Today in Hinduphobia February 21, 2021: Capitalism, Rihanna, Blood Mica, Ganesha.

The singer-entrepreneur Rihanna recently advertised her lingerie line on Instagram while wearing an image of the Hindu god Ganesha.

She perhaps did not quite realize that there was a bigger elephant in the room that was going to get disturbed in the process!

In this case, that elephant in the room isn’t necessarily Hinduphobia alone, as the title of this series might suggest, but really a deeper rot one of whose thriving manifestations in the public sphere today is the inevitable hatred for Hinduism and Hindus from the privileged and the intolerant. That rot is of course, capitalism. And, in this case, it’s the haughtiest stage of capitalism that plagues the planet: capitalism masquerading as its own antidote, with its culture of commodification of conscience and its system of managed dissent, lurking from beneath its media-staged slogans like Resistance, Social Justice, Concern for the Poor and Oppressed, Change! (Note: I don’t discount all these slogans nor all who live by them; just stating the obvious that these ideals too when in the hands of corporations and celebrities are often highly appropriated, commodified, and weaponized in ways too obvious to miss)

This is the main context in which we might locate the flux of media attention (and convenient forgetting) that has surrounded the figure of Rihanna since her much-discussed tweet about a farmer’s protest in India two weeks ago. Since then, there have been two other very interesting news moments about Rihanna and the broader predatory relationship of global capitalism to India that are relevant to our discussion; one news item has got some attention in the media, while the other one, strangely enough, has got virtually no notice at all in the media outside India.

A Tale in Three Parts

A few days after Rihanna’s tweet demanding to know why we are not talking about farmer’s protests in India (which, sympathies for actual farming issues aside, is actually quite a stunt against facticity considering the Western media including the BBC, New York Times, NPR, and many other outlets have covered this issue 250 million times already — wait, sorry, they just said 250 million Indians are on strike — but you get the point, they did cover the protests extensively; NYT alone had about 10 stories between December 1st 2020 and February 1st 2021 and they were talking about it), Indian news media reported on something that global labor, child rights, and environmental activists should be at least curious about: concerns that Rihanna’s cosmetics company might be sourcing mica from mines in India where children are used as laborers.

Now fans of Rihanna and her cosmetics might be concerned that this news is merely a smear-campaign launched by the Indian government or its supporters against her (the Ministry of External Affairs made a rare public statement in response to her tweet and those of Greta Thunberg urging them to focus on facts regarding the farm bill). India’s leading snarky-headline paper The Telegraph reported that the labor-rights NGO that filed a complaint against Rihanna’s Fenty brand was “associated” with the RSS, the vast patriotic volunteer group that oversees the “man-making” of many leaders of India’s ruling party.

The Telegraph’s story, however, does not deny that there is a serious problem with hundreds of children getting exposed to respiratory hazards as they try to extract mica from abandoned mines in Jharkhand; nor does it attempt to offer evidence that Rihanna’s company is innocent. Multiple reports in India have noted that Fenty Beauty does not have the certification normally offered by companies to show they do not use child labor (on a seemingly unrelated note, the BBC reports that Rihanna’s fashion line will be closing).

Now, while the complaint made to India’s Child Rights Commission might take its course, and we may or not come to know for sure how morally culpable Rihanna and her customers are for the pain of the exploited child workers in this situation, I wish to turn our attention to my main object of study, the media. There is a marked difference in how news about Rihanna has played in the media over the last few days. While the news of Rihanna’s tweet angering the Indian government got huge coverage in both the Western media and the Indian press, the news of the child labor concern over her products was almost completely silenced in the Western media.

Coverage Compared

Here are some of the headlines about Rihanna’s tweet, reported in such prominent outlets such as Fox News, Vox, and BBC:

Here are some of the headlines about the child labor investigation:

Why does a celebrity’s tweet make the news, while the same celebrity’s business interests that might actually harm the well-being of the children of the same sort of poor rural communities she believes her tweet is helping are not an issue of interest for the news media at all?

I cannot say “Capitalism 101” because after swallowing lands, lakes, rivers, villages, farms, workers, families, lives, this machine now seems to have entered a whole new realm of operation beyond Capitalism “101,” gnawing not just at our thoughts and beliefs, but the very sense of moral integrity we like to think constitute ourselves as human beings. Call it Starbucks Activism or what you will, but that is the problem we have to engage with here. You can’t naively outrage at your friends that “no one is talking about farmers” because the sellebrity machine said so, while also accepting the same machine’s calculated suppression of news that contradicts its pretense to be your Bestie With (Moral) Benefits.

Now, for the last part of this bizarre death dance of capitalist media culture around this commodified “inclusivity” cosmetics purveyor, the Hinduphobia part.

As if on cue, Rihanna made for another wave of news in and about India (about Indian reactions mostly) by posing for a lingerie photograph wearing an icon of the sacred Hindu deity Ganesha.

Ganesha Desecration is Staged, and Covered

Most news reports, predictably, touched on how different people in India tweeted or expressed their outrage about their religious “sentiments” (a word of the weak, or shall we say, the systematically weakened). The opinion pieces, somewhat more brazenly, sought to argue that Hindus ought to stop complaining about this incident as an act of cultural appropriation, and feel proud as South Asians that a piece of South Asian culture was being celebrated so.

Before we unpack these arguments let’s remember the big picture again about all this.

Capitalism. Colonialism. Propaganda. Media.

In the old days, Hindu-haters turned up in “South Asia” to destroy Hindu gods and temples first, and then captured Hindu women and children to be sold or used as slaves.

In the present day, sellebrities (may or not be “Hindu-haters” who knows) turn up in India to exploit its children as laborers, customers, propaganda puppets, and then rub it in by flaunting their hatred for India’s Hindu gods (Rihanna, in another case of cultural hurt, apologized for displaying Islamic holy words, so the arrogance is clearly not just with Indians but with Hindus it would seem).

Having said that, let me focus on two arguments made about Rihanna and Ganesha.

One argument, made by a writer named Saira Khan in the U.K. Mirror, begins by noting that the author’s mother, a “Pakistani Muslim woman,” proudly wore her South Asian clothes in the UK, and goes on to insist that this is not a case of cultural appropriation. Princess Diana, she notes, wore a Salwar Kameez when visiting Pakistan and that was just appreciation. Now, Ms. Khan presumably would know that there is a difference between appreciation of sacred depictions in an appropriate manner (like how Rihanna herself understood when she apologized for her use of Islamic messages), and casual attire. And of course, in this age when everyone is supposedly educated about identity, how does a non-Hindu really get to assume to speak for Hindus on this matter? I mean, “South Asian” may be a religion over there in some Ivy League, but none of us here in the human world speak it, much less live in it.

It’s so bizarre it’s funny, and it’s so oblivious to privilege it is scary.

Speaking of “privilege,” the second argument in defense of Rihanna insists that the author has spent his life calling out exploitation so he knows this isn’t it. He says that the appropriation criticism only works when made by a less dominant group against a more powerful one (which I have no problem with in general), and then proceeds to set up a strange set of big/small oppositions. He says that the people complaining about Rihanna are rich Indian Americans who give a lot of money to white yoga businesses, and links rather vindictively if inadequately to an article about a “white woman” who brought Yoga to America (Indra Devi, a complex symbol it seems in the Yoga world but to me just another Sathya Sai devotee who incidentally has been used by New York Beckies to smear a beloved, selfless, “lower caste” Guru of the people like Baba, and of course prosper from it).

Then, he tries to present Rihanna as someone on the side of the powerless vis-à-vis the powerful Indian government. The government is not powerless, true (and another government-bullying issue Western media haven’t noticed is the fact that Indian celebrities like Sachin Tendulkar and the 91-year-old Lata Mangeshkar who tweeted in opposition to Rihanna and Greta have been investigated by their local governments which are against the national ruling party!)

The issue with Rihanna and Ganesha is no longer the government now frankly but Hindus. After all, Rihanna took the fight by making her Ganesha statement not to Modi or the BJP but to Hinduism. And this is how it inevitably happens. Whether it is Shashi Tharoor professing to be a liberal Hindu opposed to Hindutva, or many Western political opponents of Narendra Modi insisting they are not Hinduphobic but only against Modi/BJP/Hindu Nationalism, inevitably, they have slid more than once towards smearing not just a politician but Hinduism and all Hindus.

Just think of the word “Bhakth.” Or “Sanskar.” Or NPR’s Furkan Khan.

And now, from supposedly helping farmers to spewing Hindu-hate.

Anyway.

Rihanna, according to this report, is worth 600 million dollars (and even if her fans insist it isn’t appropriation if she isn’t actually selling Ganesha, for a celebrity, and for a celebrity promoting a clothing brand at that, the “prop” does count as appropriation in the pursuit of profit).

Rihanna is not a subaltern relationship with India and Indians in any way at all.

Rihanna, as we have seen, can prosper (possibly) off a third world post-colony’s environment- and childhood- ravaging misery, and not even have a whisper about it appear in her metropolitan media world.

A friend on Twitter recently coined the phrase “diaspora-splaining.” The South Asian diaspora in its enthusiasm to replicate American race and class in its moral-selfie-centric approach to India, rarely gets beyond calling it caste and class and then just collapsing both into each other. Just an aside.

But anyway. I started this essay by talking about the elephant in the room. Privilege is still that elephant in the room, even among, or especially among, those who speak of it with absolute certainty these days. Rihanna, the world media, the sellebrity business with its agents, PR firms, merchandizers, middlemen, child-labor beneficiaries… all of this is the world that seems to have faded from view simply because of one tweet, a few keystrokes on a touch-screen glass “about” a political theater that neither Rihanna, nor Greta, nor the diasporasplainers seem to care to know too much about.

I am reminded of that painful scene towards the end of the movie Peepli: Live. The “poor farmer” that the media produce for the consumption of their viewers (and his imminent suicide), actually turns out to be not the real story at all. He was poor, yes, and he was in a bad situation, as many farmers are. But the real story ignored by the media circus is the lone man digging earth every day to sell the soil, every day till he dies.

It should not be too difficult for defenders of the poor, the oppressed, and the silenced to see that what is happening with Hinduphobia is not just some cosmetic complaint of a handful of upper class Hindus or Nationalists on the internet, but the very existence of the poor of India who have been ripped out of their sustainable ways of living by a monstrous, irrational hate for centuries now. It should not be too hard at all for those who care to see that most of the discourse on class and wealth in India has been a smokescreen, a convenient game of Whack-a-Brahmin or just Blame-a-Hindu, as many articles in my series here have talked about. Who does it serve really, when rich white Americans (or sometimes rich non-white Americans too) are presented as somehow “less privileged” than 80% of India’s population just because that population happens to be, still, Hindu?

Rihanna’s display of Ganesha may or may not be an act of deliberate distraction, or denigration. But its meaning is still what it is, connected to histories of violence, genocide, theft, enslavement, and one that is continuing still.

After all, is it not for the sake of more land, more business, more power, that the “Yehovah is my keeper” graffiti goes up on boulders around the sacred ancient lands of Yaganti Uma Maheshwara even as they are all blasted to powder every day?

Is it not for greed that the head of an ancient Rama in Andhra Pradesh is cut off by the descendant of someone who perhaps defended that god and that temple once long ago?

Is it not for greed that the Indian state leeches into temples and turns them into tourist sites and commercial (and environmental) disaster zones?

And is it not for greed that Indian entrepreneurs and politicians and even consumers allow the extinction of ancient traditions of craftsmanship and art while prospering off soulless Chinese-factory-produced Ganeshas and Lakshmis?

The elephant in the room is still capitalism. And this capitalism is Hinduphobic, just as Hinduphobia is also capitalistic. The resistance to capitalism that is invoked in the protests against the farm bill may or may not be just that, and I leave that matter to the experts. But the wrapping up of the discourse about these protests, from the violent attack on Gandhi in California to the opportunistic dig at Hindus by Rihanna, into a maniacal wave of hatred against indigenous Hindus by far right power trippers using lefty labels as shields….

The hope there is is still is not from the rich, of the South Asianist Left or the Patriotic Indian Right, but simply from and for the poor, the “lower castes,” defending Hinduism, weeping for the loss of our gods and sacred lands, still, whether in Sabarimala, or in the hills of Andhra.

The South Asian Left needs to realize that Hinduphobia is a face of Global Capitalism too.

The Indian Right needs to realize that Capitalism is a face of Hinduphobia too.

***

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Vamsee Juluri

Vamsee Juluri

Author of Firekeepers of Jwalapuram, Part 2 of The Kishkindha Chronicles (Westland, 2020) & Media Studies Professor at the University of San Francisco.