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America’s fake caste war The media is confecting racial division

Aziz Ansari (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images For Netflix)

Aziz Ansari (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images For Netflix)


June 27, 2022   4 mins

If you listen to NPR or read The Atlantic, The New York Times and The Washington Post, you might think that Indians who live in the US, immigrants and their native-born children, are determined to impose the subcontinent’s caste system on North America. Perhaps you’ve read about the caste-based lawsuit aimed at Cisco Systems, or that top American universities are adding caste to their anti-discrimination policy.

It all makes for a rather disconcerting narrative. The only problem is that it’s almost certainly wrong. Yes, the Cisco lawsuit is newsworthy, but individual lawsuits do not establish generalised truths.

If you look at the fingerprints on many of these stories, much of the concern over America’s alleged caste system stems from a California-based non-profit called Equality Labs. Its Executive Director, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, is a Berkeley-educated daughter of a physician, who began her Dalit (the lowest caste) activism as a university student. Her 2018 report, and its horrifying findings, remain extensively quoted: for example, 25% of Dalit respondents said they had faced verbal or physical assault based on their caste; 50% of Dalits live in fear of their caste being outed; 67% reported being treated unfairly at their workplace. (The report also talks of “Caste apartheid”.)

The total sample size was 1,500, which is not a small number, and far superior to anecdotes. But the issue with the report has more to do with representativeness. The authors state that it was a “web-based, self-reported, self-administered questionnaire”, and that it was distributed “through direct contacts, community listservs, community organisations, immigrant organisations, South Asian religious, cultural, and linguistic networks, and social media”. The survey was written by “South Asian academics, anti-Caste activists, community members, and policy advocates”, and was endorsed by the Dalit American Coalition, the International Campaign for Dalit Humans Rights, and the Dalit American Women’s Association, among others. It also used “snowball sampling”, where respondents referred other respondents, resulting in a strong skew in demographics and views.

In short, this survey was likely completed by individuals already conscious of and concerned with prejudice and discrimination against Dalits in America. This does not invalidate the report, but it does suggest that its results may not be a good representation of Indian American experiences and views.

Several years after the Equality Labs survey, the Carnegie Foundation and YouGov collaborated on a report using a representative sample and came to different conclusions. While the Equality Labs sample was 24% Dalit, the Carnegie report found that 1% of Hindu Indian Americans who identified themselves with a caste were Dalit. This is in line with other private surveys I have seen, as well as the unrepresentative caste demographics of Indian Americans when compared to the subcontinent. While 22% of Hindus in India are “upper caste”, 80% of Hindus in America who identify with a caste — roughly half of all Indian Americans — are upper caste. Moreover, a quick perusal of a The New York Times wedding pages for a common Indian surname like Patel suggests that while 95% of Indian Hindu marriages are intra-caste, closer to 30% of US-born Indian marriages are intra-caste, and the true value is probably lower. In America, the melting pot is still operational.

The issue of endogamy is critical because the genetic data indicates that Indian castes, and in particular, subcastes or jati, have been strongly endogamous for 1,500 years in the subcontinent. While in the US racial differences between blacks and whites are organised around physical appearance, despite some average differences in looks between Indian castes even within a region, they are not striking enough to organise the communities.

Rather, castes operate genealogically as lineage and kinship networks that regulate marriage, uphold collective honour and distribute and control power and resources. There are Indian political parties whose vote banks are specific castes, and though there are some rarefied urban professional milieus where caste is marginal to their experience, it pervades the occupational, social and personal lives of the rural majority. Upper-caste groups tend to control disproportionate wealth and power, while lower-caste groups must make do with affirmative programs that reserve government jobs for their communities.

These inequalities in the subcontinent explain the demographics of Indian Americans, who are the most well-educated and wealthiest ethnic group in the US. Overwhelmingly still an immigrant community, Indian Americans have been able to migrate primarily due to their educational and professional qualifications, which means they will be drawn from the upper-caste elites of the subcontinent. Though fewer than 5% of Indians are Brahmin, private surveys indicate that 25% of Indian Americans are Brahmin. Dalits are 15% of India’s population, but they are no more than 1% of Indian Americans.

There are three different dynamics to consider when evaluating all these facts. First, it is possible and perhaps even likely that the small number of Dalits in the US experience some level of prejudice and discrimination. Second, Indian Americans belong to an overwhelmingly privileged caste in the subcontinent, but are still a racial minority in the US. They are 1.4% of the American population, of whom only 50% are Hindu. Dalits are 0.014% of the American population (1 out of 7,200).

Third, whereas in India it is possible that one’s friendship network could be limited to one’s subcaste, the Carnegie report finds that only 43% of immigrant Indian Americans even have mostly or all Indian friends, with the figure being 25% for those born in the US. 28% of US-born Indian Americans have almost no Indian friends, while 17% of foreign-born Indian Americans are in this category. Of those Indian Americans who are Hindu, 50% have almost no friends from the same caste as themselves. The fact that they can make this assessment indicates that caste is salient to them (most are immigrants), but their revealed preferences in friendship networks indicate that they do not self-segregate by caste.

America, then, is not India, and, contrary to some paranoid conspiracy theories, upper-caste Hindus do not call the shots in the US (no, Kamala Harris, whose mother is a Tamil Brahmin, is not very influential). Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella are both upper-caste South Indians, but the workforce of Google and Microsoft are 50% non-Hispanic white. Though there are exceptions in Silicon Valley and at a few family-owned businesses (those glamorous motels!), Indian Americans’ workplaces are mostly dominated by non-Hispanic whites or are multiracial.

Since more than half of Indian Americans arrived after the turn of the millennium, they have brought many aspects of their culture to the US, some of which likely do include unpleasant attitudes around caste and jati that were nurtured on the subcontinent. But the social context of the US is entirely different to India; the reality is that the Indian communal dynamics do not and cannot apply.

Does this mean that Dalit Americans experience no discrimination or prejudice? Of course not. But there is a huge difference between India and the US in the pervasiveness of caste-based discrimination. America undoubtedly has many social ills relating to class and ethnicity, but this isn’t because India is importing its own problems to the US. The vast majority of Indians come to the US for a simple reason: to get rich, not to maintain caste hierarchy.


Razib Khan is a geneticist. He has written for The New York Times, India Today and Quillette, and runs two weblogs, Gene Expression and Brown Pundits. His newsletter is Razib Khan’s Unsupervised Learning


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Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago

This article argues that the Indian cast system has little effect in the US but it also reminds us that discriminatory social systems of some type are the norm throughout the world. There are many commentators who seek to highlight class and racial hierarchies in England as being uniquely prevalent here but in truth there are many other areas of the world where such cast like hierarchies prevail to a greater extent. Just as we were not uniquely connected to the practice of slavery in the past or the conquest of foreign lands our exceptionalism may be only in the extent to which we highlight these issues rather than seek to deny them.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Absolutely.

Though the mode of exploitation varies.
In much of Asia (India, Korea, Japan) there was some sort of caste system but typically very little outright slavery.

In the Arabic world, there is no caste per se but rampant slavery and religion based discrimination.

Africa possibly is the worst – slavery combined with tribalism.

Europe used to be close to the Arabs, but what I do see here is that outright, open discrimination is far less than anywhere. However, there is a subtle class based system which is less rigid and horrible than caste, but also more difficult to root out for that reason, as it’s not based on “rules” but understated clues such as accent or manner.

Funnily enough,IMHO, a non white faces the same amount of bias as a lower class white. If anything, if you are Indian or Chinese, any discrimination you face is not due to skin colour but due to not being part of the upper class.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Thanks for your always interesting perspectives here. Interestingly while I have never heard various Indian origin doctor friends complain of the cast system several have commented on the discrimination they have faced in India as Catholics or Syriac Christians.

Sylvia Watson
Sylvia Watson
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

I wonder who they have faced discrimination from.
Lower caste and upper caste Christians cannot even be burried in the same burial ground.

Douglas McNeish
Douglas McNeish
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

I would go even further and suggest that the progressive elite in the UK use mass immigration as a stick with which to beat the so-called “working class” by undermining their wages and systematically eroding the sense of community in the places where they live.

This has been a strategy of Labour since Brexit, shaming the people who had been the backbone of the party for wrong think in the referendum by labelling them as undereducated, majority male, and under-educated.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Throughout the world…..yes! I don’t know why the U.S. left still gets away with claiming that the U.S. is a white patriarchy when you look around and see nothing but a myriad of cultures living next to each other. With one exception, of course…..the white, suburban, woke enclaves in large blue cities with BLM signs outside their massive McMansions and well kept lawns.

Last edited 2 years ago by Warren Trees
Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
2 years ago

Unfortunately this is typical of the whole race grievance industry. Methodology which would have been laughed out of room 30 years ago is being published in respectable journals for what can only be ideological reasons. Whenever racial disparities of any sort are looked at in relation to socioeconomic factors, they are found to play a minimal role in outcomes of individuals lives but this matters little when the media continually amplifies the myth of the racist West.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matthew Powell
Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

Couple of insights from my side, hopefully I am not not biased too much.

Firstly, caste is pretty much an ever present in certain regions, certain castes (typically trading castes) and the more backward villages.
But it’s also a complete non issue in a typical urban area. I pretty much heard caste linked pejoratives uttered maybe twice in decades, and no one even bothers about it in a typical work office.

Secondly, being a victim is very useful. I passed engineering. Very competitive (as it is in India) and I needed to be in the top 100 out of 10,000 students.
My best friend, smart chap, failed with a rank 500.

Three of our classmates got admission with ranks 4000-5000. (Not making this up, honestly). All of them were from richer families, had never faced any bias. But they were “lower caste”.

That also explains why you will find few lower castes in banking or IT. Not because of “caste” but they are competitive professions and when you have an easy route because of your victimhood, you can’t have the drive to succeed there.

Sounds familiar?

Last edited 2 years ago by Samir Iker
Sylvia Watson
Sylvia Watson
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

I agree with Samir underneath. Moreover you are totally correct about the grievance industry. In India, caste is a major way through which they accumulate votes. It seems a lot of people are upset with the current dispensation because Modi has, for the first time in post-independence history, managed to get votes from across the caste divide.
Caste has always been the stick with which to beat Hindus.
If this group was interested in actually documenting caste attitudes, they’d have surveyed Christians, Sikhs and Muslims who are known to perpetuate casteism, sometimes even worse than among Hindus. Dalit Christians who died of covid were not even allowed to be burried in the same cemetary as their upper caste counterparts.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago

plus ca change… all societys have caste systems and always have.. Now it is the Woke caste…

Ishaan Rai
Ishaan Rai
2 years ago

Well said, Razib. This whole hubbub about “casteism” in America feels like yet another attempt to demonize Hindus and knock them down the racial totem pole. Progressives have been looking for a way to take down Asians and get them to acknowledge their “privilege,” and this is a great angle of attack for them.

Rob Wright
Rob Wright
2 years ago
Reply to  Ishaan Rai

Yep. This is what I kept thinking when I read the article. Indian successes have been an embarrassment for the Woke. They were always looking for this attack vector. Now watch the Woke go after them. It’ll be vicious.

Sylvia Watson
Sylvia Watson
2 years ago
Reply to  Rob Wright

Unfortunately it is not the Woke working alone. They work in concert with very real threats to India including Pakistan/Guelph funded organizations and communist organizations. Modi is a real danger to them because until now, they’ve always felt they could take India apart peacemeal since it was so divided. For the first time, Modi hs managed to cross the caste divide.

john c
john c
1 year ago

I have a small comment on this article. perhaps unimportant, but I hope it is of interest to readers of the article above:
I’ll give context first: I’m US born of European descent. For almost 25 years I have lived in central New Jersey, USA, where a large number of people from India have settled. Enough for at least one sociologist to have published a book on the experiences of Indians in New Jersey. I have socialized with, studied at the state university with, and taught young people of Indian birth or Indian descent I’ve shopped at plenty of stores owned or managed by Indians. I was interested to see that our county prints the ballots and official information for elections in English, Spanish, and Hindi.
[This is all cool with me; I say more Indian people should move here, if they want to (and people from other countries too — Mexicans, Hungarians, Caribbean people, Africans. Chinese. Every country.). Come on over, if you feel like it! I would stress that I am not opposed to immigration, as some are, especially after a recent President encouraged anti-immigration sentiments.]
My comment, perhaps unimportant is: In my time here in Jersey, I have never heard an Indian person or a non-Indian person refer to caste as it functions (or doesn’t) in the USA.
This news story is the first discussion I’ve heard of it.
I have on occasion heard educated non-Indians who have traveled in India mention their observations of caste in India. Not very often though.
I’m not a member of an Indian family or a close confidant of any Indian person, so I am not an “insider” in any part of the community.
SO: Is the apparent fact that Indian people (in my experience) don’t talk about this issue to outsiders of interest to anyone? I hope so, because then you won’t have wasted your time reading my comment.
I may be right about this. Might be wrong too, but I hope not.

Last edited 1 year ago by john c
James Day
James Day
2 years ago

“Upper-Castes” are rich ?
Tell that to the temple-priest who is earning Rs. 1000 ($15) a month in one of the many Hindu temples that the Indian-state, in its secular zeal, has snatched away from the community, and robs, in broad day-light. Yet, India has also had, much as it does now, kings (equiv. politicians) from many so-called ‘dalit’ jatis. How do you explain any of this ?
The effect of the economic-devastation of a millennia of colonization reduced the status of many jatis/occupations. This is not in doubt. Indeed, even the prized makers of wootz-steel (as with everything from ancient India, attributed to the Middle East) and Muslin cotton went out of business a few hundred years back due to colonization, while the modern world tries in vain to crack their manufacture today.
The colonial-system of “taxation-maximization”, of coalescing communal-held & women-held lands into the ownership of powerful “zamindars”, created its own economic incentives for more grotesque social systems to flourish. The EIC/British, in their insatiable greed, adopted many of the systems of the Islamists too. This is well-documented by Veena Talwar in the case of “Dowry”; its larger effects on Indian Society are hardly talked about by the academics.
That the British documented the economic-status of these jatis after messing with Indian social organization for hundreds of years and creating endless famines, only to co-relate it with something they thought resembled their own hierarchies where the serf was dehumanized, means nothing.
There is no primary evidence for any of the claims made by the proponents of the ‘evil Hindoo Caste-System’ that doesn’t impugn their colonial heroes – which is probably why no one studies this in any detail. That there is endogamy in itself means nothing, contrary to what Razib Khan & others claim over and over again.
Again, while this article is better than most articles, the actual state of ‘jatis’ is far more nuanced. India went through two brutal, genocidal, colonizations after all.
Until the rare ‘native’ Indian academic, who doesn’t sell-out for a flight ticket, does not study this with the sincerity it deserves, we’ll continue to see conflict-entrepreneurship thrive, perhaps leading even to civil war.
Also, nota bene, contrary to some of the comments here, India did not have slavery before these developments, particularly, the large-scale slave-trade by the Islamists. If it helps, ancient Greeks claimed the same of India before the murdering-raping mobs arrived.
Please do not draw parallels to savagery of the British colonialism, or to the even more savage system of the Turko-Mongol-Islamists before it, or indeed, to the slave trade practiced by both.
The only difference b/w the occidental academics of opposing dispositions, is that one claims that the Islamic-colonization is the only legitimate-civilizing one, while the other claims the British-colonization is the only legitimate-civilizing one, while both of them claim that actual native-traditions of India are illegitimate and apt for genocide by either.
Neither was. Neither will be. Razib seems to favor, much as would expected, the latter.

Last edited 2 years ago by James Day
Richard Craven
Richard Craven
2 years ago
Reply to  James Day

A disgusting leukophobe wears his superficial learning on his sleeve.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

He is actually far closer to the truth than the official narrative.

The caste system was terrible, but what it effectively did was to tie in EVERY caste to their profession (a facet missed by most non Indians). And, to some extent even that wasn’t super rigid, there was some “leakage” and there were “lower castes” who became traders or kings.

Thus, if you were “soldier” class, you were better off than a lowe caste but you were doomed to a lifetime of warfare and death on the battlefield. A Brahmin would be nominally top of the hierarchy but invariably dirt poor, and could not go into trade to improve his condition. Of course the lower castes had it worst because they were in the worst professions.

And the other aspect is that the caste system was milder and less terrible than slavery. And India pre islamic invasions, in stark contrast to Europe, Islam, Africa, had no slavery. That’s a huge plus.

The lower castes arguably suffered far more under Islam as millions were butchered or sold off into slavery. And as you can imagine, the worst impacted were undoubtedly the poorer, less well off classes.

Similarly, pretty much all the progress on caste – making caste based discrimination illegal, quotas for lower castes etc – happened after independence. The British may have been enlightened enough to put a stop to slavery elsewhere, but they never did much to push reforms in India while they ruled.

Last edited 2 years ago by Samir Iker
Richard Craven
Richard Craven
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

I was referring to his luxury-belief anti-white racism. I bet the stupid git “takes the knee” and voted for Remain.

Last edited 2 years ago by Richard Craven
Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Ah yes.
I am rather negative on the impact of the British empire in India.
But it is rather amusing and telling that the only group that’s accused of “supremacist” ideology – white West European / North American males – happens to be the only group that died en masse to end slavery.

Kat L
Kat L
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

They didn’t fight and die to end slavery. They fought to keep the union. That war is misrepresented by narrowing the arguments to a simple narrative but it was much more complex. I get your point though.

Geoffrey Hicking
Geoffrey Hicking
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Mr Day states in his post that the British were better than the Mughals. He is not completely anti-white.

Sylvia Watson
Sylvia Watson
2 years ago

As horrendous and noxious the evil British were, the Mughals were far worse – in terms of pure bloodshed. In terms of crafting endless problems for the world to deal with until eternity, the British outshined their barbaric sand-dwelling barbarian counterparts by leagues.
But be reminded that while some parts of Bharath were still under Mughal rule by the time the British came, a majority had been once again taken by the Marathas.

Sylvia Watson
Sylvia Watson
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

They also exacerbated the divides by creating surveys that specified which caste people belonged to. They cemented an already solidifying social hierarchy system and then continued to drive wedges into it.

Mihir Meghani
Mihir Meghani
2 years ago

For more information on caste, particularly on why it should not be a part of US law, visit Hindu American Foundation (HAF)’s online resources All About Caste and also The best solution to caste discrimination in the US? Existing law. Love the article and comments.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago

There is a caste war going on and it’s being waged against men with European ethnicity or a Western work-ethic. When HR departments bang on about diversity, they mean everyone is welcome to apply for a job besides ‘white’ or ‘white-adjacent’ men.

Last edited 2 years ago by Julian Farrows
Kat L
Kat L
2 years ago

As a 9th generation American I get a bit peeved when I hear that people don’t come here because they admire the country; they come to get rich. This exacerbates social division and reinforces the idea that we are just a bunch of different tribes that have nothing in common but commerce. This is no longer the country of my youth and I mourn for it.

Vince B
Vince B
2 years ago

I’m just waiting for progressive activists to find a way to blame this on “whiteness.”

Jorge Espinha
Jorge Espinha
2 years ago
Reply to  Vince B

It will come.

Sylvia Watson
Sylvia Watson
2 years ago
Reply to  Vince B

Haven’t you heard? Hindu Americans are the new white – white adjacent.
There was even a school in DC where you had to select your race where White and Asian were put together.
I guess we ‘made’ it in America *rolls eyes

Jorge Espinha
Jorge Espinha
2 years ago

My comment didn’t add anything

Last edited 2 years ago by Jorge Espinha
S R
S R
2 years ago

The elite American’s appetite for racism and prejudice seems insatiable.

Having said that, there are some Indians in the West who still seem to care about caste, for idiotic reasons. But no institutions in the West are geared up to actualise any of this prejudice into discrimination at a structural level. So you’re left with interpersonal discrimination, which is immediately smaller in scale, and also very subjective.

Sylvia Watson
Sylvia Watson
2 years ago
Reply to  S R

Yes you’re right. No institution in America CAN handle it because caste bias is extremely subjective – a person from one caste in one part of india may be upper caste but his same caste may be of lower caste in another place. You cannot even determine caste belongings based on last name.
Americans should not concern themselves with this. It is up to the Indian fold to dispell this. In america we are all American and caste should have nothing to do with it.
But what idiotic reasons are you referring to? Do you mean marriage? It’s akin to someone wanting their kids to marry Christians when they themselves are Christians. To Westerners, since you come originally from Abrahmic faiths, you have a similar religion wth common ground. Hinduism isn’t like this – each caste, and different castes in different places have different practices.
I’m a HUGEEE proponent of both intercaste and interracial marriages. It strenghtens a community but I get where people are coming from. Give it 2 generations, Indian Americans will marry into the fold just as every other group before them have.

justdial
justdial
1 year ago

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E. L. Herndon
E. L. Herndon
2 years ago

It has been my impression that race, even sex, bow to class/caste/”our kind” when it comes to ease of association. I believe that “class” is a set of values in common, not having more or less money, or knowing which seashell to use. (viz. Demolition Man) Caste, in practice has been tied to occupations, but the broader, ancient origins (priest, warrior, merchant etc.) reflect the value judgements of the larger society on the diverse functions, including the fungibility of individuals, necessary to the organic whole. There is really no shame, nor pride, in belonging to any particular group. The pride should come from fulfilling one’s individual destiny, playing the cards well which were dealt by heredity and environment. No one is a victim till they say they are.

Last edited 2 years ago by E. L. Herndon
E. L. Herndon
E. L. Herndon
2 years ago

It has been my impression that race, even sex, bow to class/caste/”our kind” when it comes to ease of association. I believe that “class” is a set of values in common, not having more or less money, or knowing which seashell to use. (viz. Demolition Man) Caste, in practice has been tied to occupations, but the broader, ancient origins (priest, warrior, merchant etc.) reflect the value judgements of the larger society on the diverse functions, including the fungibility of individuals, necessary to the organic whole. There is really no shame, nor pride, in belonging to any particular group. The pride should come from fulfilling one’s individual destiny, playing the cards well which were dealt by heredity and environment. No one is a victim till they say they are.

Last edited 2 years ago by E. L. Herndon
Douglas McNeish
Douglas McNeish
2 years ago

It is lamentable that colonising cultures from India or anywhere else in the world should be permitted to import their degrading bigotries such as caste systems to the US or anywhere else.

The writer suggests that it its impact is less than certain grievance-driven lower-caste “dalits” claim, but does not deny its nefarious existence.

And the stunning claim that Brahmin-privileged Kamala Harris is not influential in the US is frankly racist, given that she has been elected to the second-highest office in the land. The fact that she favours her father’s half-African heritage over her mother’s in her self-identification is a reflection of the status which that presumed victimhood conveys now in the current American political hierarchy.

Sylvia Watson
Sylvia Watson
2 years ago

‘colonising cultures’ …are you talking about the British who colonized India for 200 years or the 800 years of brutal Islamic rule before that?
Where is the proof of caste bias in America? There isn’t any verifiable, solid proof. :’D
Yes, it is a major issue among ALL religions in India (yes among Muslims, Christians and Sikhs too) and one that India tackles every day. Many Hindu organiztions are on the ground actively working to fix it but it isn’t like slavery or segregation – one law and it all goes away. And it is not universal – upper caste vs lower caste, it is dynamic and shifting and prevelant within all forms of society (and among lower Dalit castes, they TOO have caste hierarchies among themselves).
As for ‘bringing your disgusting bigotries’ – India is 75 years old. When the British left, we had 13% literacy. These things take time. It took the British 200 years to destroy us, I suppose people like you think ‘get over it’ and history can just be whitewashed but you want results for the Indian people immediately.
Kamala Harris only remembers she’s half Indian when it serves her – she’s mostly black because that voter base is much stronger in America than the Indian base.
And here’s an idea, let America and the rest of the Western world stop interferring with the affairs of foreign nations and maybe then their people won’t want to leave their respective countries.