Indian-Americans have distinguished themselves in a variety of fields and have been lauded as one of the most successful diasporic groups in the United States. From captains of technology to corporate board members, from university administrators to hotel tycoons and hedge-fund managers, Indian-Americans have certainly made their mark in their adopted country. Recently, the emergence of Indian-Americans in the political scene has also been noted, as Indians boast of many stars of the new political firmament as their own. All in all, the story of Indian-America is in some ways a remarkable one.

My view is that the story is remarkable in more ways than one. While any thinking person must concede that the group has done a great job in elevating it’s economic status (on the average) and in applying to American life the shrewdness and street-smarts that are a sine-qua-non of life in India, there are other facets to the Indian-American existence that need to be examined further.

One of these facets, as many scholars have noted, is the incredible rise of Right-wing Hindu nationalism in the community and recently, an overwhelming support in the Indian-American community for the BJP and its strongman Narendra Modi. Stadiums full of admiring Indian-Americans can be adduced here as well as thousands of posts on all manner of Internet fora. Indeed, the capacity of Indian-Americans to adopt jingoistic and self-serving ideologies is remarkable.

Perhaps the most interesting (and insidious) facet is the incredible ability Indian-Americans have of partitioning their minds and morals when it comes to their race, religion, and nation. Three incandescent and recent discussions I had bring this partitioning into bold relief.

The first of these was with an old acquaintance who I hadn’t seen in twenty years. We quickly bonded over our dislike of Trump. My critique was thoroughgoing, his caviled, but we were able to find common cause in our opposition to Trump. Still, as I extended the discussion to include Modi, he got uncomfortable. He could not brook any criticism of either Modi or the BJP and repeated their propaganda almost verbatim. A person who was able to see through Trump’s patina of lies and misdeeds was singularly unable to see in Modi anything but unalloyed good. Turns out that he’s not only a bigot when it comes to Pakistan and Islam, he also is economically conservative; it just turns out that he doesn’t believe Trump’s views on immigration will “help Indians.” A mind critical enough to see mendacity in Trump but one that was closed off to criticism of Modi was also porous enough to see racism only as it applies to Indian-Americans.

The second conversation had to do with members of my wife’s family. In a brief conversation, they too lamented Trump’s racism. One of them said that she saw and loved a bumper sticker that said “Make Racism Wrong Again.” Ten minutes into the conversation, as we changed subjects, their true colors were easily revealed as they told stories from work that singled out “African-Americans” as always having a victim mentality and constituting a predominant number of criminals and cheats. The Indian mind at work again: Hating racism when it is directed at me but gladly dishing it out against others.

The third conversations was subtler and more telling. In a gathering with “close” friends, the Indian moon mission came up. Ordinarily progressive people took massive umbrage to my suggestion that it was a colossal waste of resources for such a poor country to indulge in some massive, and unneededly grandiose projects just to flex muscles and pretend to be part of the big boys’ club. In their misty counterarguments they suggested many things including the notion that “India is not poor, it is in fact a rich country,” that, as regards the moon-mission, this is progress” and that “it elevated the country.” When I suggested that the very notions of “progress” and “elevation of the country” begged the question of “progress for whom?” and forced us to consider who in fact “the country” consisted of, the looks were vacant. In a moment of tragic Deja-vu (how little we’ve actually progressed), I thought of the great question posed by Nehru, “Kaun Hai Bharat Mata?’ Interestingly, when I asked that if indeed the moon mission “elevated” the country then did the failed mission bring us back down, I was told that in fact the mission had not failed. The conversation attained a surreal quality. Again, the Indian mind in all its eternal mystery- how people who can be relatively nuanced when it comes to work and in fact intelligently critical of their own political lot in the United States can be so monolithically and absurdly nationalistic when it comes to India is indeed puzzling.

But then it shouldn’t be. India is a country that prides itself on secularism but in which almost every private or public space and every public utterance is draped in religiosity. Indians all over the world bemoan the materialistic west and simultaneously covet money with the best of them. Indians bemoan racism but engage in some the worst forms of racism imaginable at home and in the diaspora. Hell, even the Indian Science Congress begins with an “aarthi” and includes sessions on things like “Vedic Physics.” We are a people hopelessly torn between planes of existence, between competing philosophies of life.

As such our minds are curious and inconsistent. Well except for three areas of incredible, hobgoblin-like consistency: obscurantism, self-love, and false pride.

Romi Mahajan in an Author, Marketer, Investor, and Activist


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