Do We Belong: The story of a senseless hate crime in the US

'Sometimes we have to fight to belong, to assert that this is our home too,' Director Sofian Khan on America and her sense of belongingness to the place.

BySumedha Pal
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Do We Belong: The story of a senseless hate crime in the US
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On February 22, 2017, an Indian immigrant, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, was shot dead at a bar in Kansas, United States. His shooter Adam Purington yelled “get out of my country” before shooting him. A year later, Purington plead guilty to hate crime charges and was sentenced to life in prison.
Software Engineer Srinivas’s death last year has exposed the fault lines in Trump’s America, leaving many with the question — do we belong?

According to a report ‘Communities On Fire’ by a Washington-based group, South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), hate crimes against Indian-Americans showed a surge of about 45 per cent post-Trump’s election. Eighty-two per cent of these attacks were found to be motivated by an anti-Muslim sentiment. The report stated that the increase in hate violence and xenophobic rhetoric that targets communities, along with racial profiling, point to a new normal of fear and violence.

Indian-American producer Pulkit Dutta along with Pakistani-American director Sofian Khan unpack this sentiment in their documentary, Do We Belong. The film is an attempt to give voice to Srinivas’s story through the point of view of his wife, Sunayana Dumala.

Featured by The Atlantic, the film sparked a discussion about the place of immigrants and others, in present-day America.

In an exclusive interview with Newslaundry, Director Sofian Khan shares his experience of covering the case and more.

Living with hate crimes in America is the  new normal. What does it mean to be an Asian in Trump’s America?

The first hate crime victim after 9/11 was a Sikh man in Arizona. Balbir Singh Sodhi was murdered outside his gas station on September 15, 2001.  So, the targeting of Indians, regardless of race or religion, is nothing new in this country. Indians in the US are lumped into a broad swathe of identities that run the spectrum of stereotypes, from doctor to convenience store clerk to terrorist.

Once again, we find ourselves volatile in a time when these kinds of hate-driven attacks are widespread. And, unfortunately, I think there is a lot of denial within the Indian community that this is a reality. Many affluent Indians, who have access to the best education and jobs this country has to offer, also feel they are immune to becoming targets. They have all the material indicators of being part of the elite. But the truth is they’re subject to many of the same prejudices that other marginalised groups are struggling with. They’ve just had a different way of dealing with it — part of which involves this kind of denial that I’m talking about, as well as an aversion to being associated with any marginalised groups.

Some of that is changing now. And, it’s a diverse community we’re talking about, so I’m in danger of generalising here. Segments of the population, such as Sikh-Americans, have been incredibly effective in creating their own organisations and generating awareness in their communities. I think the recent political climate has started to generate an open conversation about the kind of everyday racism and intermittent violence that Indian-Americans are being subjected to. The tragedy that took place in Kansas last year is part of that conversation.

Could you share your experience of documenting this process, from the shooting to the sentence…

Although, I followed the story from afar when it first happened, reading about it in the papers and a couple of longer magazine pieces (most notably, Lauren Smiley’s article in Wired), I didn’t start filming with Sunayana until nearly a year after the incident. So my perspective is really that of the long-term impact of this event. Of course, the emotional trauma was still very fresh. One of the less pleasant aspects of making documentaries is asking people to recall traumatic events in great detail. But Sunayana did so very willingly, once she made the decision to work with me. I admired her strength and openness, which was immediately evident when we first met in person.

During our initial conversations about doing the piece, Sunayana made it very clear that she wanted to honour Srinivas’s memory. And she trusted me to do that to the best of my ability. So there was a collaborative relationship that came out of those discussions about how the piece would look like, and how it would be from her perspective of events, and her memories of him. That really helped to structure the piece and make the film as succinct as possible. Because, of course, there is much more to the story. But we set out to make something with a very focused and limited scope. The humanity of the victim was at the centre of the story, along with the determination of his widow, Sunayana, to carry on and honor his legacy. The facts are all known, and the shooter has since been sentenced to life in prison on the strength of those facts.

As a filmmaker, what has your journey with the case been?

The reason I didn’t start filming immediately with Sunayana was because, at the time of the shooting, I was working on a film about Trump’s travel ban. It was a chaotic moment, and Srinivas was murdered just a month after that infamous executive order had been signed. Many saw the tragedy in Kansas as part of a trend of hate crimes that was surging in those first few months of his presidency, stirred up by the ban, the wall and other exclusionary policies that seemed to give way to the seething racism against immigrants, the campaign had so effectively capitalised on.  

So, the work I was doing at that time was more focused on the policy level, and on the people protesting against those policies. And while that’s definitely an important story to tell, I didn’t want to lose sight of the human cost of stirring resentments that are turning our political landscape uglier by the day.  These are extremely important stories, and I think the experience of making ‘Do We Belong?’ has shifted my focus to the telling of more personal stories across the board. I’m currently working on a piece about my own experience after 9/11, drawing parallels to current circumstances in what I’m calling a “docu-memoir”.

What do you think has changed, following the shooting?

In the film, Sunayana asks ‘what is the government going to do about hate crimes?’  Well, they’ve done nothing at all. Which comes as no surprise. The Attorney General Jeff Sessions has no interest in this issue.  And, unfortunately, we will likely see another surge in incidents in the lead up to the mid-term elections.

Most importantly, do you think you belong there?

I was born and raised in New York. Although, I visit my family in Pakistan quite often, and I love being able to spend time there, but this country is my home. I have to belong here, or where do I really belong? Because I am certainly not Pakistani.

I think if I’ve learned anything from Sunayna, it’s that sometimes we have to fight to belong, to assert that this is our home too. I’m convinced that for every bigot who would tell me to “go back home” — even though I was born here, and am as much a citizen as they are — there are ten good-hearted people who will look on me as nothing more or less than a fellow American.  That’s been my experience as I’ve traveled throughout the country, and that’s what keeps me in a positive frame of mind in spite of everything that’s going on right now that seems to be saying otherwise.

There is a strong pro-nation sentiment being seen in India  as well, what do you make of the hate crimes in India?

The sentiments in India feel all too familiar. White nationalism and Hindu nationalism, like any other brand of nationalism, share some central features. One is that they create a clearly favoured in-group, an identity which is put forth as the central pillar of the nation, and which defines itself against an out-group that is seen to be undermining the nation. This comes with all the attendant mythmaking and re-writing of historical narratives that allow the in-group to retrench its claims to centrality. And the flipside of this is the inevitable spilling over of vitriol and violence against the perceived out-group. It’s good old-fashioned tribalism on the national scale, and is being indulged in India and the US right now in more or less equal measure.

Do you see any parallels with contemporary American society in this light?

One of the obvious parallels is that Muslims are being defined as part of the out-group in both places. That has its own specific historical background in each context, of course, but I think it’s instructive to look at the way in which leadership has played such a strong role in both cases. Both Trump and Modi have stoked the fires of nationalism, paid lip service to extreme far-right elements, and swayed voters with populist rhetoric playing to their fears of the out-group, as if they were taking their cues from the same textbook. But one major difference I see is that, whereas Trump savvily adopted these tactics when he stepped into the political arena, Modi has been at this for a long time, and is much more clearly rooted in the ideology behind his politics and party. What that actually means in terms of their lasting legacy after they leave office remains to be seen.

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