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Toxic Nationalism and the Diaspora

As the date of the US General Election draws nearer, Republican candidate Donald Trump and Hindu Nationalists find favour in one another

Story: R. Benedito Ferrão | 30th October 2016, 12:00 Hrs

bio: R Benedito Ferrão is a writer and academic. Connect with him at thenightchild.blogspot.com, or on Facebook at The Nightchild Nexus

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Goans can breathe a sigh of relief that the once most famous South Asian American Republican, the arch-conservative Dinesh D’souza, has all but slunk away from the public eye, owing to the fact that he was found guilty of campaign finance violations. Instead, while that son-of-Goan-soil attempts to shill yet another book about what he believes to be wrong with American politics, from the comfort of the Internet, other South Asians have taken up the mantle of embarrassing subcontinental people in the homeland and abroad.

Enter the Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC). In an event they hosted for US Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump in New Jersey a fortnight ago, the RHC put on a clownish display that melded Bollywood, Islamophobia, and patriotism. Though several Indian American attendees were surprised to see Trump at the spectacle, which was billed “Humanity Against Terrorism”, perhaps their first clue that something wasn’t right should have been that the programme was presented by an organization that calls itself the Republican Hindu Coalition. Describing the affair in as one where “Hindus and Trump Rallied together in a Xenophobic Fever Dream” (21 October), Giri Nathan marvels at how the “fundraiser for ‘victims of terror in America and around the world” managed to “somehow set a new standard for surreality in the present election cycle, with a Donald Trump keynote speech book-ended by hours of Bollywood song and dance.”

But not to be outdone by his hosts, Donald Trump upped the oddness ante by proclaiming, “I am a big fan of Hindu [sic], and I am a big fan of India!” As Eesha Pandit remarks in an article for (22 October), Trump would be given to such effusiveness, since “[t]here are more than 4 million South Asian Americans currently living in the United States, and approximately 67 percent of them, or 2.7 million, are US citizens. Additionally, South Asian-Americans are one of the most politically active ethnic blocs.” Trump went on to announce that if he was elected, “the Indian and Hindu community will have a big friend in the White House.”

Undoubtedly, the lynchpin in this unholy alliance between overseas Hindu nationalism and Trump’s pro-Hindu/Indian American stance is the Islamophobia both sides share. In (17 October), Rashmee Kumar quotes Dalit activist Thenmozhi Soundarajan as saying of the RHC-Trump event that its “celebration of Diwali suggested that attendees were mostly upper caste…” In addition to a lamp-lighting ceremony, the audience was also treated to some sort of performance where make-believe terrorists and US soldiers duked it out. The show was very much in keeping with Trump’s virulent anti-Muslim campaign, but it also speaks to Hindu Indian nationalism which posits Muslims as the other to the Indian nation.

That this then also appeals to the Trump-supporting Indian American, even if a miniscule demographic at just seven percent, bears witness to the perpetuation of toxic Hindu nationalism within the Indian nation-state and its diaspora. Further, in seeing India and Indian Americans only as Hindus, Trump additionally borrows from the community’s own self-presentation as manifestly upper caste and the authentic arbiters of Indianness.

Multiple incidents of post-9/11 xenophobia in America have shown that time and again racists cannot (and do not want to) tell the difference between Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, Latinos, Sikhs, Hindus, or anyone ‘foreign-appearing’ for that matter. Despite this, that the RHC would court a man whose supporters wish to “Make America Great Again”, which is euphemistic for making it White Again, is proof of a dysfunctional relationship. Equally enamoured, Trump has just released a campaign video in which he attempts to woo Indian-American voters by speaking in Hindi. Maxwell Tani reports in (27 October), that “[t]he ad prominently features an image of [Indian Prime Minister] Modi as well as Trump's take on Modi's popular campaign slogan, ‘Ab Ki Baar Trump Sarkaar,’ or, ‘This Time, We're With Trump's Government’”. Given Modi’s own history of drumming up Hindutva, this is not just the stuff of coincidence.

As can be seen by the commentators I have cited above, many South Asian Americans have actively voiced their disdain of the RHC ‘fundraiser’ and Trump’s odious pandering to the religiously nationalist sentiments of Indian American voters. In a similar vein, a video crusade titled has begun making the social media rounds in an effort to educate “long-time Republicans and unaffiliated voters, particularly of immigrant heritage, to vote against hate by not voting for Donald Trump”. In the version of the video aimed at South Asian American voters, several younger generation Americans of subcontinental heritage address their elders and remind them of their immigrant hardships and desires for a better life. “You guys are the American dream”, one of the speakers states emphatically in a plea to those who fail to see that Trump’s America is a dangerous one. But while the video does well to point out to South Asian Americans that casting their lot with Trump would be a disservice to immigrants, it does so by relying on the unquestioned belief in the homogeneity of the South Asian American community, particularly along the lines of class privilege as epitomised by the constant references to the American success stories of this demographic. Not only is this an overstatement which essentially reads Indian Americanness and, likely, caste privilege, onto the diversity of South Asian America, but it also doesn’t delve into the very elitism and Islamophobia in the community that has drawn Trump to it. It is not until this community begins to ask difficult questions of itself about its investment in caste privilege and nationalism that change can occur.

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