Non Resident Indians are not a monolith. More so because they have origins in South Asia, which is an incredibly diverse, multilingual, multi religious part of the world. However, certain ethnic groups and sects have monopolized the label. The Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC) is one of the many organizations that have pigeonholed Non Resident Indian identity and interests with those of fanatical upper caste Hindus from the Northern (stretching from Punjab to Bengal) and Western (from Rajasthan to Maharashtra) belts of the country. Though there are people from different ethnic backgrounds (based on linguistic identity – Punjabi, Marwari, Gujarati, Marathi) and castes (based on wealth, traditional occupation and rank in the social hierarchy – priestly Brahmins, trading Banias, aristocratic Rajputs and Marathas, landholding Jats and Patels) within these formations, it is the triumvirate of Hindi-Hindu-Hindustani (roughly translated as those who speak the Hindi language, practice Hinduism and hail from North India) that best expresses their world view. Anybody who does not subscribe to these views is considered only partially Indian (at best) or traitorous (at worst).
I have had some colourful encounters with such people. Being a Telugu speaker and South Indian living in the state of Jharkhand (erstwhile southern Bihar) meant that I got first hand experience of the prejudice lurking behind this outlook. What makes it even worse is the ignorance and arrogance of those who subscribe to such outmoded views. The decision of the Republican Hindu Coalition to go all out in support (both monetary and organizational) of Donald Trump’s campaign was informed by the logic of this brand of Indian patriotism (Hindi-Hindu-Hindustani) converging with white American nationalism in a global alliance against Islamic extremism. To cut a long story short, the likes of Shalabh Kumar (a leader of the RHC who donated as much as 900,000 USD to Trump), fantasized that they were doing Hindus and Hindustan a favour. Once he made it to the White House, the more extreme specimens among his supporters would be tamed while the US and India, would wipe out the common existential threat facing Christianity and Hinduism. The shooting of Indian citizens in the US following his inauguration saw those expectations come crashing down to reality.
The reaction to those hate crimes has been equally bizarre. The great majority of Trump’s right wing Hindu supporters have been muted in their response to what was a widely discussed possibility under his Presidency – xenophobic attacks against non-whites irrespective of their region, religion and race. The inability (or unwillingness, to be more honest) of white supremacists to distinguish between Hindus and Muslims has caused them great embarrassment. Some have retained their Islamophobic narratives, explaining these attacks as cases of mistaken identity where white Americans (frustrated by liberal politicians’ mollycoddling of Islam) have lashed out against anybody who is brown (thereby, transferring the blame to Muslims). Others have taken the process of rationalization to even greater extremes, justifying violent attacks on ethnic minorities in North America and Europe, as a natural response of native populations (white and Christian) that find themselves being slowly overwhelmed by immigrants who are stealing jobs (Hindu Indians), unwilling to integrate (Muslim Arabs) or breaking the law (Christian Mexicans). The solutions offered by these apologists are no less weird.
I am listing down some of the advise being handed down to Non Resident Indians (without confining myself to Trump apologists among Hindus) on social media and the press by their countrymen.
- Avoiding arguments at public places. Leaving the place immediately once confronted by provocateurs. Communicating in English and avoiding South Asian languages (like Telugu). Avoiding isolated spots or roaming around alone. Calling 911 in case of an emergency.
- Avoiding bars.
- Avoiding being loud and moving around in groups.
- Wearing tilaks (for men) and bindis (for women) to assert their Hindu faith.
The first set of directives were issued by Vikram Jangam, President of a group known as the Telangana American Telugu Association (Telangana being a landlocked state in South India, inhabited by Telugu speakers). While it makes sense to avoid trouble makers in foreign lands, the efficacy of English speech in deterring racist attacks is open to question. First generation Indians speak heavily accented English (which even Indians who have never left India can distinguish from dialects spoken in America, Britain and Australia, thanks to American sitcoms, the venerable BBC and Ashes cricket commentary). The last piece about tilaks and bindis (coloured marks on foreheads which are either pastes of vermilion, sandalwood and holy ash, or patches of ornamented lac) was offered by Tapan Ghosh, President of an obscure outfit – Hindu Samhati. The man is a Bengali from eastern India if one goes by his name. And clearly ignorant of the history of white American xenophobes with regard to tilaks and bindis (something I will discuss in greater detail). To add to the confusion, he has also been openly supportive of Donald Trump’s policies.
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons shows tilaks (sectarian marks of different Hindu groups). It is based on an illustration from the ethnographic works published by Robert Vane Russell, a British civil servant (1873-1915).