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Of Model Minorities and Hindu Nationalists

Review: The Other Indians: A Political and Cultural History of South Asians in America, by Vinay Lal. Los Angeles: University of California, Asian American Studies Center Press, 2008. 160 pp. $14 paper. ISBN: 9780934052412-14.
By Kritika Agarwal |
FEBRUARY 20, 2012
The Other Indians by Vinay Lal charts the course of the Indian diaspora in the United States from its small origins in the early twentieth century to its status as an affluent, burgeoning, ethnic group today. More than anything, however, it is an indictment of the community’s embrace of the "model minority" standing assigned to it by the white, neoliberal state; its politics of Hindu nationalism and disavowal of more radical and progressive politics; and its claims to cultural authenticity and superiority. For its short length then (the text is only 135 pages long excluding the index and sources), The Other Indians packs quite a punch.

One of the most provocative highlights of the book is its note on the politics of identity and naming. The Indian diaspora in the United States, on various occasions, has been referred to as Hindoo, Asian Indian, South Asian, South Asian American, Indian American and desi, among others. The most popular among these today, no doubt, are the terms Indian American, South Asian American, and desi. Lal settles on Indian American as his preferred term of usage, but for reasons that are not entirely convincing.

Despite the growing popularity of the word desi among diasporic Indians, Lal is dismissive of it. Desi, as Lal explains, are those who are, of the “desh,” i.e. “of one’s own country” as opposed to being from “videsh” or foreign land (x). Lal locates the fullest expression of this dichotomy among “advocates of swadeshi – pertaining to one’s own country – or of swaraj (self determination; self-rule…).” Despite its use by nationalists, Lal notes that the word desh “invokes not so much the nation in the abstract, much less Bharat, but rather a frame of mind and a set of habits” (xi). Desi, of course, is also often used to signify the “home-grown” aspect of certain things such as desi gulab, desi ghee, etc. as opposed to things that are foreign. Having provided this background, Lal writes

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…eschewed the word “desi” when speaking of Indian Americans (xi).

While I am sympathetic to Lal’s argument, I am also disturbed in its allocation of authenticity to some, but not others. It ignores the circulation of knowledge and people between the “local” and the “metropolitan” and separates one as authentic enough to lay “claim” to the word desi and the other as inauthentic. Given Lal’s discomfort with these terms, it is somewhat ironic then that “South Asian” is used in the title of the book in a way that effectively conflates it with "Indian."Setting aside the fluidity that lies between desi and videsi, Lal renders language static as if words cannot take on new meanings or people new identities. Lal also forgoes using the terms South Asian and South Asian American for various reasons including their lack of usage outside “progressive and secular organizations” (xii). Given Lal’s discomfort with these terms, it is somewhat ironic then that “South Asian” is used in the title of the book in a way that effectively conflates it with "Indian."

A good chunk of the book is devoted to the rise of Hindu nationalism and conservative politics instead of progressive or secular politics, within the Indian American community. This is not surprising since the rise of Hindu Nationalism is a subject that Lal has written extensively about elsewhere. While the rise of Hindu nationalist politics and its continuing support among those in the diaspora is certainly a disturbing trend and needs the attention that Lal has given it, in this particular text the attention comes at the cost of sometimes coalescing Hindu with Indian and marginalizing the presence and the politics of other religious communities within the larger Indian American diaspora.

Similarly, the few lines that Lal devotes to progressive and coalitional organizations within the community do not do justice to the importance of their work or the complexity of their operations. For example, at one point, Lal suggests that several women’s organizations that serve the South Asian American community such as Apna Ghar, Saheli, Sakhi, etc. have found inspiration in the “feminist movement in the United States” (111). One is forced to ask which feminist movement Lal is actually referring to. Indeed his flippant remark negates the work some of these organizations have done in order to create and sustain models of Third World feminist organizing that do not reproduce the racist and classist assumptions of (white) western feminism. Other than his exploration of the Ghadr party movement among the Indian diaspora in the early twentieth century, any readers looking for a comprehensive discussion of contemporary progressive activism within the Indian American community in Lal’s book will be sorely disappointed.

Lal’s book is most successful in its detailing of the history of Indian Americans prior to the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act. Lal’s book is most successful in its detailing of the history of Indian Americans prior to the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act. Their battles with the U.S. legislative system for citizenship and naturalization rights, as well as their involvement in the Indian nationalist movement are well documented here. For all its flaws, The Other Indians is a sobering account of a community that has moved away from its previously marginal, yet radical origins, to confidently asserting its model minority status and support for neoliberal conservative politics. The rise of Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal as prominent conservative politicians, as well as the presence of several Indian Americans in leading Wall Street positions certainly lends credence to Lal’s overall assessment. One can only hope, as does Lal, that “the multiple legacies of the Ghadr movement, the struggle for Indian independence, and the civil rights, women’s and anti-racism movements” will propel more Indian Americans to join in a politics of solidarity with other people of color and working-class minorities in the United States to “forge, for themselves and everyone else, a more just and equitable place in American society” (126).
Kritika Agarwal is a doctoral candidate in American Studies at SUNY, Buffalo.