From the land of what-might-have-been
By Svati P Shah
14 November 2017
A family tale exploring the complexities around Indian diaspora, rightwing Hindu politics, and LGBT struggles.
The combination of Narendra Modi’s elevation to prime minister of India and the widely known fact of the Indian diaspora’s financial support of the Hindu Right have resulted in the revival of a familiar question: what is wrong with all these non-resident Indians (NRIs) who seem to love the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)? While not exactly forgotten before the election, the Indian diaspora is subject to a kind of hyper-remembering, now that it is seen to have played a part in bringing about a Modi-led government at the Centre. Notably, the diaspora takes up far more space in conversations and media representations today than during the last BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government, in power from 1999 to 2004. The hyper-remembering is likely to continue as this BJP-led government makes it clear that the diaspora is to be an important cog in India’s revamped economic engine. Modi’s fête in New York’s Madison Square Garden in September 2014 was the public relations inauguration of this declaration, another symbolic starting gun for the dubious economic race that ‘Moditva’ intends to win.
In trying to explain why US-based NRIs, in particular, love Mr Modi and the BJP, the age-old theories of immigrant nostalgia and a crisis of identity are enjoying a strong resurgence. As an article in Scroll.in claimed, “Modi’s enviable popularity among non-resident Indians is perhaps linked to his emergence as an ostensible resolution to the identity crisis they experience in foreign countries. Most of these NRIs will never relocate to India even as they pine for it, both as an aspect of their memory and as the principal fount of their cultural identity.” The author ends the piece by saying that NRIs’ interactions with the Sangh Parivar are “driven by feelings of insecurity and inferiority”. The argument is clear: Modi, in his own person, lights the way for insecure NRIs, modelling that you can have prosperity and Hindu-Indian identity at the same time.
The conflation of Indian Americans, in particular, with wealth has also gone a long way toward explaining the embrace of Hindutva in the Western reaches of the diaspora. The association between the wealth of US-based Hindu NRIs and Hindutva is not unjustified, although it bears repeating that Indians in the US are an extremely class-diverse group. Over the past decade, several reports have demonstrated the extent to which Indians in the US have provided significant financial support to the Sangh Parivar since the 1990s, tracking those Indians who have money to give, and who choose to give it either wittingly or unwittingly to the Hindu Right. It almost goes without saying that Gujarati Hindus in the US have participated in these fundraising efforts, as a community that has come to be associated with affluence, ‘Moditva’, and rightwing Hindu politics almost as a natural state of being. However, a problem arises when all of these theories – nostalgia, personal insecurity, and affluence – are squeezed together in the same framework, as if Hindu Indians in America are a wealthy, nostalgic, and anxious lot who seek validation through filling their local Swaminarayan Temple’s collection plates.
The dynamics are fundamentally complex, and cannot be explained away by linking nostalgia, insecurity and affluence, a set of associations that begin to crumble at the slightest touch. For example, it bears noting that affluent Indian professionals in the US of any community are generally comprised of people who did not emigrate with their wealth in hand. If they are affluent today, it is because they have been in the US long enough to become so. How ‘insecure’ are these individuals, families and communities, given how established they have become? In what way would this ‘insecurity’ manifest? To be sure, in speaking of the upper-caste Hindus among these immigrants, these are people who have generally supported the BJP, both rhetorically and financially, but this information does little to supply us with an explanation for its cause. ‘Nostalgia’ might be of some help here, but to say that affluent Indians in the US are ‘nostalgic’ for India also falters when one sees the very low numbers of Indian immigrants who return there to live. Much has been made in academic studies of the hybridity of immigrant identity, the no-man’s land of being neither here nor there, which produces, among other things, nostalgia for the world one leaves behind. I would draw on this insight to argue that there is something deeper at play here, given that the world one leaves behind inevitably changes, dramatically, from the moment of departure. For most middle- and upper-middle-class Hindus of Indian origin in the US today, supporting the BJP in the 21st century taps less into a nostalgia for the home that was; rather, it taps into a nostalgia for what might have been. This is nostalgia not for India as it is imagined to have been before one left, but nostalgia for the fantastical possibility of never having left at all, of never feeling that one had to leave in order to gain economic and, perhaps more importantly, class mobility. This fantasy is the real prize the BJP is selling the diaspora when it makes grand promises of a vibrant, economically powerful, ‘developed’ India, and arguably what the Indian American diaspora is buying, hand over fist.
I am arguing that there are two main problems with using a theory of affluence combined with insecurity to explain the support the BJP enjoys abroad. The first is that these are usually deployed together, without any real thought as to how they function individually. Who is affluent? Who is insecure? What is the ‘identity crisis’ that writers like the one quoted earlier are talking about? The second is that this conglomerated explanation does not account for history. For example, given the ways in which the diaspora has flourished, the notion of a marooned and insecure immigrant surrounded by hostile foreigners should at least take its proper place in the annals of Southasian immigrant history. This is not to say that the West is without racism and xenophobia, nor is it to say that a complex kind of nostalgia has not driven NRI perspectives on Indian politics, particularly among people of my parents’ generation, those who came to the US in the 1960s. It is to say that Indians did find a set of spaces, or created them, in their diasporas, in whatever highly imperfect form they could.
My Papa, the NBA and me
Just as the development of the diaspora itself should be historicised, so too should the support that the BJP enjoys there, especially among Gujarati Hindus in the US. The support Gujarati Hindus have shown to Modi and his party should give any student of history pause. The Gujarat of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations prided itself on being multi-religious and ‘diverse’ in the most liberal sense of that term. They associated this atmosphere of tolerance and diversity with their vaunted historical figure, Mahatma Gandhi. After they left for the US, it took them far longer than their compatriots and relatives back home to fall out of love with ‘Gandhiji’. How this community could turn from Gandhism to Hindutva is complex, and has as much to do with the politics of caste in Gujarat as it does with the politics of Hindutva in the West.
Achyut Yagnik and Suchitra Sheth’s indispensable book The Shaping of Modern Gujarat discusses the formation of a savarna (upper caste) political bloc in Gujarat following Congress’s use of the KHAM (Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasi-Muslim) strategy to forge a new vote bank in the 1980 elections. They write, “The educated middle class, mainly the Brahmins, Banias and Patidars, reacted sharply by starting an agitation against the reservation system in 1981.” Yagnik and Sheth describe how the Jan Sangh, the precursor to the modern BJP, struggled to gain any political power in Gujarat in the 1960s and early 1970s, and finally met with some small electoral success in 1975 when they allied themselves to Jayaprakash Narayan’s Navnirman movement. How Hindutva gained traction in Gujarat from a place of such obscurity is a complex historical tale that has to do with the consolidation of a middle-class savarna identity, the incitement of Hindu-Muslim riots such as the infamous one of 1969 in Ahmedabad, and, as Maritsa Poros writes in Modern Migrations: Gujarati Indian Networks in New York and London, the appeal of caste mobility in modern Hindu movements, like the Swaminarayan movement in Gujarat and in the Gujarati diaspora.
It is easier to illustrate how all this might be the case, rather than to describe it.
The patriarch of my own Gujarati Hindu middle-class family, my maternal uncle, died in March. The arc of his political transformation, from ardent Gandhian to a vaguely secular participant in the Swaminarayan spaces of greater Atlanta, is an object lesson that reveals much of why Modi and his ilk have gained traction, great and small, among Indians in the US. The lesson here is in a transformation wrought by the arc of history. As I saw it, my uncle stayed the same, while the world around him changed beyond recognition or reckoning.
I call my uncle ‘the patriarch’ because that’s what he was. He was my mother’s elder brother and the closest thing to a father I ever had. My own parents divorced before I was old enough to remember them as married. Upon their separation, my uncle immediately absorbed my mother and me into his family fold. Instead of using the appellation ‘Papa’ for my own father, I called my uncle Papa all my life. Unsurprisingly, after his death I found myself remembering him, as one does in the wake of death, but doing more than remembering. In the middle of the day, I found myself reliving certain moments, hyper-remembering in my own way, playing them back as in a reality simulator. One moment is particularly vivid.
We had gathered at Papa and ‘Mummy’s’ home in Atlanta. (Commensurately, I called my aunt ‘Mummy’.) We are not a large family in the US, but all of us in one place felt like a crowd, with my uncle and aunt, my mother and stepfather, my three cousins, their families and, depending on where I was in my own relationship dramas, my girlfriend, although bringing my gay lovers to family events was rare. This gathering, more than fifteen years ago, was a month after I had returned from a trip to India that had included going to the Narmada Valley, where I had attended the Narmada Bachao Andolan’s (NBA) then annual Satyagraha. I still consider myself fortunate to have visited places like the Hapeswar temple and the village of Jalsindhi on that trip. These places were submerged years ago, when the Sardar Sarovar dam’s height was raised by court order, but not before NBA had done whatever it could to stop it, including hosting these annual international activist gatherings on the banks of the river. My family were not fans of my solo trips to India, where I spent time with friends in the autonomous women’s movement, in the LGBT movement, and in the spaces of the new left, while also attempting to craft an academic research project around the intersections of sex work and labour migration. They hardly asked what I was doing when I went there each year, only keeping track of my visits to our relatives, and probably wishing I had decided on a more normative line of work, at least.
I understood their homophobia, but not their aversion to my looking for, and finding, activist connections in India. After all, I reasoned, Papa had been a teenage freedom fighter. His being jailed in Ahmedabad during the independence movement for two weeks when he was just 14 was recounted frequently while I was growing up. Papa met his guru, Ravi Shankar Vyas, while incarcerated. Known simply as ‘Ravi Dada’ in our household, Ravi Shankar Vyas was an early and close associate of Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Our family revered Ravi Dada, both for being the Mahatma’s peer, and for guiding my uncle through the independence movement and its aftermath. In the wake of Independence and Partition, young Indian men of my uncle’s class and caste found themselves in the same liminal economic state they had always been in, but faced with a sea of possibilities that had not existed beforehand. Rather than struggling for a secure middle-class job like his peers, Papa had wanted to take up Gandhiji’s exhortation to ‘return’ to the village. He wanted to help farmers increase their yields and literally build (and feed) the new nation with his bare hands. By the time I came of age, Ravi Dada’s response to Papa’s desire had become a well-worn story in the family. Papa relished imitating Dada’s delivery, telling the story in perfect, old-fashioned Gujarati.
“He said, ‘In the time it takes you to do one phera (turn of the plough) they will have done ten! You’d be a terrible burden on those people.” (Here my family would laugh.) “Rather than becoming a farmer yourself, you should help the farmer do his job.’”
With Ravi Dada’s support, Papa won a scholarship to go to the University of Brisbane. He lived there for five years and earned a PhD in animal husbandry. Years later, I would flip through his dissertation, replete with pictures of a female rabbit’s dissected reproductive organs. Returning with Mummy in the mid-1950s, they settled in Anand, Gujarat, where Papa became the general manager of Amul Dairy – the leading light of India’s ‘white revolution’, and, at one point, the world’s largest producer of milk products. That it remains cooperatively owned and run is a testament to the power of the project’s political roots.
Given this history, one would imagine that my trip to the Narmada would have been welcome, perhaps even supported, despite whatever tensions might have lingered around my sexuality. Again, I reasoned, the NBA was a Gandhian organisation essentially fighting Gujarati agribusinesses’ attempts to dam the river and reap the lion’s share of the water and profits. I had planned to discuss it with the family, thinking we would at last find common political ground in some historically shared ideology. Of course, this was the height of naiveté. Before I had uttered two sentences, I found myself in one of the only shouting matches of my life with my revered uncle. I was able to get as far as saying that there was a movement against damming the Narmada when Papa’s voice boomed, “You are against India’s development!!”
“But…” I spluttered, trying to continue my little speech despite my racing heartbeat. I was stunned by his anger, and unable to comprehend what I had tapped into.
He laughed the way people do when caught off guard, and spoke again, louder. “You are against India! You are not Indian!”
As an adult entering middle age, I am finally able to hear my uncle’s thunder from a perspective other than my own, although the shock lasted for a long time after that conversation, and was inevitably folded into the haze of a reaction to my queerness, which I’ll discuss in a moment.
The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) recruited Papa away from Amul in the early 1970s. He spent twenty years working for FAO in Bangladesh and Tanzania, helping dairy farmers in those countries increase their yields. He also developed severe smoking-related asthma during that time and, rather than going back to India after he retired, decided with my aunt to move to the US, where they believed he would have access to better healthcare. By the time of our ‘confrontation’ Papa had retired from running a video rental store in South Carolina for a decade. It was his post-UN enterprise, and brought with it an abstracted and increasingly depoliticised memory of the dairy years as a time when the children grew and politics receded.
For Papa and his generation, the economic development that the BJP promises is not an abstracted ideal. It is a promise that India will offer the same opportunities to middle-class people that the West has, that the extra elite connection needed to gain opportunities or access to services beyond one’s station will no longer apply. The fulfilment of this promise, in retrospect, would have meant that Papa could have retired in Ahmedabad, as he had planned to do before he became ill. It would have meant being able to die at the age of 83 surrounded by his family in India, even after his emphysema became something much worse. Despite not being from an elite background, he could have had the unusual career he built, and then finally gone home again.
Queers and ‘Real Indians’ in America
Papa’s expressing disagreement about a political issue by questioning my ‘Indianness’ will resonate with those who share a second-generation diasporic perspective, as it is often the deepest form of disapproval expressed by first-generation immigrant parents, certainly among people of my age. As much of the question of why NRIs support the BJP has revolved around the issue of identity, a short discussion of Indianness in relation to an issue that seems to regularly elicit the question of national identity (i.e., sexuality) bears consideration. The classic homophobia that my own sexuality elicited was larded by the belief that my homosexuality was, first and foremost, a sign that my family had lost the battle to raise me to be a ‘real Indian’. No amount of travel to India or engagement with feminist, queer and leftist movements there would change that. I would not be gay had I not been raised in the US, and that was final.
This view on homosexuality was also relatively prevalent in Southasia, until ten or fifteen years ago, when LGBT movements began to gain traction. This state of affairs is changing ever more rapidly, as recent developments in the visibility of LGBT movements and their legal battles in Southasia reveal. For example, the popular Indian talk show Satyamev Jayate (Truth Alone Prevails) recently devoted an entire episode to making an argument for LGBT rights. Conceived and hosted by Aamir Khan, one of the Hindi film industry’s biggest and most bankable stars, the show aims to make a version of progressive politics mainstream, taking messages on issues as diverse as child sexual abuse, safer roads and tuberculosis to an audience far beyond the already converted. This aim was evident in the LGBT episode, which featured a transgender woman, a hijra person, a lesbian, a gay man, an accepting grandmother of another gay man and several advocates speaking about homosexuality and transgenderism with respect to health and legal issues. Notably, the show ended by announcing an INR 1 crore (USD 161,600) donation being given to two high profile HIV-related non-governmental organisations by Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) or rather, by Nita Ambani, the wife of one of the Ambani brothers, who own RIL. The resounding message of the show and the donation was clear: being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender is absolutely, Indian-ly normal. That the Ambani brothers are also massive supporters of Modi and the BJP places a new twist on this exhortation. This is, perhaps, the new normal, where LGBT people are acknowledged as being Indian, and India is prosperous (and run on majoritiarian Hindu lines).
The show chose to build its narrative around expanding the idea of a ‘normal’ family and society to include LGBT people with a carefully curated set of LGBT representatives. To be sure, this is a different tack than questioning what the politics of normalcy entail. In the US, critiques of normative portrayals of LGBT people have become more widespread in recent years, as the promise of gay marriage (rebranded as ‘marriage equality’) has fallen far short of delivering on the anticipated widespread social acceptance for LGBT people. A critique of ‘gay normalcy’ in India is necessarily deployed in a very different juridical and representational context, where homosexuality is still criminalised and media portrayals remain relatively few. The biggest difference, however, is that until the mid-1990s, the discourse around homosexuality itself was seen as a foreign incursion, and out of step with ‘Indianness’. To declare oneself as ‘gay’ meant declaring oneself as non-Indian, if anything, in the eyes of conservative detractors. However, in the current historical juncture, with the Indian Supreme Court upholding the anti-sodomy law, Section 377, while also validating the rights of transgender people, the nationalist discourse around homosexuality has shifted. If anything, conservatives name gay-ness as ‘unnatural’, but also as an elite phenomenon. It is notable that neither of these terms necessarily references foreignness, which is, in itself, a change from the earlier rhetoric.
In light of this context, critiquing the politics of queer-normalcy might draw the criticism that something positive is better than nothing. And yet, in the absence of representation, isn’t it also worth accounting for the ways in which LGBT people carve out lives without family or mainstream social acceptance, as well as accounting for the challenge this survival poses to the ideal of social and economic ‘normalcy’ that comes packaged with the idea of normative LGBT identities? As Dhamini Ratnam of Live Mint wrote several days after the show aired:
There are many folks who lead lives that don’t subscribe to the heteronormative imperative of getting married or living monogamously, who aren’t earning very much money, who haven’t received acceptance from their families, who are survivors of violence from their same-sex partners and families, who face up to the demands of patriarchy in ways that are unimaginable to others, for whom the demands of masculinity are less a matter of pride and more a matter of necessity, who do not wish to, or may not have the means to, undergo sex-change operations but are clear that their gender identity isn’t what was assigned to them at birth, who battle multiple forms of disenfranchisement of caste, religion and class, besides gender and sexuality, who live with pride with their HIV-positive status and do not, importantly, aspire to the normalcy that was on display in Sunday’s episode.
Add to Ratnam’s critique the fact that receiving a donation from the Ambanis is, in some ways, similar to receiving money from the conservative billionaire Koch brothers in the US. Given its positions on other social issues, the Modi government should logically support the anti-sodomy law staying in place. However, there have already been murmurs of its willingness to possibly consider another direction for the law, which would go along with the government’s embrace of India Inc, and the appeal of normative gay rights in creating a ‘business-friendly’ economic environment.
These murmurs have resonance in the Hindu Right’s rhetoric on homosexuality abroad, which manages to deploy a mild acceptance of gay rights as a form of anti-Islam posturing. In a statement on homosexuality on its web page, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) pointedly says, “Unlike Christianity or Islam, Hinduism does not provide a fundamental spiritual reason to reject or ostracize homosexuals.” While organisations like the HAF are far from advocating for gay marriage, a trend is emerging between the soft approval it articulates for the existence of homosexuality, and the support that India Inc seems to be offering to both gay rights and to Hindu fundamentalist political parties. Here, the acceptance of normative homosexuality becomes part of the vision for new and improved Indian neoliberalism, just as long as homosexuality “occurs naturally in a small percentage of most life forms and is not acquired” (from the HAF web page, emphasis added). Much as gay normalcy functions elsewhere, gay and transgender people are included in this nationalistic vision of the future, as long as we abide by the terms of normative capitalist societies, of which the biological, heteropatriarchal and, in this case, Hindu family is foundational.
We all become stories after we die, or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that in death, we become stories told by the living. It is difficult not to think of Papa’s life as a story of some kind, an allegory of the life and death stakes of political allegiances. It is impossible to answer a sociological question about why the BJP has gained traction in the diaspora with these particular stories, but they do provide a glimpse into how complicated the question of the diaspora’s BJP embrace is, especially when we filter it through the narrative of a life. To be sure, Papa’s story as I have told it here is, by definition, reductive, narrativised, and in some ways unreal. Nevertheless, it captures one kind of support the BJP enjoys in the West, a soft ideological support that connects with disparate historical currents, including Nehruvian developmentalism, as I discovered on the day I recount here. The stakes in supporting a party like the BJP from abroad are nothing less than a claim to Indianness as a state of being. The sense of nostalgia that filters the politics of this diasporic space is powerful because it is a nostalgia for what one never had, and what one can never have, which is to rewrite history with more choices in place, which include never having left, for some, or returning, for others.
Fundamentally, this is all a commentary on the opportunities that India’s political classes have been unable to equitably distribute, a situation that has little hope of changing in the near future. Even as the new neoliberal India could include normative LGBT people as part of its future body politic, this India will not distribute power in more equitable and democratic ways than the versions that have preceded it, not without the kind of radical change that Indian social movements are able to render. While in no way discounting the importance of any and every effort to make the world a better, more liveable place for anyone, envisioning how a radical change could take place in the future requires careful thinking about how the status quo is being maintained today.
~Svati P Shah is an anthropologist and associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She has written for the Caravan and Al Jazeera America, among other publications. Her book Street Corner Secrets: Sex, Work and Migration in the City of Mumbai was published in 2014.
~This essay was first published in December 2014.