Becoming in Diaspora

At the junction of East-West and South-North, modern and postmodern citizenship, past and future collide in diaspora. In the United States, for those of and from India, those newly arrived, and those who have made this new and strange land theirs, dreams carry the promise and poison of history. In this nation become Empire, built on theft of Native American lands, genocide, slavery and immigration, discourses of freedom link capital with alienated labor, and memory with assimilation. This becoming is violent, its taxonomies are gendered and racialized, hierarchal in ways that cheerfully collaborate with the patriarchal cultures of "home."

Such becoming produces complex, often-convenient, politics and morality that vitiate against a self-reflexive gaze. Caste, religion, gender, ethnicity still nuance the markers of association and segregation, as we are reshaped at the intersections of the local, governmental and transnational. Our experiences of race and racism allow a scripting of injustice but not necessarily reflection on our interactions with privilege and power mediated by class, gender, nation, sexuality, state and statelessness. We are perhaps more invested in claiming affinity with the margins of history than challenging the landscape of inequities that affect and implicate us differently. In between the coming-from and going-to, the interstices of "non-resident Indian/resident alien," "American Born Indian," the pan-ethnic "Asian-American," many are on a fast track to acquiring the brown version of "white." The democratizing power of capital and the forgetting necessitated by New World assimilation furthers our distance from each other, as, in private life, in increasing isolation, we seek our re-birth. Alienation is the superglue that holds us, as familial and social ties are reconstituted, under duress or in liberation, through surrogate kinships.

British imperialism, and internal discriminations of caste, religion, gender and class have compelled desire, chosen exiles and forced evictions, in colonial and postcolonial times, from India to the Caribbean, the Middle East, to Malaysia, Mauritius, Trinidad, Guyana, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Europe, Australia, and the Americas. Punjabis, primarily Sikhs, were among the first within the Indian diaspora to arrive on the West Coast about a hundred years ago, to work the fields of California and lumber mills of Washington. In 1907, Asian-Indians were targeted in the Bellingham race riot. In 1913, the Hindustan Gadar (revolutionary) Party was formed in San Francisco. The Immigration Act of 1917 in effect banned Asians from the United States and naturalized citizenship was conferred on "whites" exclusively. People from India attempted to identify themselves as Aryan, Indo-Aryan, bearing testimony to ethnocentrism. Immigrant groups in the United States have not formed "black" as a strategic political identity in opposition to white racism (contrary to Britain where the framing of black identity is not to appropriate "blackness" but to create alliance), and attempt to establish themselves as "white/Caucasian," "almost-white," seeking to pass rather than construct solidarities against a racist aristocracy.

Subcontinental politics resonates on the cricket fields and within diasporic political movements, some emancipatory, some malicious. Among the latter is Hindu nationalism. Animosities travel the oceans. Even here, in other worlds, Muslims and Hindus, Hindus and Sikhs, feminists and patriarchs, first and third generations frequently do not speak with each other, do not know each other, and often mistrust each other. After all, the memories of place and remembrances of history cannot be reconciled in displacement, they demand confrontation and engagement, which, when denied, remain weapons that can wound. Alliance and association are predicated on the politicization of identity. Inconsistencies thrive. In a moment of celebration as Rumi, a second generation Indo-American lesbian, and Yolanda, her African-American partner, and Irfan, their Pakistani friend, stroll Gay Pride in the Castro in San Francisco, in Sunnyvale, the Hindu temple hosts a fundraiser for Ekal Vidyalayas, schools that indoctrinate adivasis (tribals) into Hinduism. As we debate the idea of an independent Kashmir, or discuss the genocide in Gujarat of 2002 at an university event, Hindu nationalists mobilize to honor Narendra Modi, its architect.

In the United States, the fervor and funding of long distance Hindutva nationalism is intense. In dominant narrative, Hindu = India, Hindutva = Patriotism. Hindu extremist groups dedicated to promoting a Hindu theocracy in India advocate Hindu "Tatva" or principles, Nazi inspired. There is little space from which to combat its misogynist and strident insistence. Supporters have registered counterparts of major Sangh Parivar (Hindu nationalist) organizations in the United States, of varied denominations. Sangh: Overseas Friends of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which unlike the Congress, has widespread backing in the United States, Vishwa Hindu Parishad-America; Sangh affiliated: India Development Relief Fund, Hindu University of America; Sangh endorsing: Indian American Forum for Political Education.

Deriving consent from Hindu cultural dominance in India, Hindutva hierarchicalizes difference, making Hinduism canonical and monolithic, posing as indigenous to nation keeping. Discourses of sexualized and structural violence are disguised in history/fiction of retributive justice. Culture is fixed, made stable. Commoditized, made artifact. Long-distance, its myths produce comfort. The arrogance of "First World" privilege and disconnection from what is meaningful compounds the intensity and power of becoming in this new world, amidst vast differences, contradictions, forces of homogenization. The greater the alienation, the more intense is nostalgia, and the reach for fiction, of impossible returns, as myths originate of an India that never was or should be, nurturing dreams where the Hindu prabashi (ex-patriot) can return to purge the motherland from impurities, restore honor, and claim victory. Those affiliated with Hindutva in the United States fashion an India of their imagination. Dangerous stories circulate: Muslims as polygamous terrorists whose deliberate identification and massacre in Gujarat is justifiable, even necessary; the demolition of the Babri Masjid as defensible expression of cultural justice; Christian conversions as profuse, threatening the majority status of Hindus in India; Hindu nationalism as emblematic of democracy. In the chasm of proxy nationalism, support for a Hindu India expresses pride in the glory of its past toward realizing its future. To dissent, as so many do, the persistence of structural inequities, of the politics of caste and cows in the present, is only to bear incriminating evidence of one's own bastardization, loss of purity, lack of faith and pride in "Indianness." What is this Indianness? Indic culture, chaste, beautiful, Hindu, despoiled by conquest and colonization?

The "nation" survives cross-nation, and with it, a toxic and hyper nationalism. What are its effects? On the bodies of women? On the imaginations of children? There are about 1.67 million "Asian-Indians" and 2 million non-resident Indians in the United States today. Non-resident Indians record the highest per capita income among immigrant groups and are a part of the intellectual and business elite, even as, in the last decade, poverty among Indo-Americans has increased from 2 to 10 percent, most impacting single mothers and the elderly. Sexual and physical violence against women continues across class lines, and is strengthened as women fear reprisal under immigration laws. In April 2002, the Journal of the American Medical Women's Association cited that of 160 South Asian women questioned in the Boston area in 1998, forty percent reported victimization by "male-perpetrated intimate partner violence."

Are we the "bastard children" (Rushdie) of history, hybridity, and violence, from which transformation and tomorrows can generate? What profusion of action and activism are necessary? What projects in recompense of history? Youth Solidarity Summer programs engage in anti-oppression work, Association for India's Development in livelihood and education. The Campaign To Stop Funding Hate formulates allied struggles to disrupt the predominance of the Hindu Right in diaspora. Faith and inter-faith organizations rethink religion for the present. Trikone, Saheli, Narika, Manavi inform conversations on gender, rights, and citizenship. The Forum of Inquilabi Leftists create openings for vibrant politicization, building and intervening upon family, community, cultural arrangements, education, in ways that support change and confront history. Prolific commitments and contributions abound—"Third World" feminisms, Indian-English, labor organizing, Nobel prizes, Silicon Valley successes. What incongruities proliferate? As Students for Bhopal organize against DOW; as the Coalition Against Genocide challenges Narendra Modi's visit to the United States; as feminists of/from South Asia protest Lakireddy Bali Reddy and Vijay Kumar Lakireddy and the trafficking of women for profit through bondage, immigrant servants cower in the laundry rooms of homes in suburban Albany; male youth are made bi-polar in the confines of patrilineage; matrimonial ads match upper-caste males with "fair" virgins as women seek to violate normalizing gendered roles. Where to, from here?


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