South Asian diaspora in the West is often trapped by the idea of homeland, turning socially regressive, culturally reactionary and politically right-wing.
A phenomenon rooted in the ancient past has acquired new complexion in modern times. It pertains to immigrants who, for all practical purposes, live in the West but are still emotionally ensconced in the very “homeland” they left.
Diaspora originated in Jewish parlance as the expression of a people who were forced to leave their homeland — the Promised Land of Israel — and who always longed for it. Only in the 20th century was the Jewish longing to return to their ancestral homeland converted into a reality. This transpired because of the wishes of God if one were to believe some Zionists, or because of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 and the Balour Declaration according to others who believe less in divine providence and more in the facts.
Longing for Homeland
This was a detour, but the point I make is that old words acquired new meanings in the 20th century. In particular, I speak about South Asians who identify their homelands as India, Pakistan or Bangladesh.
Most of those who long for their lost homeland left voluntarily in search of greener pastures, made a good living and settled down with their families in a new land. However, many of them did not try to become a part of the new society where they settled. Instead, they isolated themselves and developed intense attachment to the homeland or the idea of the homeland. This often leads to highly exaggerated concern about the homeland, its culture and the arc of its destiny.
And that is noteworthy: Those who long for their homelands are often not those who were forced to leave but who left voluntarily and made it in the new land of their choice. These successful immigrants often become champions of their countries’ national narratives and the so-called authentic culture. This is especially true if they settle in the liberal West where they have the freedom and means to indulge in such activities once they have time and money on their hands.
I have never heard of such diaspora sentiment taking a hold in the Middle East. The Arabs have long made it clear to the South Asians that they have no chance of settling down. Besides, the local elites make it clear that South Asians have no right to indulge in politics that connect them to their homeland or to its local conditions.
Ironically, self-isolation of a diaspora occurs only in countries where there is freedom and choice. South Asian communities can participate in local civic, social and political life. Instead, they often isolate themselves and live in their own make-believe world of patriotism for the homeland. You can go to any mosque, temple or gurdwara in Canada, the US or the UK to observer the romanticism with which South Asian communities nurture the memory of the homeland.
Like Belikov’s incessant paranoia in Anton Chekov’s The Man in a Case, these communities sometimes cling on to an etched frame of mind daubed in vainglory. Jingoistic ideas such as the Hindu rashtra or Islamist state or Khalistan often hold sway in mosques, temples and gurdwaras for South Asian Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Mind you, Khalistan is the Sikh idea of the land of the Khalsa or, in other words, the pure. It mirrors the idea of Pakistan, the land of the pure.
Diaspora and the Right Wing
Thus many non-resident Indians (NRIs), non-resident Pakistanis (NRPs) and non-resident Bangladeshis (NRBs) who live in the West and enjoy its advantages still remain emotionally trapped in their homelands that they left behind in search of a better life. This is perfectly understandable and even inevitable. After all, language, culture and religion are exceedingly strong forces. However, I am deeply concerned with the social, cultural and political impact of some diaspora communities feeding a new wave of right-wing reaction and revanchist politics.
In my book, The Politics of Religion in South and Southeast Asia, I asked colleagues to write two chapters. They analyzed how upper-caste NRIs use their influence to impact politics in India. The Sangh Parivar — or the Saffron Brigades, reactionary Hindu organizations — now have a very strong presence in the North America. Their politics revolve unhealthily around cow worship instead of ending discrimination against women or lower castes. Increasingly, these wealthy NRIs fund right-wing parties and candidates back home. Similarly, NRPs in England and North America are full of fundamentalists and extremists. Unlike NRIs and NRPs whom I know intimately, I do not know NRBs as well but suspect they must be facing a similar phenomenon.
The hypocrisy of some of these non-resident communities is breathtaking. The Farhat Hashmi network based in Canada is responsible for a new a trend upper-class Pakistani women. They join moral sermons organized by this network in five-star hotels. Pertinently, most of these women come from families that made their money through corruption and siphoned it off to the West. Once away from the homeland whose wealth they stole, these families conveniently discover faith and morality.
Remember, the Khalistan movement was the brainchild of prosperous Sikhs based in Canada, the US and the UK. Tragically, it cost innocent Sikhs and Hindus in India countless lives.
It seems to me the theory that modernization produces rational attitudes does not hold as much water as we would like to believe. What happens is that most immigrants “modernize” to the extent of doing business and making money. They get on with getting rich and comfortable but rarely explore other cultures and take to rational self-examination. Instead, once they have time and money, they turn their attention to those very homelands where they lacked opportunities, failed to advance economically, faced politically oppression or even socially discrimination.
Is Multiculturalism to Blame?
I think multiculturalism has inadvertently strengthened such attitudes instead of weakening them. This is an irony of colossal proportions because the idea behind multiculturalism was to accept all cultures as equal and therefore not pressure immigrants to join the mainstream. This is a splendid idea but it gave the opportunity to cow-loving Hindus and jihad-loving Muslims and Khalistan-loving Sikhs to self-segregate. These isolated and inward-looking communities who live in their ghettos have turned into powerful forces of obscurantism instead of enlightenment.
Of course, not all those settled abroad get caught up in the “diaspora syndrome.” There are plenty of well-adjusted Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in the West who have contributed greatly to their host societies. However, there are quite a few who remain trapped in this idea of homeland and they can often be doctors, lawyers, engineers and other highly-educated professionals.
I am amazed to see Hindu Swamis, Muslim Pirs and Sikh Sants command such attention in South Asian diaspora communities. Their message is always or almost always to preach isolation and insulation. They tell tales of cultural greatness of the homeland and invariably advocate social conservatism. Some of them are thugs and charlatans who conveniently end up making a lot of money for these gullible lovers of the homeland.
I pose a simple question: Why are diaspora South Asia communities vulnerable to right-wing ideas and organizations?
As I said earlier, one reason could not be that the West does not encourage them to become part of the mainstream. They can indulge in the luxury of being pure Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Furthermore, the diaspora can develop political and social agendas for reactionary politics back home. In the Middle East, diaspora South Asian communities lack the democratic freedom to do so. Is this not a perverted use of the freedom they have in the West? If so, is it not time that we confronted this idea of multiculturalism and started checking the abuse of freedom by any diaspora with illusions and delusions of the grandeur of their homeland?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Tim Brown