Leaders of the India Association of Kansas City were meeting at a Scooter's Coffee in south Overland Park Wednesday night to plan the first India Day celebration.
Most of these men did not know Srinivas Kutchibhotla, the 32 year old Garmin engineer and Indian immigrant who was shot and killed on Feb. 22, 2017, at Austin’s Bar and Grill in Olathe. Nor did they know his best friend, Alok Madasini, or Ian Grillot, a bar patron who intervened.
But they all agree the tragedy sent frightening ripples through the local Indian community.
All three men were shot by a gunman who opened fire after allegedly spewing anti-immigrant rhetoric. Olathe resident Adam Purinton is facing first-degree murder, first-degree attempted murder, hate crime and firearm charges in connection with the shooting spree.
Jagdeesh Subramanian, president of the India Association and a mechanical engineer at SPX Cooling Technologies in Overland Park, says the community's first reaction was one of shock.
“Why here? That was everyone’s first response," he says. "Kansas has always been very warm. I’ve never had any incidents of racism, name calling, or even staring at me because I look different."
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Subramanian says there was what he called a “paradigm shift” in the community.
“Stop going out in the evening, no going to bars anymore, no being alone, you know, stay in groups,” he says.
“When it happened we were all very concerned," says Brijpal Singh, chairman of the India Association. “We had the question do we belong here,” a question famously asked on a widely circulated Facebook post by Kuchibhotla's widow immediately after the shooting.
“But the kind of support we saw from the community, even the elected representatives, gives us good hope that everything is O.K.," Singh says. “Over this year now we really feel very safe.”
The Olathe shooting drew international attention. Kuchibhotla’s family urged Indians not to risk their children’s lives by sending them to the United States. They cautioned those already here to be vigilant, to watch their backs. Elected officials in India expressed concern about sending young people to pursue education and jobs in the U.S.
But in this country, vigils in memory of Kuchibhotla drew hundreds of people. Over $1 million flowed into several GoFundMe accounts to help with the families' medical costs. Sridhar Harohalli, a former chair of the India Association, says the outpouring of generosity was important in the healing process.
“I can’t believe it’s been a year,” he says. “So much has changed.”
He says his bosses have made a concerted effort to ensure he had time off to go to meetings and plan events in the wake of the shootings. People seemed to make a special effort to connect.
Brijpal Singh found the same thing. His colleagues at CenturyLink likewise reached out.
“If someone saw something on TV about India, they’d make a point to come to me at work the next day and say ‘I was watching this and I thought of you.’” he says.
The shootings underscored fears that President Donald Trump’s "America First" policies and rhetoric had whipped up xenophobia and legitimated hate, even violence, toward outsiders.
It’s a concern that has insinuated itself into the classroom of Kansas University law professor Raj Bhala, who teaches international trade and Islamic law and writes a column for Bloomberg Quint India. Speaking on KCUR’s Central Standard Thursday, Bhala said his classes on international law and particularly Islamic law have been increasingly clouded by concerns about the students' safety.
“The students come from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Korea and China, as well as all over Kansas and the country,” he says. “I hate to use this term because it’s so galling to me but for the wrong person, that’s a target-rich environment.”
After the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day last week, Bhala went over the security procedures with his classes once again.
Leaders of the local Indian community are planning their first India Day celebration at the Kansas Capitol on March 14, a day former Gov. Sam Brownback designated as Indian American Appreciation Day.
On March 9th, supporters of the community have planned a Memorial Peace Walk from Garmin to Austin's Bar and Grill and back. It's the day Kuchibhotla would have turned 33.