Browncast Episode 103: Abhijit Iyer-Mitra on Indian Defense, Economics, and History

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Abhijit Iyer-Mitra (@Iyervval) | Twitter

This episode features Omar, Mukunda, and Akshar talking to Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, a defense and policy analyst, about his evolution of political thought with highlights on his former communist affinity, evolving feelings on Modi, and passion for Indian nationalism. We also get into the continued inefficiencies of India and how it has been so detrimental to its development, plus possible reforms to remedy it. The wide-ranging conversation also includes insights into Abhijit’s time in jail, Kashmir, and “Frugal Indian” cooking tips!


Pass the samosa, spare the postcolonialism

Edward Said’s Orientalism was a work of scholarship. I think it was a very mixed work of scholarship (better as a critique than a plausible interpretation of the facts, in keeping with the author’s expertise as a literary scholar rather than a historian). But it was one of the later 20th century works which ruminated on the impact and power of the colonial experience.

Its influence has echoed down through the past two generations, and not to good effect. One could actually understand the argument of Orientalism. The argument of much of mass-level postcolonialism is inchoate, while its academic variety is insular and unintelligible.

Consider this piece from The Juggernaut, Keeping Up with Cultural Appropriation:

What qualifies as cultural appropriation is complicated — some advocate for cultural sharing, while others call it cultural theft. Cultural appropriation is “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission,” according to Susan Scafidi, the founder of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School, in her book Who Owns Culture: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law. This “taking” can occur in a variety of ways, from creative collaborations to cringe-inducing Halloween costumes.

Taking cultural elements without permission from a less predominant culture in a specific context is at the heart of appropriation. “It involves a culture with relatively more economic, social, or political power taking from a culture with less power, and so it involves an unequal relation,” explained Rina Arya, professor of visual culture and theory at the University of Huddersfield.

First, as an empirical matter, the individuals of a “less predominant culture” who object to cultural appropriation are invariably privileged, deracinated, and Diasporan or Diasporic in their cultural influence. People who reside in Japan, for example, have no problem with white people wearing kimonos. Instead, it is Asian American activists. Therefore, you have the farce a few years ago of an Indian American woman explaining to a Japanese art curator why white people in kimonos is “problematic.”

There are two points of this post:

– Is there anything of value in 2020 in the way postcolonialist academia views the world? I’d stay no. What’s the “postcolonial” angle on Chinese aggression Ladakh? Yes, the British borders matter, but note that the Manchus invaded Nepal without the influence of white people. Academic postcolonialism is sterile, offers no novel insights, and frankly centers white people and Europeans to a degree that is idolatrous.

– Second, mass-postcolonialism with its concepts such as “cultural appropriation” is not fertile toward cultural creativity. Rather, it promotes a vague and unclear essentialist idea of cultures, societies, and presumes a lack of dynamism and a static element of power relations. The Romans conquered Greece, but in their turn, they were conquered by Greek culture. One could say they “appropriated” Greek culture, but the synthetic glories of Greco-Roman art and thought would not be possible without the “appropriation.”

Contrast the above piece with another one from The Juggernaut, “Not Indian Enough”. Yes, it trades in some signaling to woke shibboleth, but it explores an interesting topic that is genuinely novel and not simply a rearrangement of cognitive furniture.


The War Over Myth

When the ancient Cro-Magnon crossed paths with the Neanderthal in prehistoric Europe, a conflict was born. Slowly but surely, the invading Cro-Magnons subdued and supplanted the native Neanderthals into oblivion. The only Neanderthal traces left were fossils and tiny genetic snippets in the Sapiens code. But why did these Cro-Magnons so rapidly succeed the Neanderthals?

Yuval Noah Harari proposes the power of myth.


In his book Sapiens, Harari posits that it was the ability of ancient humans to create myths that led to triumph over their Neanderthal cousins. Whether it was concepts of religion, trade, country, etc…, the Cro-Magnon coalitions weren’t just strengthened by shared genetic codes but shared mythic creeds. Innovation and legends built from this cognitive revolution gave early humans the tools to not only conquer other species but also each other.

Old myths were now carving new realities.


This blood of fratricide would continue across the ages to the tip of Spartan spears clashing against Athenian shields. In this land of early contacts, people who shared even greater similarities than the Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals were still locked in an eternal war over the myths of alliances and city states. Another incarnation would appear in the same land as Greeks and Anatolian “Turks” (who may have shared more DNA with an Athenian than a Central Asian) would come to gunpowder blows with a backdrop of whether Jesus or Muhammed was the supreme prophet.

Of course, one could say these conflicts were all over resources; but myths provided the fuel to the fire. The fictions of community, ideology, and religion were integral to these conflicts; and the legends of their conflicts were peppered with these myths, not over who controlled a salt mine.

The Deviant

History is filled with centralized powers and rulers having a vice grip over their societies’ myths. Nonetheless, massive calamities or upheavals would cause realities to shatter mythologies (much like the coronavirus today). The spread of the internet and social media have upended traditional formulas, and now myths are increasingly divided and divisive.

I came across an extremely interesting yet at times very hypocritical podcast – the Rabbit Hole. It is produced by the New York Times and delves into the story of a young man named Caleb and his radicalization by way of…YouTube. On the way it pairs a fairly centrist Joe Rogan with famous racists such as Stephan Molyneaux and Milo Yiannopolous, designates deviation from mainstream thought as a mental disturbance, and labels dissent against mainstream media as surefire pathway to bigotry.


It is slickly produced, gorgeous in audio, and loudly ironic – as it sounds like a parody of propaganda itself.

Let’s not forget the highlight reel of the New York Times’ myths this year includes lamenting that not enough Indians have died due to coronaviruslabeling the Chinese travel ban as racist, and canceling #MeToo because Joe Biden.

These are the myths that an esteemed and storied American institution propagates. It doesn’t take a mythologist or scientist to tell you that something is off.

Media, academia, corporations, and governments themselves are seeing their stories thrown into bonfires like an Evangelical reaction to Harry Potter books. The sacred myths of the past such as the accessibility of the American Dream, the “natural fit” of the European Union, the hyper-competence of the CCP, India’s minority favoritism in guise of “secularism,” and so many more myths of the elites are being capsized. Populist surges have been inflamed by mismatching of reality and myth, and alternative voices have been given suffrage by the internet.

The Rabbit Hole feels like a reaction. A major institution trying to silence alternative thought (much of which I strongly disagree with myself) as it feels threatened, using every aesthetic and influential trick in its repertoire. It’s a very entertaining yet at times jarring piece of content. It’s so fascinating seeing a media giant so brazenly and fearfully enforce its myth.

Māyā, the Illusion

The Hindu concept of Māyā is multifaceted; but for our purpose today, let’s pin it down to the idea that our world is an elaborate illusion, fueled by attachment, arrogance, and deception. The illusion is tailored. For one, it may be their emotional faults; for another, it’s their addiction; for someone else, it’s their position of power, etc…

Each person has their own māyā. Their own reality. Their own myth.

Institutions have for too long utilized prestige to create precedent. They have gotten used to their word being a given, rather than something that is taken. Now with the coronavirus baring the top-down māyā of the elites and institutions, a bottom-up backlash ensues.

A whole array of new myths and challenges to the status quo are arising. Many of my group chat debates with friends end up being us posting different articles that say wildly opposite conclusions with Herculean confidence – a testament to how we now have a myriad of myths to choose from yet increasing difficulty in discerning our reality. News is no longer news. News is narrative.

Truth is more subjective than ever.

Think Different

The Vedas have described reality as “neti neti” – not this, not that. This comfort with ambiguity is something that is sorely missed in today’s world. The sages who composed the Vedas found ease in ambiguity and accepted the limits of truth. From their verses, flowed the founding myths of the Indian subcontinent; and subsequent philosophers and truth-seekers created their own spin on those myths. Debate, diversity, and a mutual respect became integral to the Indic ethos, something you would never assume today watching the screaming cobblestone screens of Indian news.


Now is a time to embrace ambiguity. Absolute truths are being overturned by the coronavirus and the cascading economic downturn. From the Federal Reserve’s infinite monetary sprint careening past notions of debt to the WHO’s blatant capitulation to the Dragon, old conventions are imploding to open a path for new strategies, new myths.

This piece is more of a collection of thoughts than a focused message. A quiver of arrows rather than a spear. I want you to leave with questions.

Why should I listen to the media and institutions that have been so consistently wrong? That have a permanent sneer towards me? That seek to sear any speck of debate into ashes?

The war over myths is the story of human progress. Our myths chart the trail of our future. Belief has proven self-fulfilling on an individual as well as societal level. We must make sure that our beliefs are not defined by consistently wrong and Puritanical elites and institutions.

Our myths should come from experience and inquiry. It’s time for conversion. It’s time for reincarnation. It’s time to choose our own mythology.

This is a repost from The EmissaryPlease visit the blog for more content and thanks to Brown Pundits!


Hindu racism against Muslims

Tom Haverford

On the TV show Parks & Recreation Aziz Asnari’s character, Darwish Ghani, changes his name to Tom Haverford. The joke is that as a brown-skinned man he can change his name all he wants, but he’ll always be Darwish Ghani to the fair citizens of Indiana.

I thought of this while after I listened to Mindy Kaling on Fresh Air talking about her new show, Never Have I Ever, and a scene where aunties are ostracizing a woman who had married a Muslim. Kaling mentions offhand that the “racism” against Muslims is something that she remembers from her childhood. She uses the word racism, rather than prejudice, because for the predominantly white liberal/progressive listeners of NPR Muslims are a “race” after a fashion.

But if Darwish Ghani changed his name to Vikram Chokalingam, he would be able to “pass.”

Kaling’s peculiar interpolation of the Western view of Islam, as a “nonwhite religion,” has resonances in the Indian subcontinent with some Hindu nationalists, who view Muslims as an alien race, the scions of foreigners, and some Muslims, who proclaim their Arab, Iranian or Turkic antecedents. All the while, genetics and the plain evidence of our faces makes it clear we are basically all the same “race” (i.e., Punjabi Hindus and Punjabi Muslims aren’t really different except a tiny bit on the margins*).

* Muslims are more likely to have a bit of ‘exotic’ ancestry.


Never Have I Ever

The new series on Netflix about a young Indian American teen is pretty good. Despite attempts to write about it in a political frame, I don’t see that it’s a political show really. There is also an element of verisimilitude to the show because the non-Indian love interests are of East Asian, Jewish, or mixed East Asian backgrounds. Too often when talking about dating and love outside of one South Asian culture there’s a temptation to assume “American” means Sven and/or the St. Pauli Girl. Southern California, where the show is set, is way more diverse than that, and unlike 90s sitcoms like Friends and Seinfeld Never Have I Ever actually seems like it was set in and around suburban SoCal.*

Oh, and I have to observe, that the protagonist is complected like a lot of the Indian Americans I grew up around.

* The protagonist did say “Hella,” which is very NorCal. I have no idea how that got past the writers’ room.



I just watched a somewhat silly film Extraction on Netflix. There’s not much plot. But some of the background is subcontinental. Some comments

* The translation of the Bengali elided quite a bit of flourish. For example, they didn’t translate “son of a bitch” from Bengali into English in the subtitles

* The dominance and impunity of organized crime in Dhaka seems implausible

* It was kind of funny watching Chris Hemsworth beat up guys a foot shorter than him


Hindus are the most authentic Indians

As someone who was raised in the United States as a person of brown complexion, I grew up as an “Indian.” This, despite the fact that the last time any of my ancestors were Indian nationals was before 1947. The main reason is that it is really hard to get people in 1980s America to know what “Bangladesh” was. Yes, there was a famine and a concert in the early 1970s, but this was not very well known. Since I had brown skin, and my parents ate spicy food, it seemed plausible to accept that I was Indian and just “go with it”.*

But, a problem with being Indian is that people assumed I was Hindu. I was raised Muslim (though never really a believer myself), so I had no ownership or connection to Hindu identity. Therefore, I would have to explain the religious discrepancy to my interlocutors. It wasn’t a major issue for me. After all, I wasn’t religious myself.

As a grown adult, with children of mixed background who find my exotic antecedents amusing, I have had to reflect more on the relationship between India and its native religious traditions and identities. Hindus often make the accusation to Indian Muslims and Christians that these religion’s holy sites are elsewhere. In contrast, southern Asia is the locus of “Hindu” spirituality. The sacred geography of Islam in Arabia, the Levant, and for Shia and Sufis more broadly across the Near East (with some expansion in other areas for Sufis, though these are secondary). For Christians, the locus is in the Near East and Europe. But I think this focus on Islam and Christianity takes the eyes off the major prize.

What does it mean to be Hindu?** I think that it is clear that Hinduism is a precipitation of the indigenous religious traditions of India, a fusion of numerous strands which are quite distinct. As a non-Hindu it is not my role to adjudicate on what is, or isn’t, Hindu, but it seems quite clear that there is something distinct from Islam and Christianity, and that that distinctiveness is usually due to indigenous aspects (some of which were exported through Buddhism out of India). Al-Biruni saw this. Hindus themselves saw this even if they did not think of themselves as a confessional religion.

This doesn’t mean that non-Hindu Indians and subcontinentals are not distinctively South Asian. Look at a street scene in Pakistan, and it looks more like New Delhi than Tehran. The people, the color, the foods and density. But for various reasons Pakistanis have rooted their identity in Islam, and this makes identification as subcontinental awkward for many Pakistanis, because Hinduism suffuses subcontinental identity. The word Hindu after all originally just meant Indian.

Let’s use an analogy. Imagine that Iran was divided into multiple states. One to the west was mostly Shia. One to the east, inclusive of Tajiks, was mostly Sunni. Finally, in the middle was a numerically preponderant Zoroastrian state with a Muslim minority. I think it would be hard to deny that Zoroastrian Iranians would feel a stronger identification with being Iranian full-stop, because Zoroastrianism is a religion which emerged in an Iranian matrix (Bahai and secular Zoroastrians in the USA give their kids more “Iranian” names usually than even nominal Muslims). In contrast, Muslim Iranians would feel affinities with Arabs and Turks and other groups all around them through fellow-feeling of religious brotherhood.

The point of this post is not to take a particular stance on whether India is or isn’t secular, or should or shouldn’t be secular (whatever that means in India, which is different from the United States). Rather, it’s to acknowledge the “elephant in the room.” Growing up around my parents’ Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi friends, there was always the reality and tension that they had non-subcontinental attachments and identification, in theory. The theory part is made salient by the reality that my parents socialized with Hindu Indians and Bangladeshis (generally Bengali, but not always), but never with Muslims from other regions (the sole exception was when I had an Indonesian best friend, though my parents complained that the Indonesians weren’t very good Muslims anyway so what was the point?). They were foreigners in concrete terms, though there was an abstract brotherhood implied by faith.

Growing up in a family that is Muslim being exposed to the religion at the multiethnic masjid was a cosmopolitan experience. It was a West Asian dominated space. The difference with brown people that are Hindus is that with rare exceptions every religious space has a rootedness in being Indian. To be religious is to reinforce Indianness, subcontinentalness, South Asianness.

The title of the post is pretty explosive. But I am pretty sure none of my descendants that I will live to see (grandkids) will identify as Bangladeshi or subcontinent, so I think perhaps I can be a bit objective and detached. My legacy is going to be in North America, not South Asia. My family’s transition into being Muslim centuries ago opened up a whole new international world. But it also unmoored us from the soil in which we were nourished. Bangladeshi Muslims are still trying to deal with that and work through it.

* To be clear, I never said I was born and raised in India. I would simply say I was born in Bangladesh, which is near, and like, India.

** I can substitute “Dharmic” for Hindu and keep 90% of my argument the same


Western civilization is Indo-Islamic under its skin

I’ve been in this game for a long time. Back in the middle of the 2000s, I observed that people of Muslim and Indian origin had sensitive and peculiar reactions to criticisms of their religion. Muslim cases are well known. Less well known is the violence and menace associated with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre play which affected Sikh sensitivities.

Then there was this, 5 Die in India During Protests Over Falwell:

Five people were killed in western India today in clashes between Hindus and Muslims that started during protests over remarks by the Rev. Jerry Falwell in which he called the prophet Muhammad a terrorist, the police said.

An American preacher says something offensive about Muslims, and Hindus and Muslims start killing each other in India! Absurd. Ridiculous. Barbaric.

I may not have said it in those words but that’s what I was thinking. In contrast, in the West religious beliefs are not sacred, and we can express content and derision without worry.

Or so I thought. Over the past few years, there has been a tendency in American culture to emphasize sensitivities, hurt feelings, and emotional reactions, over reason, when it comes to offense. Indians, and Muslims, were offended at criticisms of their religions and identities because religion and identity were sacred for them. Well, it turns out that in the West we’re going back to that state of affairs as well.

It seems that human cultural forms have the lowest energy state. And that state is a sort of identitarian honor culture.

I still think your religions are dumb. But when in glass houses…