An Indian Adoptee Reclaims His Voice in the Desi Diaspora
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Who is a ‘Real’ Indian?

May 14, 2016

Since Narendra Modi became India’s Prime Minister in May 2015, the definition of a ‘true’ Indian is a hot topic.

However, for me, people have always questioned my India bona-fides. Let me explain.

As an adoptee, raised without Indian culture on a daily basis, cultural Indians in the United States were always unsure how I fit into their world. I don’t speak any Indian languages, I attend church, the vast majority of my friends are non-Indian and my parents are white.

By any measure of a culturally engaged Indian, I was not raised as one of them. I fit none of the ‘stereotypical’ Indian roles. I am not a doctor, scientist or lawyer. I am terrible with numbers and figures. I cannot fix your computer, and I don’t engage in the conspicuous consumption and materialism that Indians in America have a reputation for.

Those were the ‘issues’ regarding my Indian identity growing up, but now the narrative shifted. Modi’s political party, the Bharatiya Janata is closely aligned with elements pushing among other things, that all Indians must be Hindu, that true Indians must hate Pakistan and Muslims and the West is destroying both India and its culture.

As a result, many diaspora Indians, and domestic Indians are considered ‘anti-national.’ Additionally, anyone distrusting big government, works with NGOs or social work programs, those who advocate for India’s Dalits, tribals and other groups considered outcasts, people who question tenets of any faith, particularly in film, books or music, all are labeled as not true Indians.

The situation has deteriorated to the point, that anyone critical of India’s policies, politicians or the established Hindu order is considered ‘un-Indian’ or ‘anti-national.’

A recent news story illustrates this case perfectly.

In January, a student group at one of India’s most prestigious university’s, Jawaharlal Nehru in Delhi (named after Nehru, one of the nation’s founders) held a rally. During their demonstration they called call for, among other things, justice for Pakistani terrorists that India hung in 2015, (one had confessed years ago for his role in a terrorist act and helped the government nab other accused and pleaded for mercy) they also questioned Kashmir and India’s relationship with it, and basically raised issues about India’s power structure and military that no one ever seems to do.

As a result, they were labeled ‘anti-national’ and arrested. Keep in mind; they gathered peacefully at a university campus to decry what they felt were Indian government human rights abuses. These gatherings happen all across US campuses on a monthly basis. Thanks to the First Amendment, ‘seditious’ occurrences like this frequently occur here.

But ultra-nationalistic Hindus and numerous BJP student groups went ballistic.

The offending students were arrested, and they charged the leader of the group for ‘sedition,’ creating an atmosphere of intimidation and fear not only on JNU’s campus but also across the country.

Here’s where things became more bizarre. When the students were remanded to court in Delhi to face their charges, the lawyers for the Hindu groups beat them at the courthouse.

Picture this, a student group at Washington, D.C.’s, George Washington University begins questioning the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they also protest (peacefully, but publicly) the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The university takes no action, ceding them their rights for a constitutional assembly and following free speech laws, but the Federal Government comes to GW, arrests the students, charges them with being traitors to the US and jails them.

On the day of their arraignment in DC’s public courthouse, a phalanx of suited lawyers representing the US government physically beats the students leaving the courthouse. How implausible can you imagine that scenario to be? Yet, basically, that’s what transpired in India in late January.

People would be outraged at the lawyers and government, much less against the students. In India, the opposite happened. The news stories for months have revolved around how ‘anti-national’ the students really were and are these actions ‘against’ the Indian state going to be replicated in other places of the country.

Ok, you say, but that’s India, I’ve read your blog enough to know that police cannot be trusted and institutions are broken. And you are right, the rule of law is a mess and surely a lot can be blamed on that fact.

But there is a deeper story here, slowly creeping around India since Modi came to power; the growing intolerance of any viewpoint not strictly adhering to the Hindutva mindset.

Let me give you two examples. There was a major ‘science symposium‘ in India last fall. Among the flabbergasting claims some scientists claimed was India had the first spacecraft two thousand years ago and India’s doctors performed the first plastic surgery in history when they put an elephant head on a human body in the form of Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god.

The event was universally panned by scientists outside of India, but it showed just how disillusioned India’s scientists are coming from nationalistic backgrounds.

Another example is the ongoing beef row controversy. Hindu leaders all over the country, said if you ate beef; to either move to Pakistan, it was ok to kill you, or you were not a true Indian.

The rhetoric around the inflammatory statements became more violent and bizarre weekly. Not only did random village leaders make these statements, Chief Ministers of Indian states, from Modi’s BJP party did also. For example, the Chief Minister of Haryana said ‘Muslims can live in this country, but they will have to stop eating beef.’

One Muslim man was beaten with bricks and killed because a mob suspected he ate beef. The offending food was sent to a lab and found to be buffalo meat. The poor man died needlessly.

Meanwhile, Modi said nothing publicly for nearly two weeks after the killing and then when he commented it was too late and he did not condemn the murderous mob. This is what he said, ’Hindus and Muslims should either fight one another or fight poverty.’

The response was completely tone-deaf to the situation. I do not care what you believe, people should not die because they eat food another group considers sacred.

Putting aside the absurdity of politician’s beef comments is the underlying fact that a large percentage of India’s Muslims and Christians and even low-caste Hindus eat cows. Beefeaters are statistically among the poorest Indians as well. Of course, the BJP does not care about the low caste Indians anyway; as they continue trying to ban the consumption of beef nationwide.

There are many more stories, but it all ends up in one fact, the Hindutva and nationalistic leaders of India are trying to craft a single narrative and prescribe one sole way to be Indian.

There are so many examples of actions during the last few years which ‘hurt Hindu sentiments‘ that I could fill an entire blog with them. While a few may be legitimate, the vast majority are attempts to silence criticism, conversation and dialogue about events, or themes which differ from the mainstream (the Hindu right.)

These ideas are anathema to everything that India’s founders stood for; religious plurality and a democratic republic. India enshrined freedom of expression in their Constitution, along with free speech and the right to dissent.

But the ‘fake’ Indians are using those freedoms to push liberal agendas and destroy the Indian, read ‘Hindu’ culture and way of life.  You could say I’m anti-national because I don’t believe that one narrative should speak for all of India. I don’t think that Hinduism should be the only religion that matters. I think anyone should be able to voice their dissent about Indian politics and injustices they see and which affect their lives.

I am unhappy with India’s governance, and I don’t believe Modi’s BJP is the panacea for all of India’s ills, as others do.

Living in a republic means people have the right to repulse you.

I’m anti-national because I advocate for the poorest of Indians, the lowest caste folks are the ones whose stories I tell.

If questioning India’s politics, policies and mindsets label me an ‘untrue Indian’, then I guess the label fits.

I’ve been called worse.

3 Comments
Arjun
March 19, 2017 at 12:53 am

One of the things I find interesting about your posts is how some of it parallels the confusions of 2nd and 3rd generation Indian-Americans. Indian immigrants who migrated to the US in the 60s and 70s often have a version of India from that time that remains ‘frozen’ in their head. They, in 2017, still think of India as the same India of 1960-1970. And this version of India is passed down to their Indian-American children, who learn what India is from their parents. And when modern day Indians who’ve come to the US to study or to work meet these 2nd generation Indian Americans, they find that Indian Americans have some bizarre views about India absorbed from their parents.

    A.J. Bryant
    March 27, 2017 at 10:18 pm

    I’m not sure I agree with your characterization of mine. I try and keep up with contemporary Indian affairs, I volunteered with an NGO that worked with marginalized rural communities. I know India has changed a lot. But I also know there is a lot about Indian culture that most Americans are clueless about. India has surely developed since the 1970’s, but this post was about the rise of populism in the form of the BJP and what’s it’s doing to the country, which is my opinion is trying to turn it ultra-nationalistic, increasing antagonization of Muslims and other minorities and silencing dissent. I will admit freely, I don’t understand all that is happening there. I rely on both news, Sasmita’s rural family and friends that work in the NGO and humanitarian spheres for my information, but those are sources I trust. The post was merely my attempt to voice some of the grave concerns I have about where India as a nation is heading, which I believe are rightly founded.

Arjun
March 19, 2017 at 12:55 am

I forgot to add: many poor and low caste Indians are quite big fans of Modi (as further evidenced by the BJPs recent election wins).

I'd love to hear your thoughts!