US mid-term polls: The only Indian-American congressman Ami Bera might lose


November 4, 2014

As Americans go to their mid-term polls on Tuesday 4 November, Democrats are bracing for bad news. The president's popularity ratings are low and Democrats might lose control of the Senate. For Indian-Americans there might be worse news from the House of Representatives.

November 4, 2014

As Americans go to their mid-term polls on Tuesday 4 November, Democrats are bracing for bad news. The president's popularity ratings are low and Democrats might lose control of the Senate. For Indian-Americans there might be worse news from the House of Representatives.

Ami Bera, the only Indian American in Congress, and only the second one to make it there after Dalip Kumar Saund in 1957, might also lose his seat in a tight race in California.

If it comes down to the wire, the only Indian-American in Congress might lose thanks to a group of Indian-Americans.

Some Sikh political activists calling themselves American Sikhs for Truth are targeting Bera not for anything he has done but for what the Indian government has not.

Their grouse against Bera has its roots in a mailer sent to the candidates. It included these two questions:

Do you agree thousands of Sikhs were murdered in India in November 1984 with the assistance or lack of intervention by political parties, law enforcement, military, or members of the government?


Would you as a member of Congress seek to remember and acknowledge the pogroms against Sikhs in November 1984, pursue justice for the victims, and work to ensure it does not happen again?

Bera did not answer the questions. American Sikhs for Truth started lobbying against him. The Republicans jumped onto the bandwagon. Luckily for them the California party vice-chair is Sikh – Harmeet Dhillon. "It was a huge, horrible crush to the psyche of the Sikh community worldwide," says Dhillon to AP.

That it was. And those responsible have not paid for it. And as Hartosh Singh Bal's chilling exposé in Caravan reveals the killings were far more orchestrated than they were spontaneous.

But 30 years later why are the ghosts of a massacre in India haunting an election in Sacramento?

Bera tells the Sacramento Bee it's not his job to "dictate to other countries how to run their countries." That's not that dissimilar to what many Indian Americans told US congressmen after the Modi visa refusal. Bera said he is focused on issues faced by Sikhs (and other communities) in the US. Sikhs in the US have had to struggle with many different agencies about their right to wear a turban.

India Abroad reports on US Attorney Preet Bharara seeking an explanation from the City Department of Corrections for forcing an elderly Sikh man to remove his turban every time he went to see his son who was incarcerated at Rikers Island.

While Indian Americans should be proud of one of their own making it to Congress, they have to remember they are electing Americans to Congress, not Indians. It's a tightrope act every child of immigrants has to walk when they run for public office – to embrace their ethnicity without being defined by it. Bera's parents emigrated from Gujarat to California in the 1950s.

In 2010 when he ran unsuccessfully for the same seat he was careful to describe himself to this correspondent as having "the best of both worlds – rooted in the values of family, community, hard work that an immigrant population brings but also benefited from growing up in the 60's and 70's in (California) which had a strong public school system." Basically they always want to portray themselves as loving both home-cooked dal and pizza in order to offend no one.

Indian Americans always rue that despite the many successes of their community in the US, Indian Americans have struggled more than many other Asian communities to win elected office. That's partly because the community has viewed politics with great disfavour. Bera said that though he comes from Southern California and Dalip Singh Saund was elected from there as well, he knew little about him. "It's not a story we tell in our community. When I researched it I learned that his campaign manager was my dentist when I was growing up."

Indian immigrants are often parochial as well. As Nimi McConigley, once elected to state office in Wyoming remembered in India Currents she was shocked to once discover the presidential elections for the AAPI (American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin) seemed to hinge on a single issue – one candidate was Punjabi and the other was Telugu.

Indian Americans have mostly won in areas with small Indian populations. Their victories have not depended on them delivering the desi vote. But this election is a toss-up which means even a fringe group can make a difference in a district with 6,000 registered voters of Indian descent.

Other Indian American and Sikh groups are rallying behind Bera. His constituent Bobbie Singh-Allen, an Elk Grove school board member, tells India Abroad that while she is disappointed he did not take a stronger stand on 1984, it's also worth noting his advocacy on other community issues such as "improving hate crime monitoring, addressing school bullying and allowing turbans in the military and in international basketball games."

Sikh advocates are right in pressing for justice for the community and they should take their grievances to elected representatives. But it's another thing to make it a litmus test for an Ami Bera. "In your public remarks, you have failed to make any statements regarding those that are responsible for the genocidal atrocities against Sikhs. We also are unaware of any statements regarding persecution of the Muslims, Christians and Daalits of India," write the presidents of the Northern California Sikh temples in a letter to Ami Bera.

A non-Indian-American candidate's refusal to get into that 1984 question (and eight others did not) would hardly cause a stir. Bera did say the killings were a tragedy and he hopes the Indian government learned a lesson from them. But the perception being put out is he's afraid of antagonizing wealthy Indian-American donors. Meanwhile Karl Rove's super-PAC is pouring millions into the race not because the Republicans are great supporters of justice for Sikhs but they see an electoral opportunity in a toss-up race.

This district has always been tightly divided. Bera just about squeezed through, 51-49%, in 2012. Maryland House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, the longest-serving Indian American legislator, tells Aziz Haniffa of India Abroad baldly "If (Bera) loses because the Indian-American community didn't give him enough money to help him win, our community doesn't deserve to have a US Congressman in office."

In an earlier interview with India Currents Barve said "I wish I could have met Congressman Saund. I would have loved to pick his brains. The great tragedy of his career was because of his stroke he did not have the opportunity to create footprints."

It took sixty years for an Ami Bera to walk in Saund's footsteps and reach the same destination. It will be ironically shortsighted and a tragic disservice to the legacy of the first Indian American, also Sikh American, US Congressman, if a group like American Sikhs for Truth helps to wipe out Bera's footprints after just two years because of three-decade old sins of a government in a country he was not born in.

Courtesy: FT