Indian Americans Remember Loved Ones Lost to 9/11 & the Panic That Followed
Twenty-one years after 9/11, Indian-Americans reflect on loss, fear, and racism that followed the attacks.
The sun shone and the sky was a pristine blue over New York City.
At work in a building very close to the twin towers in Manhattan, Apurva Varma, like many others in the city, wondered how possibly a pilot could have run into one of the towers of the World Trade Center on such a clear day – 11 September 2001. He called home to let his wife Anusha know. She rushed out with her toddler son to see smoke coming out of the skyscraper across.
Standing on the southern tip of the Roosevelt Island where the family lived then, looking across towards the Manhattan skyline, she saw the second tower being hit.
She knew her husband was very close to the site. She could not contact him for hours after that.
“It was anxiety, just a lot of anxiety. We didn’t know where Apurva was. He mentioned to me on the phone that they were told to stay in the building!” recalls Anusha Shrivastava.
The Many Families Not-So-Fortunate
Loud sirens, panic, confusions, chaos, and uncertainty enveloped the city.
She continues, “We didn’t know about his whereabouts till he reached home after three hours. He had walked through downtown and the long way across two bridges to get home, covered in dust (from the debris of the collapsed towers)!”
After that Anusha, then a journalist, now a university administrator, got busy reporting the aftermath.
Many other families were not-so-fortunate. 50,000 people worked in the twin towers daily, which collapsed 90 minutes after the attack.
Another plane was flown into the Pentagon in Washington DC. A fourth plane, presumably headed for the White House or the US Capitol, was heroically diverted by passengers and ended up crashing in an empty field in Pennsylvania.
There are 3,000 names inscribed in bronze at the 9/11 memorial site, where the north and south twin towers once stood. These names have been arranged on panels according to where the victims were and who they were with when they sustained injuries in the 9/11 attack and died.
According to the memorial website, of these victims more than 32 were born in India.
Many worked in the twin towers, and a few were on the planes that were used in the terrorist attack, and even included a Samaritan doctor.
Vamsikrishna Pendyala was one of the last ones to board the American Airlines flight 11, flying to Los Angeles to meet his wife Kalahasthi Prasanna.
This was the first plane that was flown into the World Trade Center. She struggled to bear the loss of her husband and gave up her life after 37 days.
Santi Yambem lost his India-born father, Jupiter, who was the banquet manager at Windows on the World, a restaurant on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower.
Jupiter was proud of his work at the acclaimed restaurant in Lower Manhattan’s financial district, frequented by celebrities and presidents. He and his American wife Nancy had had a traditional Manipuri wedding ceremony.
Even though he lived in the US, he had retained his Indian citizenship, and founded the Manipuri American Association.
Santi was five years old when he lost his father.
He and his mother have a small memorial to Jupiter at their home and honour his life by taking part in memorial ceremonies every year. Jupiter’s brothers in Manipur mark the day with rituals and a traditional feast.
The unprecedented attack on the US on 9/11 not only impacted the lives of victims and their families – American and foreign nationals – it saw America come together, bonded by sadness and patriotism.
But in the vulnerable country, the 9/11 attacks also brought out anger and hate.
'We Saw Massive Uptick in Crimes'
Shortly after al-Qaida terrorists attacked the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, many Muslims, including Indian Americans, became the targets of anger and racism.
Thirty-one Muslims had lost their lives in the 9/11 strikes, including three who were among passengers on the planes.
With limited direct interaction and knowledge, Americans confused identities – dark-skinned, bearded, turbaned – Arabs, Sikhs, and other South Asians – all were vulnerable as Islamophobia became prevalent.
“We saw a massive uptick in hate crimes against Sikhs and other brown people after 9/11. Sikhs were a very soft target – easily identified by our turbans, we took the brunt of the 9/11 backlash,” says Lt Col Kamal Singh Kalsi, a prominent advocate for Sikhs in the US, Founder of SAVA (Sikh American Veterans Alliance), and the first Sikh in US military to be permitted to wear a turban.
On 9/11, Kalsi’s father was as usual at work with the New York Police Department.
"My family was very concerned my dad’s safety as we couldn’t contact him after the towers fell and were relieved when we heard from him after the phone services were restored."Lt Col Kamal Singh Kalsi
The staggered nature of the attacks in the country’s busiest city, meant that news footage captured almost everything as it happened, ensuring that millions of Americans saw the events as they unfolded. Pictures of al-Qaeda members were aired on news networks.
Community leader Lt Col Kalsi who has been part of US anti-terrorist military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan adds, “Watching the news media, we had a feeling of foreboding about those images. They confused the public, using images of turbaned people and referring to them as terrorists. They were mixed images, not only were they showing Taliban but intermixing them with regular Sikh folks. Some networks retracted these later and clarified, but the damage had been done!”
'We Realised Something Was Coming'
Sat Hanuman Singh Khalsa, now based in Oregon, was at a friend’s home in New York City on the morning of 9/11.
He had travelled from Massachusetts for medical reasons. As he and his friend, both Sikhs, were getting ready to leave for the clinic, they got a call from another friend informing them about a plane ploughing into one of the Trade Center towers.
“We both realized that something was coming as the media showed Osama’s image on TV – he was wearing a turban and white robes. We quickly went to a store to load up on supplies. Things had changed within minutes in the city."SatHanuman Singh Khalsa
"People in the parking lot were bracing up upon seeing us. People on the streets were giving me angry and anxious looks."
"When we went back to my friend’s home, I was on the phone in the front lawn speaking to my family – I felt like I was being watched."
"People in the neighbourhood were scared as my car had a Massachusetts number plate. One of the planes had taken off from Massachusetts! A sergeant from the Metro Police Department of New York City, called asking to speak to the owner of the car with Massachusetts number plate."
I was a war veteran, had fought for US in Vietnam and suddenly I was suspect! That was just the beginning of how things changed for Sikhs,” says the cleric Sat Hanuman Singh Khalsa, a Caucasian American who adopted Sikh faith in 1972.
He was able to drive back home after the bridges and roads connecting the city were opened.
Sikh articles of faith were increasingly drawing angry glares from co-workers, neighbours, and strangers – publicly profiled as suspicious and threatening.
'Kill Him', 'Burn in Hell': The Hate Speech Endured
A day after the attack, on 12 September, Sher Singh was traveling from Boston to New York on a train when it stopped in Providence, Rhode Island.
The FBI had sent agents, local police and bomb-sniffing dogs to arrest him. Officers rushed to the platform, shouting profanities as they pointed rifles at Singh. Images of him being removed from the train at gunpoint and getting handcuffed played on news for many days, while no pictures of him being let free the same day were shown.
According to a report by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, bystanders gathered around Sher Singh during the time of his arrest and began shouting obscenities and hate speech, such as: "Kill him!" "Burn in Hell!"
And then what the community feared most happened. The first person killed in a retaliatory hate crime was a Sikh man in Arizona – Balbir Singh Sodhi – killed by a man who called himself a patriot.
Sodhi was planting flowers outside his gas station when he was shot down.
The community acted fast – on the evening of September 11 itself, members of the New York Sikh American sangat gathered after an elderly Sikh man and two teenagers were attacked in New York, to prepare for the violence and backlash they knew would be coming.
The Sikh Coalition was founded that night as a volunteer organisation aimed at raising awareness about Sikh Americans.
For over two decades, the Sikh Coalition and other groups like SALDEF (Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund) have worked to protect Sikh Americans’ civil rights and to educate others about them.
9/11 marked a new era for Muslims in America who were a diverse community – various ethnicities and countries of origin.
A writer and commentator, Pakistani American Wajahat Ali was a student at the University of California in Berkeley then.
“9/11 – it didn’t matter who you were then. The entire community was targeted. 19 foreign hijackers none of them Pakistani, blew up a building in NY, and all the way in California I was getting hate mail! There were no Pakistanis but I was being asked – why did you do this?!" says Wajahat Ali.
"Other South Asians were clarifying – we are Hindus, we are not Muslims. But it didn’t matter. We all got lumped together. There was no nuance in the hate, you just had to look Muslim-y.”Wajahat Ali
Mosques were destroyed, death threats and harassment targeted Muslims. And those perceived to be Muslim, in the months following the attacks.
Hate crimes against Muslims rose 1617 percent from 2000 to 2001, marking some of the highest numbers of Islamophobic hate crimes in the US.
Victims were beaten, attacked or held at gunpoint for merely being perceived as Muslim.
As the West’s strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria intensified, Muslims in the US faced intensive surveillance.
Stereotypical images of brown Muslim men in media and films solidified the racist understanding in American minds that terrorists are Muslim.
“Bearded, brown, angry, fundamentalist image, has becomes the default narrative of Islam – to be hated,” says Wajahat Ali.
Even as Muslim population in the US continues to rise, the feeling of insecurity and concern for the safety of their families continues to persist even after 21 years since the 9/11.
How Anish Saved His Uncle
For most Americans, smoke bellowing out of the twin towers on 9/11 remains one of the most horrific images of the 21st century.
For New York based Anish Shrivastava, 11 September 2001 has a very special significance. He was born that day. His uncle Manish worked at the World Trade Center.
Fortunately, that day, the uncle-to-be chose to be at the hospital, skipping work, to welcome his nephew into this world.
Anish’s birth saved his uncle’s life. This has had a profound impact on Anish.
"We are very close, connected by fate. I feel like that those two things happening at the same time, it being so connected – that’s a symbol for my life, for what I am meant to do in my life."Anisha
"Growing up I have been involved in various non-profits. Service is an important part of my life. There has been a sense of purpose for having been born on such a day,” reflects young Anish who is studying to be an engineer.
He turns 21 years on 11 September 2022. He and his family prefer to wait for a few days, instead of celebrating his birthday on the day, which symbolises loss for so many.
Those who grieve losing a loved one on 9/11, do not stand for hate. South Asian immigrants in the US have faced irrational hostility.
They have seen racist hate spike in the years immediately following the attack on the twin towers, and seen hate crimes drop as years passed, only to surge again in recent years.
These immigrant communities feel unsure of their place in American society as the country becomes more polarized, a result of Islamophobia and hate being used as political tools.
(Savita Patel is a San Francisco Bay Area-based journalist and producer. She reports on Indian diaspora, India-US ties, geopolitics, technology, public health, and environment. She tweets at @SsavitaPatel.)
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