Blog | 'Connected, But Maintaining Distance': Indian Students Amid US Protests

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"Imaandari se dekha jaye to dar hai ki yahan se utha kar phekh denge, deport kar denge (to be honest, there's fear that they'll throw us out, deport us)," a graduate student at the University of Oregon says as he talks about the fear of "serious consequences" that his "student visa issues" may entail amidst the ongoing protests at his college. For an Indian national from a humble background who has strived hard to get to the country, the choice between getting involved in the current protests against Israeli action in Gaza or staying aloof is not very difficult. "In principle, I can relate to them. But I can't take a risk," he says, wishing to stay anonymous.

A nationwide wave of pro-Palestine demonstrations has roiled American campuses. Students and faculty are demanding a ceasefire in Gaza and calling for divestment of university endowments from companies that have ties with Israel. In the crackdown on these demonstrations, university administrations have called in police to remove protest encampments; hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists have been arrested. There have been no reports of arrests or suspensions of Indian students so far.

"It's A Minority"

Thousands of Indian students are today witnessing the largest US student movement in decades, but they stand mostly on the sidelines. Referring to Indian participation, Jayati Ghosh, a Professor of Economics at University of Massachusetts in Amherst, notes, "I was at the encampment. It's difficult to generalise, but certainly I would say it's a minority." Terming the actions of law enforcement agencies "unfair" and their approach to these protests "high-handed", Ghosh says that students from India face different repercussions compared to American citizens. "The consequences are really heavy for them because it takes a lot to get here for a variety of reasons, including expenses for those who are paying for their education themselves. There is a lot of parental pressure - "you get your degree and come home" kind of a thing. My students have mentioned these to me," she says.

The police involvement has deterred 'progressive' students even though they believe in the 'democratic right to protest'. Being scared about the "impact on his fellowship", Sushil, a student at Washington University in St Louis, says, "I don't believe that the American police system is very fair. We have seen police brutality against black protesters in 2017." The possibility of arrest weighs on their minds. "When you are in trouble, no one comes to help you, so why should I join the protests?" he says.

"No Right To Protest" And Other Misinformation

International students enter the US on F-1 or J-1 visas, which are granted based on their college admissions. New Jersey-based immigration attorney Rupal Parikh says that a student's visa is linked to their college enrollment. "If you don't follow campus rules for peaceful protest and get expelled, that is going to absolutely impact whether you can continue to be here to finish your education because your student visa would be cancelled."

Concerns about maintaining their legal status in the international student community have led to the spread of misinformation about rights and consequences. An Indian graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, is convinced that "a student visa doesn't allow us the right to protest. Officially, only citizens have the right to protest in this country so those can be grounds for deportation".

In response to whether foreigners have the legal right to protest, Parikh clarifies, "Everyone has a right to protest, whether you're a citizen student or a foreign national." She says that a visa is impacted only in rare instances. "If a student gets arrested, usually it's not going to impact their student visa, unless it was something very serious, say, murder or some sort of egregious felonious crime."

Job Market Fears

Concerns about job-worthiness also impact the decision-making of these young scholars. "I have not participated in rallies. The encampment was on campus, so of course you walk by and observe. I do relate to the cause but at the same time have a bit of fear because the university is checking IDs on campus. Their policies might hamper not only the visa status of students involved, but also job prospects," says Sparsh Maheshwari of the University of Pennsylvania. The encampment at the University of Pennsylvania was disbanded by the police on May 10. Several areas have been cordoned off, and six students were told to go on mandatory leave.

Balancing academics is a priority for those Indian students who are protesting. Pragya of the University of Michigan, Ann Harbor, says, "My parents are not supportive of these protests. They want me to focus on my studies, which I do agree with. During the finals [exams] weeks, when we were at the encampment, I sat there and studied. I want to make sure that I have a big career and that I have the money and the prestige to make more of a change. However, if I have the opportunity to make some level of change while I'm here, that I will do."

Working Behind The Scenes

There are also a few international students like Indian-Canadian Tarana of the University of Michigan whose passion for the cause trumps fears. "Indian and other international students, in general, stayed away from protests initially because there's a lot of fear-mongering around our ability to stay in the country if we partake in protests. But in the last two months or so, I've seen a lot more Indian students showing up at protests on our campus," she says.

Some participating graduate students do so because they have 'more safeguards' than undergraduates. Karthik of the University of Michigan says, "We grad students have more protections because we are unionised. Over the last three or four years, a lot of PhD students in the US have unionised, which gives us more protection to speak up. The university can't unilaterally decide to fire or take unjust action against you." He adds, "Hence, many undergraduate students contribute behind the scenes."

Helping keep a 'robust protest' up requires organising literature, communications and social media, as well as taking care of logistics and coordination with groups at other universities, among other things. Aalok Tyagi, a 2023 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania who continues to have close ties with the student body, says "I help relay messages to a larger body through group chats of interested students, our Instagram page, and internal communication with the student government to make sure that we have their support. This is a movement that the university doesn't support. So, it's chaotic. Hence, it's important to have as many allies as possible."

Tracing The Money

Karthik has been involved in research and dissemination of information too. "For the most part, I'm involved in the back end of things. On university campuses in the US, discrimination happens not only if you're a Palestinian student but even if you're mildly supportive of Palestine, which is a violation of certain American laws, including the Civil Rights Act. Many of us are trying to see whether there are ways to use that law to get universities to take a less hostile approach." He and a group of students have also been researching university investments. "American universities have a lot of money, which they have invested in Israeli companies and military defence contractors. We were trying to understand where exactly it is they've invested it. Based on the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa of the 1970s-'80s, we've understood that it might be a good way to target that," he says.

As a pre-medical student, Pragya becomes the camp medic. "I have CPR training, so I'm pretty medical here. People have been hurt. I have wrapped a sprained ankle, helped with allergy reactions. We got tear-gassed the other day so we made sure people were okay after that." Her role involves planning, generating funds, communicating with media, and being at the encampment, including during law enforcement activity.

Students like Pragya know the advantages that come with being an American citizen on campus. She is an Indian-American, which affords her the freedom and "privilege of participation" without worrying about deportation. In turn, American students are protective of international students and consider "risk assessment for arrest" while planning activities.

Protecting Each Other

Dr Ghosh says, "The students themselves decide that in situations where you're more likely to get arrested, only those who are citizens or permanent residents get involved. They ensure that those who are more vulnerable are not in the direct line of fire."

Zainab of the University of Michigan says, "Even though it's kind of unavoidable as we can never really control how the police or the administration choose to react, we as a community protect as many of our members as we can, including international students, as they have more at stake."

Constantly in media view, masking up to avoid being identified at rallies, encampments or behind the scenes, participating Indian students share one common feeling about the American protests - in the words of an Indian student at Washington University in St Louis, "How strongly freedom of speech is exercised here. Police intervention here becomes big news. It is cool how people can set up tents and organise and put out actionable demands. For eg., asking my university to cut all ties with Boeing, which is a major supplier to Israeli defence."

(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.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal views of the author