CAMD Scholar Kailash Sundaram ’15 Examines Indian-American Political Activism

Seeing images of American politicians on television, Kailash Sundaram ’15, an Indian American, wondered why so few of them looked like himself.

Indian Americans, although they comprise around one percent of the American population, lack involvement in United States politics, said Community and Multicultural Development (CAMD) Scholar Sundaram in his presentation “The Fight to be American: Indian-American Political Activism” on Monday in Kemper Auditorium.

Sundaram this is primarily due to a lack of recognition that Indian-Americans are American.

Since the advent of mass Indian immigration into the United States, Indian-American political progress has been hindered by the perpetual foreigner syndrome. In reaction to this, Indian Americans have struggled to be recognized as true Americans. In his presentation, Sundaram explored the history of this Indian-American activism in five stages, starting from the 1900s to present day America.

Sundaram said Punjabi Sikh British men travelled to America to work in lumber mills at the start of the 20th century, becoming the first Indian immigrants in America. They brought a new and distinct look to America by wearing their turbans and manifesting their religion. The newcomers faced racism and prejudice in response to both their culture and the threat they posed against white, middle-class American men for jobs, Sundaram said.

Indians in America soon evolved to find themselves more American and decided to fight for their citizenship. Through lobbying, Indian Americans worked to pass the Luce-Celler Act of 1946, which allowed them to be naturalized as citizens.

In the 1960s, following the Immigration Act of 1965, a large number of well-educated Indians immigrated to America. The Indian-Americans, soon attaining what they considered the American Dream of economic and social success, were relegated to model minority status.

“The problem remains; Indian Americans were laborers and not leaders. Indian Americans have never fought a serious political struggle, and they believed in working with the system they’ve found,” Sundaram said.

To be considered by the general populace as more American, Indian Americans began to separate themselves from their Indian identities and promote their American ones.

“Is there a need for successful Indian Americans in politics to assimilate and hide their characters? Probably,” Sundaram said.

To combat the lack of Indian-American political power, Sundaram said that a fight against the negative media portrayals of Indian Americans would discourage the idea that Indian Americans are not truly American.

“As America moves forward, immigrants should not be thought of as hyphenated Americans but, rather, as one single entity — American,” Sundaram said.

Two guest speakers, Sonali Lappin and Saatvik Ahluwalia, whom Sundaram chose himself, presented afterwards on the importance of racial diversity in politics.

Lappin, the vice president of the Indian American Forum for Political Education, supported Sundaram’s idea that Indian Americans’ lack of political representation is due to their lack of recognition as Americans and added that the process of legislation and lobbying is often confusing and convoluted.

Ahluwalia, a Boston native who ran for the Lexington, Mass., board of selectmen, presented his perspective as an Indian American running for a political position.

Sundaram believes that the topic of activism can apply to on-campus clubs, especially those representing the minority groups.

“[Andover students] can be civically engaged. When they see people of color, they can not think of them as different from themselves. We’re all in this together,” Sundaram said during an interview with The Phillipian.

“My hope is that someday people from [immigrant] communities can be recognized as Americans,” said Sundaram.

“I thought [Sundaram] did a great job of giving us the historical context, so we can understand the roots of the lack of Indian-American political activity right now. I thought he did a great job with the visuals too,” said Theodore Parker, Instructor in History and Sundaram’s faculty advisor.

“The best part [of working] with [Sundaram was how he] proved his independence and his ability to take feedback and incorporate that not only in his research but in his writing as well,” continued Parker.

Sundaram’s presentation was third of a series of CAMD Scholar presentations this year.