Kaleem Kawaja


Kaleem Kawaja (KK), a Mechanical Engineer from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur, is an engineering manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Washington DC. He is the founder and President of the Association of Indian Muslims of America (AIM), Washington DC.


He is also the vice-President of Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) in Washington DC. Currently he is a Trustee of the Muslim Community Center, Washington DC, where he was recently president for two years. He is an activist in the Indian-American community and the American Muslim community in metro Washington DC. Here in this interview with Khabrein.Info (KI) editor Syed Ubaidur Rahman he dwells on a host of issues regarding Indian diaspora in the US as well as Indian American Muslims there and their issues.



KI: How the Indian Diaspora in the US is doing?


KK. The size of the Indian Diaspora in US has grown rapidly since the mid 1960s when Indians started immigrating to US.  In addition to substantial growth in its volume, the quality of this Diaspora and its achievements in US have become truly remarkable.  Today even though Indian-Americans constitute only

about 0.7 percent of the US population, they are visible in the ranks of    high achievers in the mainstream US society.  From teenagers who almost every year win the tough nationwide spelling-bee competitions to

professionals in their forties and fifties who are top managers in blue chip multinational corporations, senior professors in ivy-league prestigious universities, senior doctors in hospitals, they are blazing a glorious trail. 


The US investment firm of Merrill Lynch has estimated the number of Indian millionaires in US as about 200,000.  After succeeding brilliantly in professions Indian-Americans are now entering the US political arena.  They are becoming visible in both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, and are winning elected offices from county level to State Assemblies to the US House of Representatives in Washington DC.  Representative Bobby Jindal is poised to become the governor of Louisiana in the November 2007 election.

Indian Americans are also starting to enter the world of Hollywood movies and Television. And there is more to come as the US born second generation Indians demonstrate their achievement orientation and competitiveness. 


Despite its remarkable success in US the Indian Diaspora suffers from a major problem.  It does not have a pan-Indian national consciousness that is not at the same time, a sectarian religious consciousness. As long as civil society Indian Diaspora organizations are Hindu or Muslim or Christian, the Indian-American community consciousness will remain polarized and not pluralistic.


KI. What are the precise reasons for the Indian diaspora’s growing clout in the American society?


KK. The basic contributing factors for the substantial growth of the respect that average Americans give to Indian-Americans and hence their clout in society are:  high educational qualifications; competitiveness;

high family values; pursuit of excellence; dedication and hard work; high achievement orientation; patience and moderate behavior in the face of sometimes unequal treatment at the hands of some people in positions of authority in the US society. What is admirable is the manner in which immigrant Indians induced those traits in their US-born second generation, which is helping them on the road to success. In the period before

mid-1980s, Indian immigrants including highly educated scientists, engineers, and doctors often faced inequitable treatment in their places of work.  Americans felt that Indians did not communicate well, their social mixing with Americans was inadequate, they spoke English with heavy accents, and their names were difficult to pronounce.  Without resorting to angry protests and claiming discrimination against their minority status, the community set about finding solutions to these problems by making improvements and adjustments within themselves and with their adversaries.


Soon the Indian-American community was able to break the low glass ceiling that existed until the mid-1980s and were successful in appealing to the basic sense of fairness of the predominantly White American citizens.  Today the Washington Post Radio commentators in Washington DC have no problem in

pronouncing the difficult name of Sudarshan Raghavan, the Post’s Baghdad Bureau Chief.


For instance, today on the whole the successes in the US society of the immigrants from India who are about 2.2 million and who started coming to US in the mid-1960s, outranks the successes of the 5 million strong Muslims in US – two thirds of whom also immigrated to US from a variety of countries in the same time span.  


KI. What about the condition of Indian Muslims within the larger Indian Diaspora in the US?


KK.  The number of Indian Muslims within the Indian Diaspora in US is roughly estimated at about six percent of the Indian-American population or 130,000.  While most professional Indian Muslims in US have been quite successful in their respective fields and lead comfortable lives, the collective success of their sub-community is not at par with that of non-Muslim Indians. One notable factor in this respect is that on the whole the quality of education, competitiveness and self-confidence that Indian Muslims acquired in India before immigrating to US was not at par with that of other Indian immigrants.  Many of them do not belong to the urban middleclass society in India. Upon arriving in the midst of the modern American society, this sub-community suffered from inertia in imbibing the typical American characteristics of work hard – play hard, cultural adjustments and the can-do instinct to win leadership roles in competition with others.  This contrasts with the aggressive go-getter attitudes of the non-Muslim Indian-Americans.


In the background of significant periodic anti-Muslim violence and the inordinate impoverishment of their community in India, the immigrant Indian Muslims suffered from insecurity, concerns about their extended families in India and a lack of confidence.  That discouraged them from taking risks that are crucial factors for success in the fast-paced achievement oriented US society.  While most non-Muslim Indian-Americans aggressively sought to do better than the White Americans in their occupations, many Indian-Muslims

were content with secure jobs and shied away from entrepreneurship.  Thus today among the business-owner Indian-Americans the number of Indian Muslims is one to two percent whereas their population is about 6 percent of the Indian Diaspora in the US.    


KI. Chinese living in the US have contributed a great deal for their society back home.  Why don’t we see a similar trend in the case of the Indian Diaspora doing enough for its country of birth?


KK. Large number of Chinese arrived as immigrants to US in the closing years of the nineteenth century, more than fifty years before significant number of Indian arrived here.  Thus even though they were not

treated equitably with the European immigrants in those early years, their first few generations struggled to integrate themselves in the US society, learned to adjust to the unique requirements of the American society, and had already become key players in US by the time the first wave of Indian immigrants arrived in mid 1960s.  In US the Chinese are at least two generations ahead of the Indians.  In those early years Chinese learned that the path to success in US lies in entrepreneurship and taking risks.  The Wikipedia Encyclopedia lists the population of Chinese-Americans as about 3.5 million compared to 2.2 million Indian-Americans.  Today the number of Chinese industrialists and owners of businesses in US who are quite wealthy far outranks the number of Indians with similar resources and abilities.


Also the political and social situation in China has been very stable for decades. Successive Chinese governments have been successful in keeping conflagrations and communal violence at bay.  They have also managed the problems of regional and ethnic differences rather well.  Corruption and bribes in China are at a very small level.  In contrast the democratic political setup in India has often been fractious and tension ridden.  India has suffered very frequently from religion based violence, ethnic violence, and political parties exploiting the ethnic and religious sentiments of people.  Significant corruption and bribery has bedeviled the power structure in India. Thus the overall stability in India has been perceptibly lower compared to China. 


These negative factors have often dampened the enthusiasm of a significant number of India-American entrepreneurs who want to invest capital in India. Thus it is no surprise that the contribution of Indian-Americans to India’s development is lower than that of Chinese-Americans to China. One hopes that

in the near future the number of wealthy Indian-American entrepreneurs will increase and also the power structure in India will create a more stable and rewarding environment for the Indian-Americans so that they can contribute more to the development of India.  


KI.  Do Indian Muslims in US enjoy the same sort of influence as enjoyed by the Indian Diaspora in the US?


KK. Most Indian-American Muslims are fairly successful in their careers and lead comfortable lives. In most US cities one comes across Indian Muslim doctors, engineers, scientists, accountants, professors, businessmen who are successful at local levels.  Yet it is a different picture when you look at the leadership ranks of either the mainstream American community, or the Indian-American community, or the American-Muslim community. There are very few Indian Muslims leaders there. The number of successful and wealthy Indian Muslim entrepreneurs in US is pretty limited. 


Factors like lower level self-confidence and lower level support from the Indian Diaspora in their ventures have caused Muslims to have significantly lower influence and visibility in the US society compared to non-Muslim Indians.  The number of Indian Muslims in senior leadership positions in the US government, or the Democratic or Republican Party, or blue-chip corporations, or the Ivy-League prestigious universities or non-profit NGOs or human-rights advocacy organizations is rather small compared to other Indian-Americans.  Successful Indian Muslims like Dr Islam Siddiqui, Dr Kamil Hassan, Prof Aqil Bilgirami, Mahfooz Kazi, are only a counted few.


Upon a visit to the sprawling White House and US Congress establishment in Washington DC one comes across a certain number of Indian-American staffers.  But the number of Indian Muslims in that lot is very small.  In the ranks of the leadership of major Indian-American organizations one comes across very few Indian Muslims.  This may be due to a certain alienation of the sub-community from these organizations for which both sides are equally responsible.


What is surprising though is the small number of Indian Muslims in the leadership ranks of the major organizations of American Muslims.  In the leadership ranks of Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), Islamic Medical Association of North America (IMANA), Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR), Muslim Social Scientists Association (MSSA), International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) et al., one finds only a few Indian Muslims like Muzammil Siddiqi, Saeed Ahmad Saeed, Dr Khurshid Mallick, Pervez Ahmad,

Abidullah Ghazi. In sampling the leadership ranks of several hundred Islamic Centers in various American cities one comes across only a small number of Indian Muslims, even though a lot of them are members of these institutions. In comparison Muslims from Arab countries and Pakistan populate the bulk of the leadership positions in the American-Muslim community.


KI. Why are Indian Muslims not visible within the larger Indian Diaspora?


KK. Within the larger Indian Diaspora in US the numbers of Muslims in leadership positions and their integration in the Indian Diaspora is significantly below their population numbers.  Upon reflection as to why

this happened one factor that stands out is the frequently occurring large scale anti-Muslim violence in India and the lack of government action against the marauders.  The unwillingness of major social/political

organizations of the Indian-Americans to take a stand for justice for the Muslim minority in such instances has alienated many Indian-Muslims from those organizations. For instance in the case of the 2002 massacre of Muslims in Gujarat hardly any Indian-American organization condemned it, and none of them provided any donations for relief to the Muslim victims.  The desire of these organizations in making the Hindu ethos a substantial part of the Indian ethos has alienated many Indian Muslims from them.  Though these organizations do not discourage Indian Muslims, often there is reluctance on their part to give equal opportunity to Muslims in leadership positions.  Thus the numbers of Muslim members in the organizations of Indian doctors, engineers, scientists, Indian-American political organizations etc. is very small.


When an Indian-Muslim competes for a visible political leadership position in mainstream US, he/she does not receive solid support from the Indian-American community that they should.  Now as the US born second generation of Indian Muslims begins to be young professionals, it remains to be seen how well they will be able to make the Indian Diaspora organizations drop their sectarian consciousness, which will help them shake off their alienation from the Indian-American community.


KI. Muslims in India are one of the most backward communities in the country.  Do the Indian Muslims living in the US who are rather well off have any plan to begin any major project for the welfare of the community?


KK.  In the last couple of decades the plans of the US based Indian-Muslim community to implement programs for the welfare of their impoverished co-religionists in India, have been rather mundane.  Over the

years the following Indian Muslim NGOs have become visible in the community in US.  Indian Muslim Relief & Charities (IMRC), Association of Indian Muslims of America (AIM), American Federation of Muslims from India (AFMI), Gujarati Muslim Association (GMA).  For over fifteen years now these organizations have been collecting funds in US and sending donations to Muslim organizations in India for the promotion of education in the community, and for relief & rehabilitation in the event of anti-Muslim violence and natural disasters.  For the same length of time they have also conducted public relations advocacy for the community. Indian Muslim Council (IMC) is an organization that primarily conducts advocacy and public relations for the various causes of the Indian Muslims. Hyderabad Association is a cultural organization that recently began a program to promote education in the community in Hyderabad city. 


In the event of large scale anti-Muslim violence in India, e.g. the 2002 Gujarat genocide, the 1992/93 communal riot in Mumbai and so on, the above mentioned NGOs were successful in collecting very good amounts of donations in US, largely from Indian-American Muslims, and sending them to Muslim charities in India who conducted relief & rehabilitation projects for the victims. Also when cyclones hit Western Gujarat and Orissa, when earthquakes hit Maharashtra and Western Gujarat, and floods hit Bihar in the last ten years these NGOs collected good amounts of donations and provided relief to victims in those states.


These same NGOs have also been operating programs to provide financial help to needy Muslim educational institutions and students in India, over the last fifteen years.  In that effort also they have been successful.  They have helped build quite a few Muslim schools and colleges and equip them with libraries, laboratories, book banks, and assist many scholarship programs for needy Muslims throughout India. However the demands and expectations of the community in India in this area are huge and overwhelming.  Something far beyond the resources of the relatively modest Indian Muslim community in the US.  This community is reasonably well off but only a few are wealthy who can give large donations. Also the experience of the NGOs shows that it is much harder to collect donations to promote education in the community in India, than to collect relief funds in the event of disasters when the emotions of the community are high.  Besides the US based Indian Muslims have now made US their home and they have significant social service obligations to Muslims in America itself, aside from their obligations to the mainstream American community.

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