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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Guv Jindal’s ID test: Can Indian-Americans go all American?

By Swapan Dasgupta

Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal has, quite understandably, drawn flak in the ‘old country’ for his unequivocal rejection of any prefix to his identity as an American. However, more than offending those proud IndianAmericans that flocked to Mad ison Square Garden in New York to celebrate Narendra Modi’s visit by waving the Indian tricolour, his speech is likely to be viewed with equal suspicion by Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Jewish Americans and even Black Americans -in short, almost every US citizen that couples national identity with proclamations of other ethnic, religious and other inherited identities.

Yet, before Jindal is roundly denounced and declared an apostate, it would be instructive to recall that the desire for a monochromatic identity isn’t unique. The governor of a state in the American South with national political ambitions may have his reasons for wilfully underplaying his roots: it fetches no meaningful electoral returns. But the debate over the prefix isn’t confined to the great ‘melting pot’ that is the US.Some of us will recall the uproar that greeted the launch of diplomat-turned-politician Syed Shahabuddin’s launch of a magazine bearing the suggestive title ‘Muslim India’. Why, it was then asked, did Shahabuddin choose ‘Muslim’ as a prefix? Shouldn’t he have proclaimed his ‘Indian Muslim’ credentials?

That Indians carry the baggage of multiple identities is a fact of life. The mere suggestion that being Indian involves not simultaneously being an Assamese, Tamil, Bengali, Gujarati or even Muslim, Christian, Sikh or Hindu would be unacceptable to the vast majority. Apart from a minusculity of uber cosmopolitans, there are few individuals that perceive their self-identity in terms of the passport they hold. The debate is really centred on the hierarchy of identities. Are we Indians first and something else also or, does the little identity take precedence over the big identity?

The answer really depends on the context. A national politician invariably emphasizes ‘desh’; a regional player stresses ‘pradesh’. In a social context we emphasize language, religion and even caste; in the civic and professional sphere we prefer our Indianness. It is not likely to be any different in the US, as Jindal will discover in his political journey.

The debate does not end here. In his speech, delivered in the backdrop of the rising sectarian tensions in Europe after the Paris killings, Jindal made a passionate plea to immigrants to abjure their cultural and political inheritance. He said that his family had migrated to secure the ‘American dream’ and, therefore, had distanced himself from his Indian inheritance -in more ways than many would feel was strictly necessary. He was not disparaging India but he had moved on to better things.

In many ways, Jindal was proffering a sophisticated version of the ‘cricket test’ of loyalty proposed two decades ago by the British politician, Lord Tebbit. The issue is not trivial. Why should many thousands of British, French and Dutchborn Muslims from various ethnic backgrounds be waging war on behalf of the ISIS? This is a question that is being asked with growing exasperation all over the West. Why, it was earlier asked in Britain, should Americans of Irish origin fund terrorist Republican groups? It’s being asked in Sri Lanka where residual Tamil separatism is being propped up by the diaspora.

Jindal clearly has raised an important issue.But while there is a case for the diaspora keeping its distance from the politics of countries they left behind, maybe for purely economic reasons, can overseas Indians disavow the culture and history of their forefathers? Will Jindal’s acceptance of Louisiana include seeing its past as a Confederate state during the Civil War as his own? Maybe the internalization of the past is more negotiable in a country forged through successive waves of immigration. But in the more rooted societies of Europe, can a first or secondgeneration immigrant from the erstwhile colonies accept the national past without caveats?

Sunday Times of India, January 25, 2015

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