The Need for Black-South Asian Solidarity: Lavanya Nott

This is a guest post by LAVANYA NOTT

In February 2013, George Zimmerman, a 28-year old neighbourhood watch coordinator in Sanford, Florida, stalked and fatally shot 17-year old unarmed Trayvon Martin, an African-American high school student. In July of that year, Zimmerman was acquitted of his crime.

On August 9, 2014, unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown was shot several times by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri after Brown stole several packs of cigarillos from a neighbourhood store. In late November of that same year, a grand jury did not indict Wilson of his crime.

The Black Lives Matter movement began after Zimmerman’s acquital, and the Ferguson non-indictment saw the movement surge forward, with thousands of citizens taking to the streets all over the United States in protest. In the months that followed, the movement gained rapid momentum, spurred on by yet another non-indictment—that of a White police officer in Staten Island who put 43-year-old Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold in broad daylight, without provocation. His death was ruled by a medical examiner as a homicide, but his killer Daniel Pantaleo escaped indictment.

In mid-September 2015, Mohammad Akhlaq’s house in Dadri was broken into, his family attacked, and his life taken by a rampaging mob of RSS workers who were responding to a rumor that Akhlaq killed a cow and subsequently consumed its meat on Eid.

Less than a month later, a gang of upper-caste Rajputs set fire to the house of a sleeping Dalit family, killing two-year-old Vaibhav and his nine-month-old sister Divya. This attack, in BJP-ruled Faridabad, was set against the backdrop of a long-standing caste-related dispute between the Dalit and Rajput communities in the city.

Meanwhile, a woman named Irom Sharmila lives in the security ward of a hospital in Manipur, where she continues her fifteen-year hunger strike againt the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, a punitive piece of litigation passed by the Parliament that allows armed personnel in “disturbed areas” to freely arrest, fire upon, and use violence against civilians. The Act also protects the army from prosecution and other legal procedings, except with the sanction of the Central Government. Initially instituted in the seven states of the North East in 1958, the Act is still in place in Manipur and Jammu & Kashmir.

The threads of violence and state-ordered discrimination weave their way not only between Sanford, Faridabad, Ferguson, and Dadri, but reach into the recesses of history, knitting together stories of lives taken, families ripped apart, women raped, and minority cultures hurled into the bowels of mainstream society by racist or communal states. In these instances of violence, the victims become mere abstractions, and the perpretrators puppets, proudly enacting the script of a gory story of dominance and hegemony they have accepted without question.

Current-day parallels between White supremacy in the U.S. and minority discrimination in India are easily identified. Black people in the U.S. account for about 40% of the prison population, while constituting only 13.6% of the overall population. 53% of prisoners in India are Muslims, Dalits, and tribals, while these groups account for only about 39% of the country’s population. There is a long history in India of racism towards people from the North-East; while for the most part it simmers quietly in the form of daily microaggressions, it boils over every now and then, and an innocent life is lost. Modi’s reactionary silence in the wake of minority killings is mirrored in state silence and lack of accountability towards minorities in the U.S. when they are killed, deported, or denied access to education. Separated as they are by divers bodies of land and water, these systems of violence don’t merely exist in parallel; rather they are connected by a nebula formed out of a complex history first of solidarity and then of racism and assimilation.

It is important to think about the links between state-sponsored violence in India and in the U.S. Forging lines of connection between the historic and current struggles—for Black empowerment on the one hand and subaltern struggles in post-Independence India on the other—is particularly critical in this moment, in the context of Narendra Modi’s persistent wooing of the American NRI population, and his alarmingly good relations with media monopolies in the U.S.

When American NRIs pack stadiums, chanting slogans of appreciation for Modi, they are displaying their complicity not only with the rhetoric of Hindu nationalism but also with the larger aspect of this violent policy: that minority lives are disposable, and that economic development supercedes issues of minority welfare. This complicity is an active backing of the neoliberal agenda as it sweeps through the country, ripping through vulnerable communities and building multinational companies. Modi’s silence in the aftermath of the Dadri lynching is violent and pervasive, and the Indian diaspora has absorbed it—their lack of interest in the communities affected by the BJP’s conservatism speaks not only to the great privilege that they enjoy as educated, wealthy immigrants, but provides some insight into why they have been silent on issues of racism in the U.S.

NRI supporters of Modi in the U.S. benefit from a plethora of privileges: they come from middle- to upper-middle class backgrounds, are overwhelmingly upper-caste Hindus, speak English, and are highly educated. They live in large suburban houses and send their children to elite schools where they in turn benefit from decades of model minority stereotyping—a narrative that allows them comfortable distance from poorer, undocumented, non-English speaking, lower caste immigrants and other communities of colour in the U.S. It is not surprising then, that this section of the diaspora has remained silent on the Black Lives Matter movement.

By subscribing to aspirations of the American dream, the wealthy, Modi-loving diaspora seeks to assilimilate into American society to the extent possible. The upshot of this desire to fit in is a perpetuation of a decades-old American strategy to separate Asian immigrant communities from Black ones; to give the former power over the latter. By being labeled a part of the model minority in the U.S., diasporic Indians are subject to a particular kind of racializing that gives them power over other communities of colour in the country, such as South American immigrants and African Americans. This label generates a culture of clinging to a myth of assimilated Americanness.

This is a recent phenomenon—prior to the mid-twentieth century, before socially mobile Asians became an asset to the American economy, the racist umbrella of the American immigration system was mounted threateningly over Asian communities as well: the Immigration Act of 1924 categorically banned the entry of Asians into the country. Post-9/11, South Asian communities that have been targets of racial violence are historicaly marginalized minorities—Sikhs and Muslims. The average suburban-living or silicon-valley employed Modi supporter who doesn’t face risk of being shot down in a place of worship, doesn’t contend with fear of deportation, and doesn’t stray into low-income neighborhoods, lives a life of manufactured assimilation.

There is obviously a smaller but powerful counter-diaspora; for example, each of Modi’s visits to the U.S. since the beginning of his term saw a few thousand people rally—outside the Madison Square Garden, at the UN headquerters, and in the Silicon Valley—in protest. These pockets of leftist voices in the diaspora are doing important work, not only organizing a strong alternative diasporic movement, but also addressing and unpacking the history of oppression of Muslims and Dalits in the diaspora, and the legacy of Indian support for anti-Black racism. These efforts follow in the footsteps of some powerful instances of Black-Indian alliances against imperialism and racism that faded into history after the end of the British rule in India.

Relationships of solidarity between the Black struggle for empowerment and liberatory movements in the subcontinent can be traced back to the early twentieth century. Countless members of the civil rights movement had expressed support and interest in the Indian struggle for independence. The history of this relationship goes much deeper than what we are taught about the resonating philosophies of Gandhi and Martin Luther King—echoes of subaltern struggles in India were heard in the U.S., and vice-versa. Archives such as Anirvan Chatterjee’s Black Desi Secret History detail some of these instances of solidarity, telling stories ranging from the Black press’ coverage of the civil disobediance movement, to a petition by Black intellectuals to President Roosevelt, urging him to take steps to resolve the crisis in India, to the formation in 1972 of the Dalit Panther movement inspired by the Black Panther Party, to narratives of curent-day activism in South Asian communities against anti-Black racism.

There were, however, always intimations of India’s flightiness: an article in n+1 magazine called “White Indians” cites W. E. B. Du Bois’ anxiety in a 1938 essay about the Indian inclination “to stand apart from the darker peoples and seek her affinities among whites.” Du Bois’ foresight was precise: India has repeatedly displayed that its priorities lie with economic powerhouses in the Global North—in particular with those responsible for twenty-first century imperialism. Today, India is Israel’s primary export target for weapons, Modi successfully woos economic and media powerhouses in the U.S., and the Indian government is in dialogue with Russia to boost bilateral trade to $30 billion. These stories tell of a scary future of active complicity with violence and racism.

The future of solidarity movements, and South Asian-Black alliances in particular, might have to rely on a reconfiguring of the ways in which cultural alliances are thought of. We need more radical ways of thinking about the meeting points of minority cultures against the backdrop of transnational hegemonies. Vijay Prashad has written about the historic ties between revolutionary movements in Black and Asian communities, and their relevance in the face of American capitalism’s pitting of South Asians against Black Americans. In Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting: Afro-Asians Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity, he places modern discourses of colour-blindness (read: assertions of post-racism) and multiculturalism in the context of race relations in the U.S. while historicizing the relationships between different communties of colour. In discussing the rich history of close ties between Black and Asian liberation movements, he suggests an alternative to the traditional liberal multiculturalism narrative: that of polyculturalism, whereby some sort of equilibrium is reached not merely by cultures coexisting peacefully, but by having deep relations and dynamic influences on one another.

Given the parallels of racism and communalism in the U.S. and South Asia, this approach of acknowledging the rich history of subaltern alliances is a particularly powerful way of thinking about how to contextualize South Asian-Black American relations outside of hierachical racial frameworks. Doing so will perhaps give us the tools to envision a future of active solidarity. This would involve an overhauling of the ways in which we interact with the histories we are taught and the stories of movements we are told, and a razing to the ground of the Indian habit to view itself as a reflection in the mirror of western capitalism and White supremacy.

Lavanya Nott is a freelance writer based out of Philadelphia and Bangalore, writing about issues of labour, race and diaspora. 

6 thoughts on “The Need for Black-South Asian Solidarity: Lavanya Nott

  1. Bharatbhooshan Tiwari

    Dear Lavanya,
    The need for Black-South Asian Solidarity makes absolutely perfect sense; I am glad you brought it up. I have always believed that the Black experience in the US is a combination of Dalit experience and Muslim experience in India.
    Though you have very well analyzed the class-caste character of NRIs, saying that the diaspora (or a section of it) “has remained silent on the Black Lives Matter movement” is euphemism of sorts.
    In my experience, the Indian diaspora or at least a section of it that came to the US in the “Great IT Rush”, that I myself am part of, is nothing short of being rabidly racist towards Blacks. The Indian minds inextricably attuned to “graded inequality” have conveniently placed themselves between White Americans and Black Americans in the social hierarchy.
    The alternative diasporic movement you alluded to, has a mighty task at hand as we all know very well.

  2. Melange

    Some of the views in this article are surprising and not in a good way. The author somehow seems to be unhappy that South Asians in the US are not as downtrodden as the black people! Their “manufactured assimilation” makes them less likely to be killed? What on earth is manufactured assimilation? Some people adopt the culture of their new home while some others may find comfort in that of their original homeland; while some others take in a bit of both or reject both. I don’t see why anyone should judge any individual or community for trying to assimilate. Millions of immigrants (from many countries around the world) work very hard and make great personal sacrifices in order to give their children a better life. Please do not demean the immigrant experience in the U.S. or anywhere else in order to fit your grandiose theories.
    Also, linking India’s foreign policy of “seeking affinities with the whites” with the behaviour of a few NRIs (which was a gross generalisation btw) is beyond ridiculous. Also, citing DuBois’s article from 1938? Let me guess, it is some white man expressing his disapproval of lowly Indians trying to access opportunities or views that were a white preserve instead of just being slaves like other dark skinned people. Poor guy, imagine his anxiety!!
    I also feel that linking any movement for South Asian rights in the U.S. with the Black rights movement would be a poor idea. Discrimination against African Americans is systemic. The challenges facing the black community are different and dare I say more complex than those of South Asians. While racism towards any ethnicity should be condemned in the same vein, linking the two will spell disaster for both sides.

    1. Nivedita Menon

      Melange, you’re entitled to your views. Lavanya clearly opposes precisely the perspective you offer, the view of entitled Indians who want to differentiate themselves from Black struggles, aligning more closely with whites, however little the whites want them. But one correction which I doubt will change your understanding, but just for the record – Du Bois refers to WEB Du Bois, legendary African-American activist and theoretician, Pan Africanist and founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Not “some white man” as you “guessed”. If your knowledge of African-American history is so poor, I think Lavanya’s point is made!

  3. Completely agree with Bharatbhooshan’s reply. Overall I like this article by Lavanya. But to be honest, every time someone cites Black Desi Secret History by Anirvan Chatterjee or the Vijay Prashad book as a basis for their knowledge about Indian history, a huge red flag goes up in my mind. BDSH promotes people like Vievekananda and Gandhi as anti-racist revolutionaries which is hilarious. There are several articles on Dalit-led websites that will present SO MANY quotes by these two “revolutionaries” that will show just how anti-Black and anti-Dalit these two guys were when they were not speaking to international press. So honestly any “radical” history tour that cites these two guys can hardly be so “radical”.

    Of course, I don’t blame the creator of BDSH for these oversights (I am giving him the benefit of doubt here). A lot of content on that website seems to be inspired by Vijay Prashad’s book that you mention in this article. Vijay Prashad is another really problematic dude when it comes to his views on caste. As a die-hard supporter of Indian communist party, he also believe stuff like class is more important than class. Not only that, but in writing in international journals to predominantly white audience, he has also had the gall to say things like, “Many Dalit groups, taking their cue from civil liberties organizations, ignore much of the economic ground for untouchability”. In doing he, a savarna, a conveniently papers over Dalit critiques of savarna Communists who believe class is more oppressive than caste and dismiss Dalit assertion as “identity politics”.

    Also the history of Indian nationalists can hardly be called subaltern history. Subalterns are basically those who lie on the “margins of the margins”. Our privileged-caste desis hardly fall into this category. If anyone gets to claim true empathy (and therefore solidarity) with African-Americans, it is Dalits who share a history of dehumanization and enslavement, not the corporate-employed middle class Boston Brahmins.

    Sorry for the negativity. I do agree with most of your article by the way. Keep writing. :-)

    1. Lavanya

      Hi Sanjay, thanks for your valuable insight.

      I was by no means comparing the experiences of the Boston Brahmins with Black folks–I was saying that the former are guilty of racism/casteism.

      Also, citing Prashad and Chatterjee wasn’t an endorsement of the entirety of their work. There aren’t very many resources that detail the history and importance of Black-South Asian alliances, so in terms of filling that void, I think Prashad and BDSH are important voices. Something I’ve been thinking about (and that came up again on reflecting on your comment) is how even “radical” voices are complicit in an inescapable way. Within that framework, I like to think that it can still be powerful to cite work like Prashad’s. If you have suggestions for additional resources, I’d be really excited to hear them :)

  4. Pingback: Polycultural Reflections on Coldplay and Beyoncé | justmamta … on a journey to hope and liberation …

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