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The Alt.Left, South Asianism, and the Scaling of Brownness

Murali Balaji is director of Education and Curriculum Reform at the Hindu American Foundation. A Fulbright Specialist and former journalist, he had previously taught at Temple University, Lincoln University and Penn State University
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The Hindus are no longer considered religious minorities in the US, but holders of majoritarian privilege

When I was growing up in the Philadelphia area in the 1980s, the Hindu community - and the larger Indian-American community - in neighboring New Jersey was terrorized by gangs of nativist hoodlums calling themselves the dotbusters.

While Hindus were the primary targets, the threat of xenophobia was faced by virtually everyone of Indian descent and from the larger South Asian diaspora. The Dot Busters attacks were part of a continuum of violence committed against Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims from the Indian subcontinent dating back to the turn of the century. In fact, despite the occasional rumbles of communal violence across the subcontinent and geopolitical tensions, Americans of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Nepali, and Bhutanese descent often maintained cordial - and sometimes even close - ties. Their experience of being immigrants - or the children of - kept the narrative largely coalesced around being Othered. The children of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and others found themselves traipsing between calls to assimilate and the pull to hold onto their cultural and religious identities.

However, in the 15-plus years since the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, the discourse slowly shifted away in two directions. Both Muslims of South Asian descent and Sikhs, the most visible victims of post-9/11 backlash, began advocating for a separate banner from the larger South Asian community. At the same time, community activists who were Indian-American and Hindu began pushing for a more inclusive idea of what it meant to be from the Diaspora. As such, the idea of South Asian was embraced as the way to define more than 5 million people (mostly of Indian descent and the majority of whom are Hindu) in America. While the term South Asian derived from Indian-born Marxist academics who questioned whether “India” itself ever existed as a cultural whole, it was repurposed as a means of including the voices of those who were largely ignored in the discussions about the rise of Indian Americans. And for a while, it worked well, as groups that have had historical tensions within the subcontinent put aside their differences to advance civil rights and more representation for Diasporic communities.

Over the past few years, and within the first 100 days of the Trump era, the narrative has shifted, and in the process, fractured some of these communities along old communal lines or newly imagined ones. The convergence of identity politics based on grievance and the resurrection of Marxist-inspired activism has re-defined what it means to be South Asian, at least in liberal spaces. More alarmingly, it has marked the rise of an “alt.left” that is increasingly making its presence felt among even mainstream left-of-center groups. This alt.left has recycled some of the politics of grievance and somehow made it new, trying to intertwine American racism, xenophobia, sexism, and homophobia into a distinctly Desi concoction. As such, the “South Asian” progressive space has become a platform for Marxists, Khalistani Sikhs, Indian-American Muslims, and Dalit activists to air their grievances with the Indian state. From this lens, Hindus in America are oppressors, enjoying both hegemonic influence and built-in privilege over their others.

This argument makes for a compelling narrative in the United States, and the news headlines - and the selecting reading of them - have had a tendency to add to the optics of such a narrative. This includes sporadic incidents of violence against Muslims in India by vigilante mobs, sexual violence against Dalits, increasing agitation by Islamic militants in Kashmir, and the U.S.-based Republican Hindu Coalition’s support for Trump. But on substance, the argument falls apart because Hindus have never enjoyed any privilege over their non-Hindu counterparts in the United States. In fact, the racialization of “Hindoos” (meaning Indians of any faith who were targeted for attack) in the early 20th century United States never went away even after Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims became their own distinct groups within the American social and religious landscape. Today, the identity clusters within the South Asian Diaspora have become a dominant thread within the Desi left in America.

What might be most problematic is the long-term efforts among some activists to scale Brownness within the American social landscape. Within these frameworks, Hindus are no longer considered religious minorities, but holders of majoritarian privilege (whiteness) unless they check or eschew their privilege (their Hinduness). While the politics of India have provided a backdrop to the ostracizing of Hindus from the realm of Diasporic activism, the demand that Hindu Americans must somehow stop identifying as such to be considered part of a racial minority group is ludicrous. It also underscores just how much of a problem the left’s application of intersectionality - the idea that diverse groups are tied together by interlocking systems of oppression - becomes selective and arbitrary. Hindus of Indian descent aren’t less brown than their Muslim or Sikh counterparts, and so attaching privilege when none exists actually hurts all of the diverse South Asian communities impacted by xenophobia. To argue that Hindus are somehow immune from racial and religious discrimination overlooks the way the religion has been framed in American discourse for over a century - as an irreconcilable Other to America’s Judeo-Christian values. Ironically, Sikhs in the United States have embraced that narrative by affirming their allegiance to an Abrahamic conception of religion, contrasting themselves to the supposedly polytheistic and idol-worshiping Hindus.

For many Hindu Americans striving for allyship at a time of intolerance and xenophobia, becoming part of what is commonly referred to as progressive activist spaces (but in practice have become far left echo chambers) means buying into a counterfactual claim that Hindus aren’t actually victims of intolerance and discrimination because of their religion. In this regard, some South Asian activists have managed to argue that microaggressions and hate incidents against Hindus aren’t happening because the victims are Hindus, but because of a pandemic of Islamophobia. Perhaps that’s partially true, but the same argument could be made for Sikhs, who actually are confused for turban-wearing Muslims. What’s more galling is how some of these same activists - who actually remember the Dot Busters era - can trivialize the experiences of any religious minority groups. For all the stereotypes of Hindus being part of an affluent and educated Indian-American elite, the experiences of the working-class Hindus (including many who have escaped religious persecution in countries like Trinidad, Guyana, Bangladesh, Fiji, and Bhutan) are frequently - and intentionally - excluded in order to conveniently fit a subaltern narrative that pits Hindus as oppressors and non-Hindus from the Indian subcontinent as uniformly oppressed.

If such a reality existed, it would likely galvanize non-Desi liberals to action and solidarity. Moreover, such a narrative would have to be reconciled with the horrors of the 1947 partition, the 1971 Bangladesh genocide, the displacement of 300,000 Kashmiri Hindus in 1990, and the decimation of Sri Lanka’s mostly Hindu Tamil population over a 25-year period. But since it doesn’t, the South Asian alt.left has amplified a counterfactual narrative within its own circles, creating an echo chamber that has virtually proved impenetrable for liberal Hindus unless they acknowledge some sort of privilege and deny their own precarious positionality as religious minorities in the West. As the deaths of Sunando Sen in 2012 and Srinivas Kuchibhotla in February, as well as the dozens of anti-Hindu incidents over the past year alone suggest, Hindus don’t need to be reminded of the tenuous position of their own citizenship.

And that’s what makes the alt.left’s scaling of brownness in America and bizarre attacks on Hindus and Hinduism more troubling. At a time when racial and religious minorities are reeling from increased intolerance, the scaling of brownness and the manufacturing of wedges based on subcontinental tensions rather shared American experiences is tantamount to a circular firing squad. The privileging of some traumas over others doesn’t do any good, and further complicates any attempts at collective action and shared progress. Then again, the alt.left - like its counterpart on the far right - is more invested in disruption and destruction than it is in finding solutions or building coalitions.