I want to make a short and quick comment about a style of argumentation that I’ve noticed in people from the Indian subcontinent (though not exclusive to them). In addition to verbosity, there tends to be an aggressive hyperbolic emotionality. That’s fine if you want to scream on cable television, but it’s really hot air that doesn’t move a conversation forward.
I’ll bring up the class example with the Mughals.
Muslims in the subcontinent admire the Mughals, on the whole, and take pride in their accomplishments. Whether you think that that pride is warranted or not, it is there, and it makes it difficult for Indian Muslims to evaluate the Mughals with any degree of detachment. The fundamental reality is to a great extent the Mughals were a colonial and alien power that control the subcontinent for centuries. To some extent, they were more foreign than some of the post-Delhi Sultanate Muslim kingdoms. The Mughals imported Turkic warriors and Persian bureaucrats for many centuries, and for decades continued to speak Chagatai Turk among themselves. Up until Aurangzeb, they were keen on conquering their ‘ancestral’ homeland. The Mughals had a racial caste system, and continued to differentiate between the foreign Muslims, and those of native subcontinental stock (arguably native Indian Muslims did better under some of the Delhi Sultanate successor states).
But what about Hindus? Whereas Muslims get very defensive about their “Mughal ancestors,” many Hindus detest them because they were colonial interlopers. I think it is a reasonable assertion, but then Hindus take a step further. Along with their precursors, the Delhi Sultanate the Mughals killed millions and engaged in a campaign of mass rape and murder. Often if the Hindus are talking verbally there is a lot of emotion in their voice, and I wonder if they are going to cry. The reality is the genetics is clear that Hindus have almost no West Asian ancestry, and the fraction of Indian Muslims is quite small. If the Mughals were raping a lot, they were quite sterile.
The reality is it seems to me that though the Mughals synthesized themselves with India, for much of their early and mature period they were more a colonial skein over the substrate of India, the vast majority of which remained loyal to its indigenous religious traditions. This means that their interaction with the natives was mostly a matter of resource extraction, that is, rents.
I don’t know if more discussion with help India resolves its internecine religious fractures. Probably not. But I wish people would comport themselves like they were actually trying to discuss, rather than emotionally screaming at each other.
I dont have a detailed review, just a short note. The book is not a detailed history of gays in Washington (such a book would have to start in the 1790s and would have to include the stories of Black and poor gay people; two groups notably excluded from this book, which is mostly high class elite gossip). This book actually covers the time from the 1930s to the 1990s (though it does begin with a reference to Abraham Lincoln sharing a bed with his male friend, that anecdote is just a hook to start the book with; Kirchick does not actually claim that Lincoln was gay). Prior to the 1930s there were gays in government, but little or no overt discussion of the topic; their sexual preference mostly caused problems from the 1940s to the 1990s, when there was a “lavender scare” that actually exceeded the Red scare in duration. Interestingly this lavender scare was partly driven by closeted gays, including McCarthy’s aide (and Trump’s teacher) Roy Cohn. There was a fear that homosexuals were a security risk because they could potentially be blackmailed, but actual analysis of American spies indicates that very few were gay and none were recruited via blackmail. Still, many lives were destroyed in the course of this scare and the topic remained “hot” until the 1990s, when gay liberation finally took hold and by now we are the point that we have an openly gay transportation secretary (and former presidential candidate) whose main scandal is that he took paternity leave in the middle of a transportation crisis. Though his final conclusion is optimistic (gay liberation is “a magnificent accomplishment of the liberal society, enabled by the fundamentally American concepts of free expression, pluralism, and open inquiry.”) there is a backlash in process (mostly directed against Trans activist over-reach, but likely to catch gays in the dragnet) and the current equilibrium may not be that stable. The notion that gay liberation is an active cause of civilizational decline is not gone (there is an anecdote in the book about the state department security chief commissioning a study of how homosexuality causes civilizational collapse, but the researcher concluded that homosexuality did not in fact cause the collapse of Rome and Greece) and may come back in other guises.
The book is an easy read and is full of interesting stories and characters. If you are interested in American politics and recent history, you will enjoy it.
Eighteenth century India and its neighboring regions were an exotic place for outsiders and not much was known about the geography and people of this large swath of land. An odd traveler or explorer published the details of his perilous journey among strange and alien land and people for the home audience. Arrival of East India Company (EIC) for trade and later territorial expansion brought modern scientific methods of exploration and mapping that filled up the empty spaces on maps.
During military operations, officers collected localized information about terrain, availability of supplies to support troops and animals and information about local population. However, this information was localized and limited to military operation at hand. Knowledge about land and people ruled by EIC rapidly expanded. Over the years, a small group of extraordinary British and native explorers contributed to sciences of geography and anthropology. This was an area where political, administrative, military and spying arts freely intermingled.
In eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, India’s frontiers were changing with territorial expansion of EIC. In these decades, frontier moved from Oudh, Gangetic plains, Sindh and Punjab to Northwestern and Northeastern frontiers. In the context of defense of India, area of British influence also expanded to Tibet, Chinese and Russian Turkistan and Afghanistan. The Royal Geographic Society (RGS) became the patron of the advancement of the field of geography on scientific grounds and published works of explorers of India and its neighborhood.
In 1800, three separate surveys were started in India: Revenue, Topographical and Trigonometrical (later named Great Trigonometrical Survey – GTS). In 1878, all three were amalgamated into a single Survey of India. James Rannell (1742-1830), William Lambton (1756-1823), George Everest (1790-1866), Thomas George Montgomerie (1830-1878), Henry Trotter, William Johnson, James Walker, Colonel Frederick Bailey (1882-1967), Sir Thomas Hungerford Holdich, Godwin-Austin, Captain Francis Younghusband and others were exceptional individuals. They were driven by a sense of adventure, exploration and duty. They were highly committed individuals willing to suffer extreme hardships in strange and unknown lands. They instilled same spirit among their native assistants. Surveying in frontier areas was a dangerous task as locals correctly concluded that surveying was the steppingstone towards loss of their freedom. There was an Afghan saying that “First comes one Englishman for shikar (hunting), then come two to draw a map, and then comes an army to take your land. So, it is best to kill the first Englishman”. Continue reading The Surveying of India by the British
The Carnegie study takes a shot at the 2018 Equality Labs survey that argues for the pervasiveness of caste discrimination:
A 2018 survey of 1,500 South Asian Americans found that many low-caste members of numerous diaspora communities had endured firsthand experience of caste discrimination. However, the study is not based on a representative sample, raising questions about the generalizability of its findings.
The figure above shows that most Hindu Indian Americans do not live in a caste-homogeneous environment. There are reasons for this. From the text:
Forty-seven percent of Hindu respondents report identifying with a caste, which means the majority (53 percent) said that they do not personally identify with a caste group of any kind. However, there is marked variation by place of birth. Whereas 53 percent of foreign-born Hindu Indian Americans affiliate with a caste group, 34 percent of U.S.-born Hindu Indian Americans do the same.
…Overall, there are 632 respondents in the IAAS sample who belong to the Hindu faith but only 293 who report identifying with a caste group. Of this latter group, the overwhelming majority—83 percent—categorize themselves as General or upper caste. Sixteen percent identify as a member of OBC and 1 percent each identify as Adivasi/Scheduled Tribe (ST) or Dalit/Scheduled Caste (SC).
The latter number, that about 80 percent of Hindu Indian Americans are not OBC, Dalit or Adivasi is exactly what I’ve seen in other data. But perhaps a more important aspect is that large numbers of Hindus in America don’t “affiliate” with a caste group. Some of the American-born individuals may not actually even know their caste group, though the foreign-born ones clearly know their origins as noted in the text:
Figure 21 looks more closely at the caste composition of social networks among Hindus. Seventy-four percent of Hindu respondents who report not identifying with a caste nevertheless know enough to be able to identify the caste identities of their social networks. Only 26 percent of Hindus who do not identify with a caste respond to questions about the caste composition of their social networks by answering “don’t know.” This indicates that even though a large proportion of Hindu respondents say they do not identify with a caste, only a small fraction are unaware of the caste composition of their networks.
What is also striking is how relatively small the differences are between respondents who identify with a caste versus those who do not. While the former report that a slightly higher share of their social network comprises people of the same caste, if one sets aside the “don’t know” responses, the relative differences between caste identifiers and non-identifiers is marginal. For instance, 27 percent of Hindu respondents who identify with a caste report that all or most of their Indian friends share their caste affiliation. Nineteen percent of those who do not identify with a caste group answer similarly. Respondents who acknowledge a caste identity are only slightly more likely to report that some of their social network is made up of people of the same caste (41 percent versus 33 percent for those without a caste identity).
So here is the subtle point: people who do not identify with a caste group nevertheless can often assess whether their social circle is mostly of their caste group or not. The dynamic here is that people are proactively disavowing or denying caste identity personally, but they clearly still know the provenance of their own lineage and that of their friends.
The landscape of caste and America is complex. Nevertheless, today’s social justice activists are trying to reframe it as just another black-white dichotomy, with oppressed Dalits, etc., against oppressive Brahmins.
Finally, we discuss the casual and not-so-casual anti-Hindu comments that are spreading across mainstream discourse. For example, an organization at UC Davis called the Other Collective has said some really bizarre things about Diwali:
In April, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, the founder and executive director of Equality Labs — a nonprofit that advocates for Dalits, or members of the lowest-ranked caste — was scheduled to give a talk to Google News employees for Dalit History Month. But Google employees began spreading disinformation, calling her “Hindu-phobic” and “anti-Hindu” in emails to the company’s leaders, documents posted on Google’s intranet and mailing lists with thousands of employees, according to copies of the documents as well as interviews with Soundararajan and current Google employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concerns about retaliation.
Soundararajan appealed directly to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who comes from an upper-caste family in India, to allow her presentation to go forward. But the talk was canceled, leading some employees to conclude that Google was willfully ignoring caste bias. Tanuja Gupta, a senior manager at Google News who invited Soundararajan to speak, resigned over the incident, according to a copy of her goodbye email posted internally Wednesday and viewed by The Washington Post.
A few points
– This is a big deal in the US right now because a few clueless progressive foundations gave money to Equality Labs. I say clueless because these foundations and granting institutions have zero ability to evaluate the plausibility of systemic caste bias in the US. They probably thought it sounded like a bad thing they should work against, so they funded Equality Labs. Once Equality Labs got its money, it was going to find systemic caste bias, because that’s its raison d’etre.
– The journalists who are reporting that “rising Hindu nationalist movement that has spread from India through the diaspora has arrived inside Google, according to employees” are clueless, and driven along by self-serving sources or their own biases. This particular reporter, Nitasha Tiku is an Ivy League-educated Indian American who has worked in online media (mostly tech journalism) for over a decade. She, like other Indian American reporters, has the right appearance and familial origins to cover a story like “caste in America’s Indian immigrant communities” in the eyes of her editors. But most of these people are not really culturally fluent enough to understand any of the subtleties or nuances of Indian caste, so they fall back on uncritically relaying their source’s talking points, or platitudes and cliches. These people are American, not Indian.
– Obviously, caste and jati are huge issues in the Indian subcontinent, and they are socially relevant institutions that have an impact on your life course. But that is not the case in the US. Indian Americans do come from caste backgrounds, though only 1% come from Dalit family backgrounds (again, it’s weird saying you are a “Dalit American” so almost no Amerians know what a Dalit is). But many Indian Americans raised in the US are very vague about their caste (with exceptions, if you are an Iyer or Mukherjee you pretty much know), and many of them grew up in predominantly non-Indian social environments. The kinship/jati networks that smooth the social functioning of Indian society doesn’t exist in the US. There are partial exceptions with Gujuratis who run family businesses, but these are a minority, and many of the children of successful Gujurati businesspeople in the US still go into professions where their world is mostly not Indian. What is really going with “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” oriented interrogation of caste in the US is that they want to transpose the black-white model of oppressed and oppressors on a different group so as to organize a “progressive stack rank” of virtue/privilege.
– Though Indian Americans of the 1.5 and 2nd generation are prominent culturally and politically, the vast majority of Indian Americans in the US are immigrants, born and raised in India. Most actually arrived after the year 2000! People like Sundar Pichai or Parag Agrawal are socioculturally quite distinct from Neera Tanden or Kal Pe. Indian American Brahmins and Bainyas who barely have any understanding what this caste identity is may be willing to take on the role of “oppressors” so as to obtain performative self-flaggelation points, but it seems that immigrants, who often struggled to gain a foothold in the American economy and society, are not as eager to engage in this behavior. Especially when they are more aware of the reality of caste and jati in the subcontinent.
– There are nepotistic networks among Indians in tech. I’ve heard multiple people (Indian immigrants) talk about the “Telugu mafia.” But these are not the same as what you would see in India as explicitly related to jati. There are networks connected to schools that everyone went to, or a unicorn that a bunch of early employees cashed out of, etc. It’s the typical thing you see in business in general, where relationships go a long way. But there’s no systemic exclusion of Dalits or lower class people because there are hardly any Dalits in the US, and Indian Amerians are strongly selected for skills, education and higher socioeconomic status in the immigration system. I dislike pointing to prejudice to explain things, but the same sort of dynamics you see in the “Paypal Mafia” when it happens with Indian immigrants seems to be depicted as caste-clannishness by outsiders.
– I am not optimistic that DEI will not include caste in its categories of oppression and marginalization. In 5 years I think it is quite likely that a young white women in HR will be evaluating the caste-jati status of brown-skinned applicants to companies to make sure that the subcontiental employee pool is “diverse.”
“It is like writing history with lightning” was claimed to be the response of Woodrow Wilson the president of United States (from 1913 to 1921) on viewing a special screening of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Regardless of the fact that the film in question had racial connotations it does say something about the power of the silver screen to narrate the past of a nation punctiliously albeit with a little embellishment here and there. In this particular piece I have attempted to show four main social occurrences in the history of India written as Wilson stated ‘with lightning’ in the silver screen.
The Era of Realisation- Late 1950’s to 70’s
After independence in 1947 the first prime minister observed that the bulk of the nation still relied on agrarian works to feed themselves and hence took measures inspired by the ideology of Socialism which he believed would benefit the farmers most. However, in this case though the underdogs were the agriculturalists, the machines were looked upon with suspicion. But all changed as the 50’s came to an end ushering in the 1960’s. The focus now shifted from agrarian reforms to industrialization due to urbanization gaining more ground as many farmers and rural workers in general realized the limitations of agriculture and advanced towards the city with hopes of earning a living. Also noticeable in the middle of the decade were the technological methods used in the Green Revolution. As more farmers and villagers flocked to the city joining those who were already the underbelly of urbanization the message of socialism reached its most important receiver: The Indian Middle class.
But even the privileged section of the society started getting influenced by socialist ideals. The villainous machines of the preceding decades became the means of earnings for the underdogs as the factories became the driving force for industrialization with the identified have-nots getting employed to work the machines. The laborers in factories became more vocal than before since they had more importance in the said era compared to the farmers (who were lionized in the fifties).
Yet the afflictions remained the same for the have-nots as the oppressors changed from landlords to rich entrepreneurs and the shift to industrialization did not reduce the large gap between rich and poor retaining the same sort of social inequality. To check this inequality or at least reduce them the more cautious and informed workers formed unions with a hierarchy of leaders to counter any injustice brought about by entrepreneurs. Strikes by unions became an expression of dissent by the have-nots who in this context were the factory laborers. The new shift also saw the effects and realities of poverty prevalent nationwide. Now since the union strikes occurred in the urban centers the young urban residents observed the inequalities in their surroundings more thoroughly and some became resolute to apply socialist schemes the government spoke of while becoming disillusioned with the image of their nation simultaneously. The preceding generation of Indians encouraged the youth while having mixed feelings about the disillusionment factor. With this new realization the youngsters were divided into two groups: one group willing to change the prevailing conditions while the other saw the growing consumerism as a way of life. The preceding generation felt the pangs of disappointment as both groups denounced the idealist socialism of the Nehru years creating two extreme poles widened more aggressively in the 1970’s. Veteran director Hrishikesh Mukherjee captured these sentiments in the classic Namak Haram.
As 1970’s kicked off the importance swung back to the farmlands in India due to massive economic loss caused by union strikes and catchphrases like ‘cultivators own the land’ were propagated by the Indira Gandhi-led government. The cultivators as well as the farmlands however were still in pitiful conditions.
Unlike the previous decade the new generation of youngsters from privileged backgrounds felt responsible to change society by violent methods if required. These youngsters fell in love with the thought of uprisings and saw parallels in the conditions of their times with that of colonized India. The Cold War events like the wars in Vietnam and uprisings in Cuba spiced their viewpoints more. To the angry youth the state was now a draconian entity determined to repress its own citizens hence it was time to dissolve it by necessary violence.
Political movements like the satyagraha led by Jayaprakash Narayan in Bihar as well as public opposition to the Indira Gandhi administration made those romancing revolutions more intense. Indira Gandhi’s strident response to free speeches and clamping down on her opponents during the imposition of National Emergency was the final straw. The budding but violent pro-peasant movement fermenting in the small village of Naxalbari in West Bengal had its resonance felt in different parts of the nation due to the activities of the said rebels. Unlike the ideal socialists of the 60’s these revolutionaries believed in do or die philosophy and attempted to bring about a total revolution to enforce their own version of ideals. Revolutionaries Mao Zedong, Trotsky, Kanu Sanyal became the role models of the youth in place of Nehru and toiling peasants.
The administration on seeing the intensity of the attacks decided to give an equal violent response. Now the lovers of uprising had a heart attack with the stringent measures administered by the state. And almost all admirers as well as participants of the radical Naxalite movement were punished by the authorities. The end of this saga saw the replacement of the Indira Gandhi government by the Janata Party in the Centre during the 1977 elections as well the beginning of three decade rule of the Left Front in West Bengal. This matter was sensitive for a long period of time but there were few cases of comprehensive documentation done on this barring the ones with heavy political connotations. Same could be said of its visual presentations. However an entertaining yet effective example was seen in 2003 with the release of Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi directed by Sudhir Mishra.
Deteriorating Stagnation: 1980’s to 1990’s:
One thing that was always present in the 60’s and 70’s was the involvement of the students as a group of political advocates. From the days of the freedom movement the students have been the most active participants in any political turmoil. The careers of national leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Jayaprakash Narayan and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar started as student leaders. But the rise of Sanjay Gandhi during the emergency era in 1970’s changed the concept of youth leadership as he used the youngsters as cronies for the administration. In the aftermath of Sanjay Gandhi’s death and Indira Gandhi’s assassination India had a charismatic young leader in the form of Rajiv Gandhi becoming the youngest Prime Minister of India.
However, unfortunately the perception of youth leadership changed from that of young firebrands to petty power seekers as political parties used them for the sake of expanding their base (there were some exceptions though). Such instances were said to have affected the ‘Student Unions’ in states like West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra often leading to violence in university campuses hampering the functioning of the institutions. The liberalization of the Indian economy as well as changing of ideologies did have its impact on young political leaders but most of these young guns couldn’t match the charisma of their predecessors. Also many dedicated youngsters had to confront their own mentors, many of whom became either disenchanted or authoritarian. According to some social observers the opening up of the economy made the youngsters more materialistic, taking the political zeal away from their psyche.
This new era saw the youngsters in three different avatars: those seeking power by hook or by crook; those running after material benefits; and lastly those willing to become agents of change. One can take a look at Mani Ratnam’s Yuva to see the different shades coming together.
The ever present anti factor:
‘To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction’ Newton’s third law was every bit true in all the three eras mentioned above. There were always forces that consistently rose up against the trend of the era and became a trend by itself. Of all such movements that happened nationwide I have decided to highlight the one established in the nation’s financial as well as entertainment capital Mumbai: the Shiv Sena. Founded on June 19, 1966 by former political caricaturist Bal Keshav Thackeray who stated the party’s avowed intention is to fight the alleged injustice in employment and other matters being faced by the Maharashtrians in Mumbai.
The reason cited for this injustice was the influx into Mumbai of people from other states, amongst whom the Shiv Sena mainly targeted South Indians. Even though this catapulted the Sena into national headlines I believe it was their role as anti-trendsetters that made them unique. During its early years the Shiv Sena was engaged in frequent struggles against the trade unions. Prior to the formation of the Shiv Sena, the Communist Party of India played a dominant role in labour politics in Mumbai. According to journalists of the then era the Shiv Sena was supported by elements inside the Indian National Congress, who hoped that the new organization would be capable of weakening the communist party’s influence on trade unions.
Soon Shiv Sena cadres were involved in a series of violent conflicts with the communist trade union activists. The Sena saw the union and communism as distractions for the disgruntled local Maharashtrians preferring the youngsters to toil and join the authority to gain an efficient and wholesome lifestyle. This sentiment was narrated by Bal Thackeray in his caustic speeches against trade union leaders and socialist hardliners. Though it was Balasaheb Thackeray’s belief that the “people” were supreme, he argued that the institutions of liberal democracy and the administration were engineered against it.
The defense of its interests required direct action: Laws had to be broken. Violence and intimidation were necessary to bring the people’s enemies to heel. “Wake up, wake up, before it is too late,” he would urge his admirers. The educated yet unemployed young men were among the most loyal members of the Sena. It was the triumph of assertive rhetoric over economics. This anger turned local Maharashtrians of Mumbai into angry rebels conflicting with the state machinery. Anything that resembled closely knitted authority like municipalities and trade unions faced the ire of the Shiv Sena. Bal Thackeray’s political rise was fitted together with the cinematic rise of Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man on the silver screen. This trend of angry young men dominated the political as well as cinematic landscape throughout the last years of 1960’s till 1970’s.
As the 1980’s ushered in and disruptive student politics was taking over, the Sena supremo decided to play defense. But this defense was not to create ideal student leaders as that move did not succeed in the preceding decades but to counter it with the belief that this disruptive system is fit for the privileged section. The underdogs must become more vigilant and ensure that their interests are not exploited by the misguided leadership of privileged students. If necessary resort to ‘goondagiri’ the Senapati opined. It was easily said and done: the students from a certain strata of society came together with the struggling ones in the underbelly of society and acted as a barricade to the inflow of any kind of student movement into their midst. Instead through rowdiness they marked their territory and the unemployed youth became a type of guardian as well as a bully of his area. This was captured in starring actors like Jackie Shroff, Nana Patekar, Anil Kapoor among others donning the role of a popular young vandal. As the economy liberalized the hold of the Sena on Mumbai stayed strong as Bal Thackeray further fortified his role as the sole guardian of the disadvantaged residents of Mumbai carrying out what he felt was correct for them wheedling the government apparatus as he saw fit becoming a definite ‘parallel government’.
Purandhare,V(2012).‘The rise & fall of SHIV SENA’. Third edition. Mumbai. Roli Books Private limited
Virdi,J(2003). The Cinematic ImagiNation: Indian Popular Films as Social History. Second edition. Rutgers University Press.
Times of India (2012). With Bal Thackeray’s death, are Shiv Sena’s best days over? Retrieved 13th February 2013 from : http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2012-11-20/edit-page/35204690_1_shiv-sena-uddhav-bal-thackeray.
Note: This is an old essay written during the writer’s time in college and has been published in his personal blog also(click here).