Chicagoan gives boost to growing Asian Indian political activity

Raj Pandya made a little history last month. He got a late start in the race for Democratic committeeman. In his area, Chicago's Seventh Ward, he faced at least six opponents. Like them, he had to conduct a write-in campaign because everyone's nominating petitions were ruled out of order. After a hurried three-week campaign, managed by his wife, Mr. Pandya got 10 votes. The winner reaped 2,980.

The mere fact he ran, however, was a kind of moral victory. Pandya appears to be the first Asian Indian to run for office in Chicago - and gives the latest boost to a tiny group which is slowly climbing onto the American political stage.

Across the United States, Indian political activity seems to be picking up.

Although a factor in Asian coalitions for the past 10 years, Indians only recently have begun to organize their own political groups, says Ross Harano, regional coordinator of the Asian-Pacific Caucus of the Democratic National Committee. For example:

* In the 1982 elections, Asian Indians across the country raised at least $1 million for various US Senate and House candidates, says Thomas Abraham, president of the National Federation of Asian Indian Organizations in America. Indians have also worked to defeat restrictive immigration legislation.

* The largest contributions went to two unsuccessful campaigns in California: Tom Bradley's bid for governor and Edmund G. Brown Jr.'s race for the US Senate. ''We have made attempts to raise funds for presidential candidates,'' says Inder Singh, president of the Federation of India Associations of southern California. But no candidate would appear at a fund-raising event without a minimum $50,000 campaign pledge.

* Indians in Ohio, already recognized as a minority by the national Small Business Administration, are trying to get recognition at the state level. The designation would allow Indian businessmen to apply for matching funds. ''We have been thinking very seriously of forming a political action committee,'' says one activist.

* The Federation of India Associations of Chicago is trying to arrange a panel discussion with the Republican and Democratic contenders for the US Senate in Illinois.

The Indians' power lies in position.

They number only 362,000 nationally, according to the 1980 census, and are widely scattered. But they have made quick inroads as scientists, doctors, and professors. Two are Nobel Prize winners. Another, Zubin Mehta, is conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

''I see our role in American politics not as a voting bloc, but in terms of a brain bank for various political leaders,'' says Thomas Abraham. ''The potential is very great.''

Indians are some of the nation's best educated, most affluent immigrants. Median income for Asian Indian families in 1979 was a high $24,993, according to census data, and almost 90 percent of the men had a high school education.

Indians are also some of America's newest immigrants. Traditionally bound for eastern Africa, South Africa, or parts of the British empire, Indians usually formed large enclaves that often became targets of local racial prejudice. In 1972, Uganda expelled its Indians, many of whom migrated to Britain.

Few came to the US. The influx began in 1965, when immigration laws were relaxed. In the next 10 years, 97,000 Indians flowed in - six times the total of the previous 100 years. Most - like J. Ram Ray - were students.

''My plan was to go back (to India),'' says Mr. Ray, now program director for the Illinois attorney general's senior citizen division. But ''you slowly begin to realize all the dreams of American life. So you finally decide that you like it.''

''A lot of this has to do with children,'' adds Rajiv Desai, consulting editor of the Chicago-based India Tribune. ''They've grown up, and suddenly, we have American kids. So what do we do?''

Many Indians are deciding to become US citizens, he says, even though problems are creeping in. Parents, raised in close-knit, extended families, are troubled by the freedom American society gives children. And in a household steeped in Hindu vegetarian traditions, even a teen-ager's trip to McDonald's is a social statement. (Not cll'Indians are Hindu or traditional, however.)

On the political frnv, the biggest problem is internal.

''The main obstacle, if you can call it that, is to overorganize,'' says Arthur Lall, India's former consul general in New York. ''Whenever you have two Indians, they form a society.''

''We have to learn to organize as Americans do,'' says Prakash Desai, chief of psychiatry at the Veteran's Administration West Side Hospital here. ''My children learn the pledge of allegiance - it's a beautiful idea!

''It's a boundary-busting consciousness.uzans are a boundary-building culture.''

For his part, candidate Pandya is not discouraged.

''If I only had a good 50 pollwatchers, I could have rallied the whole thing, '' he says, sounding more like a life-long Chicago politician than a man who moved from Tanzania 81/2 years ago. And, just like any pol worth his campaign buttons, he plans to run again.

''It's definite,'' he says.

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