India before the binary

How Britain’s colonial past can be traced through to the transphobic feminism of today:

The British Age of Enlightenment prized itself on scientific rationality, including with it strict taxonomies of racial and sex categorisation – i.e. your biology meant you were strictly male or female, and there was a rigid hierarchy of race superiority (with whites at the top). And so, Britain’s cannibalisation of the rest of the globe simultaneously erased rich non-Western trans histories.

Take, for instance, the transgender Hijra people of India, who, prior to British imperial rule, were exalted in their communities, tasked with important legal duties like collecting taxes and duties; in 1864, Britain imported its 1533 Buggery Act, which directly criminalised Hijra people and reduced them to second-class citizens. It was only in 2019 that this colonial law was rescinded. This obliteration of well-established transgender communities was replicated across the Global North; European colonists, when invading the Americas, pointed to the transgender Two-Spirit traditions of its indigenous people as proof of their primitivism.

It seems clear that the British introduced a rationalization. But this strikes me like saying the “British invented caste.”

This isn’t about Indians at all. Indians are seen as instruments in culture-wars.


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.


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.



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


The Elephant and the Dragon

This comment reflects in many ways important elements about how and why the Chinese view the Indians as they do:

… your question has answers in two periods. The second and most recent was during the cold war, shaped by Chinese elite (diplomatic) interaction with their Indian counterparts during this period who came to see Indians as unserious prevaricators. Big talkers and little doers, whether or not you agree with this assumption, it is what drives Chinese elite opinion today.

The first and older break was an earlier schism in worldview at the dawn of the 20th century when Chinese elites chose to take the path of Darwinian materialism towards national salvation. This meant radical politics and a restructuring of Chinese society towards any ends at any cost as long as it meant material prosperity and power. This left China lurching between fascism and communism. At the same time they came to view simultaneous Indian political trends, another vast nation under Western power, as being embodied by Tagore and Gandhi. That is focused towards traditionalism and eastern metaphysics as a path to revival. This is again may or may not be true but it became the default opinion. This was actually shared by elements of the Chinese elites as well, though the losing faction. The winners of the debate viewed such a policy as childish escapism verging on nihilistic passivity in the face of real threats and India, as the eidolon of such defeated views became tarred by association.

As I have noted before, Adam K. Webb’s Beyond the Global Culture War highlights attempts by early 20th century Asian traditionalists to coordinate. Some of the same characters appear in Mark Sedgwick’s Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century. For all the influence of Fabian socialism on Nehru and the early leaders of India, nothing on the scale of what happened in China to the traditional society occurred in India.

But today as many Chinese transition to post-materialism they are looking back to their own past. This is natural. But the past destroyed is not so easy to access and rebuild.

Addendum: Chinese liberals and progressives of the early 20th century adopted and modified racial theory from Europeans.


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…