This month’s midterm elections represent a special challenge for Indian-American groups trying to get their constituents to the polls: Election Day falls in the middle of Diwali celebrations, India’s biggest holiday of the year.
With this in mind, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) unveiled its campaign recently with the goal of reminding South Asians that in between prayers and parties marking the Festival of Lights, they need to make time for the voting booth.
“The aim is to raise awareness in the Hindu American community about voter registration deadlines and to hopefully ensure robust voter participation,” said Samir Kalra, HAF’s managing director.
The print, television and social media effort’s goal is nonpartisan “with the primary aim to increase voter turnout and democratic participation in its broadest sense,” Kalra said.
Indeed, the elections present an important opportunity for Indian-Americans to encourage members to make their voices heard on a variety of issues.
“We’re not just a one-issue community,” said Aseem Chipalkatti, board president of South Asian Americans Together for Washington (SAATWA). “Solving our nation’s health care and immigration dilemmas are important, but we also are worried about the increase of gun violence in our schools and women’s access to justice and reproductive care. SAATWA will endorse and support candidates — South Asian or not — who stand with our community on these issues.”
To that end, SAATWA recently held its first town hall-style candidates’ forum in Issaquah, Washington. While only 35 people showed up in person, Chipalkatti reports that 471 people tuned in to watch the action live on Facebook and over a 1,000 viewed replays of the debate online. In all, 3,751 people have viewed all or part of the program.
Candidates answered questions on sustainable economic development, education, health care and immigration. SAATWA will use the candidates answers as the basis for making endorsements later this month.
Chipalkatti sees the turnout for the event, especially online, as clear evidence that “South Asian Americans in Washington state are ready to get engaged in the political process.”
Ankit Patel, SAATWA’s director of public policy and legislative affairs, said he hopes the town halls will make candidates realize that “people are paying attention and their participation in these events has wide ranging visibility beyond these forums — whether it’s the audience watching online or the conversations these attendees go on to have in the community.”
On a national level, South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) has developed a voter guide detailing the policy positions of candidates in the 20 congressional districts with the highest number of South East Asians in them. It also includes breakdowns on two additional races that feature a South Asian-American candidate and a congressperson who is a leader in the House of Representatives.
The race breakdowns show the Democratic and Republican candidates’ positions on immigration, civil rights, hate crimes, and the 2020 U.S. census. “These issues have been at the core of SAALT’s policy and advocacy strategy and have greatly impacted the South Asian-American community both historically and in the last two years,” said Lakshmi Sridaran, SAALT’s director of National Policy and Advocacy.
On SAALT’s online voter guide each of the four “big issues” facing the South Asian-American community is broken down into bite-sized nuggets.
On immigration, SAALT reports, “With over 5 million South Asians in the United States, immigrant justice is a top priority. The community includes undocumented immigrants, family members and temporary workers on various visas, refugees and asylum-seekers, lawful permanent residents, and United States citizens. There are over 450,000 undocumented Indian-Americans alone.”
As for the upcoming 2020 U.S. census, SAALT warns that anything that threatens an accurate count of all people in the country “such as the proposed citizenship question on the forthcoming 2020 census, must be avoided at all costs. Unnecessarily asking every household and every person in the country about their citizenship status in the current political environment will cause fear and a significant undercount of our communities.”
In regard to hate crimes, SAALT reports it “has documented a precipitous rise in hate violence. In the year following the presidential election, SAALT cataloged 213 incidents of hate violence aimed at South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern and Arab-American communities — a 45 percent increase from the 2015-2016 pre-election period. It is increasingly clear we need to protect our communities from hate.”
The final hot-button issue for SAALT is civil rights, especially as they relate to Southeast Asian communities in the post 9/11 era. SAALT reports that since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the “communities have been unjustly targeted by government racial and religious profiling policies. More recently, government policies underscoring racial and religious profiling and surveillance have increasingly been aimed at our communities since the 2016 presidential election.”
This story is also being published in India Currents. Paul Kilduff is a freelance writer based in San Francisco, California. He has written for the East Bay Times, San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Monthly and many other publications. He has also worked in radio as a reporter, host and producer and even finds time to draw cartoons.