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Asian American Study Short Paper 1 single-spaced page with work cited page 3 citation needed from the reading About South Asian Traditions in America

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Asian American Study Short Paper
1 single-spaced page with work cited page
3 citation needed from the reading
About South Asian Traditions in America:Religion and Secularism
American Behavioral Scientist
The online version of this article can be found at:

DOI: 10.1177/0002764206289657

2006 50: 118American Behavioral Scientist
Vibha Bhalla

The New Indians : Reconstructing Indian Identity in the United States

Published by:

can be found at:American Behavioral ScientistAdditional services and information for Alerts:

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Authors Note: I would like to acknowledge Simboonath Singh, Rob Buffington, and Caroline Brettell
for their help with this article.

American Behavioral Scientist
Volume 50 Number 1

September 2006 118-136
2006 Sage Publications


hosted at

The New Indians
Reconstructing Indian Identity in the
United States
Vibha Bhalla
Bowling Green State University

This article looks at the processes of identity formation among Indian immigrants in
the United States in the decade of the 1970s. Using letters to the editor of the expatri-
ate Indian newspaper India Abroad, the article draws attention to two themes of iden-
tity formation. The first theme focuses on Indian immigrants attempts at forming a
pan-Indian identity in the United States that was markedly different from India; this
identity excluded ethnic, religious, or caste affiliations. Although this attempt failed,
Indian immigrants were successful in formulating a religious pan-Indian identity. The
second theme draws attention to discourse among the Indian community regarding
becoming a racial/ethnic minority in the United States.

Keywords: Asian Indian; ethnic identity; race/racialization; minority status

In December 1978, a readers letter titled Where Have All the Indians Gone?appeared in India Abroad, the first newspaper of the expatriate Indian immigrant
community in the United States (Biswas, 1978, p. 2). Written by an Indian immi-
grant to the United States, the letter paints an abysmal picture of India in the decade
of the 1970s. Indias ethnic and religious identities, Biswas (1978) noted, were
undermining its political unity; Biswas wrote of a strange divisive atmosphere all
over the countrysomething sharply corrosive, destroying national unity, if there is
any. In different parts of India, a strange conflict of identity seems to exist (p. 2).1

Given the tensions between ethnic and national identities in independent India,
Biswas raised two questions: What actually makes us Indians and do we really
have a definite national and cultural identity which can be called Indian? (p. 2).
These questions, Biswas surmised, were of immense magnitude for not only Indians
in India but also the Indian immigrant community in the United States, because she
noticed the continuation of regional and ethnic affinities among Indian immigrants
in the United States. As evidence, her letter points to the proliferation of ethnic asso-
ciations among Indian immigrants. Biswas further highlighted the importance of
these questions in relation to the dissemination of Indian identity among the second

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Bhalla / The New Indians 119

generation of Indians growing up in the United States: The Indian children in
America will soon face issues such as: Who are they? What kind of Indian are
they? (p. 2). Indian immigrants in the United States needed to delineate their iden-
tity to reproduce it to their children.

Biswass (1978) introspective commentary resulted in a series of letters from the
readers of India Abroad who were unanimous in their condemnation of Indias eth-
nic divisions and who revealed a desire to construct an Indian identity in the United
States distinct from that of Indians in their homeland. This new identity was to be
national in scope and bereft of divisive ethnic and religious tensions that had plagued
India since its independence. Immigrants attempts at reconfiguring Indian identity
suggest an understanding, first, that identity is fluid and, hence, can be constructed
anew and second, that migration allows Indians to reinvent themselves in the United
States. Furthermore, these letters are indicators that Indian immigrants considered
themselves as agents of change and as such, were engaging the Indian immigrant
community on the issue through the pages of the Indian immigrant press.2 The let-
ters authors particularly believed that the socioeconomic characteristics of the
Indian immigrant community, especially its highly educated nature, allowed them a
deeper understanding of Indias problems. As enlightened Indians, they wished to
create an Indian community outside India without any of its fissiparous tendencies.

The attempts by Indian immigrants to carve out a new identity are not unique;
identity, as we know, is socially constructed. Joane Nagel (1994) has argued that
ethnic/group identity formation is a dialectical process and reflects the collective
actions of a groups members and its organizations. Identity and culture, Nagel
argued, are the building blocks of ethnicity because they provide the boundaries
of an ethnic group, as well as assign them a meaning. Consequently, language, reli-
gion, culture, ancestry, and regionalism all influence the emergence of identity.
Furthermore, Nagel argued that ethnic identity is politically constructed; formal
ethnic labels or official ethnic categories in the host society play a pivotal role in
shaping ethnic boundaries. Consequently, at any given time, a member of an ethnic
group can have multiple identities in a process Nagel termed layering.

This article examines the processes of identity formation within the immigrant
Indian community in the United States during the early phase of settlement (i.e.,
from 1972 to 1982).3 Using a sampling of letters to the editor of an immigrant news-
paper, India Abroad, I draw attention to the active participation of Indian immigrants
in the invention of a new Indian identity in the United States. These letters to the edi-
tor are central to understanding how a new immigrant group produced its identity.
They permit us to explore the salient factors that motivated the construction of iden-
tity and the way these factors worked. Understanding the meanings that early immi-
grants assigned to their identity is important because these meanings eventually
shape the transformation of Indians from immigrants to a self-identified ethnic group
in the United States. Furthermore, I argue that this early period, especially the
decade of the 1970sapproximately 10 to 15 years after the commencement of

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Indian migrationrepresents the formative phase in the settlement of the Indian
community as Indian immigrants demonstrated signs of moving from sojourners to
settlers. Although the letters to the editor during this period depict numerous themes
related to issues of identity, this article emphasizes two themes.4 The first theme
focuses on immigrants attempts to establish a pan-Indian identity in the United
States. The second emphasizes Indian immigrants attempts to situate themselves
within the prevalent racial/ethnic categories in the United States and portrays their
struggle in grappling with the question concerning whether they were Caucasians,
Others, or Asian Americans. The pan-Indian identity had two components. It
began with immigrants attempts to assign their identity a political meaning and con-
struct an Indian community without regional, religious, and caste identities. Letters
showcase, however, that by the end of the 1970s, this attempt had failed because
many immigrants argued for a need for the continuation of ethnic identities in view
of the fact that they provided cultural meaning to their identities. Nevertheless, by
the end of this decade, another form of pan-Indian identity took shape that was reli-
gious in nature. The parameters of this new Indian identity emerged from a need to
disseminate Indian culture to the second generation, as well as a desire to create dis-
tinct cultural boundaries from the mainstream American culture. The new Indian cul-
tural identity increasingly took religious overtones and became intertwined with
Hindu identity. Hinduism, the religion of the majority of the immigrants, permitted
immigrants a shared identity. Moreover, I argue that Indian immigrants attempts at
situating themselves within the prevalent racial/ethnic categories demonstrate their
racialization in the United States and emphasize their transformation from predom-
inantly educated and high caste/class Indians to a minority in the United States.
Collectively, these themes identify the emergence of layering among Indian immi-
grants; at any given time, Indians were simultaneously becoming members of an
ethnic group, a national group, a religious group, and a racial/ethnic group.

Large-scale Indian migration to the United States began with the passage of the
Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 (Reimers, 1985).5 The act primarily
aimed to unify immigrant families. In the absence of a substantial Indian population
in the pre-1965 era, Indians used the labor certification clause of this act to migrate
to the United States. The consequent migration selectivity resulted in the settlement
of a highly educated and professional Indian community (Khadria, 1999). Many of
the early immigrants were students who were already in the United States for the
purpose of obtaining a higher education.6 Despite their recent migration, their edu-
cational and professional characteristics catapulted Indian immigrants into an immi-
grant group with high median and mean incomes (Helweg & Helweg, 1990;
Khandelwal, 2002; Leonard, 1997; Portes & Rumbaut, 1996; Rangaswamy, 2000).
Indian immigrants became highly conscious of this positioning and constantly
referred to it in their letters as they attempted to bring about changes within the
Indian community in the United States. As highly educated professionals, they were
seeking to form a new ideal, modern India in the United States.

120 American Behavioral Scientist

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Bhalla / The New Indians 121

India Abroad was the first newspaper of the Indian immigrant community in the
United States. It commenced publication from New York City in 1970, 5 years after
the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. It began as a monthly
newspaper, became a fortnightly in 1972, and then became a weekly in 1973. The
primary purpose of the newspaper was to provide the growing Indian immigrant
community in the United States with news of India. However, as the Indian settle-
ment became permanent, the papers contents began to change to incorporate issues
pertinent to the Indian community in the United States. Readers began voicing their
problems of settlement through letters to the editor or in the readers commentary
column, which allowed Indians to write on any issue relevant to Indian immigrants.
It is in these pages that issues of Indian identity emerged in the decade of the 1970s
as readers suggested ways to create Indian identity. At certain times, readers letters
transform India Abroads letters to the editor page into a forum where readers voiced
their thoughts and debated pertinent issues; and it was in these pages that Indians
periodically debated the meaning of Indianness.7

Forging an Indian Identity

Biswass (1978) commentary on Indias ethnic diversity and its divisive tenden-
cies in India and the United States does not represent the first time a reader of
India Abroad raised this issue. As early as 1973, a reader wrote about the emergence
of ethnic groupings among the small Indian population in the United States and
the resulting lack of interactions among them. This lack of communication,
Chandrashekhar (1973) stated, affected the workings of Indian organizations: North
Indians are of the opinion that the South Indians do not take active interest in the
activities. South Indians think that the Associations are dominated by the North
Indians (p. 2). In addressing this letter to the Indian community, Chandrashekhar
attempted to find solutions to this problem in order to establish a strong national
organization of Indian immigrants.

In a similar vein, a letter by Ramdass (1975) bemoans Indian immigrants inabil-
ity to overcome their ethnic affiliations in the United States: Someone recently told
me that India is not a nation of many states, but a state of many nations. . . . It is
agonizing to note that even after twenty-seven years of independence and self-rule
we are still not thinking of ourselves as a whole (p. 3). The authors criticism once
again stemmed from a desire to form a strong pan-Indian organization in the United
States, an effort he felt was being undermined by ethnic Indian organizations.
Chiding his immigrant counterparts, Ramdass implored the community to rethink
their actions:

If we the so-called educated people, who have migrated to an advanced and civilized
nation, continue to harbor the wish to identify ourselves in such narrow and discrimi-
nate levels, I see little hope for us and those we left behind. (p. 3)

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122 American Behavioral Scientist

Ramdasss letter represents the first linking of the creation of a panethnic identity to
the educated nature of Indian immigrants and hypothesizes the feasibility of edu-
cated Indians overcoming their ethnic affiliations in the United States. The letter also
situates Ramdass as a first-generation Indian who grew up in independent India; as
such, he was demonstrating his affiliation with the new Indian national identity
over caste, religious, and ethno-linguistic identities. Another reader demonstrated
similar sentiments:

It would be ideal if we form one association of all Indians abroad instead of forming a
hundred different associations counting the states. By doing so we cannot achieve
much, but if all Indians gathered under one banner there could be more power, under-
standing, unity and prosperity. (Fernandes, 1975, p. 3)

Other such letters continued to be published in India Abroad throughout the
decade of the 1970s. This discussion among Indian immigrants regarding their iden-
tity formation primarily focuses on the first generation of immigrants and responds to
conditions of their homeland. The discourse is primarily political in nature and lim-
ited to the creation of a pan-Indian organization of immigrants with the aim of estab-
lishing an ideal Indian community in the United States, a community without caste,
religious, and ethnic tendencies. It demonstrates a belief that Indias ethnic groups
were inherently divisive and consequently, that the existence of ethnic organizations
undermined any effort to create a unified Indian identity. This discourse, however, is
rooted in India and reflects Indian immigrants attempts at resolving problems ger-
mane to India. The exclusively political nature of this discourse fails to reconcile the
cultural aspects of ethnic identities with a national identity. Ethnic and religious iden-
tities shaped Indians daily lives and their belief system, including their language,
food, and even their preferences in music and dance. Consequently, by the late 1970s,
readers letters began justifying their membership in ethnic organizations. Readers
suggested the need for a multitier organizational structure, which would allow Indians
to be members of their ethnic association as well as a national Indian association.
Ethnic associations, one reader argued, were not undermining the national organiza-
tion but instead, merely fulfilling the cultural and religious needs of the Indian immi-
grants: I wish to say that very often people join such organizations, not with any
chauvinistic or separatist intentions, but only to share with others of a similar incli-
nations or background, events of interest only to them (Shankar, 1977, p. 10).

Biswas (1978) moved this debate forward and situated it within the context of its
dissemination among the second-generation Indians. If Indians were going to con-
struct a pan-Indian identity, it was essential to define such an identitys characteris-
tics and the ways to encompass Indias diverse ethnic traditions. Along with Biswas,
other Indian immigrants were pondering on the definition of Indian cultural identity.

The discourse began with parents complaints that their children were growing up
ignorant of Indian culture and about their inability to impart Indian culture to their
children in a sustained way. Pointing to this need, Bhalla (1977) wrote,

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Bhalla / The New Indians 123

Most children here are growing up speaking only English, with the same ill-informed
attitude about India as most Americans have. Unless we want our next generation to
commit cultural hara-kiri by not having any pride in our heritage and love for India and
the right Indian values, we had better start a school. (p. 16)

To counter this problem, Bhalla suggested opening an Indian boarding school for the
children of Indian immigrants, either in the United States or in India. Although this
letter focuses on the need to impart the language and the value system of India, a
majority of the readers rarely discussed the language issue and instead, strongly sup-
ported the desire to pass on Indian heritage and values to their children and demon-
strated their preference for the Sunday school format. Readers expressed a general
desire to impart instruction in Indian culture, language, history and so on (Kumar,
1977), as well as the knowledge of Indian philosophy (Shukla, 1977).

The need to propagate Indian culture to the second generation was prompted largely
by a desire to establish cultural boundaries of Indianness that separate it from the dom-
inant American culture. Readers strong dislike of U.S. sociocultural trends, and their
desire to prevent their children from becoming American, strongly shaped the contours
of Indian values and culture. Pointing to this, Bhalla (1977) wrote, The melting pot
concept has come to be generally discredited these days. And I, for one, would rather
not have my children melt completely (p. 16). Not only were Indian values defined
in sharp contrast to American values but also letters reveal Indian immigrants reasons
for not melting: American society was described as a depraved society going astray,
whereas Indian values were depicted as the right moral values (Sachdev, 1977).

Negative stereotypes of the dominant cultural trends, and parents fears of the teen
culture, especially the practice of dating, resulted in a new focus on the conduct of the
youngsters. American youngsters especially were portrayed as sex- and drug-crazed
individuals who did not care for their families. Commenting on this, one reader wrote,

Would it be possible for any Indian, even those who themselves fully Americanized, to let
their sons and daughters engage in pre-marital sex at the age of 15 years under the guise
of dating? This is bound to happen unless our children are tutored in the moral obligations
of the Indian culture which prohibits pre-marital dating. (Sachdev, 1977, p. 14)

Moreover, in their ethnocentric worldview, Indians viewed American families as
devoid of family values considered sacrosanct by Indians. Children, in the hierar-
chical Indian family structure, particularly the sons, carry special responsibilities of
taking care of their parents in old age. The fear of old age without children furthered
a desire to stay away from American family traditions where children were seen as
absent from their parents lives. Expressing this fear, a reader wrote,

Would it be possible for us to live without the love and care of our children when we
grow old, when we will be like millions of other aged Americans, neither alive nor dead
but just marking days, hours and minutes? The very thought of this is frightening.
(Sachdev, 1977, p. 14)

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124 American Behavioral Scientist

Although the majority of the letters support the creation of an Indian school or a
Sunday school run by Indian temples to impart Indian culture and values, there were
voices of dissent. A few readers objected to the creation of a separate and distinct
Indian identity in the United States and argued that education based solely on Indian
values and culture amounted to creating separate islands in the United States, stating
that it also implied a strong desire not to assimilate into the mainstream American
society. Commenting on this, Vasudev (1977) wrote,

Considering that many of us are here for good, is American education all that bad?
What is so sacrosanct about Indian values and subjects? Is the author suggesting that
Indians should bring up their children in watertight compartment, away from the main-
stream of American life? (p. 10)

Objecting to the creation of a rigid definition of Indian culture, Vasudevs letter
points to the dynamism of Indian culture and draws attention to the historical con-
struction of Indian culture; Indian culture, she emphasized, had constant interactions
with different cultures, especially during the Middle Ages, with regular invasions
and interactions from Central and West Asia. Vasudev wrote, Indians represent
unity in diversity. Many rivers have merged in the ocean that is India, but Indians still
retain their basic characteristics. Are the heirs to such a magnificent richness now
haunted by a melting pot called America? (p. 10). Moreover, Vasudev questioned
other readers regarding the nature of Indian values: What are the Indian subjects
and values Bhalla wants our children to learn? (p. 10). However, a large majority
of readers heavily criticized Vasudevs viewpoints.

The language of the letters increasingly indicate that the process of reinvention of
Indian culture points to the propagation of a traditional Hindu Vedic culture that was
static and had not changed with time. Indian culture as it was being constructed was
increasingly becoming religious in nature. Indian identity was being juxtaposed in
many ways with Hindu identity and began adopting behavioral traits as part of
Indian culture.

Although the letters never openly specify it, the behavioral aspects of Indian cul-
tural values carried gendered meaning, especially for women. Monisha Das Gupta
(1997) and Prema Kurien (1999) have argued that the first generation of Indian
immigrants selectively reproduced Indian culture and recreated new gendered hier-
archies. Das Gupta and Kurien both argued that the new identity reproduction, based
on glorifying Vedic Hindu culture, had a profound effect on the lives of Indian
women. It assigned new roles of cultural reproduction to the first generation of
Indian women and constrained the lives of Indian women, especially in relation to
their mobility and their sexuality.

Moreover, these letters reveal the beginning of institutionalization of the instruc-
tion of cultural practices from individual families to the larger community and its
institutions. This shift was based primarily in the inability of families to counter the
all-pervasive effects of the dominant American culture on their children through

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schools and the popular media. Community institutions, especially temples, readers
believed, could counter the pulls of the dominant culture. In addition, letters reveal
the emergence of a new trend of dual-income Indian families in the United States,
which further limited families ability to pass on Indian cultural values. Noticing
this, Bhallas (1977) letter states that there is certainly a responsibility on parents to
inculcate such values and teach their kids their mother tongue, but all too many
of us first-generation immigrants have both parents working to make a fair living
(p. 16). The presence of a large number of highly educated, professional women in
the Indian immigrant population partly accounted for this new phenomenon; in addi-
tion, the new economic realities forced women to seek employment. Consequently,
Indian ethnic and religious associations emerged as the new centers imparting Indian
culture. The construction of temples across the United States in the decade of the
1970s reflected this new need. They were seen as not only fulfilling the religious
needs of the community but also becoming the cultural centers, a fact noticed in
other debates in India Abroad on the construction of Indian temples. Pointing to this,
Grover (1978) wrote, A temple is not merely a place of worship but also a social
and cultural center, a symbol of our rich heritage (p. 14). The literature on Indian
immigrants in the United States concurs with this viewpoint (Brettell, 2005; Helweg
& Helweg, 1990; Khandelwal, 2002; Kurien, 1999; Lessinger, 1995; Rangaswamy,
2000; Rayaprol, 1997).

These two discourses in the decade of the 1970s chart the construction of Indian
identity and reflect an enormous difference in the meaning and understanding of the
word Indian. The decade began with the creation of a pan-Indian national identity
that represented the new, the modern, and the cosmopolitan Indians who were will-
ing to overlook their ethnic identities and form a new unifying national identity. The
decade ended with a pan-Indian identity that looked to recreating traditional India
and emphasized the Hindu identity to establish boundaries from the mainstream
American culture. The first was rooted in India, whereas the second was rooted in
the current needs of Indian families in the United States. The first discourse con-
stantly emphasized the educated and the progressive character of the Indian immi-
grant population in the United States, whereas the second rarely used it. By the end
of the decade, the letters to the editor reveal the existence of a process of layering;
Indians were beginning to express their ethnic, religious, and national identities.

Forging a Racial/Ethnic Identity

In the decade of the 1970s, along with constructing the meaning and boundaries
of what it meant to be Indian, Indian immigrants were trying to situate themselves
in relation to American racial/ethnic groups. Nagel (1994) has argued that external
forces in the host society, especially the policies of the state, play a vital role in the
creation of group identities. In the United States, since the passage of the Civil

Bhalla / The New Indians 125

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Rights Act of 1964, the U.S. population has been classified in racial/ethnic groups.
The Federal Interagency Commission, an ad hoc committee on racial and ethnic def-
initions, classified Americans under five categories: (a) Black, not of Hispanic ori-
gin; (b) Hispanic; (c) Asian or Pacific Islander; (d) American Indian or Alaskan
Native; and (e) Caucasian/White. As new immigrants, Indians needed to be placed
in one of the above categories. In 1974, the commission classified Indian immigrants
as Caucasians. Along with the people of the Indian subcontinent, the category
included people who traced their ancestry to Europe, North Africa, and the Middle
East (Sahgal, 1976a). This classification, however, was not crystal clear because the
Bureau of the Census classified Indian immigrants as Others. Moreover, according
to the 1923 Supreme Court case Thind v. United States, Indians are not White (for
abridged versions of the decision, see Gjerde, 1998, pp. 288-290; Nakanishi & Lai,
2003, pp. 41-45). In this landmark case, the Supreme Court denied an Indian immi-
grant, Bhagat Singh Thind, the right to become a U.S. citizen because he was not
White. In denying the motion, the Court categorically stated that despite anthro-
pologically being classified as Caucasian, popular perception did not consider
Indians as White. This case, as Ian Haney-Lopez (1998) has argued, moved the dis-
course on race away from the then prevalent principle of using science as a founda-
tion for construction of racial categories and reverted to using popular perceptions in
declaring racial categories. Racial classifications in the early part of the 20th century
were highly significant because benefits of citizenship depended on race, and the
Thind verdict denied Indians the right to naturalize.

The nuances of race and ethnicity in the decade of the 1970s, however, were
markedly different because race did not matter in immigrants acquisition of citi-
zenship or any rights whatsoever. However, since the passage of the Civil Rights Act
of 1964, membership in a minority group brought benefits and resource allocation
through the state. As Caucasians/Whites, Indian immigrants could not take advan-
tage of the affirmative action programs directed to minorities.

The process of becoming an ethnic minority began in 1974 soon after the classi-
fication of Indian immigrants as Caucasians. An Indian organization, the Association
of Indians in America (AIA), began organizing Indian immigrants against this move
and by 1976, formally petitioned the Federal Interagency Commission for reclassi-
fication of Indian immigrants from the Caucasian category to the Asian/Pacific
Islander category. The AIA also sought a separate enumeration in the 1980 census of
Indian immigrants as Asian Indians (Sahgal, 1976b).

To support the reclassification of Indians from a majority to a minority group, the
AIA put forth multiple arguments. Dr. Dutta (1976), AIAs president, argued that
although Indians were classified as Caucasians, not all Indians appeared to be White;
hence, they faced or could face discrimination at work. Consequently, minority status
was needed to attain Indian immigrants struggle for equal opportunity. Moreover,
the AIA contended that geographically, India was located in Asia; therefore, it
was natural for Indian immigrants to become Asian Americans, especially because

126 American Behavioral Scientist

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Bhalla / The New Indians 127

immigrants from other Asian nations were categorized as Asian Americans.
Furthermore, being classified as Caucasians had resulted in their exclusion from
many government-sponsored events for Asians; the immediate evidence of this was
the exclusion of Indian physicians from a conference on the health needs of Asian

In September 1976, people from the Indian subcontinent were reclassified from
the majority White/Caucasian category to the minority Asian/Pacific Islander cate-
gory. Indian immigrants were now eligible for preferential treatment in employment
and housing and also became eligible to file suit for discrimination under the 1964
Civil Rights Act (Sahgal, 1976b). Subsequently, in 1982, another Indian organiza-
tion, the National Association of Americans of Asian Indian Descent, successfully
petitioned the Small Business Association to declare Indian immigrants a minority
for the purposes of awarding government contracts. As a result of being classified a
minority, Indian immigrants could accrue the benefits of becoming a minority. It is
interesting to note that Dutta (1976) did not refer to the economic benefits of becom-
ing a minority. Yet in 1982, Dr. Jan Pillai, president of the Nati


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