In the heart of Silicon Valley, a teenager’s life hangs by a thread. Thirteen-year-old Dhriti Narayan is in coma, with a bleeding, swelling brain; the left side of her skull was removed to relieve pressure. She was recently mowed down by an Iraq war veteran who drove into a crowd of pedestrians because he thought they were Muslim. Her father Rajesh and brother Prakhar were also among those injured.
The street they were crossing was in Sunnyvale, a city with such a large Indian population that it’s often referred to, jokingly, by it’s Hindi moniker, Suraj Nagari. Sunnyvale is a city full of chaat shops, South Indian restaurants, Indian grocery stores selling Parachute coconut oil, saree shops and beauty salons where you can get your eye-brows threaded under posters of Bollywood celebrities. Desis drive 40 miles down south from San Francisco to shop at Indian stores in Sunnyvale.
This borough full of Indians is the very last place you’d expect an Indian-American family to be the target of a hate crime. Add to this the inescapable irony of a Hindu family attacked for being Muslim, a throwback to the post 9/11 era when Sikhs in America were mistaken for Muslim and attacked. (Unprovoked attacks on Sikhs continue to this day).
Silicon Valley academic Rohit Chopra, who teaches global media and culture at Santa Clara University, believes the NRI Hindu community at large needs to realise that it shares vulnerabilities with Muslims, Sikhs and other minorities.
Indians in America have often dismissed the rise in hate crimes during the Trump regime, secure in their belief that these crimes are not targeted at them. The horrific attack on Dhriti and her family shows that an Islamophobe cannot differentiate between a brown Hindu and a brown Muslim.
While much has been written about racism and the rise of white supremacy in America, Isaiah Peoples, the Iraq war veteran who drove his car into pedestrians in Sunnyvale, was black, and not white. An attack in which a black man ran his car into brown people because he thought they were Muslim, calls for a nuanced understanding of race and religion. It is also a reminder of how an environment of hate and intolerance can be all pervasive; no race is immune to it, not even one that has been marginalised.
A local newspaper report on a multi-faith vigil at the site of the Sunnyvale crash, spoke to Muslim groups as well as an Armenian American from Jerusalem. Indian voices were conspicuous by their absence in the paper. While this may have been an oversight by the press, Indians in Silicon Valley are routinely quoted by American publications on issues that concern them, such as the crackdown on H-1B visas, the rate at which these visas are being rejected by immigration authorities, and Trump’s threats to revoke work permits for spouses of H-1B visa holders, a threat that would largely target Indian women and render them jobless.
These are valid concerns, and Indians in America are more than justified in taking them up. However, it’s time the Indian community saw itself as part of the larger fabric of American society, and was more outspoken about an environment of rising violence, intolerance and hate, even if they don’t believe they’re the intended targets.
Indians in the US need to make it to the press for speaking out against the Muslim ban, the Mexico wall and the diatribe against a caravan of poor immigrants moving northwards from Latin America. It’s time NRIs in Silicon Valley associate with civil society groups, campaign against hate, and walk the streets preaching the gospel of peace and tolerance. While Silicon Valley engineers may not have been the most politically active group of Indian-Americans in the US, it’s never too late for the community to show its support for political candidates who work towards drawing American society together and not ripping it apart.
The first year of Trump’s presidency saw a 17 per cent increase in hate crimes in the US. The year 2017 saw 7,175 hate crimes, when compared with 6,121 in 2016. California saw 1,095 hate crimes that year. When the data was released, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón openly blamed President Trump’s actions and words for the spike in hate crimes.
Civil rights advocacy group Southern Poverty Law Center documented the surge of racial slurs and symbols, harassment and bigotry targeted at minority children in American schools during and after Trump’s presidency, a phenomenon they called The Trump Effect “because it appeared that children were emulating the racist, xenophobic and coarse language Donald Trump was using on the campaign trail.” According to a recent report by the organisation, called Hate at School, over two-thirds of 2,776 educators surveyed talked of having witnessed incidents of hate and bias in school during the fall of 2018; only five percent of incidents witnesses were reported to the press.
Children are calling African-American classmates monkeys, threatening to kill their Muslim classmates, calling them terrorists, and drawing swastikas on their hands. The hate inside the classroom is mirrored by the hate outside; the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, a bullet in a Muslim home in Ohio during Ramzan, and the San Diego synagogue shootout. Dhriti Narayan, comatose and battling for life, is a reminder that Silicon Valley’s cosy Indian neighbourhoods are not hate-proof.
(The author is an independent journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She tweets @newspaperwalli)