Professor, Asian Languages and Cultures

Intellectual Motivations

Question:  In the previous post you talked about personal motivations for bringing themes such as Race, Religion & Caste together in a single course. What about intellectual motivations? 

Answer: As I mentioned at the end of the last post the motivating desire to construct a course that addresses race in relation to other forms of prejudice such as religion and caste, derives primarily from  living through 1970s and early 80s Britain. I think many people of color – and especially those who found an intellectual home in race and cultural studies in the UK – would agree that these two decades were formative for intellectual reactions that were to come later. Four decades later, the feeling of racism in those decades is still palpable. The numerous incidents that happened at school generated a collective intensity that became etched into repressed memories that surface every now and then.

For me it was the school system, especially secondary school age (King Henry VIII) which I attended from age 11 to 18, where I really internalized race as a form of cultural difference. You wouldn’t think this could be the case if you looked at the racial demographic of King Henry VIII now – its dominated by rich fee-paying South Asians. In the early 70’s I was part of a very small batch of the first Indians who attended that school. I’ll say more about my first day there in a later post, where I also hope to dig more deeply into repressed memories about my first years at that school.

To come back to the question of intellectual orientation, even in my early years at King Henry VIII, I sensed that race was tied to other forms of prejudice, particularly religion. Of course, at the time I couldn’t articulate or express the relation between these two (race and religion) but they felt inextricable. I only attended Church of England schools, so there was no way of cleanly escaping the key identity markers, namely, religion and Englishness. Both were drummed into us in ways that made it feel as if we were imbibing a racialized religion in ways that I couldn’t quite fathom at the time. Thus, throw-away remarks by teachers often carried a religiously inflected racism that worked in odd ways as it wormed its way into your head. And complicating the fusion of religion and race was the pervasive presence of class consciousness (the overt experience of Caste came much later for me).

I’m not quite sure exactly how I negotiated all three of these identity markers. More often than not it was a case of just surviving on a day to day basis, by having to prove your loyalty to an English Christian system by playing one off against the other in order to forge the right type of alliances in school.  Identifying as working class helped to divert the religio-racial gaze, but the ideology of the left also had its problems. In the last two years of high school, I had to give up studying humanities and was forced to choose the hard sciences (a combination of parent pressure and the crappy school system in the UK which makes you choose between science and humanities at age 16), so the availability of tools to think about such subjective matters was taken away from me.

But that changed in the late 80s, right after the 1984 attack on the Golden Temple (Amritsar) as Sikhs became involved in militant insurgency against the Indian State. Bereft of tools to think about my individual and social situation, I became involved in social activism in the early 1990s and decided to retrain in the humanities (specifically in philosophy – and that’s a whole different story that I’ll talk about at some other time). By this time the anti-racist intellectual movements of the 1970s had morphed into the vibrant cultural studies scene of the late 80’s and early 1990s under the influence of intellectuals such as Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy and Homi Bhabha amongst others. By the mid-90’s I found myself immersed and engaging in a variety of intersecting intellectual currents which were cross-fertilizing one another: including Subaltern Studies, critical race theory and ethnic studies, postcolonial studies in British universities.

In the early stages the driving leftist movements were Marxism, Gramsci-ism or some variant of it, followed by poststructuralism. The problem with Marxism and even the postmodern/postcolonial cultural studies that emerged from it, was that it basically channeled the cultural experiences and intellectual history of non-Europeans through the category of ‘race’ and ‘racial difference” which was ultimately grounded in European conceptuality and consciousness. Non-Europeans were expected to imbibe this consciousness in a way that simply perpetuated European universalism by other means. As we know the Marxist/postmodern/postcolonial frameworks exerted a kind of hegemony from the late 1970s to around 2010. It was the bedrock of race and cultural studies and activist intellectualism.

At the time I found these intellectual currents to be exciting but also problematic and limited in their applicability. Sikhs, for example, didn’t fit easily into these movements. British Sikhs had constructed their social identity both as a ‘race’ and as a ‘religion’. Although the racial construction of Sikhs can be traced back to the colonial period, Sikhs in post 1970s Britain found themselves having to reincarnate that colonial legacy when Sewa Singh Mandla challenged the legality of an English school system which denied Sikhs the right to wear turbans in public schools. In a landmark legal victory that was upheld by the Law Lords in 1983 (Mandla vs Dowell Lee case) Sikhs were officially recognized as a distinct race (which was actually a long standing colonial categorization) all the while also recognizing that Sikhs were a distinct World Religion. But in the discourse of race and cultural studies Sikhs were simply lumped into the category of ‘Black’ or ‘British Asian’.

I’m not saying that any of these categories are right. All I’m saying here is that I found it really problematic that Sikhs were forced into (and forced themselves into) various identities for the sake of public and political recognition. I was more interested in probing the dominant forms of thought which positioned minorities into narrow identities refusing to recognize them as sovereign life-forms which is what they actually were. Once you start probing the dominant thought system, you also have to call into question the prevailing political categories of left vs right, and this leads ultimately to questioning liberalism or liberal consciousness itself. Its precisely this emphasis on teaching students how to recognize and resist oppressive thought forms that is so central to my Race, Religion and Caste course, as I’ll show in more detail in forthcoming posts. 

Anyway, going back to the cultural studies scene, a turning point for me was a series of conferences and graduate seminars on major thinkers such as Edward Said and Jacques Derrida at the University of Warwick in 1994. The work of both of these thinkers impacted me in different ways.  The more I listened to the commentaries around Derrida’s deconstructionism or Said’s Orientalism thesis, the more I became convinced that there was something amiss with race and postcolonial studies as it was developing in the 1990s. Two of the papers delivered by Robert Bernasconi and Simon Critchley were particularly revealing as they pointed to the role of Western philosophy in constructing the category of race.

It was only after critiques of religion and the secular as intertwined categories began to emerge in the late 1990s, followed by a new phase of post-secular critique, that the prevailing paradigms in race and cultural studies were seriously critiqued and scholars began to theorize race and racial difference otherwise. In my own early research on colonialism in India, I noted that imperialism relied not just on race but equally, if not more, on categories of religion and the secular, to implement and propagate its civilizing mission. In fact as I dug more deeply into the work of Indologists and colonial elites in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, I became more interested in the deep connections between race, reason and religion. Why and how, for example, were the poofs for the existence of God connected to the nature of thought, and in what way was the effort to define the nature of thought by European philosophers connected to race? And why and how was this complex strand of intellectual activity transferred into the work of Indologists and from there into the intellectual projects of colonial elites in India?  These questions led me to investigate the projects of North Indian colonial elites which reworked and presaged European supremacist ideologies of cultural difference into what eventually became Hindu, Muslim and Sikh nationalisms, all of which exert major political influence today.

In the post 9/11 period a lot of the earlier research became intellectually and existentially relevant for me as Islamophobia took hold of the public mindset and policymaking. Many of us noted how ideologies from the colonial period had found a new lease of life through the ‘War on Terror’. With the rise of religious nationalisms and white supremacy in Europe, the USA and elsewhere, I found myself addressing broader questions about race, racism and nationalism in my courses such as Violence and Religion, my critical theory courses and of course my courses on Sikh Diaspora. By 2015 I had decided to create a first version of AS334 Race, Religion and Caste in India and the USA. I think the existential trigger for this was the Oak Creek killings of Sikhs worshipping at their local temple on a Sunday morning in 2012, but the intellectual motivation came from Trump’s election to the US Presidency in 2016.

Some thing that had subconsciously bugged me in my high school days in England (the inner connection between race and religion) had re-emerged in the US in the form of white supremacy that cannot be separated from Christian political theology. Along with countless other people I went through a lot of soul searching during those months. My response to all of this was to create a syllabus and teach AS 334 in the Fall of 2017.