*Asian American Studies and Its Futures

(First of several parts; scroll down to the bottom for a note to readers on this series of articles)

Part One: “Asian American” and “Indians”:  Some Vignettes of an Uncertain History

Just a little over a decade ago, the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA, perhaps the first center of its kind in the United States, published my book, The Other Indians:  A Cultural and Political History of South Asians in America.  (A separate hardcover Indian edition was published months later by HarperCollins.)  The main title of the book alluded, in part, to the difficulties inherent in speaking of South Asian “Indians” in the US:  growing up in India, the only Indians that I knew of in “the land of the free and home of the brave” were those who had been mowed down by the white man.  We called them “Red Indians”, if only because they were so described in the American comics that were to be found in lending libraries. I recall that my late father, though he was a highly educated man (especially for his times, and considering the circumstances under which he had grown up in Multan in undivided India), persisted in calling them Red Indians even if I tried many times to steer him towards a different vocabulary.  However, his usage of “Red Indians” did not at all appear to me to be inspired by racist usage, unlike the deployment of this term in dominant white narratives of the ‘settling’ and ‘taming’ of America.  If anything, my father might even have looked at somewhat sympathetically at Red Indians as somehow related to his own kinsmen.

Much later, I was brought to the awareness that those whom we knew as Indians are variously described as indigenous people, Native Americans, American Indians, and Amerindians, although as something of a student of their histories I have come to recognize that scholars generally just describe them as “Indians” and that many of the Indians themselves are not averse to being described as such.  It was, as we know, an accident of history, one of many such ill-fated accidents in European adventurism that shaped the world, that would lead to the characterization of the indigenous people of the Americas as “Indians”.  There remains a considerable amount of uncertainty about how best the indigenous people of America might be characterized.

What, then, of the ‘other’ Indians?  Transitioning to the category of “Asian American” was no easy matter either for what the US census now recognizes as “Asian Indians”.  In Britain, the term “Asian” indexes most often Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis—among them Indians who sometimes knew nothing of India and had only arrived in Britain in the wake of their expulsion from East Africa.  Rozina Visram commences her study, Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: Indians in Britain 1700-1947 (London:  Pluto Press, 1986), thus: “This book traces the history of Asian settlement in Britain from 1700 to 1947. . . .  The term ‘Asian’ as used here refers to the people from the Indian subcontinent.  I have used the terms ‘Asian’ and ‘Indian’ interchangeably; I use ‘black’ in a political sense to refer to peoples of Afro-Caribbean and Asian origin” (vii).  The Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Koreans in Britain are something of an afterthought; the “Asians”, on the other hand, were instantiations of what postcolonial scholars and anti-colonial activists wistfully characterized as “the Empire striking back”.

We’re here because you were there, the Asians told the whites. The Asian in England had become so ubiquitous by the early 1980s, as the inheritor of the proverbial corner shop, that “Mr Patel” could even find a place in Godfrey Smith’s admittedly “idiosyncratic” companion to England and Englishness [see The English Companion: An Idiosyncratic A-Z of England and Englishness, 1984).  A joke that I heard recently resonates marvelously in this connection:  the reason why the British Gujarati can never excel at soccer or make it to the English soccer team is that, no sooner is he awarded a corner, he sets up a corner shop.  The corner shop is the quintessential space in the English imagination; the Gujarati has cornered that.  In the US, contrariwise, Indians had seemed for a long time to have no place in that umbrella grouping known as “Asian American”, and this not only because at least the Chinese and Japanese had a foothold in the US many years before Indians first made their presence known on the west coast around 1890.  The ‘Orient’ may have signified mainly India to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the chief progenitors of American Transcendentalism in the 19th century, but to the other literati and in the common imagination it brought to mind the Far East, or China and Japan.  Then there was the matter that Indians had tried, though not with any success, to pass as Caucasian and thus white. The impulse to grant Indians a place within the family of “Asian Americans” was not altogether palpable.

It is thus that Indians in the US for a long time complained of their ‘invisibility’. India is a very large country, and Indian Americans are frequently heard to say with evident if misplaced pride that the US and India are the world’s two largest democracies; and yet among them the feeling persists that India is generally ignored, generally making it to the news as the site of religious killings, endemic poverty, severely malnutritioned children, and more recently, such phenomena as uncontrollable pollution and the gang rape of women.  Indian Americans are not the only ethnic group, and certainly not the only community among Asian Americans, who have complained of their invisibility, or of whom it can be said, in the words of Alex Wagner’s 2016 article in the Atlantic, that they “remain mostly invisible in the American political debate” (September 12). But, from the perspective of Indian Americans, their invisibility reflects India’s marginality to global geopolitics; and such invisibility is also the more glaring and indeed alarming when placed alongside the indisputable fact that Indian Americans are disproportionately well-educated and, on that very questionable view, should be deserving of more attention. The matter is still more complex:  the preponderant number of Indian Americans are Hindus; but Hinduism, argue the young professionals behind the advocacy group, Hindu American Foundation, remains shrouded in mystery to the vast majority of Americans—when, that is, it is not simply caricatured as the religion of monkey gods, (fraudulent) holy men, or, as in Reza Aslan’s recent story, cannibalistic yogis.

There is, then, a pervasive anxiety of influence among Indian Americans. I have addressed this issue at considerable length in some of my published work, including The Other Indians, and therefore my remarks at this juncture shall be brief.  As in India, where the most militant adherents of Hinduism secretly admire Islam as a rational, monotheistic, muscular, simple and highly organized faith while they publicly berate it as an intolerant, puritan, and terrorist-driven religion, so in the United States Indian Americans are envious of the extraordinary media coverage that Islam has been receiving over the last two decades.  I know that many Indian Americans and nationalist Indians will chafe at this characterization, but the nationalist Hindu has long been a secret admirer of Islam—not, let me be clear, for its doctrines, but rather because these Hindus pine for a Hindu Mecca, a Hindu Koran, a Hindu Allah, a Hindu Haj.  Instead of all this, what one (thankfully) has in Hinduism is a bewildering variety, a mosaic of untold number of gods and goddesses, a revealed text (the Rig Veda) that no one reads, multiple sources of doctrinal authority, a God who frolics on the green—endless confusion, really, to those whose idea of a religion has been shaped by Protestant Christianity, though of course they scarcely realize it.

So, back to Islam:  it may be largely bad press, especially these days, but it is press nevertheless: as T. S. Eliot had written admiringly of Dante, recognition in hell is better than being consigned to limbo, to that state of in-betweenness where one is deserving of neither praise nor blame. Indian Americans have long craved for recognition, a goal that, if the hate crimes to which they have been subjected since the September 11 attacks are any guide, remains not merely elusive but is intertwined with the necessary ‘misrecognition’ that marks their very presence in the US.  Similarly, though the practitioners of Asian American Studies may have become more accommodating in the last decade, many in the Indian community have asked me whether Asian American Studies is really any more ecumenical than it was in the past.  Is it any less dominated today than it has been since its inception by Chinese-Americans or Japanese-Americans?  Whose ‘Asia’ is being invoked, to what end, and what are the parameters and contours of the Asia embedded in ‘Asian American Studies’?

The somewhat more astute members of the Indian-American community—and to speak of it in the singular is to deliberately ignore, since it is less pertinent to my present, everything that divides one Indian from another—have other objections, not always transparent to those outside the academy or even to Asian American scholars whose interests seldom if ever touch upon the history of South Asia.  What, they ask, is the politics of deploying the term ‘South Asian’?  What are termed “progressive” scholars and activists have insisted that the political and socio-cultural realities of the Indian sub-continent are best captured by speaking of “South Asia” as a single entity; better still, to signify the possibilities of solidarity among Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Indians, their shared histories, and their common subjection to racism and discrimination in the United States, they deploy the term ‘desis’ (from ‘desh’, country, or, more tellingly, ‘mother country’).  But most Indian Americans from the community are not in the least keen on having India lumped, and thus confused, with Pakistan.  They point to the fact that Pakistan has often been described, by the United States and commentators around the world, as a “failed state”; but if this may appear to characterize a good many countries, they call attention to the common branding of Pakistan as the breeding ground for Muslim extremists.  The point here is not to call into question the authenticity of such claims, which is easily done, but rather to suggest that forging a South Asian American identity is fraught with numerous perils.

(To be continued)


A Note to Readers:  A shorter version of this piece (taken together with the two or three parts that will follow) was written as a consequence of an invitation to respond to, or reflect on, an article by Moustafa Bayoumi published as “Asian American Studies, the War on Terror, and the Changing University:  A Call to Respond”, CUNY Forum 5, no. 1 (2017).  My article only adverts to Bayoumi’s piece now and then, and for the most part can essentially be read independent of it.  Bayoumi’s piece, my own reflection, and contributions from some 25 other scholars and writers have been collected together in a recently published book, Asian American Matters:  A New York Anthology, edited by Russell C. Leong (November 2017).

For Part II:  see https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/islam-and-asian-american-studies/

For Part III:  see https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/indian-muslims-what-place-for-them-in-political-discourse-and-asian-american-studies/

For Part IV:  see https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/26/south-asians-muslim-americans-and-the-politics-of-identity/


*Modi and the Post-Industrial Vedic Civilization


In his recently concluded visit to the United States, where he addressed a jubilant crowd of around 19,000 people, Narendra Modi all but dedicated his government to the Non-resident Indians gathered to celebrate his triumph.  “You have given me a lot of love”, he told his admirers:  “This kind of love has never been given to any Indian leader, ever.  I’m very grateful to you.  And I will repay that loan by forming the India of your dreams.”  This was music to the ears of his devoted listeners, whose achievements Modi has promised to teach his countrymen and women to emulate:  “I want to duplicate your success.  What do we do to duplicate that success?”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Madison Square Garden, 28 September 2014.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Madison Square Garden, 28 September 2014.


The members of the Indian Civil Service who governed India after it became a Crown Colony were described as, and believed themselves to be, “heaven-born”.  Many Indian Americans similarly believe themselves to be not merely fortunate and hard-working but as the vanguard of what may be described as a post-industrial Vedic civilization.  To understand what it is that enables Indian Americans, and mainly the Hindus among them, to think of themselves both as immensely spiritually gifted, as the true inheritors of a Vedic civilization, and as the ideal representatives of the world’s most advanced material culture, certain aspects of the history of Indian Americans must be revisited.  Though they are today the most educated and affluent of any ethnic group in the United States, they have long bemoaned their fate as an ‘invisible minority’.  Five decades ago, the Punjabi American farmer Dilip Singh Saund served three terms (1957-63) in the House of Representatives.   Until very recently, however, Indian Americans have scarcely made any other dent in politics.  But it is other forms of invisibility that touch a raw nerve:  as the savvy and yet aggressive young professionals who form part of the comparatively new Hindu American Foundation often point out, Hinduism is barely understood in the US and is, from their standpoint, unjustly maligned as a bizarre religion of false gods, demi-gods, demons, and such strange figures as Hanuman and Kali.


Hindus everywhere are inclined to believe that their religion, characterized by the notion of Vasudhaiva kutumbakam (‘the earth is one family’), uniquely fosters tolerance, but Hindus in the United States see themselves as especially blessed and charged with the dual mission of rejuvenating India and helping America fulfill its destiny as the mecca of multicultural democracy.  The formal dedication of many Hindu temples in the US, such as the Rama Shrine of the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago, has taken place on July 4th, which marks the anniversary of American independence.  Hindus thus signify their acceptance of the idea that they share in the blessings of American “freedom”, while at the same time conveying to Americans that Hinduism permits a richer and more spiritual conception of freedom centered on the notion of self-realization.  The secular American formula, E Pluribus Unum, ‘From Many, One’, is countered by, and complemented with, the Vedic affirmation of idea that ‘Truth is One; Sages Name It Variously’ (‘Ekam Sat Vipra Bahudha Vadanti’; Rig Veda 1.164.46).


Now A Rock Star:  The New York Times was one among many newspapers that described the reception Narendra Modi received at Madison Square Garden as befitting a rock star

Now A Rock Star: The New York Times was one among many newspapers that described the reception Narendra Modi received at Madison Square Garden as befitting a rock star

Indian American Hindus are exceedingly astute in their understanding of how discourses of multiculturalism might be deployed in the US to their advantage.  Several years ago, a number of Hindu organizations rallied together in a concerted attempt to force alterations in history textbooks used in California schools.  They objected, for example, to the fact that such textbooks characterized Hinduism as a polytheistic rather than monotheistic faith, or that women in ancient India were described as having fewer rights than men.  American Hindus Against Defamation (AHAD) almost serves as a vigilante group, observing a hawk-like look-out for those who offend against Hindu sentiments.   However, their support of “multiculturalism” in India, where the religious, linguistic, and cultural diversity dwarfs anything seen in the US, is remarkably muted.  Apparently, on their world view, multiculturalism is much to be admired in the US even as it may safely be ignored in India.  Indeed, many Hindus in the US adhere to the view that the practice of their faith is not hobbled by the constraints that a pseudo-secular Indian state has imposed upon Hindus in their homeland.


There is a remarkable convergence in the worldview of the NRI—and the model of the successful NRI is the Indian American—and Narendra Modi.  The political ascendancy of a former tea vendor reminds Indian Americans of the opportunities made available to them in the supposed land of milk and honey, though such a narrative obscures the fact that many of the immigrant Indians who have done exceedingly well in the US already came from advantaged backgrounds.   NRIs and Modi alike crave to see a new, resplendent India that can take its place as a great power, but India in its present state is an embarrassment to them.  Its faults—the appalling poverty, the ramshackle appearance of every town, the indescribable filth in public spaces, widespread evidence of malnutrition and open defecation, and much else—need not be rehearsed at length, and Modi has signaled his attempt to meet such objections by launching the Swachch Bharat Mission.  But there are more compelling parts of the story and the anxiety of influence extends much further.  The Indian middle classes and the non-resident Indians have long agonized over the fact that India, as a friend once remarked to me, is ‘the largest most unimportant country in the world’, and that the same Indians who flounder in their homeland yet make something significant of themselves outside India.


Modi at Madison Square Garden:  A Who's Who of Indian American corporate types

Modi at Madison Square Garden: A Who’s Who of Indian American corporate types

It is under these circumstances that Modi has appeared, to the Indian middle classes and to NRIs, as the appointed one.  The well-to-do physicians, software engineers, scientists, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and other professionals in the Indian American community have long hankered for an Indian leader who would be imposing and decisive, and they are convinced that India requires a strong dose of authoritarian leadership if it is to prosper.  They are much more hospitable to the idea of a prosperous authoritarian state than they are to the idea of an India that is flaunted as a democracy but registers poor growth and continues to be an insignificant player in world politics.  Modi’s concentration of power is calculated to furnish, from their standpoint, some of the advantages found in the Presidential system of government.  Yet Modi also stands for what they view as ‘spiritual India’, a land synonymous with great yogis, teachers of spiritual renown, and sacred rivers that are personified as goddesses.  Thus, in the figure of Narendra Modi, Indian Americans see the possibilities of a prosperous yet spiritual India which they believe is already embodied in their own life histories.


(First published in OUTLOOK [Print and Web editions], 20 October 2014, as ‘The Prophet of Boom Times’].

*Resurgent, Shining India: The Cultural Appropriation of Vivekananda by Indian American Hindus

Part IV of Vivekananda and Uncle Sam:  Histories, Stories, Politics

[this is the concluding part of a 4-part series; see also parts i-iii, which are the previous entries on this blog]

In the United States, Mohandas Gandhi has long been the most well recognized figure from India.  In the early 1920s, his American admirer John Haynes Holmes, an influential Unitarian Minister and pacifist whose principled opposition to violence led him to oppose American involvement in both World War I and II, thus exposing him to ridicule from the likes of Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss)—‘If we want to win’, wrote Dr. Seuss, ‘we’ve got to kill Japs, whether it depresses John Haynes Holmes or not.  We can get palsy-walsy afterward with those that are left’—had already proclaimed Gandhi in a public lecture as the ‘Greatest Man in the World Today’; in another public lecture, he would speak on the ‘World Significance of Mahatma Gandhi’.  It is, of course, the American civil rights movement that again helped to make Gandhi nearly a household name in the United States, though one can also think of such supreme moments in the popular imagination as these lyrics by Cole Porter,

You’re the top!

You’re Mahatma Gandhi.

You’re the top!

You’re Napoleon Brandy.

There is an entire history, rather different from the narratives that presently circulate about Gandhi’s “relevance” or “influence”, to be written on how Gandhi has earned India immense cultural capital.  In this respect, Vivekananda presents something of a contrast:  notwithstanding the fact that Vivekananda has had his share of admirers in the West among intellectuals or those, who have always been a small minority, with an abiding interest in ‘Eastern religions’, he remains an almost entirely unknown figure to the wider non-Indian public in Europe and even the United States.  But it is no exaggeration to suggest that among people of Indian origin throughout the diaspora, and especially the United States, Vivekananda is ever so slowly supplanting Gandhi as the supreme representative of their idea of India.  For all of his status as ‘the Father of the Nation’, Gandhi has never been very attractive to those in the diasporic settings who imagine themselves as the vanguard of a resurgent and modern India.  Vivekananda is also less controversial than Gandhi:  since his writings have received much less scrutiny than those of Gandhi, he is also imagined to be a sterner critic of the caste system and more ‘universal’ in his outlook.  One cannot imagine, for instance, the kind of demonstrations around Vivekananda’s statue in Chicago that have taken place around Gandhi’s statues, such as the demonstration in progress over the last few weeks in Cerritos, a neighborhood in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area, where a disaffected crowd of some a few dozen people have, quite preposterously, been describing Gandhi as ‘a friend of Hitler’ or a ‘child molester’.

There is, as well, a more recent history of the appropriation of Vivekananda by Indian organizations in the United States, a history that amply suggests the hugely iconic status that Vivekananda has come to acquire as a preeminent figure of the notion of a resurgent India.  It is no surprise that he is the patron saint of the Hindu Student Council, which rather modestly and cunningly describes itself as ‘an international youth forum providing opportunities to learn about Hindu heritage, spirituality and culture.’  The HSC is, of course, the youth division of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and it has been especially active on American campuses, serving the needs of what are sometimes called ‘heritage students’, or second- and even third-generation Indian Americans, who are keen to learn about Hinduism, ancient India, the modernity of Hinduism, and the affronts to Hindus in countries where they are a minority.  The organizational strengths of the HSC can reasonably be surmised from the fact that in 1993, on the centenary of Vivekananda’s address to the World Parliament of Religions, it held a ‘Vision 2000 Global Youth Conference’ attended by 2000 Hindu students from the US, India, and nearly 20 other foreign countries.


A Stanford HSC flyer announces an event celebrating Vivekananda in 2006.  The flyer claims that “Vivekananda is the modern face of Hinduism.”

Vivekananda is the one figure from the relatively recent Indian past who is most admired in HSC circles as someone who not only spoke for the youth of India but unabashedly suggested that India was positioned to achieve conquest over the world with its rich spiritual inheritance.   It is Vivekananda who, from the standpoint of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Hindu Students Council, successfully transformed Hinduism from an inward-looking faith to the global religion that it had once aspired to be as it spread through Thailand, Java, Bali, and Indochina.  The Hindu Student Council’s ‘Global Dharma Conference’, held at Edison, New Jersey, in 2003, was thus not only a tribute to Vivekananda’s conception of Hinduism as a global religion but an affirmation of Hinduism’s capacity to organize its devotees and take its place alongside other world religions.  The Hindu American Foundation, an organization of relatively recent vintage set up by young Indian American professionals who have been aggressive in advertising their grievances as the upholders of a faith which they claim has little visibility and respect in the US, just as they proselytize about Hinduism’s uniquely tolerant outlook towards other faiths, has been similarly enthusiastic in pushing forward Vivekananda as the ultimate icon of Hinduism’s ecumenism and uniquely spiritual dispensation.  The Foundation’s 5th Annual ‘Next Generation’ essay contest encourages young Indian American Hindus to reflect on the teachings of Vivekananda on the occasion of his 150th birth anniversary, and sets them the task of commenting on a quote from Vivekananda keeping in mind that, to quote from a press release from the Foundation, ‘In a mere five word greeting of “Brothers and sisters of America,” he [Vivekananda] relayed Hinduism’s ancient teaching of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, inspiring so many in the audience and countless other Americans to live up to the dharmic understanding of pluralism and mutual respect. His teachings, like Hinduism, continue to stand the test of time and serve as an inspiration to Hindus and non-Hindus alike.’

‘This is the story of a phenomenon.’  Thus Christopher Isherwood commenced his elegant even mesmerizing biography, Ramakrishna and His Disciples.  Isherwood tells a great many stories—and tempts me to conclude with one of the many stories, largely apocryphal, that have now become part of the legend that has grown up around Vivekananda and his legacy in the United States.  In the 1980s, as a graduate student at the University of Chicago with a certain attraction to Sri Ramakrishna, I became a frequent visitor to the Vivekananda Center in Hyde Park.  In time I came to find out that, under the leadership of Swami Bhasyananda, land was acquired in 1968 in the township of Ganges, Michigan, and the Vivekananda Monastery and Retreat was duly established in the midst of a wonderfully bucolic setting.  Upon inquiring how Ganges had acquired its name, I was told by the residents of the Monastery that the town was founded by an early follower of Vivekananda; others mentioned to me that the disciple in question was the Governor of Michigan, and that in honor of the Indian swami he conferred Indian names on two towns, the other being Nirvana.   At that time I ceased my probe into this matter, inclined to accept the view that the story was worthy to be told to others, whatever its veracity.  In recent years, as Vivekananda’s place in the diasporic imaginary has grown tremendously, I thought it worthwhile to investigate this story further and found not a scrap of evidence to corroborate the view held by members of the Vivekananda Monastery.  Thus Walter Romig, in his reasonably authoritative Michigan Place Names, states that Ganges was settled in 1838, and so ‘named by Dr. Joseph Coates, a member of the legislature from Otsego, after the holy river of India, for reasons unknown’; of Nirvana, he says that it is ‘Buddhist for highest heaven’, and acquired its name from the great admiration that Darwin Knight, the town’s first postmaster, bore for ‘Oriental religions’.  But will this matter at all to Vivekananda’s followers and disciples in America and around the world?  Should it matter at all?  What could be more fun, after all, than to arrive in Nirvana, and then drop a few postcards to friends and family members announcing one’s arrival in (Vivekananda’s) Nirvana?

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902)

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902)

[The four parts were together first published, though in a much abbreviated form, in OUTLOOK, Web edition]

For the Portuguese translation of this article by Artur Weber and Adelina Domingos, see:  https://www.homeyou.com/~edu/resurgente-india-brilhante

This article is also available in a Spanish translation by Laura Mancini:


The entire series of four parts has been rendered into Polish by Marek Murawski; for a translation of this part, see:  http://fsu-university.com/czesc-iv-vivekananda-i-wujek-sam-historie-opowiadania-polityka/