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The New Post-Colonial Racism
by Lila Rajiva
May 24, 2004

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Of all the criticisms of the possibility, now moot, of Sonia Gandhi becoming the PM of India, the venom expended on her foreign origin was surely the most ironic.

The Indian Constitution explicitly allows naturalized Indians to hold the highest office, a provision inserted by the framers of the Constitution to allow Indians who had left the country during British rule to return and run for office if they desired. Whether this provision needs to be amended is a different issue. But the question of the legality of a foreign-born leader is not in question. L.K. Advani of the Hindu right party BJP, which made Sonia Gandhi’s Italian origin the motherload of its campaign against her, was himself born in Sind, now a part of Pakistan.

But wait, say those Indians who were stunned by the electoral upset. Which other country permits a foreign-born national to head the government? Since many of the people asking this question are themselves non-resident Indians seeking the legal privileges and economic opportunities of the countries to which they have fled from the difficulties of their motherland, it seems the height of hypocrisy to question the rights of a foreign-born Indian who has lived in India for over 30 years. But this is the highest office of the land, they protest. Well -- so what? Wasn’t Alberto Fujimori, the president of Peru, of Japanese origin? Wasn’t C. V. Devan Nair, a past president of Singapore, an Indian? But surely, we don’t want to be in the company of Peru and Singapore, they wail. Does the U.S. or Italy or France or any other great power allow foreigners to head their nations? Oh the shame, the shame -- what will all these foreigners whom we were just beginning to impress think of us?

And these are the people who accuse the voters of India of colonialism!

Whose shame are they talking about? And shame of what? Of not acting as a carbon copy of current Western democracies? It seems so, from the comments.

Indeed the caterwauling over Sonia Gandhi’s showing is the essence of the new anti-colonial racism.

Abroad, it is right and proper for Indians to claim all the benefits of secularism and multiculturalism and run for office, but in India god forbid that we should look past a person’s skin color and examine her candidature in an atmosphere that is not racially and ethnically poisonous.

Why, certain patriotic NRI’s (Non Resident Indians) were even smirking over the prospect of a Hindu convert to Catholicism, Bobby Jindal, winning a southern governorship in Louisiana. If Christianity, English, modern technology, or any other Western import helps India shine in the company of the “phoren,” well and good. In India itself, however it’s a different ball game. There we can go back to mindlessly chanting mantras about colonialism.

If the Americans and the British have not allowed naturalized citizens to hold the highest office so far, could this not be a deficiency in their governments that needs to be corrected rather than some divinely ordained law to be aped? For once can we not consider that our democracy has actually worked better than some other democracies and that in voting out the BJP, the Indian people were not so much saying “yes” to nefarious foreign miscreants as “no” to nefarious homegrown miscreants?

In any case, even in the U.S., the so-called Schwarzenegger amendment proposed by Orin Hatch, a conservative by any measure, attempts to give immigrants the same “Equal Opportunity to Govern.” Perhaps when that passes and it becomes acceptable in the West, our NRI’s will find foreign origin to be more palatable.

Until then, only Sonia Gandhi’s modest decline of power (which somewhat crimps the arguments of those who considered her a power-grabbing spy for the Vatican mafia, hot to convert every last Hindu) has prevented us from being inundated with screeds such as the following:

“Sonia’s tilak and Sari are just as phony as a three-dollar bill, just as phony as the dress and outward appearance of her Christian co-religionist Swamis!

Hindus will have to live a thousand years to wash off the Dirt, Filth, and Sewage of Sonia-Qalank (stigma)

We Hindus are Not going to take any more SH** from either Islam or Christianity.” (from the right-wing Hindu Unity site)

Don’t fail to notice that glib “dollar bill” analogy from this oh-so Indian patriot who likes to refer to the lady as Sonia-bitch. He and his ilk populate affluent American suburbs for most of their lives, complete with 2-cars and 3 laptops no doubt, and wouldn’t be caught dead on one of the buses most Indians use, but they and only they safe-guard the irreducible essence of Indian-ness.

This is only one of the many rants on the swarming hosts of right-wing Hindu internet sites, the roosts from which the global Hindu Renaissance in its more war-like avatars, shrieks for more and more stringent tests of Indian-ness (read Hindu-ness).

In fact if the BJP wants to understand its shocker upset, it need look no further than the internet. It just needs to click on the right websites. Not the ones which announce the new Indian century (somewhat prematurely, considering that half of all Indians are still malnourished and suffer public sanitation that is medieval) on the basis of laudable economic growth mixed unhappily with a great deal of social and economic trauma. The web sites that are burgeoning are the progressive activist ones, which deal with the myriad problems of environment and health facing the average Indian who sees education costs spiral out of control, rampant consumerism that shifts productive capacity away from necessities, and the rapacious advent of multinationals which first dry up our regular drinking supplies with one hand and then sell us bottled water packaged al la mode with the other.

Those websites would have told them that behind all the rhetoric of India shining, which benefits the software-and-saffron crowd, were the darker realities of the rural and urban poor and lower middle class.

But our NRI’s and homegrown elites were too busy keying into their cell phones and turning on their TVs for the latest India shining shibboleth to grasp the true picture of change.

All our assessments have gone wrong, sir," said Venkaiah Naidu, the BJP president who shaved his head quite bald on a visit to a Hindu temple a day before the vote count.

Quite so. Carried away by its own glossy marketing, the BJP bought into its own myth and failed to see the facts staring it in the face. Or perhaps they thought a good PR campaign could sweep reality under the rug. The Bush administration had some such hope last year as well.

In fact if there is anything “colonial” about Indian politics, it is the way in which right wing forces have embraced the most meretricious aspects of free-market capitalism from slick advertising to redundant packaging. Is this the best we can do as post-colonial countries -- imitate the mistakes of Western capitalism, or for that matter the mistakes of Western socialism (Marx, after all, was German)? Can’t we develop indigenous modes of production and organization? Wasn’t that what Gandhi’s emphasis on holistic education, the village, and self-sufficiency amounted to, however much we may disagree with his understanding of economics? Would anyone claim that he was not an Indian, despite the Christian and Western influence on his thought and his eclectic approach to his own religion? When the elites scold the ignorant masses for crowning Queen Sonia for her white skin, they display both an abysmal desi racism as well as psychological blindness. The reality is that the masses have seen that the new economy does not have much room for them and have identified both with the tragic widow and the name of Gandhi, which to them recalls the Mahatma with his abiding loyalty to the poor and disenfranchised.

But perhaps Gandhi’s Hinduism was not pure enough for the new Hindu nationalists who are in truth less Hindu than they are nationalist, and nationalist in a way that is inextricably tied to colonialism. Modern Hindutva ideology, which posits an essential “Indian-ness” that is also coterminous with “Hindu-ness”, is treated by its more demagogic practitioners as though it stretched back into some Aryan-Vedic paradise on the River Saraswathi lost in the mists of time. But it was really the construction of nineteenth century reformers and nationalists who needed to create an effective discourse of resistance to colonial rule without rejecting what they believed they needed from that rule -- science, technology, and industry. Where the typical European nation state was first a nation and only then a state, the Indian colonial state was already a given before the nation came into being. Creating a national consciousness outside the state was thus a part of the anti-colonial project first of all. As social theorists like Partha Chatterjee have argued, the nationalist problem was that modernization required tutelage under the West, while anti-colonialism required an emphasis on the distinctly national, the culturally distinctive. Thus religion was shanghaied into the project by such Bengali reformers as Narendra Dutt (better known as Swami Vivekananda, the turbaned hero of the World Parliament of Religion) and Bankimchandra Chattopadhyaya because it was India’s religious tradition that had been identified both by foreign and indigenous scholars as possessing unique intellectual and spiritual qualities. It afforded a basis from which European technological and economic superiority could be challenged. Moreover, though Bengal was over half Muslim, the religious practices which were Hindu fitted the bill better than any other. They had a much larger following all over India and were therefore more likely to induce popular support for the nationalist project. Of course, there is no truly indigenous conception of “Hinduism” in Indian history. The practices and beliefs brought under this rubric exist more in their difference from other religions and in a commonality among the beliefs of the people under the British colonial state, so the only way to show this commonality was by tracing the history of these beliefs and practices to a common origin and language -- Sanskrit. Here again, the nationalist project betrays its colonial and western roots, for instead of viewing the polymorphous diversity of religious belief and practice in India and its tolerant and eclectic nature as a unique strength, the nationalists attempted to recreate it on the model of the monotheistic religions through the selective rewriting of its history. This rewritten Hinduism, purged of its “regressive” elements, which they automatically regard as non-Brahminic, is what is now sanctified as the core of Indian-ness.

All other religions are by default non-starters in the race for authenticity and their practitioners are already always guilty of “foreignness” until proved innocent. Thus, the cry of “foreigner” functions as a shaming and silencing technique much as the cry of “leftist” or even “liberal” functions in American politics -- it is an accusation of that most elusive of all crimes -- being un-Indian.

It is this kind of politics of division on top of its selectively beneficial economic programs that brought the BJP government down and, if it continues, may result in its complete marginalization in the future.

The matter was settled a long time ago for the “ignorant” masses whom the “brand India” campaign entirely forgot: “She was married to an Indian and that makes her an Indian," said Abdul Hamid, a South Indian ice-factory worker during Sonia’s 1999 campaign, "That is the rule in our culture."

Sonia Gandhi may not have been the best person to lead India for a variety of reasons, but her skin color or foreign origin was not one of them.

Lila Rajiva is a freelance journalist and activist in the D.C area. She has taught music at the Peabody Preparatory, and English and Politics at the University of Maryland and Towson University. She is currently working on a book about Indian relations with America in the 1940s.

Other Articles by Lila Rajiva

* Eyeless in Iraq: The L.A. Times and the Fog of War