Charu Sudan Kasturi
New Delhi, Feb. 28: George W. Bush was in the midst of cobbling together an international coalition to bomb Afghanistan 15 days after the worst terrorist attack on American soil when, on the morning of September 26, 2001, the then US President hosted 14 guests unconnected with those plans.
Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh gas station owner in Arizona, had been shot dead days earlier by a man who mistook the turbaned man for an Arab Muslim, in the first revenge killing following the September 11 terror attacks. Bush invited Sikh leaders to reassure them of his support.
Sixteen years later, India's government is worried US President Donald Trump's silence on the killing of engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Kansas last week could cloud public perceptions of a relationship that has depended on Indians in America for critical ballast.
The refusal by the otherwise outspoken Trump to speak on the attack in which another Indian, Alok Madasani, and an American, Ian Grillot, were also injured contrasts with the approach his two immediate predecessors adopted after similar crimes against people of Indian origin.
The New York Times said in its leading article that "Mr. Trump has been shockingly slow to condemn these acts of hate.... Each act of hate is easily explained away as the work of a disturbed person. Yet, had these attacks been perpetrated by a Muslim or an undocumented immigrant, the president would surely have claimed that he was right all along.... Rather than tamp down hate, the president has stoked it."
As foreign secretary S. Jaishankar left today for a four-day visit to Washington, officials and experts suggested the silence also reflects New Delhi's struggle to sensitise the new White House to Indian concerns.
"I am sure the foreign secretary will emphasise the fact that there is a sense of insecurity among Indian nationals in the US, and among the larger Indian American community," former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh, who was Indian ambassador to the US at the time of the September 11 attacks and its aftermath, told The Telegraph. "But ultimately, it is the other side that needs to demonstrate sensitivity."
From India's perspective, that "sensitivity" from the White House was on display over the past 16 years.
Bush spoke to Sikh leaders for an hour when he hosted them in September 2001, and followed that up with public comments.
"An American Sikh has been killed, unjustly so," Bush said. "I can assure them that our government will do everything we can to not only bring those people to justice but also to treat every human life as dear, and to respect the values that made our country so different and so unique."
In August 2012, when a gunman entered a Wisconsin gurdwara and shot dead six people, Bush's successor as President, Barack Obama, reacted the same day, saying he was "heartbroken".
"If it turns out, as some early reports indicated, that it may have been motivated in some way by the ethnicity of those who were attending the temple, I think the American people immediately recoil against those kinds of attitudes," Obama said. "It will be very important for us to reaffirm once again that in this country, regardless of what we look like, where we come from, who we worship, we are all one people and we look after one another and we respect one another."
Two weeks later, then First Lady Michelle Obama had visited the gurdwara.
The reactions of Bush and Obama reflected their understanding of the role Indians in America played in catalysing the bilateral relationship's rise under their presidencies, officials said. That recognition in turn came from India's ability to find senior members in those administrations that were both sensitive to New New Delhi's concerns and had the President's ear, they said.
Finding that leverage within the Trump White House is proving challenging for India, even though Jaishankar's visit is his third to the US since the November 8 election. Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have spoken twice on the telephone, but the US President and his closest aides have given India no commitment on its core concerns - including a threatened crackdown on work visas used most by Indian companies and workers.
White House spokesperson Sean Spicer on Monday called the Kansas shooting "disturbing" - he had earlier called it "tragic". Spicer, who was responding to a question, devoted much of his answer to threats Jewish centres have faced in recent days. "The President continues to condemn these and any other form of anti-Semitic and hateful acts in the strongest terms," he said. "No one in America should feel afraid to follow the religion of their choosing freely and openly."
During his visit, Jaishankar is expected to meet US undersecretary for political affairs Tom Shannon, who today hosted Indian ambassador Navtej Sarna at the state department.
Officials said Jaishankar will try to build on the goodwill the relationship enjoys within the US foreign service, whose top representative in India - charge d'affaires MaryKay Loss Carlson - has issued what is so far the strongest condemnation of the Kansas attack.
Jaishankar is also expected to meet members of the US Congress, which is gathering in Washington for a joint session that will be addressed by Trump.But Trump's silence is also forcing New Delhi to do Washington's job, defending the relationship at a time it is facing questions over why it hasn't formally issued a demarche - a request-cum-protest note - to the US over the killing.
The foreign office today highlighted Carlson's comments, the support Kansas authorities have extended to the nearest Indian consulate, and 24-year-old Grillot's attempts to nab the shooter.
"It is important to note that the US authorities are engaged with us on the larger concern regarding safety of Indians in the US, which continues to receive the government's top priority," foreign ministry spokesperson Gopal Baglay said.
Six days after the Kansas shooting, India shouldn't even expect an outright condemnation from Trump any more, Mansingh suggested.
"Other US Presidents we've dealt with in the recent past, whether Republican or Democrat, had broadly liberal views on race and immigration," Mansingh. "What we are seeing with Trump is something different."