The Indian Elections. The Struggle to Reclaim An Anti-Colonial Narrative From Inside The Academy.

Indu Viswanathan
May 28, 2019 · 17 min read

When I was in seventh grade in my little suburban middle school, we finally got to the chapter on India. Eight years of public school education with the same eighty kids, entire units on the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, memorizing maps of the Soviet bloc countries, an interactive unit on the Oregon Trail (not particularly “woke” as it was the 1980s and suburban schools were still sleeping soundly)…and finally, FINALLY, we got to India.

A two-page spread of mud huts populated by some villagers in torn saris and dirtied white dhotis, and the back end of a cow ambling down a dirt road.

The family legend goes something like this: I stood up in front of my class, ripped the page out of the textbook, and declared “This is not my India.” (The reality is that I probably did not rip the page out, as I can’t imagine such painful irreverence to Saraswati. But it makes for a good story. I definitely stood up — my body still remembers that.)

This wasn’t just an India from my imagination, a fairy tale spun from the pages of Amar Chitra Katha. I had spent entire summers in India without my parents, living with family, sometimes in villages, including Gobichettipalayam, where my father grew up. I had ridden in bullock carts down dirt roads past mud huts to rice paddies, stayed in the most pristine, loving two-room homes without indoor plumbing, and felt nothing but abundance. I knew there was a lot more going on, that the story behind all of this was vast and complicated. And, even at the age of twelve, I understood that those curated images of dirty, bedraggled poverty was sending an intentional message to my classmates: to evoke a kind of pity. In the era of Sally Struthers beseeching Christian Benevolence to Save a Child from such abject poverty [read: pagan fate], I knew they thought I was likely just one degree away from needing to be saved.

But isn’t it true? my peers would ask. Isn’t there a lot of poverty in India?

Yes. It’s true. And a lot of other things are true that we’re not talking about.

Now, three decades later, I am close to completing a doctorate in education from the oldest department of curriculum and teaching in the country, and I feel another “This is not my India” moment arising in me like heartburn. (And if you’re going to say, you are Indian American, no one gives a crap what you think, it’s not “your India”, please feel free to stop reading. I have been an Indian for thousands of years, for generations, and if you don’t think I am Indian because my parents immigrated here, and it irritates you that I’m talking about this, or you think I’m ignorant, then that is your right. Also, it’s probably not in your best interest to read what I have to say if you don’t respect my point of view.)

I’m talking, of course, about the Indian elections.

Over and over again, I’m seeing a false binary coming across the media here in the West — either you agree that India just re-elected a fascist prime minister or you are ignorant/privileged/a Hindu fundamentalist. (I see other binaries coming from India, none of which are helpful.) I hear it, most resoundingly, from South Asian Americans and the South Asians with the most advanced university degrees. And time and time again, I am seeing very curated media pushed to the front to confirm this diagnosis. No balance, no disconfirming evidence.

There has to be room for thoughtful, complex, brave dialogue. And swadhyaya (self-study).

I understand why hearing this might sound troubling. It sounds like the false equivalency we heard during the post-2016 election period in the United States. The news we keep seeing and the stories we hear from our desi friends — my uncle said something Islamophobic, my grandmother treated dalits horribly — reinforces the notion that this is one situation where the single story is the whole story. Hindus — and upper caste Hindus, especially — are “the white people of India”. Well, that makes it easy, right? Just apply the same analytical frames from the United States — ones that we have all become so familiar with in recent years. Frames that have spread out from activist and scholarly spaces to pop culture and even the consumer sector.

I have been that righteous progressive American. The liberal fundamentalist. If you have a heart, either you agree with me or you simply don’t understand. Otherwise, you’re a willfully ignorant monster.

In fact, I applied the same logic in arguing with my own parents. Armed with the juiciest of critical theories I had bulked up on at social justice bootcamp my first year as a doctoral student, it seemed like a no-brainer. (The fact that it seemed so easy, itself, should have given me pause. Also, my parents are inevitably right.) Add to that, so much of what I see coming from “the other side” (the in-defense of Hindus/Modi) was horrifying misogynistic and ableist, with libtard (it pains me just to write that) flung like some kind of conservative sludge and feminist hissed as if it is the worst possible insult. (Nevermind how bhakt is now used as a slur against Modi-supporters.) It is very easy to draw parallels with white (Christian) supremacists when the self-proclaimed “right wing” in India (such a troubling, self-colonizing label) behaves like a bunch of fragile, unconscionable, toxically patriarchal ninnies. They are really, really, really bad for the brand. And for society.

However, it’s not that simple. It’s not just horrible or ignorant religious fanatics who are excited that the BJP won versus woke people who are concerned with “minority rights” and are upset about it. This was a trick, I realized. Of course I am concerned with minority rights. But I knew, deep inside, that something else was going on.

See, at first, I applied these theoretical frameworks by suppressing both my ancestral trauma and my ancestral knowledge. Because that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life as a student (minus Textbookgate) and maybe on overdrive as a doctoral student, since the Academy doesn’t recognize indigenous trauma or knowledge (in a substantial way). It most certainly doesn’t recognize Hindus as indigenous people or Hindu trauma and knowledge as legitimate. In fact, historically, the Academy has been quite happily complicit in oppressing Hindus and entrenching a colonized, twisted tale of what Hinduism even is into the scholarly and interpersonal canon. The message that I should feel guilty or self-loathing for being Hindu — and that I should openly perform that guilt — was reinforced over and over again all around me. Now I had to openly wear a fear of Hindu nationalism, wringing my hands about “fascism in India, too”.

Caste privilege. Model minority. Powerful, gilded muzzles crafted from partial truths.

Until I couldn’t anymore. Squashing my Hinduism doesn’t sit well with me as a foundational premise for doing and being good in the world. My parents raised me with a deep reverence for Hindu knowledge, not from a place of indoctrination or dogma, but from Love. I was encouraged to question, inspired to ask, to seek. Active, personalized engagement, in love and longing, is at the Heart of being Hindu. My expensive education may have sharpened my intellect, but it is my Heart that tells me when and how to use it.

Once I acknowledged that I didn’t want to pretend to be guilty or silent about being Hindu anymore, my relationship with those social justice frameworks began to shift.

What if casteism and Islamophobia were issues that India had to solve, but were also symptoms of something that Western frameworks were not equipped to acknowledge, or worse, were invested in ensuring weren’t acknowledged?

What was I missing and what was being erased?

First of all, we know that media bias is a real thing. And I knew that Western news sources that I normally trust had a clear, demonstrated bias against Hindus and Hinduism. I also began reading much fuller and more thorough analyses of issues like cow lynching and noticed that only part of the story was getting reported in popular media. Violence by Hindus made the headlines, but violence against Hindus appeared nowhere. It also became glaringly obvious to me that alert Western progressives who so sharply call out Western media agendas to substantiate corporate and state department interests in the Middle East were blithely accepting of the same media’s narratives on India, and Modi, in particular. I had learned these skills from the Academy, but saw them being unevenly applied.

Second, I saw that pop culture Western social justice reinforces simple, viral-ready binaries, sets us up to tell and rewrite stories to paint ourselves to be the most victimized and to not actually face ourselves in brave ways. Like divorce court. This ends up creating very black and white narratives. Literally.

Third, I began reading more complex analyses of Modi’s administration, and realized that, while there were legitimate critiques and questions about his efficacy (and I do believe every administration should be held to high standards of critique), some positive things did come out of his first term (see links at the end). In fact, the positive and practical impact on people’s lives is why he was reelected. The comparisons to Trump were thin, at best. (“Minorities living in fear” is the oft-repeated refrain.)

Fourth, I became curious about who was speaking for whom when it came to minority voices. (Can the subaltern speak?) And I began wondering if those (elite, highly educated) spokespeople for the subaltern who were worried about the Fear were partially responsible for stoking it. (Again this isn’t a conclusion, this was a wonder.) Why was I seeing stories that some members of these minority groups were positively impacted by and in support of Modi? If minorities were universally scared, what was happening here?

Fifth, I began digging into the word secular. How could such a humanistic concept be so polarizing? To the Western viewer, secularism seems like a vital tool to protecting the rights of marginalized people in any democracy. We see that now with the attempts to overturn Roe v. Wade in the United States. So when BJP supporters argue vehemently against secularism, it seems like they are pushing some kind of religiously fanatic rule of law, and, thus, are against the rights of minorities. This seems to be the lynchpin of the whole thing. But secularism has a very different history in India, one that is not so benevolent, humanizing, or liberating (I really, really recommend reading even the preface of the book linked here). It is not that these BJP supporters are against the values that (Christian) secularism supports; it is that they are actively anti-colonist.

Secularism thus has become a controversial and confused subject in India’s discourse. The term has taken on several different meanings over time, and despite the emphasis on it in political discourse, has little to do with any unbiased form of government or removal of religion from politics as the term was originally regarded to represent. It has come to mean keeping Indic ideas and insights out of political discourse, which remains defined by western political concepts and even foreign connections…

…This secular leftist media and academia in India was dictatorial and allowed no questioning of their poor scholarship and biases. Now there are cracks in their armor and some of their citadels are falling but they still have much residual poison to continue to inject into the public discourse, including using the foreign media, which remains suspicious of a strong India or of any Hindu point of view.

(From Seventy Years of Secularism: Unpopular Essays on the Unofficial Political Religion of India by Sandeep Balakrishna.)

Finally, I began questioning the word fascist being thrown about so casually, and when I started looking at the way right wing and left wing were being used in India — and by whom — things started to fall into place differently for me.

Let the Subaltern Speak

I began seeing that there were many people — writers, grassroots community activists, everyday citizens just living their lives — who were contesting the dominant, elitist Indian political establishment which had monopolized definitions of progressive since Indian Independence. Some of these folks were calling themselves right wing, and there were definitely some violent, problematic people. But others were simply positioning themselves against an elitist left that meant something very different in India’s post-colonial context. In other words, they were rejecting the yoke of continued Western -ism (including secularism). Ironically, in taking up the vernacular of American politics, they were playing right into the foil and aligning themselves with Christian supremacists.

And then I started thinking, what if left wing and feminist actually might be a dangerously misguided naming of colonizer and white feminism. We know that the Academy has historically been a crafty colonizing tool. This has happened throughout the world. It is the well-catalogued critique of traditional anthropology, the colonial gaze, the eugenics movement…the list goes on and on. We know that white women were used as a dangerous weapon against Indians during the Raj. And that white feminists — to this day — are responsible for penning some of the most grotesque, unsubstantiated, anti-Hindu rhetoric. And that when their scholarship is neatly and thoroughly refuted by Hindus, those Hindus are simply labeled as angry misogynists. To the Hindus, the white feminist and the Academy are dangerous, indeed.

This is why comparing the politics of a post-colonial nation with that of a colonizing, imperialist one just doesn’t work. Because there are no global definitions of concepts. Especially without a robust, well-articulated, easily-accessible, local anti-colonial framework. (This is not an indictment of India.)

Or maybe the Indian anti-colonial framework is simply “We don’t care what the West thinks about Indian politics. We voted. Deal with it.”

Living in a post-colonial nation literally means living with the descendants of your ancestors’ rapists, abusers, and murderers. This might sound harsh and dramatic, but it is a historical, material fact. It is not the descendants’ fault — and I am in no way trying to stoke anger against those descendants — but it is a fact that these traumas happened and we know that their impact is passed down intergenerationally. It’s psychologically complicated and difficult. Silencing that trauma is gaslighting. Add to that the recent and violent history of Partitionthe largest and most violent single-event migration in human history — and it is almost certainly an open wound.

To put this in perspective: For a period of time (800–1757) that is nearly twice as long as the beginning of the American Slave Trade to present day (1619–2018), the Mughals and Delhi Sultanate entered and ruled India, many with an express purpose of eliminating Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhist, and Jains — the indigenous people who had been there for thousands of years — and destroying our knowledge, temples, and universities. This was followed by nearly 200 years of British plunder and rule, during which time Christian missionaries planted a Western seed of self-doubt through mass conversions.

This was a one-thousand year period of attempted epistemicide. Contrary to what the modern day textbook propaganda purports, the indigenous knowledge traditions now known as Hinduism and Jainism and Sikhism didn’t survived simply because of colonial benevolence and patronage. They survived because our dharma warrior ancestors ensured that they did. And they did this while also welcoming religious refugees from the rest of the world.

For the most part, on this foundation of dharmic knowledge, Indian society has continued to embrace religious plurality extraordinarily well. I’m not saying there aren’t real issues. There are going to be real issues — it is natural, given the history. But instead of celebrating how incredibly functional — for the most part — and pluralistic Indian society is, the so-called liberal media insists on focusing on and presenting a further colonizing, damaging curated narrative that paints the indigenous knowledge traditions of India as if they were the colonizing elements themselves. Given this, it is no wonder that liberal feels like an expletive to the everyday Indian.

The attempted epistemicide of the dharma knowledge traditions of India continued past Indian independence, carried forward by the now eroding Nehru dynasty, through the educational system and the continued attempts at mass conversions. And through the weapon of secularism. (Read that book!) So, to many Indians, Modi represents a tipping point in combating epistemicide.

Please ask yourselves how calling this fascism and religious fundamentalism helps and whom it ends up serving.

(And if you’re going to question my use of indigenous, please learn how thoroughly the Aryan invasion theory has been debunked. While you’re at it, it is a really worthwhile experiment to question everything you think you know about Indian history. )

Do we point a finger at survivors and blame them for their trauma and accuse them of their resilience? Or do we only do that when they’re not Christian or Muslim? I’m not saying this to be divisive, I’m asking us to look at this bravely and honestly in our progressive map of social justice in the world.

The anti-Modi left wing in India, in speaking of minority fear, rarely seems to mention the violence that happens regularly to Hindus to this day. Even when they are Hindus themselves. Even though Hinduism is a minority religion in the world stage.

Where are the analyses that even mention the colonial trauma that India is still fighting to throw off? Where is the conversation about the $45 trillion that Britain stole from India, while stirring intergroup divide amongst Indians, and couching anti-Hindu propaganda as legitimate scholarship? Where is the panning out to take in the full sociocultural context and the role of narrative in shaping the collective consciousness? Where is the honest and brave discussion about truth and reconciliation amongst descendents of this messy past? Where is the investigative journalism tracing the EuroAmerican funding of the curated “minority narrative” in India through missionaries and media? Where are the complex deconstructions that help us understand how just domestic causes are co-opted and manipulated by global imperialists towards anti-Indian ends?

I mean, it’s all there. But it’s not hitting the mainstream “progressive” media in the same way. Or the Western Academy. Because it’s not a neat and relatable soundbyte. It’s easier to continue villainizing Hindus.

Who gets to define liberation?

I am not at all suggesting that there aren’t legitimate issues in India and in Hinduism that need to be addressed. There absolutely are, and there are incredible activists doing really important work. And there is more work to do. But there are also corporations and institutions and governments that are still interested in India not working and invested in causing problems there. The activism is incredibly necessary. It absolutely is. I’m just asking us to ask — who is funding it and what are their motivations? India is too recently decolonized for that to not be on our radars.

Those of us in the Academy and those of us who are products of the Western Academy…if we are not questioning — down to the roots — why we think what we think, we are not the liberal, liberating, liberated agents we think we are. We are simply Western Imperialist shills.

I look around at the analyses of so many other groups here in the US and in the most radical “liberatory” spaces they get an incredibly rich treatment. Discursive analysis of texts, tracing how false narratives were lodged into the social psyche to paint the oppressed as barbaric or less than in order to justify oppression. Investigative journalism and sharp critical scholarship, unveiling who commissioned this scholarship, who funded this particular twisting of public perception.

These analyses exist when it comes to Hindus — plenty of them are respectful, thoughtful, balanced, scholarly, thorough, readable, approachable, factual — but they are cast aside in favor of the simple story: Hindus are the white people of India. Not only is this simply an inept comparison, but it is horribly grotesque in light of India’s colonial past. If we are to make a “white people of India” comparison — which I’d rather not, but here we go — then Western-educated liberals are the white people of India makes a lot more sense. It’s just more historically sound.

Why are the indigenous people the villains in this libertory tale? Is it because there are too many of us? Are indigenous people always supposed to be the underdogs? Or are we are not good Christians or good Christian atheists or people who are ripe for conversion? I am asking honestly. Are they the only believable protagonists?

The only Indian scholars who seem to have purchase in Western Academy-sanctioned critical discourse about “South Asia” and Hinduism are the ones who go along with this. How is this not colonizing? Whether or not they are “correct”, where is the deep critical analysis and self analysis? How are they so confident that they’ve thrown off the colonial yoke of self-hate? It has only been 72 years. Why do they ignore legitimate, rigorous disconfirming evidence and get away with it in the eyes of the Academy? That, too, in the name of social justice? How is this “good scholarship”?

Hindu temples are the only religious institutions in India that are regulated and taxed by the government. The religious institutions of India’s colonizers — the minority religions — are not. This is a holdover from the Raj. If a people learn to bear insult and injury in order to survive a thousand years of colonization stand up tall and speak up for our rights, is that called fundamentalism? If it hasn’t registered in the collective consciousness that a thousand years of brutal colonization even happened, does it make the “fundamentalist” label stickier? What do we need to do in order to be counted?

For a moment, can you imagine reframing what is happening in India as a reclaiming? And that this reclaiming is going to be messy? And that part of this reclaiming is from our colonized selves?

(I’m not talking about going back to a golden pre-colonial era. I’m talking about throwing off a yoke that calls itself a civilizing, liberating lifeline.)

Radical Love from Within

If you are expecting me to be complicit in perpetuating a mangling self-colonization in the name of social justice, then I am afraid you are going to be very disappointed. And if you reduce me to a privileged, caste-drunk Hindu fundamentalist, and close your mind to what I have have said, then there is a chance that you are perpetuating the very thing you claim to stand against. I am a loving Hindu. I will stand up and speak out against toxic patriarchy and casteism and Islamophobia and any mistreatment of people, animals, the planet because I am a Hindu, not despite the fact that I am one. I will also speak out against anti-Hinduism. I am disgusted by the way women — including women whose opinions and activism I vigorously disagree with — are spoken about in the name of protecting Hinduism. Such irreverence to the feminine divine is harmful to us all. There is so much healing that needs to happen.

In fact, I believe to my core that it is the feminine divine that will see us through this. Hindu women, our dharma sisters, and our supportive feminist (yes, feminist) brothers are leading and will lead the charge. This is indigenous knowledge, alive and well, not religious fundamentalism.

I don’t think that people who openly despise Hinduism while also appearing to know very little about it should be taken seriously as critical informants about what is and isn’t Hinduism, whether or not Hinduism is inherently secular, and how it ought to be regulated by the government. This includes deracinated, neoliberal Indians who don’t have an active, indigenous anti-colonial grasp of Hinduism. The critical informants are not even people like me, who have battled and struggled with our Western educations and fought our way through to speak our truth. The critical informants are those who have been living this truth, without the “help” of Western indoctrination. This includes critical conversations amongst Hindus about the treatment of Dalits and women. The anti-colonial struggle is not just decolonization. It is an active process of rejecting the attempted colonization and self-colonization that is happening now.

How many people think of all this or are willing to admit it when they only represent part of the story and say Hindu fundamentalist or fascist regime?

It is a painful and violent reduction.

Below are some links that reveal more of the story. I’m not saying this is The Truth. I’m saying this is here, too. Does it really sound just like what’s happening in the United States? Does this seem like it would be a part of the agenda of religious fanatics bent on oppressing minorities?

Can you see this as a powerful anti-colonial reclaiming? Even just for a moment?

Indu Viswanathan

Written by

New York-based mother, scholar-activist, community member, friend, meditator, musician, and writer.

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