Tuesday 16th April 2024,
HHR News

Are Hindu Americans Merely “Starbucks Activists”?

Are Hindu Americans Merely “Starbucks Activists”?

It has been six years since the rich, successful, highly-educated Hindus of America and the allegedly Hinduphobic academia went head-to-head over the depiction of Indian history in California. It was in March 2016, in fact, that California education officials made their initial decision on a years-long process of updating the school curriculum, after having listened to hundreds of Hindu children, parents, community leaders, and even a handful of anti-Hinduphobic academicians.

The curriculum marked a few minor improvements suggested by the Hindu community, but what they accepted on the whole was a total package deal based on current opinion in South Asia studies departments around the world: delete “India” and replace with “South Asia,” delete “Hinduism” and replace with “religion of ancient India.”

It wasn’t just the names though. The package was thorough and precise (whether it was truthful is of course a different matter). It began with “animal herders” who “migrated” rather than “invaded.” It erased mentions of “Indian states” being conquered by Turkic groups with a terra nullius (empty land), and ended (for the 12th graders) with a suggestion that the events of 9/11/2001 be taught with reference to not just Islamism but Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish religious nationalism also.

In the months that followed the acceptance of this program, much drama took place. The media largely reported on the issue as a battle between qualified academics and progressive interfaith activists on one side, and Hindu supremacists/nationalists on the other. Children were bullied and sneered at in Sacramento by grown people. In time, the South Asia name was not quite adopted, though some textbook publishers decided to do what they wanted anyway. More hearings and pushback happened. Eventually, that issue settled down for a while.

Since it’s now 2022, let us do a quick, objective review of what each of these antagonistic sides has accomplished.

The Story So Far: Hindu Activism

In 2018, some Hindu groups organized a major gathering in Chicago called the World Hindu Congress. Even as many people gathered, a small group of protestors snuck in and called them Nazis and such and left. I do not know what the goals of this gathering were beyond merely gathering, and some boasting, about how economically successful Hindu Americans are.

In 2019, Prime Minister Modi came and had an event in Texas called Howdy Modi. He cheered, and got cheered, by President Trump. They did a cheerful walk together, and then he left.

In 2020, a pandemic hit the world. Protests and riots over race exploded across America. Hindus in America decided that a history professor who led her students out to the curb for a protest over Kashmir had to be made to answer for allegedly Hinduphobic comments. An Indian filmmaker was brought to speak. Then, a year later, a virtual conference featuring some accomplished academics was held to try and define Hinduphobia. A resolution was passed by a student union to the effect.

Of course, during this time, Hindus in America achieved many more things too. Hindu recognition months. Cultural pats on the back. New organizations and social media sites. Timely pushbacks here and there. All good.

The Story So Far: South Asianist Activism

In this same time period, let us see how the South Asianists have fared with their work. It’s probably too much to cover their resume year by year. So I will just mention the greatest hits.

First, although not confined to the South Asia studies academicians alone, the fact that a law was actually voted on and passed by the US House of Representatives on Islamophobia should be counted as one of their top hits. To make the obvious comparison: there is no law against Hinduphobia anywhere.  (On that note, it is good that the good Indian ambassador to the U.N. said ‘Hinduphobia’ recently – but “Abrahamic” was an awkward framing since presumably the also-Abrahamic Jews don’t have a history of persecuting Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs. But still, it was only a statement, not a report by a commission, policy, legislation, nothing.  Meanwhile, in America, alas, the Hindus haven’t figured out how to get a law made to defend their human rights here obviously. Not in Washington, not in Trenton, not in a single institution like school, college, or company. But 200 plus Reps voting to get America to fight Islamophobia worldwide, once again, is quite something).

Second, the South Asianist worldview has also made itself a tangible reality in the more modest, but no less important, domain of American college and workplace life. Concern about casteism has become not only a major talking point in mainstream media and academia, but is also moving towards concrete policies in institutions.  Some Hindus say that anti-caste laws will not hold legally, especially if they try to isolate casteism on the grounds of religion. Less hopeful Hindus are of course seeing the writing on the wall more starkly and calling it even “holocaust level profiling.”

Whatever the merits of each view, one thing is evident. The South Asia studies position has gone from being just a claim in an academic debate to an instrument of surveillance and control over any Indian-origin person in America who cannot claim shelter from such excesses under the protected human rights labels of the day such as Islamophobia, Anti-Semitism, and so on. The now widely-tweeted “Hinduphobia” hashtag (or its flashing red-letter Indian TV channel version) won’t do a thing with anyone’s HR department, or college, or schools.

Now, one may think it’s unfair, but then the Hindu genius for creative rationalization in the face of reality is unsurpassed. Some people say the free-market logic of Hindu IT talent will stop all this liberal-arts “Woke” business eventually.

Others think that as long as Hindus behave like good people and are not casteist, then what is the problem?

I don’t know. Maybe there is no problem. That is for a different debate. I only want to compare and contrast the degrees of achievement by the two groups interested in the fate of Indians in America over the last five or six years.

A Shame, and a Sham

That brings me to one more point to compare the Hindus of America and the South Asianists on, and that is professional investment, development and success in support of their positions.  Since most South Asianists are professional academicians, activists, social workers, artists, writers and so on, they have done their work as a job, with adequate support from their employers, patrons, funding charities and so on. There have been several dozen books published, courses taught in top universities, media appearances managed, and of course laws and policies created. The most important piece of research on Hinduphobia, meanwhile, is being done by a Western Hindu woman who does manual labor for income and her professional work as seva (for free), even as the majority of Hindu leaders boast about how rich and educated Hindu Americans are and how their kids go to the poshest Ivy League colleges.

I was very concerned back in 2016 when I saw the video footage of Hindu parents in California being maligned as fascists and religious fundamentalists by activists and non-parents for standing by their children testifying about the absurdity and lies of their history lessons. I still feel sorry for them. Unlike the American Ivory Tower Equity Bureaucrats (South Asia Desk), most of us “FOBs” know exactly where people stand on the scale of privilege, sheer, basic economic class privilege. And what these parents, who come here to give their children a better life, whatever that might mean, are being made into is perhaps way beyond their understanding. It is after all, the grown-up children of other FOB immigrants like themselves from two or three decades ago, who have now grown into the face of the American welcoming committee for their children. They have their American Dream set for them, civilizing the natives.

But all this aside, the question remains. What do Hindu Americans really want? If it’s money and status at any cost, then fine, just drop all your pretensions about doing something for Hinduism or Hindus or India as many of your kids have anyway been persuaded to do by the time they finish college and get a job. But if you really think sanatana dharma is worth defending, then you need to take the talk beyond the upper class – upper caste social club into the realities that less privileged Hindus than you are facing. You have to see the poorest Hindu, the priest, the sadhu, the laborer, as your battle on economic, political and cultural grounds, and fight the goddamn system for them, not for you and your postage-stamp and White House social party recognition.

Nobody in American universities today sees Islamophobia as the propaganda-creation of a wealthy transnational oil-rich elite, no matter how many hundreds of millions of dollars are documented coming into this project and cause from such oil-rich elite kingdoms. Islamophobia is seen by every kid, maybe even your own, as a human rights issue. It’s a different matter that the word is also used to distract and deflect sometimes. It’s a different matter that many Americans outside of academia and the “blue states” don’t believe it. But the fact remains that in less than twenty years, it has been very clearly argued and presented before the world.

Anti-Colonial Brits Coined “Hinduphobia,” Privileged Neo-Liberal Hindus Buried it

Hinduphobia, of course, has not been clearly argued or presented, despite being a word with a far longer anti-colonial, anti-“White supremacy,” history than a word like Islamophobia, it remains stuck in fringe social media usage because of the sheer obliviousness of our Starbucks activist upper class Hindus.

Hinduphobia is not seen as a human rights reality by anyone because even the Hindus using it fail to see it that way.

For nearly three decades, Hindu American groups have flaunted the model minority, spelling bee, rich and educated, role model image as the reason why their depictions in media and academia are wrong. They have failed to see that Western societies, call it capitalist, or something even older than that, operate on systemic inequality, divisions, violence, and scapegoating. The Hindu upper class line of utter apathy has proven itself to be a reality no matter how much seva and charity they might do.

We, the upper / upper middle Hindu Americans, don’t come across as a group that cares about the rest of the world in their words, or even in their actions.

Not one research group, creative and communication channel, think-tank, nothing, built till now. 

Admit it. Hindu Americans are a fringe group of no consequence to anyone in America. Why do you expect liberal or conservative non-Hindus to educate and employ your kids as they defend dharma or India when you yourself don’t spend a dime to set up proper education and employment infrastructures for Hindu researchers, activists, story-tellers, musicians, and movie makers? There was a time in the past when the older liberals and conservatives of America could imagine some kind of room for a bit of a Hindu reality out here. That room is now thoroughly closed. Massive generational changes have taken place, in addition to of course, ideological ones.

When doors are closed, there’s only thing to do. As HHR says, you have to leave your limos behind and pound the streets. Unless there’s a thousand Hindus, looking serious, talking serious, everyday outside NPR, New York Times, South Asia Hall or whatever, this is it for you.

And please, tell your leaders to shut up on social media about Hinduphobia and all that. If you must discuss it, if you think it is serious enough to discuss, take it offline. That will be the first step in getting out of the bhrama of the Hinduphobic Matrix and doing something real for a change.

To conclude, some suggestions:

-get off social media

-get onto real conversations and actions

-think about and speak for the poorest and most vulnerable Hindus, not just your own upper class Ivy League Silicon Valley crowd

-show up in real life before those who make laws on your festivals and your children’s life in college: be polite but not frivolous or like you’re only there for a selfie

-learn about the division of labor needed in an anti-Hinduphobia movement; follow the few professional academicians doing anti-Hinduphobia work for peer-reviewed, rigorous baseline research, hire creative people to build on communicating that; discourage noise and clutter on social media; and then of course, show up, everywhere.

-remember that “meritocracy” does not protect you, it’s only a story that you told yourself all along.

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