U.S. Humanitarianism and the Golden Muzzle of Model Minoritism
On May 20, 2020, St. Paul’s City Council passed a resolution condemning the Indian government’s Citizenship Amendment Act. St. Paul followed in the footsteps of Seattle and Cambridge, which had passed similar resolutions in February. Of course, St. Paul’s resolution emerged after Coronavirus had hit the United States, which begged the question: Why, in the midst of a global pandemic in which our nation was the epicenter, was a local city council in the United States putting time and energy into passing a resolution about a separate, sovereign nation?
Four days later, George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officers was caught on video and the world woke up in a new way to Black Lives Matter. For many, understanding police brutality through this horrifying flashpoint event served as an entry point into unpacking and understanding systemic racism. Protests and dialogues emerged across the globe, with new, refreshed conversations about the long shadows of historic oppression on our streets and in our psyches. Interpretations and appropriations across the globe have been complex, confused, and often heated. Meanwhile, the Coronaverse continues spinning — economic depression looms, the broken health care system is cracking open, decisions about reopening schools are weighing on every district, community mental health is strained, job uncertainty is rampant, and the pandemic is hitting regions and countries in unforgiving cycles of death and disease. (Never mind the anti-maskers.)
And in the midst of all of this, mostly Democratic U.S. city councils continue to pass anti-CAA resolutions.
These resolutions appear to be premised upon a dystopian fiction that has been circulated with such relentless enthusiasm that it has calcified into a seemingly impenetrable tower of righteous humanitarianism. Amongst the indictments hurled from atop the tower is the popular myth that the Citizenship Amendment Act “will strip 200 million Muslims of their citizenship”. It is fairly obvious that none of the councils have read the three-page Citizenship Amendment Act, which is written in simple English. If they did, they might discover that it clearly states that the legislation only pertains to religious refugees from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan who entered India before December 2014. Despite its (misleading) name, it does not have anything to do with existing Indian citizens, Muslim or otherwise, and it does not curtail pathways to citizenship for anyone.
How can multiple city councils continue to get this wrong? Surely they must be doing their due diligence. These are local, democratic institutions, after all! The author clearly has an agenda and is just unhappy with the outcome.
To understand this phenomenon, let’s take a look at what happened in St. Paul back in May, where a councilperson openly declared their ignorance of the facts.
(You can watch the entire meeting here.)
“I don’t pretend to understand what is happening… but the ACLU and Amnesty International are on the same side of this issue, so that gives me confidence we’re on the right side of this.”
So this Council is openly operating off of (apparently confusing) narratives and the testimonies of organizations, without determining whether or not these organizations are also operating off of the same narratives. This stance is given a stamp of authenticity by the performative wokeness of South Asian American politicians whose public wrist-wringing is also completely untethered to facts. In fact, it is only this specific “Woe is me, Hindu fundamentalism is on the rise” performance that gets a Hindu American access into progressive American politics.(Watch Pramila Jayapal’s performance during both Congressional hearings on Kashmir. She is full of outrage and devoid of evidence.)
There is no room for other information or another acceptable humanitarian Hindu American perspective.
“Most of the people in opposition to this were not from St. Paul.”
Twelve thousand Hindu Americans emailed letters to the Council opposing the resolution. While many of them were not from St. Paul, twenty-seven prominent Hindu American community members wrote to the Council. Many of them have lived in Minnesota for over fifty years. There were members of the council who weren’t even born yet when these folks arrived in Minnesota. To dismiss their voices and perspectives and accurate reading of the CAA with a broad brush of “outsider” is xenophobic, unbelievably undemocratic, and a reprehensible act of hatred and gaslighting.
However, notice that the Council conveniently chose to heed the advice of woke Hindu voices that go along with the dominant narrative.
“Hindus for Human Rights also supported this.”
An organization that calls itself “Hindus for Human Rights” stands against legislation that helps resettle religious refugees — including Hindus — who are facing extreme religious persecution in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. This doesn’t seem to raise an eyebrow. This same organization is not taking a stand against the human rights violations those communities are experiencing in those three countries. They are only taking a stand against the imaginary human rights violations upon a segment of the Indian population that is not impacted by the Citizenship Amendment Act. Outside of this one organization, not a single Hindu, Jain, or local Sikh organization supported the resolution.
The council members don’t seem to have a lot of information about the Act, they are leaning upon organizations that have arrived at the same conclusion, and they are excluding the voices of anyone who disagrees. But what is their skin in the game? Why does this matter to them? Who is pushing for these resolutions to happen in the middle of this pandemic, when it seems like the Council members don’t even know what is happening? What is their endgame?
Remember Equality Labs?
So an organization that has reduced Hinduism to caste, says nothing about the documented genocide and extreme persecution of Hindus (including Dalits) in the Muslim nations surrounding India even as it claims to be standing up for human rights violations in South Asia, is behind the Students against Hindutva campaign raging across campuses, whose political director has stated that Hinduism must be erased, and is funded by The Open Society and Pierre Omidyar, is expressly behind the passage of local resolutions that codify their narrative. The Councils that take up their cause do so under the pretense of “doing the right thing”, drowning out the voices of Hindu Americans who are advocating for the rights of Hindu (and other) religious refugees.
These resolutions are not benign at all. What they propagate locally and officially is the justification of Hinduphobia. What is erased by these narratives is that the CAA is actually about Hindu persecution in Muslim countries, not the other way around. Even at a Congressional level, the U.S. government is consistent in erasing Hindu persecution. The question remains as to whether or not the cumulative effect of these resolutions will add up to anything meaningful vis-a-vis American foreign policy, particularly as national elections loom in the horizon. Other than narrativization, maybe they are simply toothless exercises in value signaling. Maybe they aren’t.
But for the Hindu American citizen who disagrees with the resolutions— or for any American citizen who is concerned with the persecution of non-Muslims in these three Muslim countries — there doesn’t seem to exist any avenue to successfully engage in the democratic process. Our public officials don’t listen to us if we speak up, show up, or write letters. They do not seem to be interested in a wider scope of facts or any disconfirming evidence. This is deeply disturbing, frustrating, and frightening.
According to the folks that are pushing these anti-CAA resolutions, the only right action is for Hindus to disavow Hinduism. If we support Black Lives Matter and speak out for indigenous people in the United States, we are accused by the leaders of the organization of exploiting anti-racist movements to further the allegedly inherently oppressive agendas of Hindu theology (as evidenced by the CAA). If we don’t support Black Lives Matter or speak out for indigenous people, we are accused of furthering the allegedly inherently oppressive agendas of Hindu theology. These folks are drawing an ideological fundamentalist border, connecting anti-racism with being anti-CAA and anti-Hinduism. Meanwhile, overtly anti-Hindu interests (including Equality Labs) are co-opting the Black Lives Matter movement, leaning on its popularity and legitimacy to propagate their false conflations about India and her neighboring states, not only with impunity, but with the endorsement of progressive activists in the United States. This is creating divisiveness, confusion, and animosity where solidarity, nuance, and empathy ought to be flourishing right now.
As a progressive Hindu American who is concerned about a wide variety of issues, I feel disoriented, disheartened, and discouraged. Despite the fact that we are by-and-large a democratically voting diaspora, it is a struggle to be a progressive Hindu American and find sincere representation within our government. Hindu Americans are, on average, a wealthy, successful diaspora — a model minority. The presumption is that this wealth and success leads to political privilege. Yet it is Equality Labs (an organization flush with funding, access, and resources) and their supporters who have the full attention of our government from the city level up to Capitol Hill. This same politically powerful group has openly warned the U.S. government that all Hindu organizations — including student cultural ones — may be dangerous terrorist outfits that need to be investigated. And they repeatedly assert that the only correct way for Hindus to be anti-colonial and anti-oppressive is to dismantle Hinduism itself and to erase and silence any historical or contemporary evidence of Hindu persecution.
It doesn’t add up. The cognitive dissonance for many Hindu Americans is palpable.
I understand that Indian Hindu Americans make up a very small portion of the U.S. population. I’m not suggesting that because we are a demographic minority, the government needs to give us special treatment. Not at all. We are not pleading a case that we are oppressed as a model minority in the United States. But this is the premise upon which Equality Labs and their like-minded supporters argue that we should be silenced. They argue that because caste discrimination exists in Indian society, and that because Hindu theology is the root cause of this oppression (conflating smrtis with shrutis), Hinduism itself must be wiped out. (They also blame Hinduism for the existence of caste issues in Indian Abrahamic communities.) Nothing short of eradicating Hinduism is sufficient for them. Leaning upon colonial theories about Indic civilization and knowledge traditions, they silence and castigate any other rigorous, dissenting lenses that separate legitimate anti-caste work from condemning Dharmic epistemologies and lineages at their source.
But isn’t it possible that legitimate grievances about caste oppression in Indian society exist and that Hindus — as a class of people — experience religious discrimination and persecution in South Asia, a region pummelled with Abrahamic imperialism for over a thousand years, well before Christian European colonists arrived in the Americas? We were a demographic majority then, even as we are now. I am not even making the argument that all contemporary caste issues can be blamed on colonization. I am offering that the Abrahamic struggle to conquer the Indic civilization — through missionary work, secular Western epistemological bullying, and open persecution — continues in that region. How does the existence of caste oppression legitimize the erasure of Hindu persecution?
In every instance, even in just the past year, Indian Hindu Americans are speaking out not for ourselves, but for our fellow Hindus in South Asia who have survived and continue to experience open, violent religious persecution because they are Hindus. We have been trying to amplify the voices of Kashmiri Hindu refugees, whose family members were murdered in the night and who were driven from their ancestral lands by their Muslim neighbors in the hundreds of thousands, which is how the region became Muslim-majority. We have been amplifying stories of Hindu persecution in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, of young Hindu girls getting kidnapped, raped, and converted, of Hindu families being driven out in the hundreds of thousands and forced to relocate to India. There is no other safe place for them to go. We have been trying to convey that these are significant, critical contexts in which to situate recent Indian legislation. But none of this gets heard. The fact that (a) we are a model minority in the United States, (b) that caste exists, and (c) that Indian Hindus are a demographic majority appears to justify the willful erasure of the full truth.