematics.
Indians also dominate the hospitality industry, which has a high level of interaction with the public. One in two US hotels are owned by the members of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association representing Indians in this sector and which has over 19,500 members. Indian-Americans have been a driving force in Silicon Valley, the world’s technology engine.
Three of the largest technology companies are headed by Indian-Americans, Sundar Pichai at Google, Satya Nadella at Microsoft and Arvind Krishna at IBM. Indians have also been entrepreneurs in technology and other fields. A pioneer in the tech sector is Vinod Khosla, who was a founder of SunMicro Systems. He went on to become a venture capitalist helping seed ventures.
According to a report by the National Foundation for Economic Policy, more than half of the “Unicorn” companies, those with valuations of over $1 billion before going public, had at least only Indian as a founder.
It is estimated that over 200,000 Indians work in Silicon Valley. Decades before Silicon Valley became the centre of technology innovation, Amar Bose as a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor developed the high-end audio systems that bear his name and founded the company in the 1960s to market and market them.
Indians who are or were high profile CEOs include Niraj Shah of Wayfair, Indira Nooyi of PepsiCo, Ajay Banga of MasterCard, Rakesh Gangawal of US Airways. “Indian-American entrepreneurial experience is widely varied. The stories of Silicon Valley and the Gujarati motel owners are well known. But there are also gas station owners, taxi drivers, comic book aficionados, and more,” Sanjoy Chakravorty, Divesh Kapur and Nirvikar Singh write in their book, “The Other One Per cent”.
Indian children have excelled in science competitions and the Spelling Bee, where they had a monopoly for nearly ten years. Five Indian-Americans have won the Pulitzer prizes for journalism — Gobind Behari Lal and Geeta Anand, for fiction — Jhumpa Lahiri; non-fiction — Siddhartha Mukherjee, and poetry — Vijay Seshadri.
Indians have also made their mark in the legal field. Sri Srinivasan is the chief judge of the federal court of appeals for the District of Columbia, the most important court after the Supreme Court, for which he was once considered in the running.
Vanita Gupta has been nominated by President-elect Joe Biden to be the associate attorney general. She became a legendary figure when as a newly graduated lawyer she won the release of 38 people, most of them African Americans, who had been wrongly convicted by all-White juries on drug charges in a Texas town and also got them $6 million in compensation.
Neal Katyal, a prominent legal scholar served as the acting solicitor general in former President Barack Obama’s administration. Indian-Americans have also made their mark in the government. Nikki Haley became the first Indian to be a member of the US cabinet when outgoing President Donald Trump appointed her as the Permanent Representative to the UN with cabinet rank.
Several other Indians who have held in several influential posts in Trump’s administration are Seema Verma, as the head of Medicare and Medicaid, the government health insurance programmes for seniors and the poor; Ajit Pai as the head of the Federal Communications Commission; Manisha Singh as assistant secretary of state, and Raj Shah as his deputy press secretary.
Now, Biden and Harris have named at least to 21 Indian-Americans to key positions, starting with Neera Tandon, who will be the cabinet rank director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Those on the White House staff include Vinay Reddy, director of speechwriting; Vedant Patel, assistant press secretary, and Neha Gupta, associate counsel and Reema Shah, deputy associate counsel. Former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton also had Indians in important posts in their administrations.
Indian-Americans have been active in politics for several decades, although after the election of Saund, there was a long hiatus till 2004, when Bobby Jindal was elected to the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, Indians were working at the state level with Kanak Dutta launching the drive in the early 1980s by running for the Democratic Party nomination for New Jersey State Assembly although she failed.
Kumar Barve was elected to the Maryland State Assembly in 1991 and Upendra Chivkula to the New Jersey Assembly in 2001. Two Indians, Bobby Jindal in Louisiana and Nikki Haley in South Carolina, were elected governors. Their elections ran counter to stereotypes – both were Republicans elected by a preponderance of White voters in conservative southern states.
Jindal was elected to the House of Representatives 2004, 45 years after Saund. He has been followed by three Democrats, Ami Bera in 2010, and Raja Krishnamoorthi, Pramila Jayapal and Ro Khanna in 2017. Harris was elected to the Senate in 2017 after having served as California’s attorney general.
“By the end of the 1990s Indian Americans had become active participants in American domestic politics, making financial contributions in proportion to their share of the population,” according to “The Other One Per cent”.
The India-US nuclear agreement that allowed India to overcome the stigma of the nuclear tests and able to acquire nuclear materials and equipment showed the political organisation of the Indian-American community that had been taking place over the years as Indians raised funds for politicians, actively participated in campaigns and set up their own political education and action groups. That was “the acid test of the community’s lobbying power”, according to the book.
“It also signalled the political maturing of the Indian-American community as a lobbying group.” The identity of the man from Madras who visited Salem, Massachusetts, is recorded in the diary of a clergyman, William Bentley, who seems to describe what appears to be meeting between the man from India and an American Indian.
He does not give his name, but describes him and identifies the sea captain, Gibaut, whom he accompanied, according to a diary excerpt in a book on counselling Indian-Americans by Varughese Jacob.