For six days, the world’s most garrulous (and seemingly most underworked) head of state, famous for his bilious 3 a.m. tweeting IN ALL CAPS, found neither one word of empathy nor 140 characters of condemnation for last week’s fatal shooting of an Indian engineer in Kansas.
The early silence of President Donald Trump – and the prevarication of the White House in recognizing the slaying of 32-year-old Srinivas Kuchibhotla as a hate crime – had begun to feel near-deliberate; perhaps it was to avoid drawing unflattering attention to his administration’s own nativist policies.
When Trump finally made his first public statement on the Kansas shooting in an address Tuesday to a joint session of Congress (“We are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil”), he clubbed it with the vandalism of Jewish cemeteries and anti-Semitism.
His throwaway, if strongly worded, sentence came just as India’s Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar arrived in Washington, D.C., for a four-day visit. Hillary Clinton urged Trump to speak out more strongly on the Kansas shooting.
Maybe someone told Trump quietly before his speech that in Hyderabad, India, as Kuchibhotla’s broken father collapsed over his funeral pyre, family and friends were waving anti-Trump banners.
Still, the larger thrust of Trump’s speech Tuesday night was a strongman rant against immigration, a commitment to build a border wall and an unapologetic reaffirmation of extreme vetting. All of this represents the same provocative rhetoric that some would believe emboldened Adam Purinton, the man accused in the Kansas shooting, to pull out his gun.
And as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., pointed out on Facebook, Trump made it a point to invite relatives of a young American man killed by an undocumented immigrant; so why didn’t he extend a similar invitation to the family of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, who lived and worked in the United States legally? Kuchibhotla was not even mentioned by name.
Millions of Indians have been confused and disappointed by the limited attention to Kuchibhotla’s death by the U.S. press. India has 165,000 students enrolled at American colleges, second only to China. Thousands of highly skilled Indian professionals like Kuchibhotla and his colleague Alok Madasani, who was wounded in the Kansas attack, work at big technology firms.
In fact, Indian companies use nearly 70 percent of what the United States calls H-1B visas – employment permissions to foreign workers in specialized jobs. And Indian Americans, who are among the most highly educated ethnic groups in the country, continue to be regarded as a model minority community.
So when a man says “Get out of my country” – shooting at two Indians unwinding over drinks at Austins Bar and Grill in Olathe (Purington reportedly was arguing with them over what visas allowed them in) – Indians are entitled to expect this murderous bigotry to dominate U.S. news headlines.
But the American media, which has admirably pulled no punches in pushing back against Trump’s vicious criticism of them, seems oddly muted in its coverage of the Kansas story – at least to us in India, watching from 8,000 miles away.
This is not to pass any judgment on the empathy of the American people. Strangers have pitched in to raise funds for Kuchibhotla’s bereft family. Most moving is the story of Ian Grillot, a regular at the bar, who jumped up to intervene and took a bullet himself. He is now a hero in India. But how many Americans know Kuchibhotla’s name?
Before his death, Kuchibhotla’s anxious wife, Sunayana Dumala, had urged him to go back to India. He said they didn’t need to go back and that in the United States, “Good things happen to good people,” she said. Now a widow, she is asking Trump’s administration – and the United States: “Do we belong here?”
The Kansas killing has triggered an ideological war in India. Right-wingers in India have been locked in furious debate with liberals (as India becomes more and more like America) over whether the Trump linkage is fair; they point to hate crimes that took place on President Barack Obama’s watch or after 9/11, citing the 2001 murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh American mistaken for an Arab.
For Indians who lean to the right, particularly supporters of popular Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the rise of Trump is akin to the ascent of India’s leader. Trump, like Modi, represents the smashing of elitism, the end of politics-as-usual and, most importantly, a defanging of “hypocritical” liberals.
But when the White House is won on dangerous populism and anti-immigrant rhetoric, there is a real danger that prejudice will be cloaked in official respectability. The Southern Poverty Law Center noted that there were 437 instances of intimidation within just six days of the Trump victory, targeted at people of color, Muslims, immigrants and other minorities.
After Kansas, reports from Denver suggested that an Indian man’s home was marked with eggs, feces and hate messages.
We are going to need more data, over a longer period of time, to determine whether the graph in hate crimes is higher under the Trump administration compared with previous governments. But the Kansas shooting should give serious pause to those in India who go on about Trump being “good for us.”
If Indians have been part of the great immigrant story in America, then a White House-backed backlash against immigration will not leave them unscathed.
And there will be another Kansas. It’s just a matter of when.
Barkha Dutt, based in New Delhi, is an award-winning TV journalist and anchor with more than two decades of reporting experience. She is the author of “This Unquiet Land: Stories from India’s Fault Lines.” This commentary was written for The Washington Post.