Professor, Asian Languages and Cultures

Teaching Race/Religion/Caste – Geopolitical Schematic

Your course situates the three problematic elements (Race/Religion/Caste) in a schema that connects India and the USA. Why India and the USA?

First of all, the course is taught within an Asian Studies curriculum and I belong to a South Asian studies caucus within my department. We often put on courses that deal with controversies in Asia. I teach several other courses on India or South Asian cultures, so this was a way of contributing to that sub-regional caucus.

Of course that doesn’t explain why the USA is part of this course. Some might say it should be in American Cultures (and yes, I did think of cross-listing it at one stage). The main reason is that I could see real connections – again, intellectual and existential – between these two seemingly distinct constituencies (India and the USA). India and the US are both distinctive democracies – the world’s largest (India) and the world’s most powerful (USA). In both democracies a certain form of liberal order has been more or less in place since 1948 – the Congress Party in India and Democratic and Republican parties in the US. (OK, I admit that the Republicans may seem very anti-liberal, but politically Republicanism hails from the same philosophical roots of personal identity, so they are only superficially different) . But in the last two decades, this liberal order has come under attack with the resurgence of religious nationalisms – Hindutva or Hindu nationalism nestling in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Modi and a Christian backed white nationalism nestling in the Republican party. 

Second, both democracies have been at war with Muslims in one way or another. In India, Muslim minorities have been targeted internally with mosques demolished, whereas the US has an ongoing War on Terror that mainly has targeted Muslim groups or countries (Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria etc). In addition to this, in India the Dalits continue to remain marginalized and at the lowest levels of social order. One could say the same about African Americans, Native Americans and people of Mexican heritage in the US.  Basically minorities are differentiated by color, class, race and economic standing in both democracies.

Third, the concept of white supremacy (Aryanism) is strongly entrenched in both countries. To lump dark brown Indians into the white supremacist category may seem counter-intuitive to say the least, but its fairly well known that the concept of Arya (‘Noble’ as opposed to the slave or dasa) can be traced to the earliest Vedic texts and continues to constitute a fault line in Indian civilization. Moreover the notion of whiteness/Aryan supremacy in both civilizations is backed by religion, or more accurately a political theology. It’s a political theology which works in uncannily similar ways in Hindu Aryanism as it does in Christian Aryanism. Thankfully there are now books that look specifically at the relationship between white supremacy and Christianity (in previous years almost nobody broached this topic. A good example is Eric Weed’s The Religion of White Supremacy in the United States which I’ll be using for the next iteration of this course (see image below).  We look closely at the relationship between Hindu and Christian forms of Aryanism in the course, particularly the way both forms of Aryanism have influenced both German Orientalism and European philosophical thought in the 19th and 20th centuries. 

Fourth – to the question: why the USA? – well, quite simply because I live here, its my adopted home, its where my kids were either born or have grown up, and its where I have taught for a large part of my career, and as a person (not only) of color but as a hyper-visible minority (I’m a turban wearing Sikh), the question of race and religion is painfully and existentially relevant, not least because of my entry to this country in the week of 9/11. I was hired by Hofstra University, New York, in April 2000 on the understanding that I would begin my classes on September 10th 2011.  I left England thinking that I had left behind the bad memories of growing up in 1970s, the tribulations for Sikhs after 1984, and that America was a new world that welcomed diversity. All that evaporated as my family and I were waiting to deplane at JFK a few days after 9/11. One Sikh had already been murdered in a wave of hate-attacks on people who looked like Muslims – and Sikhs were, of course, a prime target. The plane was full of people from Kuwait and other parts of the world and I can still smell the fear in the cabin as we were deplaning, as no one knew what to expect once they were on the streets of New York. I have lots more to say about this, but this is not the place. Suffice it to say that my decision to situate the USA in a comparative schema has as much to do with lived experience as anything else.

And while this thought is still warm, let me narrate something that confirmed my decision to include the USA in this course. In Fall 2019 in the middle of teaching this course for a second time, I was waiting to enter the classroom, when I bumped into a colleague who asked me what I was teaching. When I told him he was pleasantly surprised. He teaches Japanese Art History, and happened to be teaching a similar course to mine, but this time looking at similar themes in the context of a comparison between Japan and the USA. He told me his justification was simply that he wanted his teaching to be directly relevant to what was going on in his own country. It was nice to know that colleagues were thinking in similar ways.

Fifth, caste (which is a not a good translation of jati) is not just something in India, it is very much alive and present in the Indian diaspora, and (it depresses me to say) also in the Sikh diaspora, even though Sikhs often downplay this.

Sixth, as a Sikh in the USA, I along with other Sikhs have seen and experienced all three of these prejudicial elements at work – Race/Caste/Religion. There is another form of prejudice that I haven’t mentioned and which intersects with the other three. It is class or class consciousness, which is also something I’m intellectually and existentially aware of. But I can talk about that elsewhere.