Today in Hinduphobia September 3, 2019: Bernie’s “Dear White People” Moment, Netflix’s Shiva, and the Violently Destructive Hindu-Civilizing Mission of the Corporate-Colonial Indian State
Hindus Died, and Bernie …
Senator Bernie Sanders recently decided to do what the blood-money global corporate media empire has been doing for a long time now; he erased the truth about the violent persecution of a whole group of human beings which has been systematically going on from medieval times and continues well into the present state of supposed enlightenment modernity as well.
He didn’t do this in any medieval, us-versus-them, good religion-bad religion fashion though; he’s too nice and indeed “enlightened” perhaps for that. He didn’t say he hates Hindus or that he wishes them all dead. I know he wouldn’t.
Yet, when Senator Sanders launched into a tirade about Kashmir without the slightest acknowledgment of the massive persecution of its indigenous Hindu population directly in medieval times and only very slightly less directly in modern times by a nuclear armed state machinery of religious intolerance and imperialist expansionism, he did what White people in positions of authority with all their privilege and power have been doing since colonial times to people of color, which is to seal their imminent extinction as somehow normal, or even desirable.
I know Senator Sanders stands for many progressive issues and humanitarian ideals, and my comparison of his position on Kashmir to colonizer violence and racist ignorance will sound very harsh to many people. I acknowledge that. It sounds harsh even to me, considering how much I admire him and his honest advocacy for the poor and powerless. And yet, as a student of culture and power, and as an advocate for anticolonial and antiracist movements, I have to explore the bigger picture here.
There is a far bigger picture that is relevant here than what Senator Sanders and many Westerners (including some of South Asian descent) seem to be assuming is the case in India when they blindly consume all the propaganda in the New York Times and other WMD-War promoting papers that have systematically excluded the voice of Hindus in their narrative of the history of the Indian subcontinent (see my Medium article, for example, on how the New York Times slyly erased any mention of the antiHindu dimension of the Pulwama bomber earlier this year, and even any clear mention of who the victims of his actions were).
So the best thing I can say about his position now is that he is deeply, profoundly misinformed, or perhaps I should say, dis-informed. It is temptingly simple to call this a mere attempt to say he did it just to win the votes of American Muslims over American Hindus and all that, but I hate to knock my idols and heroes that harshly. So I won’t, for the moment. I will simply explore how a well-meaning, peace-loving, principled progressive like Bernie Sanders falls into a racist, imperialist position normalizing the genocide against a long-silenced indigenous people in the global conversation today. We need to look at this from the perspective of both race, and religion, and of course, history around both.
If you are a White American liberal or progressive, chances are you are well aware of how limited your perspective is likely to be in understanding or talking about the complexities of the challenges faced by colonized people of color (or you should be). You would not wade into a conflict raging between two groups of people both of whom happened to be people of color presuming that somehow you are God and have omniscient authority to anoint the chosen people among them and cast the rest into hell or refugee camps or something. The old colonizers did things like that in the days of official colonialism, with their talk of civilizing missions and so on, but now, one might imagine that liberals at least are a little more careful and sensitive. President Trump can simply say that Kashmir is about Hindus and Muslims and leave it at that, but the supposedly enlightened white liberals of America presumably can engage with the issue with a little more depth, and a little more objective recognition of privilege, power, pain and accountability, if they chose to do so.
The Great White Hoax of “Hindu Equals White”
Yet, what has been happening in America for several years now among supposedly liberal or even progressive White commentators on India and Indian immigrants to the United States is the opposite of such caution, care or objectivity. To put it simply, these commentators have assumed wholesale that “Hindu equals White” despite our noticeably obvious complexion, history, and lack of privilege vis a vis real white whites, and decided to normalize a whole paradigm of silencing, exclusion, and even death against a postcolonial people, a people of color with a long history of suffering, just because they call themselves “Hindu.”
The signs of this “Hindu equal White” sleight of hand has left a trail all over media and academia in recent years like those mountains of human skulls that medieval imperialists constructed when they ravaged the unbelievers’ villages in India. The present conversation on racism and xenophobia in America has been centered around a carefully worded academic construct that includes “Brown, South Asian, Muslim, Arab and Sikh” for example, but avoids the word “Hindu” in there despite the fact that have been many instances of violence against Hindus in America, sometimes for being thought of as Muslim, sometimes for being Hindu, and always for being the racist’s hated Other.
And it hasn’t been just a quiet exclusion or accidental oversight. Most of the American experts (White and South Asian origin) on India have expanded the “Hindu equals White” assumption in their writing to make a case that Hindus and Muslims in India are in the same relationship as Whites and Blacks in America (and this has direct bearing on Bernie’s comments too, to which I will return shortly below). Foreign Policy experts, South Asia studies professors, columnists, and others have written extensively within that framework, rarely stopping to consider the very different history of Blacks in America and the coming of Islam to the Indian subcontinent.
Even an elementary grasp of history (or a modest notion of respect for truth and objectivity), would show us the contrast between the two situations. Whites today feel guilty (at least some) in relation to Blacks because Whites colonized, enslaved, exploited, and even continue to do so today through the prison-labor complex and so on. Most Hindus don’t feel guilty in relation to Muslims in India today because they did not colonize Arabia, nor bring back slaves from Muslim lands, nor put Muslims in labor camps today to force them to make stuff to sell abroad. It is painful to spell this difference out so plainly, but it seems our survival as Hindus is somehow caught up with it. That’s how bad things are. White people, even white people who wouldn’t wish extinction on a whole race, are now doing so every day through their words and actions by putting on mental blinders that magically makes every brown person who is Hindu suddenly invisible and their historic oppression unworthy of representation, and every white person talking down to them suddenly “not white” so they can say whatever they want about them.
Rich white capitalist CEO Jack Dorsey did it. Bernie Sanders did it. The editor of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffrey, did it. When you have decided that a people of color suddenly stop being people of color when you put the word “Hindu” up in front of your eyes, and you can condescend to tell them whether they can live or die, or keep their traditions or culture or not, you are being racist. You are resurrecting colonial white privilege in your words and actions even if you claim to be something else now. Simple as that.
How this cruel absurdity of Browns becoming Whites and Whites suddenly becoming “not-White” just enough to continue being racist without guilt or self-reflection has been manufactured is worth revisiting briefly, and it also reveals much about the peculiarities of American war-machine meddling in postcolonial South Asia too.
Colonial Racism and Religious Supremacism: The Foundations
I am presently studying the history of Hindu representation in American media for a new book and a new seminar I will be teaching next year on Hinduphobia. I believe there is a strong case for recognizing how both race and religion have been deployed in powerful Western discourses about India and Indian people from colonial times to the present. In the days of peak “official” colonialism, when Britain ruled India and America collaborated with Britain’s colonial project despite the occasional sympathy of a few Americans to Indian resistance, the people of India, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and others, were clearly seen as non-White, people of color, and therefore deserving of colonization by Whites, the “civilizing mission,” exclusion on racial grounds from immigrating to America, and so on.
However, the pinnacle of power that was colonial White privilege clearly did not see all colored people as the same, and religion was the key determinant in that second-step of exclusion and oppression. American xenophobia may have seen Hindus and Muslims both as part of a different race, but it made a clear distinction between Hindus and Muslims in terms of who was considered “better.” The most important example of this double prejudice, of race and religion, was the anti-immigration activist Katherine Mayo’s 1927 book Mother India.
Mayo’s denunciation of Indians as a savage, unhygienic race that posed a grave health risk to the planet clearly spells out an hierarchy, with White Protestants at the top, “Mahomedans” just below, and the genetically and culturally “debased” Hindu at the bottom (on a side note: “debasement” is a favorite word of Mayo’s racist lexicon against Hindus, and still in favor among some-present day missionary propaganda-influenced scholars and activists).
Mayo’s book is important for us to understand today because it is the foundation of much of what is said even today about Hindus and about India in general, even if some sensibilities may have changed (no one in academia would openly declare Hindus as a debased “race” anymore for instance, as the discourse about racism has progressed enough to at least grant that concession to us, but the prejudices remain at play in other forms as I show below).
Cold War Religious Supremacist Hierarchy: Christians, Muslims, Hindus
The historian Andrew Rotter tells us in his book Comrades at Odds that as late as the 1950s, Mayo’s book was voted as the one book that defined influential Americans’ view of India. It was one of the most successful propaganda projects in modern times.
Rotter also talks about what happened next, and this takes us back directly to Senator Sanders’ comments on Kashmir, and the bizarre situation with Hindu identity in American discourses in terms of race and religion today.
US Foreign Policy in the Cold War era was profoundly shaped by the Mayo-like prejudice of devaluing Hindus as an inferior people by White Christians in comparison to Muslims (though, as Rotter notes, the civil rights movement had ensured that these prejudices never officially expressed themselves in the language of “race” any longer). The Washington establishment therefore favored the newly created Islamic state of Pakistan over the desperately secular state of India (though India formally called itself “secular” only later, it was in Prime Minister Nehru’s years already seeing itself as one, which in practice meant “anti-Hindu apartheid” as the last example in this essay will painfully remind us). If the “Military-Industrial” complex favored Pakistan as a trustworthy ally because its Christian leaders saw Pakistan’s Muslim Generals as strong, brave, fellow monotheists — stronger than Hindus and India generally — the everyday American assumption in media and education ended up manufacturing a different popular perception; of Pakistan as the subaltern “underdog” to big, powerful, “Hindu-majoritarian” India (I do not make any arguments at this time about the merits of any of these claims, but am merely mapping out the contradictions in the manufactured discourse on South Asia that many Americans, even well-meaning liberals like Bernie Sanders, take for granted).
The Demonized Hindu of the Post-Cold War Neo-Liberal Interventionist Imagination
Then, post 1990s, even as the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended, the American military-industrial framework on South Asia (it was “South Asia” now, not the “Indian subcontinent”) somehow retained the popular assumption that Pakistan was somehow innately threatened by a Hindu-majority India engulfed by “Hindu Nationalism”, even while the newly ascendant field of South Asia studies sought to pervert the whole critical project in academia by morphing “Hindus” into the “Whites” of India (and even of America because the Hindu Americans are relatively economically successful and so on) and erasing or whitewashing centuries of Hindu and Indian oppression by twin religious-imperialisms. Then, after the tragic attacks of 9/11 happened, and the horrible moral crime of going to war against a country that had nothing to do with it also happened, suddenly the discourse on Islamophobia came doubly hard at Hindus, cementing this ill-conceived propaganda notion that “Whites, Hindus, Jews” constituted some new axis of world power and oppressiveness (I have even seen people use the words “Nazis, Jews, Brahmins” in one breath to describe the “oppressor” syndicate presumably).
While the conversation and concerns about what American foreign policy had done to civilians in the Middle East, about Islamophobia and the Muslim victims of this policy, rightly grew around the world, the conversation about Hindus and about India completely erased any truthful representation of the history of Hindu pain. Instead, the academic South Asia paradigm advanced a brave new world (or “Year Zero” to use the more appropriate label from The Man in the High Castle) vision of “South Asian” history. A dominant paradigm emerged of sorts out of academia arguing that there never was an India before 1947 (so let’s call it “South Asia” instead) and no indigenous cultures broadly labelled as Hinduism either (so let’s pretend no “Hindus” also means no need to talk about Hindus being killed, converted forcefully, or displaced by imperialisms medieval and terrorisms modern); and yet, you can, even if you are White, suddenly talk about “Hindus” as “oppressors.”
Like some Quantum physics experimental cat destined to die either way; you don’t exist when injustice against you is what we are speaking about, ergo, no injustice ever happened to you, but you do exist very much when you use your name and we declare that you have caused all injustice around you against even those who are more powerful than you and also that you have not sufficiently repented for and must therefore erase yourself!
Enter Bernie. Well-meaning Bernie. Hoping to speak for the underdog Bernie.
Turned out to be nuclear-armed religious-imperialist-state propaganda-talking-points Bernie.
I sincerely hope Senator Sanders will understand why so many Indians who were sincerely fond of him are upset with him. Conscience without intellect means nothing at all. Conversely, it is only with intellect, with respect for truth, that we can speak and act on conscience too.
The truth about Kashmir now and in the future is complex, and I am sure losing the internet and other restrictions have been unpleasant for people who live there. Yet, we cannot hope for a better life for all if we fail to recognize the truth of what has happened there, not only in the distant past, but as recently as 1990. American institutions knew all that was going on there quite well; yet American power ignored it all, even propped it all up, and simply carried on with its old racism against Hindus even as it pretended having a few rich Hindus around here made it all okay. And now, it is American power, of that same nature, not its people’s, nor its idealists’, but that of its callous plutocrats, that is speaking against the last (loosely) held indigenous nation of the world today. Change is imminent. I hope we can make it inevitable.
Meanwhile, in that last loosely-held and fast-loosening indigenous peoples’ nation of India:
Hinduphobia remains rampant, violent, and widespread, unlike in the U.S. where it remains mostly confined to academic-media-policy circles with only occasional physical flare-ups like crimes against temples and priests.
(Note: You might hear instantly defensive reactions from a part of your own mind perhaps now; “what Hinduphobia?” And “Hindus are the majority” and “Narendra Modi is a Hindu Nationalist.” Of course, you will. That’s what propaganda does. Read my recent petition on anti-Hindu violence here).
Reality, meanwhile, is what it is, and it is not pleasant. The post-colonial Indian state operates with all the brutality and violence of a callous modern state against Hindus every day, while supporters of Narendra Modi plead with increasingly disenchanted Hindus that either all this is not happening or that it is somehow good for the “development” of India (and when they are not pleading, they are threatening, reminding Hindus that if the Congress came back there would be no one to protect Hindus and so on).
The anti-Hindu nature of the Indian state is a growing concern among Hindus in India who feel powerless before its might, and also feel silenced since world media (and most Indian media) tend to assume that only Muslims feel the force of the state in India as a minority. While there is much to unpack about Hinduphobia in India which I will leave for a later post, I share below just two events from the past week.
One, an important Indian Supreme Court judge recently declared that Hindus did not really need places of worship and could simply go worship in a mosque instead. This is one more statement in a long line of diktats and cultural death-threats emanating from Indian political elites against Hinduism, where Hindus are denied control over their own institutions and elites argue zealously that the liberal, pluralistic nature of Hindu deities makes it okay for non-Hindu actors to have control over them. In effect, extracting temples from the traditional civic and cultural roles in local spaces and handing them over for corporate-state exploitation.
Two, even as we read these words, a lone Hindu priest sits in protest helplessly as bulldozers demolish centuries-old temple structures in the state of Odisha. The government wishes to create open spaces for tourism. Watch this profoundly depressing video of the destruction here.
Today in Hinduphobia must be the worst of them all. So far.
Postscript: Netflix Makes Up Whatever Nonsense it Wants Yet Again
On a lighter, or “what’s this compared to centuries of genocide” note, I share something that my friend Devanshu Arya caught from the talented writers over at Netflix: