2006 cuny conference on Points of Connection: South Asians and the Diaspora

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Dr. Thomas Abraham


Global Organization of People of Indian Origin
(Presented at the 2006 CUNY Conference on Points of Connection: South Asians and the Diaspora, Newman Conference Center - Baruch College, CUNY, New York, March 17, 2006)
Projecting the U.S. Census of 2000 to 2006, the population of Asian Indians in the U.S. is estimated to be over 2.4 million. Adding another 250,000 people of people of Indian origin (mostly Indo-Caribbean), the number of people of Indian Origin (PIOs) in the US will swell to 2.65 million. Of these, close to one million PIOs stay in the tri-state area of NY, NJ and CT.
Looking at the history of Indian community leadership in America, the thrust of early community involvement was for campaigning for India’s independence in the early 1900s with the Gadar movement initiated in 1913 in San Francisco and the India League in the 1940s. The early pioneers were more or less involved full time to campaign for India’s Independence, providing testimonies in the US. Congress and making favorable American public opinion through the media. Some of these pioneers included Lala Lajpat Rai, Shri Lala Har Dayal, Gobind Bihari Lal, J.J. Singh, Jay Prakash Narayan, Dr. Haridas Muzumdar, and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Their early community leadership was a huge success.
The 1950s saw a small group of Indian students attending various universities. Many of these students after graduation returned back to India while some of them stayed back taking academic and corporate positions. With the change in immigration laws in 1965, the doors were open for Indian engineers, doctors, nurses and other professionals. Since the community was still being settled, the community coordination and leadership were provided by the university based groups. These groups consisting of first generation Indian students and some from academics from major universities formed the core of the organizations and leadership.
The first major community based group by the new immigrant group was initiated in New York with the formation Association of Indians in America (AIA). In 1976, AIA did an excellent job in getting Asian Indians listed as a separate category in the upcoming US Census of 1980. AIA also accomplished the Asian Indians to be listed as a minority under the Asian and Pacific Islander category.
The biggest drawback for AIA was that it could not reach out to the larger Indian population who just migrated in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These groups of immigrants from India formed Indian associations in large cities and smaller towns. Along with these, several language and religious based organizations were formed in all major cities. By early 1970s, there were about 15 organizations in New York alone. In a unifying effort to bring all these groups together, the Indian Consulate in New York took the initiative to form a Joint Committee of Indian Organizations. The Joint Committee slowly became a very active body, not only organizing the major Indian celebration such as the India Independence Day, Republic Day and Gandhi Jayanti, but also other community related activities. With more community groups enrolling as members of the Joint committee, a new dimension was brought in by the committee to participate in the American Bicentennial Celebrations in 1976 and American Independence Day and Parade of Nations on July 4th, 1977.
In 1975, India Festival Committee was formed in New York with the objective of organizing a major festival of Indian dances and music. They had their debut at the Central Park, which attracted over 5,000 people for an Indian program. It was a highly successful program with coverage in the various American media. The Indian Festival Committee went on further to organize Miss Indian New York pageant in 1980 and later Miss India USA in the mid 1980s and Miss India Worldwide in 1990. This pageant now covers the whole NRI/PIO population and India now, another success story of community’s involvement.
With the success of the Joint Committee in reaching out the various community groups, there was a move toward starting the Federation of Indian Associations (FIA) in New York. While serving as the Chairman of the Joint Committee in 1977, I had the opportunity to initiate the formation of the first FIA in the US with the active support of the member organizations of the Joint Committee. The FIA New York was officially launched in January 1978. In 1979, FIA campaigned with other Asian groups to declare the first week of May as Asian American week, which President Jimmy Carter signed as a law. This has now become, Asian American heritage month in May.
With the successful experiment of FIA New York, the next step was to reach out Indian communities in other major cities. The New York FIA helped to form similar FIAs in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Cleveland, Columbus, Philadelphia and Washington DC. At a national convention of Asian Indians in America held in New York in 1980, the National Federation of Indian American Associations (NFIA) was formed as an umbrella organization for all community groups in America.
In the middle of 1980s, several other groups were formed including American Association of Physicians from India (AAPI), Indian American Forum for Political Education (IAFPE) and Asian Indian Hotel/Motel Operators Association (AIHOA). The doctors group and motel owners group provided leadership to look after the interests of the professional groups covering many of their professional issues.
With NFIA’s lead in organizing the national meetings for all Indians since 1980, another phenomenon followed, i.e. all regional language based groups started organizing their own conventions. These included Telgu Association of North Aemerica (TANA), the Federation of Kerala Associations of North America (FOKANA), Federation of Tamil Associations and International Punjabi Society. Similarly, other language based groups, such as, the Kannada, Maharashtrian, Bengali, Oriya, Assam and Rajasthani started organizing their own national conventions. In fact, these groups have larger attendance at their conventions than the nationally based Indian groups. Gujaratis, although constituting the largest among the language based groups, could not form a national group. However, they have Federation of Gujarati Associations of North America (FOGANA) which organizes the national Garba competition. Another reason why the Gujarati Diaspora could not come together nationally is attributed to the various national cast based groups from Gujarat already organized on a national basis including Swaminarayan, Patidar Samaj, the Brahmin Samaj, the Rajput organization and a relatively large involvement of Gujarati community in AIHOA. However, a national Gujarati conference is scheduled for August this year in New Jersey.
With the growth of community organizations and American political leaders increasingly reaching out across the community groups, the community leadership played its part to promote some members of the community for political appointments. In 1987, President Reagan appointed Dr. Joy Cherian as Commissioner of EEOC. This was the first sub-cabinet level appointment on a federal level for an Asian American. Dr. Cherian served under three presidents, President Reagan, President Bush and President Clinton. Two other appointments under the Bush administration were Bharat Bhargava as Assistant Director of Minority Business Development Authority (MBDA), and Dr. Sambu Banik as Executive Director for Presidential Commission on Mental Retardation. The Clinton administration appointed Dr. Arati Prabhakar as the Director of National Institute of Standards and Technology Neil Dhillon as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Transportation and Dr. Rajen Anand as Executive Director of Center for Nutrition Policy under USDA. President George Bush Jr. administration appointed Bobby Jindal as the Assistant Secretary of Health who later resigned to make a run for the Governor of Louisiana while Gopal Khanna was appointed as the Chief Technology Officer of Peace Corps and later as Chief Financial Officer of the White House. Karan Bhatia was appointed as Deputy Under Secretary in the Department of Commerce and later as Assistant Secretary in Department of Transportation. Getting political appointments is one area the community groups need to concentrate. If you look at Indian American share of the Bush Administration appointments, we may have a total of 7 while the Chinese community has managed to take a lion share of a total 80 or more appointments. Here I do want to point out that our community involvement with other Asian communities has not been going strongly, except in some pockets such as Chicago and New Jersey. Most of the Indian American political appointments have been due to individual contacts with the political establishment and not by promoting our candidates through political organizations.
In terms of community’s involvement in American politics, it had its beginning in the late 1970’s. A major beginning was the 1982 elections, where the Indian community actively participated in 15 states and raised over half a million dollars for various candidates. This was a breakthrough for Indian Americans to participate in the political process. In 1984 and 1986, the community actively participated in the Presidential and Congressional elections. In 1992, several Indian Americans actively campaigned for Governor Clinton and President Bush. Similar efforts were continued in 1996, 2000 and 2004. Several community members have been elected to the various party positions in the Democratic as well as in the Republican Party. In terms of fund raising, the Indian American community has the distinction of raising large campaign funds for presidential and other public office candidates.
In terms of Indian Americans winning the public office, we have currently one congressman, one state senator and four members of state assemblies. There have been several mayors of smaller cities. However, if we compare our strength of 2.5 million to the 6.5 million Jewish communities, our share of the political offices is small. The South Asian community has to promote themselves more in the political arena starting with PTA, school board, local community boards, city, state and national elections. The community leadership has to promote good candidates for public offices.
In terms of legislative campaigns, NFIA and other community groups actively campaigned for preserving the family reunification clause in the early 1980s and were successful in their efforts. In 1987, when Reagan Administration decided to give massive military aid to Pakistan including Airborne Surveillance System such as the AWACS, NFIA immediately campaigned with congressmen and senators to stop this massive military aid. The conflict between Indian and Pakistani communities continued in the 1990s. Now it is no more an issue. The US administration is very close to Pakistan and the US has found a great ally in India, with whom it can have nuclear, military and business ties. From the community perspective, another important development in the mid-1990s was the formation of India Caucus at the Capital. With the support of all our community groups, the India Caucus was formed in the Capital, which has now over 180 members, the largest for an ethnic community.
In 1988, NFIA launched an affinity Mastercard with the cooperation of J.C. Penny National Bank. This card provided a certain percentage of the card usage to a charitable trust account run by NFIA. The money accumulated was sent to educational and charitable activities in India as well as in the U.S. Similar charitable foundations have been started by several other groups including AIA, AAPI, AIOHA, Maharashtra Foundation, FOKANA, TANA, ATA, various FIAs and India associations, and religious and language based organizations. In the year 2001, after the Gujarat earthquake, American Indian Foundation (AIF) was launched with former President Clinton as its patron. The group raised millions of dollars for rehabilitation Gujarat earthquake victims and last year for Tsunami victims and continues to support several other charitable activities. Another community group has launched Indicorps for graduating college students to take a year off to voluntary work in India. This is another successful community involvement and providing excellent leadership.
In the 1990s, several new national organizations emerged with new groups of people involving in them. The young Indian American professionals formed Network of Indian Professional (NetIP) in the mid 1990s. Around the same time, The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) was formed in the Silicon Valley. Another group initiated by Dr. Krishna Reddy of Los Angeles, Indo-American Friendship Council, has been actively campaigning with Congressmen and Senators for better India-U.S. relations. Another community activist Ram Narayan has been providing online information on issues affecting India-US relations and issues of Indian community. Three other groups providing political leadership within the Indian American community are, Indian American Center for Political Awareness, Indian American Political Leadership and USINPAC. In terms of providing legislative campaign, these groups and broad based groups such as NFIA, IAFPE the Global Organization of People of Indian (GOPIO) are providing leadership to the Indian American community. However, there has been limited success in providing leadership on a South Asian platform, except South Asian Students Group and limited professional organizations.
For providing services and for advocacy, we have several groups, which are in the forefront. These are Sakhi, Manavi, South Asian Council for Social Services (SACSS), National Indian American Association for Senior Citizens (NIAASC) and Taxi Drivers Alliance. A recent study by SACSS showed there is large population within the Indian American community in New York city which needs assistance in housing, health, employment, counseling and educational areas. The community leadership needs to be mobilized further to tackle these issues.
In 1989, NFIA took the initiative to reach out the NRI and people of Indian origin (PIO) communities all over the world. The First Global Convention of People of Indian Origin was organized in New York, which attracted 3000 delegates from 26 countries. The convention passed 23 resolutions pertaining to the community issues with Govt. of India and human rights violations of PIOs around the world. The Global Organization of people Indian Origin (GOPIO) was formed at the convention. GOPIO has taken a leadership role on the human rights violations of PIOs and NRIs around the world as well as promoting interests of NRIs/PIOs with the U.N. and various governments and their agencies. Three successful issues taken up by GOPIO along with other community groups were the PIO Card, Dual Citizenship and voting rights for Indian citizens living outside India.
To summarize further on some of the other points:

Image of the community and India – Because of our active community involvement through various India festivals, India Day parades, we have built a great image for India as well as for the Indian American communities spread all across the country. Additionally, persons such as the late Astronaut Dr. Kalpana Chawla, musician Ravi Shanker, Nobel Laureates, Dr. Khorana and the late Dr. Chandrasekhar, the national media coverage of Silicon Valley successes, IIT graduates, Intel Science and Spelling Bee successes have all helped to improve the image of our community as well as India.

Higher Education – Our students have done very well in the national competition, e.g. Intel Competition, have gained admission to prestigious schools. However, there has been a trend in the Ivy League and other leading schools to limit highly qualified Asian students. As a community we need more involvement to fight this issue. Also, our community organizations need to develop programs to prepare our high school students in the competitions to gain admission to prestigious schools similar to what the Jewish community does for their students.

Corporate Ladder – The earlier problems we had in the 1970s and 1980s had somewhat solved. Qualified people of our community are climbing the corporate ladder. However, a recent 80/20 study showed that compared to all other communities, Asian Americans find it more difficult to get promotions in corporations, govt. and universities.

Discrimination – Still there are discrimination in the workplaces, especially the universities. Our community groups have to provide leadership to fight this issue through EEOC and other agencies.

Political involvement – Some success, we need to be do more. We need to develop a long-term political agenda for the community.

Promoting India Studies at Universities – We have now close to about 12 universities involved in India related studies. This has been possible because of the community leadership, support and involvement.
Senior citizens – As our first generation reached to the retirement age, we just woke up on the issue of senior citizens of Indian origin. Community groups need to discuss this issue more and more. At some stage, we have to initiate Senior Citizens home and nursing home, where Indian food and/or vegetarian food will be served.

Tackling major issues – We have to take pro-active stand when major community related issues come up. In this regard, we have to work very closely with other Asian groups and other minorities.

Cooperation with other South Asian groups – The community leadership has not done much in this regard. The larger society cannot differentiate between Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Nepali or Srilakan. The local issues are similar for all these communities. More coordination is needed.

Involving next generation to community organizations – I see this the toughest challenge. The first generation activists are aging. We need to promote the newer generation to take over our cultural and civic organizations.
Within the community, we always talk about the proliferation of our community organizations and disunity among our groups. If we look at the six million Jewish communities, they also have proliferation of organizations. However, they have created a perception of unity. And whenever major issues concerning Israel or the Jewish American community come up, they always work together. This is what the Indian American community and the South Asian American community need to achieve.
Finally, the 2.5 million Indian Americans have made substantial contribution to America and will continue to so in future. The community leadership has to take new initiatives to work with other South Asian communities as well as all other Asian communities to achieve common goal. Let us combine our forces toward that direction.
Thank you.


Dr. Abraham has been serving the NRI/PIO community for the last 28 years. He founded the Federation of Indian Associations of New York, National Federation of Indian American Associations, and currently serves as the Chairman of the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Indian American Kerala Center in New York. Dr. Abraham also served as the Co-Chairman of India Chair Managing Committee at Columbia University, which established a chair for Indian studies at the University. Professionally, trained as a material scientist, Dr. Abraham is currently the Vice President of Business Communications Co., an industry and market research firm in Norwalk, CT. Dr. Abraham can be reached at GOPIO, P.O. Box 1413, Stamford, CT 06904, USA, Tel: 203/329-8010, E-mail: gopio@optonline.net web: www.gopio.net

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