The Other Indians (A Political and Cultural History of South Asians in America)

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Item Code: IHL400
Author: Vinay Lal
Publisher: Harper Collins Publishers
Edition: 2008
ISBN: 978172237158
Pages: 174
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.8 inch X 5.8 inch
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Book Description

The Indian diaspora today, more so than ever before, is an incontestable fact of world culture. Diverse Indian communities scattered across the globe now complement the nineteenth century diaspora of indentured labourers and traders, and nowhere has the growth of the Indian diaspora registered such a phenomenal increase as in the United States. This book offers a crisp and politically engaged narrative of the social and cultural history of Indian Americans: commencing with the circulation of ideas about India in America, it considers such phenomena as the Ghadr movement, the straggles over rights of citizenship, the reification of 'Indian culture', the emergence of 'temple Hinduism' and the attempts by NRIs to influence the course of events in India.

The Other Indians:

A Political And Cultural History of South Asians In America

Vinay Lal

HarperCollins Publishers India a joint venture with

New Delhi




Introduction: The Politics of Identity and a Note on Usage



Indians in the Global Setting



Passage to India:

The Circulation of the Orient in America


Voyage from India:

Slaves and Seamen, Workers and Peasants



The Diaspora within the Diaspora: Students and Rebels



"Tawnies" Amidst Whites (after Benjamin Franklin)



Exile in the New Canaan



Emergence of a Diasporic Community



The Religious Life of Indian Communities



Indian "Culture" in the Diaspora



The Politics of Affluence and the Anxiety of Influence



The Landscapes of Representation in Internet Modernity



Politics and the Future of Indians in the U.S.



The Diaspora at Home:

Returnees, Retirees, & Resident Non-Indians


Sources and Select Further Reading




About the Author



I am grateful to Don Nakanishi and Russell Leong, both for entrusting the inaugural volume of this UCLA Asian American Studies Center monograph series, "Professor in a Pocket," to me, and for their close reading of the entire manuscript. I am similarly thankful to Daniel M. Neuman for his suggestions and editorial notes. Surendra Bhana went well beyond the call of duty in responding with alacrity to my request for a careful reading of the manuscript, and I am extremely grateful to him for his many thoughtful and learned suggestions, not all of which it was possible for me to accept, for improving the book. I would also like to thank the anonymous reviewer of the manuscript for the UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press.

The research for this book has been facilitated over the last few years by grants from the Academic Senate of the University of California, Los Angeles, and, in particular, the unstinting support of the Asian American Studies Center. Their assistance is gratefully acknowledged. I would also like to express my appreciation to the staff of the Asian American Studies Center, especially Mary Uyematsu Kao and Stephanie Santos, for their help in bringing this work to publication.


Ch. I, p. 1: The 'Indian neighborhood' of Devon, where "Gandhi Marg" intersects with Washtenaw Ave., in Chicago. Photograph: Vinay Lal, 2005.

Ch. II, p. 7: Eastern Spirituality in the New World: Yoga at Times Square, New York 2007. Source: The Indian Express (New Delhi), August 15, 2007.

Ch. Ill, p. 12: The Traffic Between the West and India. Cartoon by E. P. Unny. Source: The Indian Express (New Delhi), August 15, 2007.

Ch. IV, p. 23: Culture at Home and Abroad: Indian Student Union, Annual Culture Show, University of California, Los Angeles, May 2005. Photograph: Vinay Lal.

Ch. V, p. 31: The Hare Krishna Juggernaut: Celebrating Janmashtami (Birth of Krishna), Venice Beach, California, July 2006. Photograph: Vinay Lal.

Ch. VI, p. 39: The Diamond Jubilee, a trans-Pacific passenger service from Hong-Kong to Vancouver, was established in 1891, seeking to replace Chinese immigrants with East Indians after the Canadian government had raised the head tax on Chinese. Vancouver 1897.

Ch.VII, p. 53: Hinduism's Emissary to the West: Plaque honoring Swami Vivekananda, Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago, Lemont, Illinois. Photograph: Vinay Lal, 2005.

Ch. VIII, p. 65: Consolidating the Faith in a New Land: Sri Venkateswara [Balaji] Temple, Aurora, Illinois. Photograph: Vinay Lal, 2005.

Ch. IX, p. 77: Resurgent India: Statue of Swami Vivekananda, Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago, Lemont, Illinois. Photograph: Vinay Lal, 2005.

Ch. X, p. 90: The Affluence of a Diasporic Community: The $30 million Swaminarayan Temple, Bartlett, Illinois. Photograph: Vinay Lal, 2005.

Ch. XI, p. 105: India in the World: Globalization and New Forms of Hierarchy. Cartoon by Ted Rall. Source:

Ch. XII, p. 117: A Global Icon: Statue of Mahatma Gandhi, Skokie, Illinois. Photograph: Vinay Lal, 2006.

Ch. XIII, p. 127: Staples of the Diaspora: Street Scene, Jackson Heights, Queens, New York. Photograph: Vinay Lal, 2007.


The Politics of Identity and a Note on Usage

This is a book about the other Indians—the Indians other than those who once vastly populated the Americas, experiencing a calamitous decline in their numbers after their encounter with representatives of the enlightened West. The indigenous in-habitants of the Americas have, when viewed as a collectivity, been known by a plethora of names, among them Amerindians, American Indians, native Americans, and most simply as Indians. By whatever name these Indians are known, they seemingly do not have much of a shared history with the Indians, the subject of this book, who arrived in the Americas from Asia or the Indian subcontinent. And yet, their histories are inextricably intertwined, for much more than the obvious reason that, at least in the United States, American Indians and South Asian Indians have sometimes been confused for each other. Vasco da Gama was to arrive in India only a few years after Columbus, who imagined he had reached India, set landfall in the Americas. Much has mistakenly been made of Columbus's mistake, since in the age of European exploration, expansion, and conquest there were bound to be few survivors of the onslaught by colonizers who acted with singular determination and self-aggrandizement in their quest for riches and domination. The colonizers stumbled upon some outsiders, deliberately set themselves upon others, and targeted yet others for chastisement—everywhere they unleashed a regime of oppression. The outcome, however, was not the same in every respect. A few Indian commentators have of late been speaking with enthusiasm of the reverse colonization of Britain. At the other extreme, however much Indian Americans may complain of not being given due recognition, American Indians are unquestionably the most tragic instantiation of the invisible minority in the U.S. Ironically, Indian Americans, whose share of the U.S. population matches that of American Indians, are now set to outstrip the latter. It is a cruel twist of fate that one group of Indians has, in a manner of speaking, had to become nearly redundant to pave the way for another. This is as painful a fact as any for Indian Americans.

Much like American Indians, Indian Americans are known by many other designations, none of which has universal acceptance among Indian Americans themselves. The scholarly and popular literature also reference them as Asian Indians, South Asians, South Asian Americans, and desis, though as the early chapters of this book suggest, there have been other designations that were once in vogue, among them Aryans, Caucasians, and even "Hindoos" to characterize all people coming from what was then British India. Advocates of Hindu nationalism in the United States have in recent years been championing the word "Bharatiyas," or people who derive their origin from "Bharat," the official name for India that appears on the country's postage stamps, coins, and official documents. At the other end of the political spectrum, many progressive activists have opted for the word "desi," or those who are, so to speak, of the "desh" (of one's own country). Those who are of the desh are not from videsh (a foreign land). This opposition perhaps received its fullest expression in the nationalist period, though one should not think that all advocates of swadeshi—pertaining to one's own country—or of swaraj (self determination; self-rule, but equally rule over one's self) had the most unedifying and jingoistic conceptions of nationalism in mind.

Though there is no gainsaying the fact that many proponents of the term "desi" similarly seek to invoke its widest and most pluralistic meanings, calling forth the shared lives of many South Asians, the term operates on many different and disjunctive registers. As I have often been reminded by an old friend from Jaisalmer, in western Rajasthan, words such as "country" mean quite different things to people from metropolitan centers and those who earn their livelihoods in India's tens of thousands of villages and smaller towns. When my friend chances to remark,"Hamare desh me aisa hota hai" ("This is how it happens in our country"), by desh he clearly means his part of the country. The observation invokes not so much the nation in the abstract, much less Bharat, but rather a frame of mind and a set of habits. The word "desi" also calls to mind homegrown products: thus, for example, now that liberalization has opened the Indian market to a whole array of foreign goods, including Western/hybrid varieties of fruits and vegetables, one hears often of the contrast between foreign vegetables and those branded "desi"—the latter being smaller and (in common belief) much more palatable to the taste than foreign varieties. There is, it appears to me, something unsettling and certainly odd about the fact that the most enthusiastic proponents of the word "desi" are precisely those diasporic Indians who, in many ways, have least claim to the word and its multiple inheritances, considering their location in metropolitan centers of thought and their immense distance from local and vernacular knowledge systems. For these reasons among many, I have, except in a few particular instances, eschewed the word "desi" when speaking of Indian Americans.

The term "Asian Indian" was introduced in the U.S. Census of 1980 and sets apart someone so designated from "American Indian." I have deployed this term on a few occasions when referring to what we might think of as the official or legislative history of Indian Americans since 1980, but this term does not enjoy wide recognition among Indian Americans. Whatever the attachment of Asian Indians to India, or to particular aspects of the history and culture of India, they also like to think of themselves as Americans—and "Asian Indian" brings no fulfillment in this respect. To that extent, "Asian Indian" cannot be considered analogous to "American Indian." This leaves, for our consideration, the term "South Asian Americans." India has been a civilization much longer than it has been a nation-sate, and however different the paths taken by India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh in recent years, one recognizes that the subcontinent's contours have not been shaped exclusively or even predominantly by the ideology of the nation-state. The term "South Asia" serves, then, as a rebuke to those who are excessively bound by nationalist sentiments, or who otherwise conflate India with Hindu just as they have effortlessly come to the conclusion that Pakistan and Bangladesh can be tolerated by India but must never be allowed to achieve anything remotely resembling parity.

However, though there is undoubtedly a good case to be made for using the term "South Asian Americans", the difficulties in so doing cannot be minimized. In my experience, many Americans, academics not excepted, are likely to confuse South Asia with Southeast Asia, and the American experience of Vietnam has etched firmly into place a certain conception of that part of the world. But to come to more considerable problems: I find it a touch surprising that secular and progressive people who are most inclined to use the term, and whose anti-imperialism is also on record, are not much deterred by the fact that the term is essentially a creation of post-World War II American geopolitics. South Asian countries themselves have moved closer in recent years to embracing the idea of South Asia, as represented in such organizations as SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), but it is well to remember that South Asia is comprised not only of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India, but also of Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and the Maldives. Afghanistan was admitted to SAARC only in 2007, but is not typically viewed as falling under the orbit of South Asia. And what, one might ask, of the long ties of India with Burma (now Myanmar)? The arbitrariness of "South Asia" aside, I have not seen any substantive discussion of South Asians in the United States that offers an account of the history of Sri Lankans and Nepalese. To be sure, one can defend a more narrower conception of South Asia such that it would only encompass India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—the three nation-states that eventually, following the liberation of East Pakistan in 1971, emerged from the partition of 1947—but I think all this should suffice to indicate why the idea of South Asia creates its own muddles.

While many progressive and secular organizations have come together on a common South Asian platform, I have encountered few very people in the wider Pakistani, Indian, and Bangladeshi communities in the U.S. who are willing to embrace the term. The reticence of Indians, especially, in being marked "South Asian" is more pronounced in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as well as the witch hunts that, around the world, have sent thousands of innocent Muslims to jail, pushed others into the commission of desperate acts, and cast a pall of suspicion around all Muslim males. A Sikh male was among the very first people killed in the U.S. in retaliation for the September 11 bombings. His only mistake was to sport a turban on his head, as do most Sikh men, and so open himself up to attack as a likely follower of Osama bin Laden. Not all Muslim men wear turbans, nor are all bearers of turbans Muslims: but such niceties matter not a jot to perpetrators of crime, whether found on streets or in the corridors of power. Discrimination against Muslim women workers and students wearing burqas and chadors has also been reported in the U.S. and elsewhere. There were other widely reported instances of violence against South Asians, and U.S. and state government agencies themselves issued alerts to the effect that men with origins from the Middle East or South Asia were especially vulnerable. To point out that there were no South Asian men among the criminals who fomented and executed the terrorist attacks is accurate, but any such assertion gives rise to what I would describe as "ethical awkwardness." Should one defend oneself with the perhaps implied proposition that the violence is more legitimately targeted elsewhere? Absolutely nothing can ever justify retaliatory violence that is predicated on the principle of collective or associative guilt.

Pakistan and Bangladesh are predominantly Muslim states, as India, notwithstanding its immense Muslim population, is not. This is a fact that weighs heavily on the minds of Indian Americans; it is also a consideration supreme in the minds of U.S. government officials, as the exemption of India, which has a substantially greater Muslim population than any country in the Middle East, from Special Registration amply illustrates. (This legislation, passed a few months after the September 11 bombings, required males resident in the U.S.—but not U.S. citizens—and claiming nationality from a list of some thirty countries to register with Homeland Security.) One might reasonably argue that ethical considerations and political solidarity demand that Indian Americans cast their lot with fellow South Asians in these difficult times. The only genuine test of humanity, more than one great reformer has argued, is to share the suffering of others. On the other hand, there is the brute fact that being identified as a Muslim brings one no rewards; indeed, even remote association with one triggers suspicious looks. One can understand why, from a purely pragmatic standpoint, Indian Americans might loathe being lumped as South Asians. We should perhaps look forward to the time when, in an act of Gandhian mass nonviolent resistance, all human beings take on the identity of those who are oppressed. What other dialectics of emancipation is at all possible?

I have, in conclusion, opted for the term "Indian American" above all its competitors. It appears to me to best do justice to those people who are the subject of this book. Their history is singular, as is the history of all other immigrant groups who have made their way to the United States; but, by the same token, it is not so singularly exceptional that Indians cannot take their place alongside Chinese Americans, Arab Americans, Korean Americans, African Americans, and many others. To say as much is to concede nothing at all to those historians and sociologists who believe that assimilation into American society should be the objective of every immigrant group. I have put on record here a very different interpretation of the history and culture of Indian Americans, but I shall leave it the reader to reach her or his own conclusions.

Vinay Lal teaches History at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). His previous eight books include Empire of Knowledge: Culture and Plurality in the Global Economy (2002); The History of History: Politics and Scholarship in Modern India (2003); Of Cricket, Guinness and Gandhi: Essays on Indian History and Culture (2003); and, co-edited with Ashis Nandy, The Future of Knowledge and Culture: A Dictionary for the Twenty-first Century (2005).

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