Unlike other communities of colour in the United States, it has not been so easy for South Asian Americans to organise and act as one.
The very complexity of South Asia and the myriad internal politics make mobilisation a difficult issue. Even during my time in Atlanta conducting ethnographic research on the South Asian American sporting community, organisations like South Asians for Unity struggled to collectively engage the heterogeneous ethnic, class, and religious South Asian American community in Atlanta. Sikh American elders and I (a Christian Tamil) shared a sentiment of feeling minimally included in the discussions about peace on the subcontinent.
Thus, even the coming together as South Asian Americans during these precarious times is difficult. Similarly, in her work on Asian Americans, Linda Vo, in Mobilising Asian America (Temple University Press, 2004), illuminates the struggle with organising the multiple nationalities, ethnicities, languages, and histories of migration into one political voice. Taking Vo’s important work and extending it to understand South Asian American life in the US proves informative and allows us to make sense of contemporary events, such as the Hindu support of Donald Trump.
While South Asian America is not singular nor uniform nor tied politically to a single bloc, I argue here that the small segments who support Trump, particularly Hindu fundamentalists and nationalists, seek wages from that relationship that will not secure rights for the rest of South Asian America, especially Muslim Americans.
As I have noted in my book, Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity (New York University Press, 2016), South Asian Americas come from various nations, various diasporic locations (such as the Indo-Guyanese, Trinidadians, and from Africa), a wide spectrum of religious backgrounds, and many ethnic groups, while speaking multiple languages and dialects.
In addition, people hailing from South Asia and its many diasporic locations have not migrated to the United States at the same time and do not all share the same capital, social status, and access to resources and wealth. For example, the team Maryland Five Pillars won several championships during my period of research; this team was made up of high-ranking professional Muslims and Hindus who were Indian American.
The team Sand Brothaz in Atlanta contained Sikh Americans, a Lebanese American, and Muslim South Asian Americans – all communities who faced the brunt of post-9/11 racial violence. The main team I competed with, team Atlanta Outkasts, was composed of mostly lower-middle-class young Muslim Pakistani Americans who did not have a traditional college degree.
But targetted as one
Yet, as the post-9/11 racial hysteria has shown us, regardless of one’s respective background, South Asian Americans were/are targeted as “terrorists” and perceived as a “danger” to the country. Organisations like Desis Rising Up and Moving (in New York City) and Raksha (out of Atlanta) stand as examples of groups that work across the ethnic, class, sexual, and religious spectrum to advocate for social justice. They offer us remarkable ways of living and organising in a United States that is multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious.
In contrast, Hindu fundamentalists and Hindu nationalists present a starkly different political position and alliance. As a result of their financial clout and representational power in government and business, they have monopolised the conversation about South Asia by conflating South Asia, India, and Hindu.
With a Hindu fundamentalist party in power in India, the wave of such conservatism and violence washes up easily onto the shores of the United States through transnational connections. The same fundamentalism shaping Indian politics finds a home with the Hindu Indian American community with their anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Thus, it should come as no surprise, regardless of how disappointing it is, that the Republican Hindu Coalition in New Jersey and their leader Shalabh Kumar hosted a Bollywood fundraiser titled “Humanity United Against Terror” for then-presidential hopeful Donald Trump on October 15.
The event combined Bollywood dance performances with the discourse of the “global war on terror” to showcase Hindu Americans as the “good” South Asian American community in opposition to the dangerous Muslims. The audience members arrived and had a seat on chairs adorned with signs saying “Trump for Hindu Americans” and “Trump Great for India.” During one particular skit, when the Hindus are attacked by terrorists (read as Muslim), U.S. “soldiers” (Hindu Americans dressed in combat gear) show up to rescue them with the Stars and Stripes flying the background. Soon thereafter the US national anthem is played.
However, as we know, American-ness is never a promise fulfilled for communities of colour. This desperate attempt to show U.S. patriotism by combining the symbolic meanings of the American flag with anti-Muslim ideology does not guarantee full inclusion into the US nation. It is as fleeting as the “facts”/“alternative facts” that Trump spews.
What the years preceding 9/11 and its aftermath have shown us is that the racial logic in the United States substantiates whiteness through the demonisation, marginalisation, and exclusion of other communities of colour, which David Roediger illustrated in his foundational text Wages of Whiteness (Verso, 1991).
Anthropologist Junaid Rana, in Terrifying Muslims (Duke University Press, 2011), illuminates the ways in which race in the US incorporates religion in order to create expansive categories of exclusion. He shows that Latinos, African Americans, Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, and others were captured under this racial category of “terrorist.”
By supporting Donald Trump and his Islamophobia-informed policy initiatives, such a move does not really provide safety from the common, white American who sees the brown phenotype as conclusive proof of the dangerous foreigner.
Given this generalising conclusion about vilifying brown bodies, Hindus have not fared well before, during, or after 9/11. Although 9/11 provided the fodder for Hindu nationalist proclamations of the Muslim danger and the good Hindu, people’s everyday lives tell us something much more complicated and convoluted.
Elitism on display?
The danger to Hindu Americans in particular and South Asian Americans in general in the late 1980s in New Jersey were not Muslims or other people of colour. Rather, the group Dot Busters consisted of young white men who terrorised Hindu communities by targeting their acts of violence against people, especially women, who have the dot – bindi.
To delve deeper into US history, the census category of “Hindoo” stood as the marker of unassimilable difference in the United States in the early 1900s. With my own ethnographic study of Atlanta, with the rise of meth drug use, extra-judicial powers were given after 9/11 to local police officers, which led to the jailing of a disproportionate number of South Asian convenience mart employees, regardless of religious background. The disproportionate number of South Asians in Atlanta picked up and jailed as possible meth providers in relation to white convenience mart owners illustrates the ambiguity and expansiveness of such racial practices.
These moments from the past and present show how the push for a Muslim registry and support from Hindu Americans is ill-informed at best and utterly bigoted in reality. “Muslim” as a broad swath of racial prejudice does not protect everyday Hindu Americans, although it might offer solace to a very elite group.
Such elitism in the Hindu fundamentalist community aligns perfectly with the anti-poor, anti-black, and anti-Muslim rhetoric of Donald Trump. High-caste Brahmanic leaders in the Hindu nationalist movement clearly illustrated this past year their subsequent support of caste violence against the Dalit community, violence against Muslim Indians, and efforts to diminish political power from other religious minorities in India.
We can glean from this Hindu American support of Trump that it is more about entrenching a solid, powerful, transnational class of Hindu elites, which does nothing to provide support or protection to working-class Hindu Americans who face the wrath of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hysteria.
Such authoritarian, fascist, and populist practices connect US history and Indian history in many problematic ways. Even before racists spray-painted swastikas on my campus of the City College of New York in December 2016, anti-Semitism was part of the very core of the American fabric.
We need only think back to the case of the ships of Jewish refugees coming to US shores to escape Adolf Hitler that were turned back to the death camps in Hitler’s Germany. While the United States sent large scores of Jews into the horror of the Holocaust, Hindus in India have a very interesting history at that same time.
Instead of opposing the eugenics and genocidal project in Nazi Germany, the Hindu right sided with and celebrated the Nazi regime. They did so under the premise that Hindus in particular and Indians in general were Aryans – the best race.
I noticed this first hand in 1997 when I was teaching at Kodaikanal International School in the state of Tamil Nadu, India. Teaching social studies and independent study courses, I met a student who surprised me with his behaviour in class. We were talking about the Middle East, Islam, and religious diversity while attending to the Middle Eastern experience of WWII.
The next day he came to class with a proud smile on his face. He entered the classroom and shouted, “Heil Hitler!” It seemed so commonplace to him and I was flabbergasted, frustrated, and angered. Even in some quotidian aspects of living in India, the embrace of Aryan-ness, by a Tamil student who is often stigmatised for being too dark compared to North Indians, demonstrates the ways in which Aryan-ness, whiteness, and religious conservatism work hand-in-hand with policies promised by Donald Trump.
Indeed, the racist history of mid-20th century Germany continues to be intertwined with the Hindu Nationalist movement, through which Hindu Americans attempt to align themselves as more “Aryan,” read as more human, than Muslims. Even in California, as described by journalist Jennifer Medina in the May 6 issue of the New York Times, there is a debate about whether to talk about the South Asia region in US high school texts as “South Asia” or as just “India.”
The push for India-centric readings and curriculum erases the fluid nature of that region throughout world history and the multiple movements of people across that region. It does, however, further consolidate the region under the dominance of India and Hinduism. This is a move to forcefully insert India and Hinduism without accounting for any of the violence in the subcontinent’s history. In this precarious time globally, with Modi in India, the Brexit process in the UK, Trump in the US, Duterte in Philippines, Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey, Al-Assad in Syria and a general shift towards undemocratic forms of politics, these social formations further enact violence against the masses and politically vulnerable populations.
Furthermore, the choice to align with Donald Trump’s policies and his white supremacist, multi-billionaire dollar team does not secure or guarantee the whiteness and Aryan-ness that these folks claim. As we saw with the 1923 case of Sikh man Bhagat Singh Thind, who tried to naturalise through South Asian classification as “Caucasian” but was turned down for citizenship on the grounds of being culturally and phenotypically not white according to the “common white man,” the rising violence against communities of color in the contemporary moment means that white men have consolidated American-ness once again as white, middle-class, Christian, male, thin, and heterosexual (Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, Crossing Press 1984).
While South Asians might claim their class status, heterosexuality, and male bodies as a way to enter into American-ness, they can never fully occupy Christianity and whiteness. This was mostly blatantly the case with the Hindu grandfather, Sureshbhai Patel, beaten up by police in Madison, Alabama in February 2015 without having even spoken a word.
Thus, the very whiteness and Aryan-ness Hindu nationalists espouse that aligns with the posters they carry of Trump with a bindi on his forehead does not equivalently align with the spread of this global whiteness. This Aryan-ness proves important in staking a claim in the racially stratified society of the United States while maintaining upper-caste Hindu hegemony back in India. Their claim to Aryan-ness does not fully secure rights and citizenship for Hindus and other South Asians in the US, despite what they might want to believe, who are already seen as too foreign and always a threat to the US national fabric.
So, what other options are there? In the course of my research, I witnessed the many constellations and social formations on the basketball court that defied the binary politics of South Asia. Instead of Hindu-Muslim bi-partisan politics, the pleasures of competition and shared histories of exclusion on the basketball court created a strong sense of fraternity. Thus, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Christians and Muslims from various ethnic backgrounds played, affirmed a sense of community, and expanded their social network through the pleasures of sport.
Through such intimate social interactions on the court and the pleasures of competition, their sporting communities extended into other aspects of their social lives. They formed a network where they could rely on each other for a variety of reasons, such a job, moving to a new city, philanthropy, and more. For example, when there was a young Indian American girl in need of a marrow transplant, the Chicago South Asian American community reached out to their North American network to find a match.
Likewise, with the rise of fascism that needs racism, homophobia, sexism, classism, and xenophobia for substance, Hindu American communities need to reflect on the activism of black and Latinx communities in the 1960s that made possible the opening of US borders through the 1965 Hart-Cellar Act.
Additionally, to take pleasure in democratic principles, struggling with and organizing across the racial, gendered, sexual, class, ability, and ethnic spectrum is the only way to secure a truly democratic society. It is time to create identities and categories of belonging in South Asia that can also open up possibilities for transnational justice, equality, and democracy.
History is not on the side of Hindu fundamentalists in the United States. Rather, history has shown that Aryan myths of lighter skin tones, religious identification, caste status, or financial wealth will not stave off white supremacy. Let us stop sipping on this concoction that Modi and Trump share and rather jump into the waters of civil rights organising with BlackLivesMatter, TransLivesMatter, Dreamers, Muslim civil rights activists, and immigration and refugee rights activists for a taste of democratic living.
Stanley Thangaraj is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the City College of New York and author of Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity (New York University Press, 2015) and co-editor of Asian American Sporting Cultures (New York University Press, 2016).
This article first appeared on Tropics of Meta.