Around 50,000 Indian Americans are expected to attend a rally in Houston, Texas on September 22 to be addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Donald Trump, current leaders of the world’s largest and oldest democracies. In multiple dimensions, this event will showcase the paradoxes in the politics of the two protagonists and their primary audience, the Indian American community. The event might spur self-reflection among some, but could harden the positions for many and sharpen the polarisation in the community.
Many of the attendees at the rally would have taken the oath of allegiance to become U.S. citizens, in which they are required to “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign… state”, where they were citizens earlier — in this case, India. The rest will be largely those waiting for the opportunity to “voluntarily” do so. They will be singing ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’, salutations to the motherland which is India, as it had happened at earlier gatherings of the Indian diaspora in the U.S. and elsewhere addressed by Mr. Modi.
Contours of a project
Naturalisation requires one to abjure allegiance to a foreign country, but America allows dual citizenship. Though India does not allow dual citizenship, the societies in both countries are largely accepting of multiple identities. However, Mr. Trump and Mr. Modi lead politics that seeks to assert and privilege a national identity by subordinating particularities, and rebuild their nations into puritan, unitary communities. This project also involves, in both countries, a massive state drive to identify, isolate, detain and possibly expel people who are suspected to be intruders into the nation. The India of Mr. Modi’s Hindutva dreams, advancing rapidly under his rule, will be “one nation” with one people, one language, one religion, one election, one market, and one everything — a homogeneous, Hindu utopia. The Houston rally could be an opportunity for both leaders to see up close the fallacy of this pursuit. It will be one people cheering leaders of two countries that they divide their loyalty for. The irony is that Mr. Modi and Mr. Trump ride populism that targets various minorities for fractured loyalties.
Politics within and outside
Seeking absolute and unalloyed loyalty to the nation from the entire population, expressed as unquestioning fealty to the regime, is the fulcrum of Mr. Modi’s politics within India, but abroad he seeks and encourages the Indian diaspora to maintain dual loyalties — for India and their host countries. He wants to influence American politics through spectacular shows of his popularity among American citizens who are being called upon to further the interests of India. Adulation and endorsement in the U.S. will amplify Mr. Modi’s support in India. Mr. Trump is using Mr. Modi’s popularity among Indian Americans to advance his domestic politics of undermining American pluralism; and the Hindutva champions, who are at the helm of diaspora politics in the U.S., are helping his cause, harming their self-interest.
Mr. Trump has taken a leaf out of the book of their common friend and the leader of the only democracy in West Asia, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who tried to use his projected proximity with Russian President Vladimir Putin to drum up support for himself among Russian-speaking Israeli citizens in his re-election bid. He lost.
Indian American Hindutva groups, largely upper caste Indians, are advocates of minority rights in the U.S., but simultaneously and contradictorily supportive or uncritical of cultural supremacism and majoritarianism in India. Mr. Modi’s followers in the U.S. want American Democrats to fight back Mr. Trump’s cultural supremacism that belittles them and their culture. They demand as a right, the American green card and passport, and the Modi government has supported such claims for more opportunities for Indians in bilateral talks with the U.S. But they want American Democrats to keep their mouths shut about the rights of those living in India for generations — whether in Kashmir or those who are arbitrarily being asked to prove their citizenship though they never took an oath abjuring and renouncing India. India-friendly voices in American politics are under attack by Hindutva groups in the U.S. for speaking up for constitutionalism and pluralism in India. Hindutva groups in the U.S. even want Indian American Democratic lawmakers to subordinate American interests to India’s.
Ro Khanna, U.S. Representative from California’s 17th Congressional District, located in the heart of Silicon Valley, is being singled out by these groups for his association with the Pakistan Caucus, as if they are fighting the India-Pakistan rivalry in America. Mr. Khanna is an unequivocal and strong supporter of a pluralist America, and India-U.S. ties, and for the same reason rejects Hindutva and its exclusive nationalism.
Multiple identities and split loyalties are part of human existence. Mature societies and evolved partners recognise this fact. America has a fraught history of dealing with suspected disloyalty among its people. Japanese Americans, Italian Americans, German Americans, Irish Americans and Arab Americans were at various points in its history subjected to treatment that no reasonable American today defends. American citizens of Japanese descent were imprisoned during the Second World War. America’s ceaseless global military involvement has been one main reason for this fate of the country’s hyphenated citizens, but the upcoming detention centres in India for residents of suspect citizenship have nothing to do with war, unless one is being planned.
Hyphenated identities have sat well within Indian nationalism and one could be a Malayali or Tamil or Kashmiri and still be Indian with all rights and privilege until the recent upsurge of Hindutva began to advocate the pre-eminence of a Hindu-Hindi, religious-linguistic framework for its unitary project. In Houston, it will be Malayali Indian Americans and Tamil Indian Americans cheering, knowing not what exactly they are cheering. Muslim Indian Americans have been largely expelled from the community already, and the Indian Embassy in Washington DC has even stopped the practice of the annual Eid reception since Mr. Modi became the Prime Minister.
Racial and cultural supremacism is often premised on claims of a group being early occupants of a place. Mr. Trump has asked his minority critics to ‘go back to where they came from’. Hindutva considers Islam and Christianity foreign to India; India is in the process of changing the law to grant citizenship to non-Muslim foreigners if they are persecuted in their home countries. The National Register of Citizens, now being implemented only in Assam categorises lakhs of Muslims and Hindus as foreigners, and the exercise is set to be expanded to other parts of the country. The new law will open a route to citizenship to Hindus, while Muslims will be at the risk of detention and deportation. While all this is going on, new genetic and archaeological studies have established beyond doubt that the Vedic heritage of India owes its origins in the intermingling of immigrants from Central Asian Steppe — Aryas — with earlier inhabitants, and the Harappan people lived before the Vedas. The notion of an indigenous religion or civilisation as opposed to foreign ones in the current context, therefore, is spurious. America is a nation of immigrants, but then so is India. India is also a significant source of immigrants for many countries and Indians currently form the largest diaspora in the world.
But ultra-nationalism overlooks these facets of human progress and arrives at bizarrely contradictory positions in its attempt to purify and consolidate the community. It seeks to forcibly integrate those who are reticent and protective of their distinctions. At the same time, it seeks to evict those who are desperate to stay in. And a section of these ultra-nationalists are also desperate to move to a different country while they support the simultaneous forced integration and forced expulsions of populations in the land they have abandoned or seek to abandon. In Houston, this thought must hopefully cross the minds of the audience that has only partly left India and partly arrived in America while listening to two leaders whose politics centres around the archaic question of ‘who got here first’.