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Hinduphobia: Intolerance, racial and religious

Rajeev Srinivasan on bias and prejudice in the West

I was in the San Francisco Bay Area last week. So far as I can tell, the #BlackLivesMatter  protests over police brutality in the shooting of teenaged Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, have run their course, and we are back to business as usual. In the meantime, of course, President Barack Obama has made two rather unfortunate speeches alleging religious discrimination in India. Given American moralizing, this is par for the course — but two incidents suggested that the emperor is the one without clothes.

One could make the case that there is considerable phobia against non-Christians in the US, and on occasion this has led to violence. Of course, there is much racial discrimination as well. Blacks have long complained about the “driving while black” syndrome, whereby a random black driver is far more likely to be stopped and questioned by police than a white: they are in effect guilty until proved innocent.

On the other hand, in a recent book, “Ghettoside”, LA Times reporter Jill Leovy shows how rampant crime against blacks goes unpunished, as the police don’t care to investigate adequately. I’d like to ask the sanctimonious POTUS, “Wouldn’t Martin Luther King be shocked that happens to blacks?” It appears “Mississippi Burning” is relevant even today, fifty years after civil rights marchers Schwerner, Goodman and Cheney were murdered by bigots.

Racial prejudice by police affects browns as well, as in the sad case of Sureshbhai Patel, a 57-year-old Indian grandfather visiting his developmentally-challenged, 17 month old grandchild . Patel was slammed to the pavement by a white policeman, paralyzing him. His crime? “Walking while brown’: all he did was walk in the neighborhood where his son lives in Alabama. A neighbor complained that a “black man in his 30s was walking in driveways, peering into garages”.

Patel does not speak English: he told the policemen who drove up: “No English. Indian”. Since he hadn’t committed any crime, he was not alarmed when the three officers accosted him. In the startling dashboard video from the police cruiser, you see a young white cop questioning Patel, and then slamming him face first into the sidewalk: Patel is thrown like a rag doll, and the unarmed, non-threatening man is seen slumping into the ground, and then he is handled roughly by the cops, which quite likely exacerbated his spinal injuries.

I do hope the Patel family sues the hell out of the state of Alabama, and I hope the Hindu American Foundation and other community organizations are helping with legal aid and monetary support. For, there is reason to believe that it is religious and racial bias that led to the incident: in other words, a hate crime. There is no reason to suffer that silently.

There is some history of Hindus (and Sikhs) being brutalized by the American State. There was Khem Singh, an elderly Sikh priest who was starved to death in a California prison . There was Charanjit Singh Aujla, a liquor-store owner shot to death by plainclothes police. There was an Indian-origin Fijian man, Maya Nand, who died of untreated diabetes in immigration prison . In effect, these were judicial murders. And two or three years ago, a number of Indian students in the US were murdered.

Apparently Americans, especially the Christian fundamentalist or redneck varieties, view Indians, especially the non-Abrahamic variety, as sub-human, with few human rights. Although on average I concede that the US is quite good to its Indian-origin immigrants, every one of us has tales of racial and/or religious bigotry directed at us. My personal stories include the epithet “dothead” thrown at me, and a voice shouting “We don’t want any Indians” when I was being shown around an apartment complex, both in New Jersey.

I do accept that there is racism in India, too: alas, our own Northeasterners find casual insults and even violence directed at them quite often. And I am sure that black African students in India face all sorts of problems. But at the very least, Indians are not hypocritical, going around pontificating, unlike Americans.

It is not only in America, but also in Australia: there was a lot of violence against Indian students there a couple of years ago. Why is this? I think Indians are hit with a double whammy: bias against brown people, and bias against Hindus (and I include Sikhs and Jains under that heading for the sake of making this argument).

For, when I went to Italy a couple of years ago, I noticed the animosity against the Roma or Gypsy folks in that country (and I am told this is replicated all over Europe). I found old Roma women prostate, begging on the streets of Rome. Recently, I read that Italians have been dumping garbage on Roma encampments; France has expelled some of its Roma. As is widely known, the Roma are migrants who went westward perhaps a thousand years ago from India.

Culturally Judeo-Christian Westerners (even if they are atheists) undoubtedly have picked up the typical prejudices that fundamentalist Christians have about Hindus. You know, the usual “caste, cows and curry” stories, as well as the “caste = race” libel, both assiduously propagated by Indian-origin leftists in the West as well.

It is much easier for Westerners to deal with Muslims because of their common Abrahamic heritage. I find this comes out in odd, small, but telling ways: Westerners gravitate to Indian Muslims rather than Indian Hindus. I was watching the old film ‘Gravity’ on a flight, and there was an Indian-accented person in the film (of course, he was the first to die, as is usually the case with non-whites), and his name was Sharif! Similarly, I was watching a TV program called ‘Silicon Valley’, and there is a subcontinental there, and he is a Pakistani Muslim named Danish, though the valley probably has ten times more Indian Hindus. In “A Passage to India” as well as “Slumdog Millionaire”, if I remember right, the sympathetic characters are Muslims.

That’s not to say that Muslims don’t face discrimination; it’s just that they are more “people like us” than Hindus. The other recent incident was of three Muslims shot dead in a university town, and the first reaction was this was a hate crime, although there was some talk of ongoing animosity over parking space. The hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter began to trend. And it is true, Muslim lives do matter. (But these were white (Arab or Turkish?) Muslims, so they did not face racial prejudice, only religious bias at worst.)

But how come #HinduLivesMatter didn’t start trending in the unfortunate case of Sureshbhai Patel? Do Hindu lives actually not matter? Perhaps they don’t matter even in the subcontinent, as the media and intelligentsia have devalued Hindu lives (Muslim and Christian lives do matter, though: think Graham Staines and Ishrat Jehan and compare them to Rajbala, beaten to death by a Delhi Congress government for the crime of attending a Yogi Ramdev yoga camp. Rajbala who, did you say?)

Jews have a lot to teach Hindus. Once upon a time, Jewish lives didn’t matter: Kristallnacht, Warsaw Ghetto, Buchenwald, Auschwitz etc. (I was at UNESCO in Paris, and there is an arresting exhibition there about the Shoah and death camps and the way ordinary Jews were rounded up, stripped, robbed and shot into mass graves). Having Israel as a strong State that would stand up for the rights of Jews made a big difference. Unfortunately, anti-Jewish sentiment is making a major comeback in Europe — which goes to show, prejudices die hard. I saw a telling headline in a French magazine (“What does it mean to be Jewish in France?”). I suspect the answer is: “Live in fear”. Oh, let us note that, if I remember right, Hinduism is not even recognized as a religion in France, Italy etc., while Judaism is.

The other lot group that has escaped from the prejudices long held against them are East Asians. This obviously has to do with the prosperity of Japan, Korea, and now China. The fact that China aggressively exposes western hypocrisy may also be a reason why they get some respect: for instance, whenever there is talk of human rights, China produces long lists of abuses in the US, whereupon the latter shut up. On the other hand, India has never stood up against that ragtag bunch of religious bigots known grandiosely as the US Council on International Religious Freedom, whose single-point agenda is the conversion industry.

The Indian Government needs to act strongly to protect its citizens’ rights when abroad. What India did in the case of Devyani Khobragade is salutary. A lot of noise was made, and unreciprocated privileges US diplomats enjoyed were taken away. The then US Ambassador essentially got fired.

At this point with the Sureshbhai Patel case, the US Ambassador, ironically an Indian-origin person, should be called on the carpet and given an earful. There is no reason to be meek when the rights of your citizens are trodden on. Just as China does, India should form a “Commission on Racial and Religious Freedom”, and document the terrible crimes in America. I was reminded of the effects of meekness when reading an article in the Financial Times on Ukraine. It quotes Thucydides in the History of the Peloponnesian Wars about the Melians, who petitioned attacking Athenians for clemency:

“You know as well as we do that right… is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. Exactly. Unless India is strong, or at least projects the impression that it is strong, the West will walk all over it.

I was sceptical of Obama’s ability during his India trip to avoid the malignant influence of USCIRF , and so it turned out to be. Despite all the talk of trade and defense and containing China, and nuclear reactors and all that good stuff, at some basic level, the Christian abhorrence of the old religions comes to the fore: for them, it is “Pagan, convert or die!” Not all that different from ISIS, alas, except that ISIS is more direct in its bigotry, unlike the al-taqiya wielding missionary who, like a boa-constrictor, digests culture, land and people. This is how it was when Cortes and Pizarro devastated Latin America, and so it is now in India.

1700 words, feb 16