Vijay Prashad’s Uncle Swami, a review

Vijay Prashad, Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today

New Press, 2012

That south Asians in the US face Islamophobia and racism was made clear on August 5th of this year when Wade Michael Page, a white supremacist who was being tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center, entered a Gurudwara in Oak Creek, WI and killed 7 people, most of them Sikhs.  While the media went into overdrive trying to convince everyone that this was a “mistake,” that the real targets were Muslims and not Sikhs, as if this was supposed to be some consolation to anyone, it was quite clear that the problem was in fact the long and persistent demonization of Islam and the omnipresent xenophobia to which all immigrants are subject.

Sikhs were attacked not because Page mistook them for Muslims, but because Muslims, in general, are seen as a fifth column in the US.  As a result, anyone who happens to look like them becomes necessarily a casualty of the racism that has been mobilized against Muslims in general.  Even though the media attempted to portray this as the consequence of individual ignorance or misrecognition, the events of Oak Creek are better understood as the result of widespread propaganda which cautions fear by arguing that all Muslims are possible terrorists.

But Sikhs in the US are victims of Islamophobia in different ways than are Muslims, and that was at least part of the reason that the massacre at Oak Creek happened.  So desperate are non-Muslim immigrants to prove their American loyalty that they repeat the humiliating refrain over and over again—“But we are not Muslims!”—in the hopes that this will relieve some of the pressures that they face.  South Asians become mascots of Team Docile Immigrant and then are pitted against Arabs and Muslims (even though many South Asians are Muslims) in the never-ending process of racializing “terrorism.”

The production of “good” or “model” minorities in the United States has always been connected to a process of isolating the “bad” or “criminal” races.  If from the 1970s to the 1990s South Asians were seen as the ideal immigrant population (hardworking, law-abiding, upwardly mobile), it was because that depiction of them was convenient as a stick with which to beat African Americans and Latinos in the US.  Today, it is convenient for the Global War on Terror.

One more thing went unnoticed, though.  Unlike Muslims and Arabs who are subject to intense scrutiny by law enforcement and are asked to make themselves available to intelligence agencies all the time, Sikhs have not been subject to state surveillance.  Law enforcement agencies have undergone countless hours of training in learning how to deal with Muslims and the issues that surround Muslim communities (not all of this learning has been salutary, one has to add), but this has not extended to learning about or reaching out to the myriad other communities that are affected by the twin problems of Islamophobia and anti-terrorism.

One of the strange consequences of this is that while most mosques have video and security equipment installed outside and have direct lines to law enforcement agencies, most Gurudwaras do not.  In some ways, then, the attacks on Gurudwaras and Sikhs are not mistakes: they happen because Sikhs are vulnerable and visible in ways that most Muslims have learned not to be.  One needs to add, though, that countless mosques are routinely attacked and vandalized with almost no media attention; the singular and exceptional focus on Oak Creek is one more indication of how much Islamophobia is tolerated in the US.

But understanding the complex and contradictory ways that many south Asians have both suffered from and been cheerleaders for Islamophobia requires having a historical understanding of the divide-and-rule racial politics of American society.  This is the task that Vijay Prashad sets out in his new book, Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today, a survey of many of the important trends and issues facing South Asians in the US since 9/11.  In it, Prashad elegantly captures the contradictory pressures on South Asian Americans as they navigate the crucible of domestic racial politics, India-US political and economic relations, and internal divisions with the South Asian American communities in the US.

This book picks up where Prashad’s previous book, The Karma of Brown Folks, left off.  In that book, Prashad demonstrated, in part, how many South Asians were recruited in the United States to participate in the discourses of anti-black racism in exchange for ethnic inclusion into larger public spaces.  At the same time, Prashad showed, smaller groups of South Asians became involved in important community organizing campaigns in the US and developed as important leaders in anti-racist and international solidarity work.  A deep sensitivity to the push-pull forces that affect South Asian immigrants as well as an understanding of transnational movements of peoples into and out of the Indian subcontinent marked some of the best features of the earlier book.

But the new project is best understood as one of comparative racial formations in the US.  He argues, “In my own earlier work I argued that the fear factor of ‘blacks’ created the conditions for the construction of the Indian American as the model minority, whereas I will now argue that this is insufficient.  It is the terror factor of the ‘Muslim’ alongside antiblack racism that provides the political space for Jewish Americans and Hindu Americans to mitigate their cultural differences from the mainstream, but crucially to put themselves forwards as those who, because of their experience with terrorism, become the vanguard of the new, antiterrorist Battleship America.”

That integration of Indian (Hindu) American identity with antiterrorist politics has taken a number of different but parallel tracks in the US.  The first is the creation of the “India Lobby,” which explicitly argues for the interests of Indian capitalism within the halls of American power.  Two simultaneous processes helped to grow the India lobby and the India caucus within the American Congress.  The new opportunities opened by India’s economic liberalization beginning in 1991 meant that India was seeking new partnerships with the US and American capitalists were looking for ways to penetrate Indian markets.  The resulting convergence of interests paved the way for the lifting of sanctions on India and for closer military collaboration.

The second is the construction of a South Asian (more precisely, Hindu and Indian) identity as victims of terrorism, and so like the Israelis and the Sri Lankans, natural allies in the Global War on Terror.  Military connections and arms trades between India and Israel were already extensive when Indian Americans also launched the US-India Political Action Committee (explicitly modeled on AIPAC).  But the myth of “American-Israeli-Indian” victimhood was predicated on another myth of a singular “Islamic” enemy launching terrorist attacks on all three nations.  Despite the fact that the groups and organizations that each nation is organizing against are all different, this mythology has been convenient at creating the impression of a global jihad launched by a monolithic Islam.  It has also meant that India has not had to answer in the US for its ongoing occupation and brutalization of the people of Kashmir.

The third has been the transformation into celebrities of certain right-wing Indians who have risen to important political posts.  The likes of Bobby Jindal, Nikki Haley, Sonal Shah, and Dinesh D’Souza have all been lionized in the Indian American press as signs of Indian American accomplishment without ever interrogating the political content of their vision.  At the same time, the fact that the majority of South Asian Americans are a part of the Democratic Party and usually left-of-center gets overlooked in the ways that certain Indians have been used to advance a neoliberal agenda in the US.

The most nefarious aspect of all of these processes has been the mainstreaming of a right-wing Hindu chauvinist ideology (called Hindutva), which has both been used against Muslims in the subcontinent as well as against linguistic, ethnic, and caste-based minorities.  In the US, the Sangh Parivar, the coalition of the Hindu right in India, uses American multiculturalism to its advantage to advance a particularly narrow understanding of Hinduism, one which whitewashes its long legacy of sexism and caste chauvinism, in particular.  This process, what Prashad calls “Yankee Hindutva,” has allowed for the growth of right-wing organizations in the US in exchange for Indian cover for American aggression abroad.

Prashad’s book is an important contribution to the understanding of how race and ethnicity are always tied up in a larger understanding of the historical flows of capital across national boundaries and the devastating effects of imperialism on people all over the world.  If there is one place that the book falls a little short it is in its call for an ethics of compassion, modeled around Gandhi in the concluding chapter, rather than fleshing out a politics of solidarity modeled around internationalism in the working class.  Indians have, as Prashad shows, participated in spectacular movements of international solidarity, and the growth of these tendencies inside the working class in the subcontinent and in the US will play no small part in challenging the American imperium.  By drawing our attention to the politics of race and ethnicity in the US, though, Prashad’s book serves an important function by highlighting just how deeply connected the fights against racism and imperialism are.

The Meaning of India-Bangladesh Border-fence

Guest post by Nazmul Sultan

    Indian prime minister Manomohan Singh’s recent visit to Bangladesh has triggered myriad speculations concerning the meaning of intensified geopolitical alliance between India and Bangladesh in South Asian region. Given the temporality of parliamentary politics that is hegemonic in national-political space of this region, the visit is also destined to influence the electoral zigzags of coming days. What is more, the sudden move of West Bengal’s populist chief minister Mamata Banerjee, which halted the much-awaited agreement on the water-sharing of the Teesta river, added essential twist in the diplomatic drama that continued for few days. In the process – thanks to the withering away of terms such as `imperialism’ from the hegemonic space of politics—the embedded conditions of these mutual `negotiations’ have become obliterated. This brief intervention, on the contrary, will seek to arrest the generality of internal relations between two hegemonically uneven states . In so doing, we will concentrate on the political meanings of the border-fence that India built throughout the last decade encircling entire Bangladesh. [For a detailed study of Bengal Border, see, Willhem Van Schendel, The Bengal Border Land: Beyond State and Nation in South Asia (London, 2005).] Being coalesced with the logic of contemporary global order, this border fence, more than any other element, registers the changing horizon of imperialist exigencies in the level of inter-nation relations. 


    Although the generality of capitalism has fundamentally reshaped our very conception of territoriality and sovereignty, the practice of setting up fence around particular politico-economic sites predates the advent of global capitalism. Aristotle, in his ‘politics’, argued against the conviction that walls around cities are a sign of military weakness and advocated for strongest walls around the city: “To have no walls would be as foolish as to choose a site for a town in an exposed country and to level the heights; or, as if an individual were to leave his house unwalled, lest the inmates should become cowards.” [Aristotle, Selected writings of Aristotle (New York, 2001 ), P. 1293] The backdrop of Aristotle’s argument contains the genealogical dimension of the fence. That is, the political significance of fence had been formed in and through the dynamic of pre-capitalist world whereby territorial expansions was an instance of surplus extraction through force. However, this general logic of territoriality intertwined inextricably with the relational self-positing of a city-state. Thus, the presence of fence appeared to Plato as a contradictory feature with the military pride of a city. Aristotle, despite his opposition to Plato’s proposal, had not only understood border-fence as a military-strategic object, but also as a distinguishing symbol of the community from others . Hence, he proposed for decorating the border walls, apart from making them effective: “..not only should cities have walls, but care should be taken to make them ornamental, as well as useful for warlike purposes and adapted to resist modern inventions….for when men are well prepared no enemy even thinks of attacking them.” [Aristotle, Selected writings of Aristotle (New York, 2001 ), P. 1293]

    This apparent universality of fence as a signifier of particular political community, however, refounded itself corresponding with the primacy of global capitalism, which is particularly contextual for our investigation into the meaning of Indo-Bangla border fence. The generalizing logic of capital which continually projects to overcome the spatial disjunctions (or as Marx put it, Capital seeks to annihilate space by time), simultaneously requires the particularization of its spaces of movement (as Deleuze put it: “capitalist deterritorialization requires a constant reterritorialization”). The movement of capital, which disregards the singularities of spatial units, in another turn, re-enacts the mechanism that heterogenizes its objects, since the continual reproduction of heterogeneity conditions for the onslaught of ‘real’ homogenizing operation. Border fence, to that extent, is a symptomatic manifestation of the internality of global capitalism. The location of border-fence in contemporary system, nevertheless, is the political sphere whereby it reflexively corresponds with the requirement of capital’s movement. Fence posits itself capitalizing its ‘trans-historical’ meaning, which implies certain collective signification for the demarcated communities. Border-fence always-already presupposes the heterogeneous presence of diverging politico-economic as well as cultural sites, as the reproduction of its own validity would have become uncertain if it fails to account for the real abstraction that it implies. Border-fence thus signifies the seclusion of a community in its relational instance i.e., seclusion as nation, ethnic group, religious group and so on. What is most significant in the contemporary resurgence of border fence is its globalized significance rather than bilateral specificity that was common to the history of perimeter fences. In other words, the validity of the fence is essentially justified by putting forward trans-national issues such as restriction of Islamic militancy, illegal workers, left-wing radicals etc.


    In a recent intervention in the aftermath of Arab spring, Kees Van Der Pijl, suggestively remarked that the study of imperial domination should not be reduced into an isolated exposition of capital’s movement, rather it is “equally urgent to analyse the structures of imperialism in terms of modes of foreign relations.” [Friedrich Balke, “Restating Sovereignty: On America's Regaining The Old Sense of Sovereignty,”  Parrhesia, 2/3 (2007): 12-21.] He goes on to explicate the essential linkage of the internal structure of subordinated nations with the functioning of imperial orders. Similarly, the apparently externalized positing of certain nations in the topography of `war on terror’ interacts with the internal organization of the nations. The diachronic impact of such supra-national politics ultimately intertwines with the structural reorganization of society. 

    The meaning of the border-fence, in the lexicon of national-political, remains confined within the abstract exercise of sovereignty and suchlike fetishes, while the totality of border-fence’s operation – due to the specificity of its appearance as a political signifier of the horizontal moment of national life – inflicts even the micro aspects of the particular political-economic site. The Border-fence, needless to say, is not the only active agent in the process. The reflexivity of the fence is essentially conditioned by the immanence of ‘nation’ as an over-arching category in post-colonial political spaces . Hence, border-fence becomes the emblematic appearance of the ‘exclusion’ from the civilized world. To put in another way, the over-arching expansion of fence is precisely conditioned by the constituted fear of contemporary developmental liberalism: the fear of being unrecognized as “moderate developmental state.”

     In the post 9/11 re-articulation of geopolitics, territorial exclusion becomes a crucial strategy to impose the label of heterogeneity on certain nations vis-a-vis homogeneous or normal nations. The physical blocking of hitherto loose borders, however, is only the semblance of this process; the cruciality of conspicuous territorial separation is vital insofar it signifies exclusion as heterogeneity, since this process of exclusion inversely works through the concomitant internal dichotomization of the supposedly heterogeneous nation i.e., the nation which is ‘unnegotiable’ in terms of perceived homogeneity. That is to say, the national devaluation or the “national shame” of being heterogenized provokes the internally hegemonic institutions (e.g. state, civil society, NGO, Media etc), which are affected by their supra-national ‘heterogeneity’, to attack the internal others who are responsible for nation’s not being ‘normal.’ That means geopolitical deployment of the exclusion as ‘abnormal’ fuses with the heterogeneous nations’ homogeneity-seeking forces (who, in the determinate instance, always align themselves with the hegemonic logic of neoliberal capitalism) to doubly invigorate the internal repression of the subversive elements (which, however, are not necessarily opposed to the logic of capital). Simultaneously, that double pressure processually leads nationally representative institutions to find the way of “being normalized” in uneven dialogue or transactions with ‘normal’ nations . This leads us to the revealing moment, when the cool-headed Economic Adviser of Sheikh Hasina, Mashiur Rahman, suddenly overrides the policy of putting the economic gain as the reason behind allowing India to use Bangladesh as a transit-route. Being a rupture in the continuity of otherwise consistent narrative, this statement revealed the deep-seated complexity hidden beneath the rhetoric of economic gain : “Had our country been an uncivilized one or our leaders been illiterate then we could have asked for the fees [the proposed duties on Indian goods to be transited through Bangladesh], but that’s not the case.” The functionality of national-political, given the over-arching urge to be “normalized”, gathers it force around the ghosts of heterogeneity that is not coeval with standard of ‘secular-civilized nations.’ Since this witch-hunting by state is inextricably related with governance as well as reproduction of the state apparatuses, the process of locating ‘evil’ often subverts the territory of a particular group owing to the essentially indeterminate logic for identifying subversives. Therefore, the process for the determination of the Islamist militancy(i.e. responsible for exclusion) effaces the demarcating lines between various ideo-political groups , and re-emerges through the registers which are not coeval with the logic of domination: thus, a veteran leader of RMG workers’ movement has been accused of having rapport with Islamist groups, since she chatted with a fellow prisoner in the prison van, who incidentally belongs to a far-right Islamist group. Nevertheless, this `Aesopian’ evidence was enough to file an allegation against her given that workers, not unlike Islamists, contribute to the ruining of sacred national image abroad through protests, vandalism and so on.


    “What has changed in the time between Reagan’s ‘empire of evil’ and Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ is not the intensity of the evil but the juridical status of the subjects that are supposed to embody the ‘evil’ .However destructive the military capabilities on the both sides of the Cold War antagonism were, the ‘willingness’ to respect each other as subjects of international law was never seriously questioned during the Cold War period” [Friedrich Balke, “Restating Sovereignty: On America's Regaining The Old Sense of Sovereignty,”  Parrhesia, 2/3 (2007): 12-21.]

    The indeterminate positing of enemy (i.e., the non-negotiable), so to speak, is precisely the rupture heralded by post 9/11 rearticulation of global politics. Just as we have seen the dislocation of enemy/heterogeneity in the internal organization of a given politco-economic site amounts to a breaking through of traditionally static identification of subversive-element in a particular group, so the inter-national appearance of a nation – from the vantage point of hegemonic projections – is an equally indeterminate constellation of good and evil, as though the concern of national security, like Schmitt’s X-ray flashes, exposes the potential explosiveness of `incarcerated’ people at the very moment they disregard the distributed place. The border between India and Bangladesh is an exemplary instance. As F. Balke reminds us of the difference between the juridical status of the evil-embodied alien subjects that owes to the changed notion of national security, Indian state—being coterminous with the global trend of Islamophobia– gunned down more than 1,000 Bangladeshi citizens (working peoples, small-time cow-smugglers etc) who dared to pass the border illegally. That is, the frequent and intentional killings of BSF is precisely a manifestation of the heterogeneous or juridically uneven status of Bangladeshi citizens. Numerous flag meeting between BSF and BGB (erstwhile BDR) could not reach to an agreement for the very reason that sovereignty – the state of exception – only can express itself through the pride of acting alone. The blatant functioning of the presupposition that Bangladesh is a mere combination of ‘good secularists’ and ‘bad Islamists’ can easily be discerned from the recent portrayal of Bangladesh in the hegemonic neoliberal voices of India. Indian Prime minister recently claimed that 25% of Bangladeshi citizens belong to parliamentary Islamist organizations(hence a threat for India’s security), while the actual number is less than 5% (in terms of electoral votes). Similarly, India’s mainstream medias consistently portray Bangladesh as a vying field between “Bengali-secularist-India-friendly’ and “Islamist-anti-India”, where only the tutelage of India (which also implies that the strict isolation of subversive elements from Indian land) could save both parties. As Kolkata-Based Daily Anandabazar clearly says: “The main conflict in Bangladesh is between its Bengali-self and Islamic-self. After the Mujib-assassination, Pakistan (sic) sought to invigorate Islam undermining the Bengali-self. That struggle still continues. In this historical moment, Indian diplomats think Manmohan Singh’s upcoming visit to Bangladesh will help the initiative to build a new Bangladesh.” In other words, the forced bifurcation of Bangladesh between good and evil, as evident in the aforementioned instances, does not only sustain the presuppositions of mutual relations, but also reproduces the legitimation of the logic that governs the site of inter-national differentiation. To that extent, Border killings – by virtue of its reassertion of the symbolic order embodied in the fence – is political killings par excellence.

    While the movement of labor is delimited by such forced containment, the hegemonic capital is making it way annihilating the disjunctive spaces (as in the enactment of much-debated transit-route through Bangladesh). The ironclad body of border-fence that seeks to restrict people’s movement through force has been appearing as a site of a struggle that can’t be reduced into a national barrier. In other words, the generality that underpins the struggle is a thoroughly global phenomenon, notwithstanding the specific historicity that concerns Indo-Bangla border-fence. That is to say, the meaning of border-fence, for the affected people of global south, is unambiguously concrete. This is a kind of concreteness – to paraphrase Anna Feigenbaum – that requires no metaphor. [Anna Feigenbaum, “Concrete Needs No Metaphor: Globalized Fences as Sites of Political Struggle,” Ephemera 10/2 (2010): 119-133. This is how she defines contemporary border-fences: “....‘globalized fences’... can be identified by four commonalities: they serve transnational security functions (particularly in a post 9/11 homeland security context), they are contracted through multinational companies, they are built with materials imported from different nations, and they integrate ‘virtual’ and  physical technologies]