With less than a week to go for the American elections, one can reasonably conclude that the Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton contest has been a lowbrow horror show, featuring the ugliest aspects of competitive politics and the basest of human instincts. And one of its more overtly bizarre aspects – especially for Indians and Indian-Americans watching it with the perverse satisfaction that American politicians are not quite different from ours – is the support of the Republican Hindu Coalition and its founding chairperson, Shalabh Kumar, for Trump. Kumar is also a major donor to the Republican presidential candidate’s campaign, contributing close to $900,000 to it.
The group garnered significant attention on October 15 when Trump attended an event it had organised in his honour in New Jersey. The seemingly incongruous title of the event, Humanity United Against Terror, referred to one main reason why the Republican Hindu Coalition has thrown its support behind Trump. It sees him as the world’s only hope against the scourge of Islamic terrorism. Featuring a skit with the Navy Seals, a Michael Jackson impersonator, and Bollywood celebrities, the event, in its resplendent tackiness, recalled Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s over-the-top stadium performances to enraptured non-resident Indian audiences over the past two years.
The phenomenon represented by the group has been viewed, on the one hand, with bemused puzzlement. In this view, its actions are seen as similar to the shenanigans of the Hindu Sena, an obscure Hindu nationalist group that has conducted pujas for Trump and celebrated his birthday in Delhi by feeding cake to a cardboard cut-out of the Donald and his musket. The journalistic commentary on the event has drawn attention to confused Indian-American attendees bussed in by zealous relatives, folks there only to see the performances or celebrities, or desis motivated by unrealistic hopes of getting a green card post-haste.
On the other hand, South Asian civil society groups, opposed to the values the Republican Hindu Coalition espouses, have located the organisation’s endorsement of Trump in a deep-seated anti-Muslim sentiment that is pervasive in sections of the Hindu-American community. They rightly see a similarity between Hindu-American support for Trump and Modi, both of which are predicated on the attractions of a conservative authoritarianism.
Yet, beneath the distractions of this comic sideshow in this silly – and ominous – season of politics lurk other factors that explain the very existence and appeal of the Republican Hindu Coalition and indicate why the sentiment it represents is here to stay. One, it points to a very real feeling among large swathes of the Hindu-American population that it is unfairly neglected or ignored by the American media and public discourse, especially when compared to Muslim-Americans. This grievance is not entirely unjustified. Indeed, 2016 marks the first year when the Hindu-American experience can truly have been said to have been mainstreamed, with messages from both presidential candidates, the president of the United States, and the White House, and corporations that otherwise have been quiet about it in the past. Interestingly, none of the universities I have been associated with, for the better part of two decades, have ever sent a message or greeting about Diwali, unlike for Christmas, Ramzan and Eid, and Rosh Hashanah.
There is a real belief among many Hindu-Americans that, paradoxically, the Muslim-American community gets more attention than other groups precisely because of the international visibility of Islamic terrorism, that leaders of various institutions take pains to distinguish between Islamic terrorism and the average, ordinary Muslim, and that liberals in particular overcompensate for anti-Muslim prejudice by condemning all criticism of Muslims and Islam as Islamophobia. The same courtesies, it is felt, are not extended to Hindu-Americans, whose use of the term Hinduphobia is seen as a defensive Hindu nationalist gesture.
Desire for visibility
The Left response, somewhat mean-spiritedly and unfairly in my view, has reduced the Hindu-American desire for greater visibility to anxieties about caste and religious identity. In this the Left mirrors the Right, by implicitly proposing a prescriptive notion of what an authentic Hindu-American identity must look like and who the Hindu-American community necessarily must ally with, for example, by suggesting it embrace the construct of South Asianness as an overarching frame. The imperative that drives the Republican Hindu Coalition may be seen as a reaction to this notion of Hindu-American identity.
In a sense, then, the group represents the political coming of age of the Hindu-American (as well as the Indian-American) community in the US, suggesting that it possesses enough internal diversity for a spectrum of views or even a fringe, depending on how you see it. And rather than view Kumar and the group as Trump’s useful idiots, it may be worth considering that their support for the presidential candidate is as much instrumental as ideological. Rather than see Kumar and his fellow Republican Hindu Coalition members as VS Naipaul’s mimic men, colonised sorts seeking to impress their colonial overlords in the Pax Americana, it may be more useful to see them as exemplifying what Homi Bhabha described as “sly civility”, the strategy of mimicry by which the natives camouflage their true intentions and aspirations.
It is easy to mistake Shalabh Kumar’s poorly written Wikipedia page, the vainglorious pomposity of his biographical description on the Republican Hindu Coalition site, and the naïve political aspiration of the group as worthy of nothing else than mockery. No observer of Indian politics in the US should make that mistake.