How Desis in Illinois Fought Off a Law Altering the Definition of 'Indian'
The Quint explores the players behind the Bill, and how the south Asian community fought back.
"'Indian' means a person descended from any of the countries of the subcontinent that are not primarily Muslim in character, including India, Bhutan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka." This is how a legilsation passed by the Illinois General Assembly in the United States, intended to establish an Indian American Advisory Council, defined the term 'Indian'.
The Illinois Indian American Advisory Council Act was passed by both chambers of the Illinois Assembly and signed into law last year, creating a flutter among the south Asian community in the country, who objected to the language used in the Bill.
The Quint explores the players behind the Bill, its connection with a decades-long Hindutva campaign in the US, and how the south Asian community fought back.
What Does the Act Say?
Introduced in the House of Representatives by Republican Seth Lewis, the Bill's purpose was to establish a council to "advise the governor and the General Assembly on policy issues impacting Indian Americans and immigrants."
It also aimed "to advance the role and civic participation of Indian Americans in this state; to enhance trade and cooperation between Indian-majority countries and this state; and, in cooperation with state agencies, boards, and commissions, to build relationships with and disseminate information to Indian American and immigrant communities across this state."
Two things stood out in the Act:
How it defined an Indian: "Indian" means a person descended from any of the countries of the subcontinent that are not primarily Muslim in character, including India, Bhutan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.
The Act said that the purpose of the council, among other things, is "to enhance trade and cooperation between Indian-majority countries and this state."
From 'Indian' to 'South Asian': How the Bill Progressed
The Bill – HB4070 – was filed with the House clerk on 22 April 2021 by Lewis. It was eventually passed by both the chambers in April 2022 and became an Act on 10 June 2022 when Illinois Governor Jay Pritzker signed the Bill.
The law, however, came to the Illinois south Asian community's attention sometime in September, said Pushkar Sharma, Co-Founder of Chicago Coalition for Human Rights in India (CCHRI).
Subsequently, members of a group representing south Asian communities approached State Senator Ram Villivalam, a Democrat and the chief sponsor of the Bill in the State Senate.
"A group of Illinois citizens representing the Asian American community, particularly the south Asian American community, spoke with State Senators and Representatives to learn more about what had happened. We learned that community members had not been involved in drafting this text. As far as we know, Representative Seth Lewis also did not consult with the members of the community," Sharma said.
"Legislators we spoke with said that they receive 6,000 pieces of legislation, and advisory councils like this (and there are many of them) are not as urgent as other legislative priorities."Pushkar Sharma
Senator Villivalam also admitted mistake but said that he did not read the text clearly as he receives many such legislations on his desk.
However, Villivalam's action in the Senate were contrary to this claim. He did not just become a chief sponsor of the Bill in the Senate but also introduced an amendment to change references from "Asian Indian" to "Indian" throughout the legislation.
While the Bill introduced by Lewis in the House proposed the creation of the 'Illinois Asian Indian American Advisory Council,' it was Senator Villivalam's amendment in the Senate that changed it to 'India American Advisory Council.'
Senator Villivalam's office denied a request for an interview and did not respond to specific questions, but instead referred The Quint to an article by Chicago Sun Times journalist Rummana Hussain, who had written about the law in December 2022 and had also interviewed the lawmaker.
In a conversation with The Quint, Hussain said Villivalam told her that he was so focused on removing 'Asian' from 'Illinois Asian Indian American Advisory Council' that he missed the fine print in the definition of 'Indian'.
After outrage, Villivalam took steps to rectify the error and introduced a Trailer Bill to amend the original legislation.
The amendment changed the name of the Act to the 'Illinois South Asian American Advisory Council Act', renamed the advisory council to the 'Illinois South Asian American Advisory Council', removed the term 'Indian', and defined 'South Asian' as "a person descended from any of the countries of the South Asian subcontinent."
The Trailer Bill was passed by the State Senate in late November 2022 and was approved by the House of Representatives on 11 January 2023. It will become a law after the governor signs the amendment.
Seth Lewis: The Republican Behind the Law
The brainchild behind the Indian American Advisory Council Act, Seth Lewis, was a member of the Illinois House of Representatives from District 45 for two years after being elected in 2020; he held office from January 2021 to January 2023.
Speaking to Hussain, Lewis refused to divulge how the definition of 'Indian' was introduced in the Bill. On excluding countries that are "primarily Muslim in character," he said it was only done for the sake of being "efficient" since the state already has a Muslim American Advisory Council.
During what Hussain described as a "sometimes heated interview," Lewis voluntarily disclosed that he is married to an Indian woman. His wife, Anita, is the Superintendent of Schools at Illinois’ Diamond Lake School District 76.
The couple has deep-rooted ties to the Indian Hindu community in Illinois and is a regular at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Chicago's Bartlett, which falls under Lewis' House constituency, District 45.
In the 2022 elections, Lewis ran for the Illinois State Senate to represent District 24 and won, and is now a member of the State Senate. His earlier attempts to secure a State Senate seat in 2016 and 2018 were unsuccessful.
Lewis did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
His office told The Quint in the first week of January that he would support the efforts of Senator Villivalam and would vote for the Trailer Bill of Senator Ram Villivalam when the House takes up the matter.
"The representative has already said what he had to say about the Bill, and he is not available to answer more questions regarding the same issue," Lewis' office told The Quint over the phone before the voting took place on 11 January.
Lewis, however, voted against the amendment in the House. The Trailer Bill was part of a legislative package in the House and records showed that Lewis voted against them.
'Insidious Ideology Behind This'
"Establishing an Indian American Advisory Council isn't necessarily an issue. However, our community has learned over decades the importance of uniting with members of the entire south Asian American community as well as larger Asian American community to multiply our political power and address issues that are critical to all of communities," Sharma said.
"When you see a legislation like this, which explicitly targets one faith and defines an ethnic community through a faith lens, there is clearly a supremacist ideology at work here which seeks to sow division within the broader Asian American community."Pushkar Sharma
Sharma was referring to Hindutva groups in the US, some of whom have campaigned for years to use the term 'India' instead of 'south Asia' to describe the Indian subcontinent.
The language of Lewis' Bill was a remnant of 2016 California textbook controversy, when the Hindu Education Foundation, along with other Hindutva groups, launched a campaign to modify the content of the textbook to say 'India' instead of 'south Asia' to refer to the geographical region.
A detailed list of questions asking the Hindu Education Foundation about the group's campaign and whether it had anything to do with the language of the Bill received no response.
"Any legislation that names people from Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan as 'Indian' is factually incorrect, offensive, and imperialist. By definition, if four countries are named, this is a South Asian American Advisory Council. And if it is a south Asian council why are certain countries explicitly denied participation based on faith?"Pushkar Sharma
The activist said they had demanded that the advisory council should be defined by geography and not by faith.
"Faith has no place in an ethnic community. The German American community of Illinois is not defined in state law as ‘not predominantly Jewish’. No credible source or geography teacher would ever claim that Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan are Indian-majority countries," Sharma, who has roots in India, asserted.
He said there was a multiethnic, multi-faith group that pushed against the legislation.
"We had members of Bangladeshi American, Nepali American, Pakistani American, and Sri Lankan American communities who all spoke out clearly to make this change," he said.
This was echoed by the members of other south Asian communities.
"I am from Nepal and putting me as an Indian is politically and emotionally wrong. I was very unhappy with that," Bishnu Phuyal, a prominent Nepali American in Chicago, told The Quint. He, however, appreciated Senator Ram Villivalam for resolving the matter and introducing the Trailer Bill.
Hussain, who is a Muslim of Indian origin, wrote in her article that while conflating India with select parts of south Asia is "misleading and offensive enough," "deliberately writing off the subcontinent's countries that are Muslim in character" evokes the bigoted tone.
She said the legislation reminded her of the language used in the Citizenship Amendment Act, passed by the Indian Parliament in 2019.
Sharma was also critical of excluding caste and faith as diversity factors in selecting the members of the advisory council.
"There is a section of this legislation that refers to creating a diverse advisory council on a number of categories. Faith, caste, sexual orientation, language, and country of origin were left off of this list, which was very surprising, and shows us again the politics of the insidious ideology behind this. We demanded that legislators include these critical dimensions of diversity for our community."Pushkar Sharma
He added that while other matters have been resolved in the Trailer Bill, the inclusion of caste is one thing that has not been addressed.
"we were deeply surprised and disappointed that they refused to include caste in the updated legislation citing a legal technicality. We continue to demand that caste be included," Shamra said.
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