Reflection of “Identity Politics in 2 States”

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Shreyas Iyer

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Indian-Americans, like Indians themselves, are a multifaceted and diverse people bound together by, and at times unified only in, national identity. Growing up in the ethnic enclave of Silicon Valley, the Indian-American community never disparaged or ostracized me for being Tamil; to me, it seemed my linguistic ties were simply not as salient as my skin color. Reading Ibtesaam Moosa’s article “Identity Politics in 2 States: Contradiction between Tamils as the ‘Other’ and ‘We are one India,’” however, made me rethink how the Indian diaspora has suppressed the differences that mar unity between India’s subcultural regions, and how a unified diaspora has masked issues of Indian identity that are more visible in India.

Unlike in India, in which tensions exist within and between ethnicity, caste, religious preferences, social standing, and geographic distribution, Indian-American immigrants have constructed a political and cultural milieu that emphasizes intergroup harmony. Behind a flourishing expatriate scene, North and South Indian immigrants and their kin have found common ground in the land of the gora. Pigmentation may initially have been as important as ethnic and national origin, but the politics of the diaspora appeared, to me, to be a response based more on a shared nationality. In opposition to how Narendra Modi is attempting to construct a pan-Indian identity based off of Hindu nationalism, such strident political messages were not central to putting aside potential divisions in the diaspora; that being said, North Indian culture has slowly become the only Indian culture as represented in movies, food, and other pop culture staples.

Homogeneity is most obvious when looking through a political lens. Although Indians see each other as a Punjabi, Gujarati, Tamil, or otherwise, these categories did not determine our political ideology. Indian-Americans have become overwhelmingly liberal over the years despite differences in political vision back home. For example, Indian-Americans overwhelmingly aligned on their support for both Narendra Modi in 2014 and Hillary Clinton in 2016, despite their differences in base, rhetoric and policy. In the motherland, meanwhile, the same sectarian, linguistic, ethnic, and caste-based differences that exist within immigrant communities manifest in widely disparate political opinions and at times damaging behaviors. Of the more pernicious, the biting “othering” of the Tamils in 2 States is simply par for the course in certain areas.

Within my Silicon Valley community, that form of outright “othering,” or the intentional jabs Shah Rukh Khan and co. deliver on Bollywood screens, were few and far between while growing up. To be sure, regional differences made their fair share of appearances, but they were not threatening or derogatory. What explains the diaspora’s retention of separated temples, religions, and foods, but also their refusal to denigrate each other?

My family’s story provided me with some insight. Leaving a Tamil Brahmin household in India, my grandparents found refuge in mostly-white upstate New York by actively seeking out other Tamil or Tamil Brahmin families. Their children, including my father, were more comfortable growing up alongside Indians of all backgrounds, while my generation has seen those differences lessen even more so. Today, I would be amazed to see Indians of my age relying on sectarian or geographic differences to determine friendships. Initially, Indians may have found comfort in their ethno-religious communities, but over time the succeeding generations interacted and developed relationships with Indians outside of these affiliations, opening the door toward more tolerant subgroup interactions.

Part of this coalescence may have to do with how interest groups formed; many of them focus on a pan-Indian narrative that includes, at least in part, promoting one unified Indian culture while providing services, information and opportunities for the South Asian diaspora. Doing so destigmatized interacting with outgroup members, as the presumed notion was that all Indians, no matter one’s caste or religious background, can benefit from interest group services.

There was more to this story, however. I realized that living within the Indian diaspora has made me almost numb to the sort of subnational fighting and differences that Indians have deeply-held opinions on. I rarely referred to myself as a Tamil, but as an Indian. My family and friends reinforced this; although my family made close ties to other Tamilians in our area, we did not engage with each other culturally ( like celebrating Hindu festivals, for example) but socially (hosting small meet-ups or birthday celebrations). When alone, my family tended to order out from the local North Indian eateries, and watch Hindi-language television serials and a bevy of Bollywood masala movies. Rarely did I ever stop and wonder why my family engaged with North Indian culture as strongly as with our Tamil roots. I never saw this as an issue, or had serious discussion with my parents about how our decisions played into a larger framework of how South Indians had to fit into the diaspora’s politics and institutions.

Thinking back to Modi’s narrative of a unified India, it is easy to draw a parallel with his message and how the South Indian community has had to retain its cultural mores while simultaneously recognizing North Indian culture as the dominant nexus between the homeland and the United States. As South Indian culture has become subsumed under the umbrella of Indian-American culture, South Indians, such as my family, have been forced to watch as the phrase “Indian-America” has come to represent North India, while the plethora of other traditional remnants of the “othered” India remain dormant to the imaginations of the millions of Americans that interact with Indian-American culture.

Nationalism differs among the diaspora, and regional differences remain salient in culinary choice, holiday celebration, clothing, temple preferences, and other aspects of life. These differences have not gone away. My family still has a close circle of South Indian family friends we see often. Through the westernization of the civic norms that Indians embraced and adopted while in America, however, my family, my friends, and my peers responded to potential intragroup division by layering day-to-day interactions with a veneer of cultural homogeneity. We are all Indian-American, and subgroup differences are set aside. The diaspora presented to the rest of the country appears mostly unified in political concerns, ideological beliefs, and even cultural offerings. That being said, the “othering” of Tamil and other non-mainstream Indian cultures has occurred in the U.S. at a more subconscious level than that experienced in India, but nevertheless continues to permeate an Indian-American identity that is more than meets the eye.

Moosa’s piece thoughtfully contextualizes the film’s treatment of Tamils within Modi’s push for a Hindu nationalism. Although such behavior is rare in America, this may have more to do with the social benefits of assimilation that forced Indian-Americans to treat national identity as more salient than regional or linguistic identities. After having had a chance to engage with my peers in discussions over the place of Tamils and other South Indians in mainstream Indian-American culture, it is apparent that outright othering is rare in the United States. At the same time, groups such as the Tamils still have to make the bargains visible in 2 States to ensure the pan-Indian spirit espoused by Modi and his followers reaches America’s shores.