Today in Hinduphobia October 20, 2019: Madam Secretary Does the Same Thing Every Night… Try to Take Over the World!

The CBS series Madam Secretary (now streaming on Netflix) is a fine example of what happens when the American generation that came of age in the 1960s dreaming of an end to imperialism and colonialism fully completes its journey towards becoming the biggest, meanest, cringiest agents of the same thing. The only difference of course is that this crowd grew up armed with the verbal tools of anti-colonialism, and now knows how to speak the language of resistance, egalitarianism, diversity, and all the other good stuff while doing the absolute opposite.

This crowd, to put it plainly, is the new war establishment, trying to take over the world just like Brain and Pinky, but they are both more and less successful at it. They are more successful than our favorite lab mice in the sense that they do have a vast network of influence, an empire if you will, inherited from earlier generations that were open and honest about what they were doing and why (we think your skin color/religion/gods suck and we deserve to own your land/resources/labor/minds). But they are also less successful than them in the sense that it is easier to laugh at a cartoon than a cartel; a cartel of cultural and intellectual missionaries out to convince you that war is peace, ignorance is knowledge, and most of all, your struggle for freedom from their lies is, well, evil.

I began watching Madam Secretary yesterday, after reading a series of Tweets from Neha Srivastava on its bizarre (and yet not unusual) depictions of Hindus. While there is much that people from far corners of the world now united by exasperation at American television delusions of grandeur can critique about its fantasies of neo-liberal greatness rooted in an unchanging colonial-centuries-old presumption that the Other is not really worth knowing on her or his terms really, I focus below on a few episodes in which the story dwells on Hindu characters and normalizes Hinduphobic tropes.

And God Smote the Ganges!

The Secretary of State is on a trip to India, where her crew is wondering about the inscrutable orientals and their mysterious body language. The Indian equivalent of the American Madam Secretary is also a Madam Minister, and while there is a modern woman bond between them depicted as is appropriate for the “liberal” part of a “neo-liberal” fantasy perhaps, the woman who is not white must naturally be shown as outside the pale of clear communication. Is she smiling? Or is she smirking? Our intrepid Indianas wonder. Maybe it’s a “smirkle,” they conclude.

Meanwhile, just as things are thawing between the well-meaning explorers and the culturally difficult Indians, an earthquake hits! Not only that, a diplomatic crisis now unfolds as an American company-owned factory has exploded and set the Ganges on fire. Madam Secretary and Madam Minister have a video chat about the issue. The Americans have a talented team of firefighters they are ready to send to India. But the Indian government won’t allow them to come because the Indian Prime Minister is a “nationalist” (watch that word, now) and wants to blame America. America, of course won’t apologize because the company followed India’s own rules which called for safety precautions upto a 7.0 earthquake but not a 7.3 earthquake.

In an innocently genocidal moment that sounds like Lady Amherst (assuming there was one) wondering “But why won’t they take our blankets to stay warm and cosy?” Madam Secretary leaves us exasperated too that the Indians lack “compassion” for their own people and won’t accept American life-savers.

There are several classic colonial tropes at work in this story. The first one, of course, is the normalization of the “third world” as a site of unexplained natural disasters. The image of brown-skinned people being exterminated in vast numbers by acts of an Angry God seems to offer as much pleasure to the modern largely post-Christian audience as it did to earlier consumers of colonial missionary propaganda. The question to really ask here is why this trope exists in a particular cultural industry, and why it doesn’t in others. India’s Bollywood (and other Woods) for example, make many more movies each year than Hollywood, and somehow, the genre of disaster movies really haven’t caught on there as much as they have in the West. Maybe there is some old cultural memory of belief in a punitive deity playing out that scholars would do well to educate Western media cultures about…

The other colonial trope here is the idea of the inadequacy of the post-colonial political project itself, a very paternalistic sort of dismissal of other peoples’ democracies as somehow incapable of producing compassionate or decent leaders (and the “democracy” tag for India is relevant, because there is much storyline devoted to Pakistan’s military leaders too). From Katherine Mayo’s Mother India to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the trope of the rich, corrupt native leader or the non-Christian spiritual figure as a danger to his own people is a pervasive one. It was used by the war merchants all the way in the case of Iraq and Libya, it is presently in play perhaps at a less obviously militaristic way in the big media about India its demonization tactics of Prime Minister Modi. American foreign policy is about compassion, Indian politics are about false pride (presumably because they worship “false gods,” thought that isn’t something the well educated crowd would say outright).

Render Unto Pakistan, What is Pakistan’s…

Another hilarious Cold War era (see my post on Bernie Sanders on Medium here) “Bad Hindu, Good Muslims” trope shows up in a storyline about a Pakistani plane carrying a nuclear device that has crashed in India. Madam Secretary is hard at work suddenly to make sure that India and Pakistan don’t go “MAD” and destroy billions of lives because of it.

Lots of complex negotiations take place. India agrees to let an American team retrieve the bomb. The Pakistani Prime Minister insists that the team retrieve the bomb AND return it to Pakistan or else the military will topple his government.

Naturally, the good Americans do what is best for all. They accept the Pakistani premise, and tell the Indians to fall in line.

Who writes this stuff?

Killer Hindus, Terrorist Hindus, Nationalist Hindus (and oh, White Nationalists Too)

The notion of “Hindu violence against Muslims” is invoked several times in the series, reminescent of everything from New York Times and NPR headlines to Slumdog Millionaire, Sacred Games, Leila, and other shows. The important point to note here is not just the question of whether “Hindu violence against Muslims” has happened or never happened in India, but whether the media telling a story (or claiming to report the news) is: a) right to call it “Hindu” violence and impute a religious-belief angle to it and b) going out of its way to pretend there is no such thing at all as “Muslim” violence against Hindus in India (from Muslims in India such as this week’s stabbing death of Kamlesh Tiwari or from outside India such as the case of the 26/11 Mumbai massacre).

The poor, well-meaning, fair and free American State department tries its best to assure the concerned Pakistani General to come to talks with the Indian Minister. Naturally, there is no mention at all of any kind of religious-bigotry or prejudice against Hindus playing out from the Pakistani side. The dramatic tension on the Pakistani side is only the tension internally between the political leadership and the military. The Americans are never quite shown questioning the Pakistani assertion that whatever they do in relation to India is simply in order to protect Muslims in India from the Hindus.On the other hand, there is actually a whole scene, with some consequence to the story at that (India pulls out of the talks, although Madam Secretary’s team has organized a nice vegetarian meal with many entrees for them, at the talks), written in to show Madam Secretary’s husband debating an Indian speaker at an academic conference and defeating his claim of Hindu right to self-defence as actually terrorism against minorities. This is probably the most outlandish fiction of the series among many lies and fantasies for the simple reason that I am yet to see an Indian academician who talks about Hindu victims of Muslim violence being invited to speak at a major conference as shown in the series!

The ravenous propaganda-appetite of the writing here is worth noting in a little more detail. The strawman figure of the Indian speaker here is not even given the line where the nature of what Hindus are defending themselves from is not mentioned. Furthermore, it’s not just “Hindus” who are mentioned here but the strange killer-propaganda construct of the “Hindu majority,” as if Hindus can be tolerated as “safe” by the more civilized religions and races only if they are a “minority.” Once again, we see the same sort of demonization tactics about Hindus as an innately savage lot we have seen in news discourses for some time now at play here.

The deepest colonial-era racial-religious fears that this sort of propaganda draws on though cannot merely leave this matter alone to the far-away context of geopolitics in South Asia. After all, the “civilizing mission” could have worked to win over public support for the likes of Winston Churchill in their countries not just for saving the heathens from themselves, but from ultimately saving the innocent angels of the civilized world from the Thugs and their religion. The violence is brought home to the United States, suddenly and dramatically, right to that symbolic bastion of safety, the White House itself. India and Pakistan are finally about to sign an agreement, and a character has strolled off to another room to find a pen (aww), when —

Was it a“Hindu Nationalist Cell”? Was it some “Pakistani ex-pats”? (Yes, that’s the way the two possible culprits for the bomb blast are framed in the dialogues; if it’s “Hindu” on one side, it can’t be “Muslim” on the other because that’s inappropriate, and if it’s “Nationalist” on one side, it can’t be “Nationalist” on the Pakistani side because “Pakistan” can’t be paired with any word unpleasant, naturally, so “expats,” it is, break-offs from the otherwise peaceful cultural mainland and mainstream).

It’s a very nasty piece of violence. Even though most of the main characters are safe, a very nice, maternal mentor to Madam Secretary’s daughter is shown suffering with a shard of glass stuck to her chest, and she dies. Damn you, “Nationalists!” (the culprits are finally revealed to be a White Nationalist groups called the “Aryan Popular Front.”

The repetitive construction of a dangerous chimera about possible “Hindu Nationalist Cells” in mainstream American pop culture is something that the Indian government, despite having a whole ministry for ensuring the welfare of the Indian diaspora, seems to lack any understanding about (also see the controversy over Quantico, here). Hindu advocacy groups in the United States too seem unable to muster up the sort of conviction and depth needed to create a consensus within what is clearly a highly compromised corporate media establishment that this sort of demonization of a community is unacceptable and must stop.

This is how the “Yellow Peril” and other scares started in the past, and while every immigrant community in America seems to have seriously engaged in confronting the question of representation, Hindus seem largely in denial, or worse, in some wondrous spelling-bee and CEO salary delusion of success. If prime-time American TV can concoct a fear in the mind of millions of Americans that there is such a thing as a “Hindu Nationalist Cell” operating in their country, their neighborhoods, capable of blowing up nice old white ladies, you are being targeted, every single Hindu in this country, whether you wish to deny it or not.

The tragedy is that many Hindus have already adjusted themselves to this climate of cultural genocide. Self-congratulatory first-generation parents build big temples and have big shows of culture only to find many of their kids grow up believing it’s oppressive or morally inappropriate to use the word “Hindu”, and take on the less smeared “South Asian” identity instead. Some of them become successful politicians too and join big lie projects, defending war, violence, bigotry and forced displacement of Hindu minorities freely and proudly (and the parents too just cover up, making a virtue where there is none). Even the younger Americans who don’t feel such a discomfort about continuing their Hindu practices fail to see themselves as in any way at risk by the sustained demonization campaigns against Hindus; finding it convenient to mobilize against what they see as bigotry and Islamophobia within the community but never speaking up against Hinduphobia. It’s easy to play “civilizing mission” on your own self when you’re colonized than actually act anti-colonial isn’t it?

The harsh truth about being a Hindu today is that we are on the verge of being collected from big time for having postponed the inevitable social duty of thinking seriously about what it means to live in a diverse world. What are our duties to other human beings? Can we empathize with other Hindus who may not have the safety some of us who are more privileged have to deny the existence of Hinduphobia? Or do we vainly put on the garb of the American upper crust just because some of our parents got here first and got sold on the myth of model-minorityhood, that we should not speak up against untruth?

The last episode of Madam Secretary I left off with was a grand climax of sorts in which real-life Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and General Colin Powell make an appearance. They speak of the great danger facing the world, much as how their predecessors perhaps spoke in the halls of power about “Communists,” or about the “Red Man.” The great danger to the future of the world now of course is what the Hindus have been disturbing Madam Secretary about so much these past few seasons (and others too, but mainly the Hindus). It is “nationalism.” It’s what got Madam Albright’s grandparents murdered. It is what threatens us all now, and the Hindus have got it so bad it seems. No one quite knows what the difference is between just being Hindu and being “Nationalist” but everyone in control of the media at least has decided one can be smeared, demonized, targeted, as much as any bigot wants, under the cover of the other.

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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.