October 10, 2002


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Francois Gautier

Being Indian abroad, II

My article, Being Indian abroad, I triggered such a massive reaction that I felt it is better writing another column to respond to points made by readers, rather than answer e-mail.

Obviously, America is not only fast food, artificial lights, cars and a superficial vitality. There is a certain openness about America, a willingness of the American people to listen to other points of view, which is unique. Yes, America is also a land of freedom where in the last 300 years, people from all nationalities, social classes, have been given the chance to make it good. They have in turn responded to this unique trust by giving the United States their 100 per cent, which makes it the leading industrial and military nation in the world. One finds too a sense of collectiveness, a caring for others, which gives America some of the best road systems in the world and first-class public amenities, such as the community centers found in many American cities.

But is America really the benevolent, casteless society some readers are convinced it is? Well, I am not sure. For one, what the White Americans did to the Blacks not that long ago must rank amongst some of the saddest deeds perpetuated by one class of humanity on another; not to speak of the terrible and shameful treatment inflicted upon the hapless Red Indians, the original inhabitants of their land, a karma the US will have to pay for sooner or later.

There are also a lot of inequalities in the States: extremely rich people and some incredibly poor folks, mostly Blacks, for such a country of tremendous wealth. Secondly, are the Blacks today on a truly equal footing with the Whites? I am not convinced either. Barring a few exceptions here and there, one still finds an invisible and subtle ghetto, an unwritten caste system existing in the US between the two communities and their problems are far from solved.

India has had an untouchable President. Has the US ever had a Black president, or vice-president? American journalists and human rights activists like to highlight the 'oppressed' condition of women in India. But as early as the late sixties, India democratically elected a woman prime minister, the highest post of the nation -- and that for nearly twenty years. Can the country of triumphant feminism and gender equality boast of a woman President? The problem is that most Indians suffer too much from an inferiority complex vis vis the West, to point this out to the Americans who are constantly criticising India for its human rights in Kashmir and Gujarat.

Yes, in America one enjoys the liberty to do whatever one wants without bureaucracy and heavy taxation that one is subjected to in India, or even in industrialised countries such as France. But after September 11, freedoms have been heavily curtailed in the US, especially if you have brown skin. Compare this to India: I have lived here for 33 years, I have gone to the most remote places, traveled to sacred spots with my cameras, tape recorder and white face. And never once have I been aggressed, never once has my passport been asked for in the streets (try traveling in the subway in Paris if you have a brown face and a leather jacket), never once have I been mugged at late nights in Delhi, Mumbai or Chennai, whereas in Washington, the capital of the 'land of freedom,' we were told not to go out alone in certain parts after 8 pm.

Some e-mail dealt with the extraordinary 'religious freedom one can enjoy in the US, where nobody bothers whether you are a Jew, a Hindu, or a Christian.' Fair enough. But let's put it that way: the American population is overwhelmingly Christian and nobody there finds anything to say that the President of the United States is sworn in on the Bible, or that in some states a Christian prayer is uttered before the start of the school.

India has a thumping Hindu majority (80 per cent), but imagine the uproar if Atal Bihari Vajpayee had been sworn in on the Bhagavad Gita! And remember what happened when Murli Manohar Joshi wanted to introduce the chanting of the Saraswati Vandana in schools. Yet, India has today a Muslim President, the third one since Independence. Did the US ever have a Muslim President?

Some of you have a point: when I say all Indians settled in the US should regroup themselves under a 'Hindu American banner,' it does look as if I want to exclude Christians, Muslim and Sikh Indians. Indeed, most of the protesting e-mail were from Christians, Muslims and Sikhs. Let's answer the objections from Christians first. One Christian reader tells me: 'Christians have no freedom in India, or else they are killed like Australian missionary Graham Staines.'

There is no denying this was a horrible crime and that its perpetrators should be punished -- and they are in the process of being punished. But this is an isolated case and our friend disregards what the Christians have done to Hindus over centuries. The first Christian community in the world, that of the Syrian Christians, settled in India in the first century. They were not only allowed to practice their religion in peace, but they prospered here, whereas at the same time they were persecuted in Rome and later in many Arabic countries. But when Vasco da Gama landed in India in the 16th century, the Portuguese, with the active collaboration of many Indian Christians, unleashed a reign of terror in Goa and some parts of Kerala, crucifying Brahmins, razing temples, forcibly marrying their soldiers to Goanese women.

The British, even if they did not use such violent means, gave a free hand to missionaries to convert huge parts of India, particularly in the Northeast. Today, American or Australian dollars are used to still convert unethically, by using the economic incentive amongst tribals and untouchables, teaching the new converts to hate their culture and customs and creating a spirit of separatism, as the Christian Bodo and Mizo militants have shown.

A few Sikh friends also resented my not having mentioned Sikhism. Let me quote straightaway from Sri Aurobindo: 'The Sikh Khalsa was an astonishingly original and novel creation and its face was turned not to the past but to the future. Apart and singular in its theocratic head and democratic soul and structure, it was the first attempt to combine the deepest elements of Islam and Vedanta. But it could not create between the spirit and the external life the transmitting medium of a rich creative thought and culture. And thus hampered and deficient it began and ended with narrow local limits, achieved intensity but no power of expansion...'

Unfortunately, the Sikhs, because they had to defend themselves against the terrible persecution by the Muslims, cut themselves from the mainstream spirit of Hindu tolerance -- from where they originally came, and where they might ultimately return. But do they not come from the great Hindu family? Has not till lately every good Hindu family donated one of their sons to Sikhism? Do not Hindus still today go to gurdwaras? Yet today, many expatriate Sikhs want to have nothing to do with Hinduism, and sometimes even with India.

What about Indian Muslims? Today we see, even though they benefit in India from a freedom they would not have in Saudi Arabia, or even in Pakistan, Indian Muslims often feel their first allegiance goes to Islam and not to India. The irony of it all is that Muslims invaded India, ran it with an iron hand, attempted to make India a totally Islamic country by forcibly converting millions of Hindus -- and today they manage to portray themselves in the eyes of the world as the persecuted.

Another strong objection from some readers: religion divides. First let me say Hinduism, as Sri Aurobindo or Vivekananda, or Sri Ramakrishna envisioned it, is not a religion but a living spirituality which has given to the world -- and still gives it today -- wonderful tools: hata-yoga copied all over this planet, meditation, or pranayama. Secondly, at a time when the two largest monotheistic religions of the world, Islam and Christianity still claim their God is the only true one, while Hindus, through the extraordinary concept of the avatar, recognise that God manifests himself at different times, in different countries, under different names and thus grant to everybody the right to worship God under any form. This is a very precious spiritual (and not religious) knowledge which has been lost to the world and which, even the most humble Hindu peasant spontaneously practices.

It is also true that things in India are not as they should be. Hindus there are not united, India is divided along caste and religious lines by unscrupulous politicians. Yes, Hindus can also be racists, as one rediff reader remarked; they do suffer at the same time, as another one commented, from a big inferiority complex, as well as one of superiority, quite an achievement! Yes, it is as well correct that expatriate Indians do often tend to become more conscious of their roots than India Indians: they will send their children to learn Bharata Natyam and will remember all the festivals. Good, there is a whole generation of upper middle class kids in India who are so desperately aping the worst of the West, that they are lost for India.

Yes, Hindus can be selfish, passive, cowardly, miserly, whereas many of them are extremely rich. But nevertheless, they remain a wonderful people, alive with an inbred joy and spirituality.

Contrary to what one of the readers assert, there is a definite atmosphere in India, something special, something unique, which is there nowhere else in the world. Those of you who spent a lot of time abroad will notice a certain quality in the atmosphere as soon as you enter India, if you are a little sensitive.

Indian Americans or Hindu Americans? To start with, there are already Indian Americans, those that Columbus mistook for real Indians and you can't usurp their names. Secondly, it ultimately depends on the Christians, the Sikhs and the Muslims, who in the last few decades, have drifted more and more from the Indian psyche, striving to strike a fundamental identity of their own. We have also seen that the numerous Indian Americans associations in the US, where there are indeed Muslim, Christians and Sikh Indians, are frequently paralysed by these three groups.

Thus, if Hindus in the United States regroup themselves under a 'Hindu American' label it might prompt the three minorities to wake up to the reality of a stronger, overwhelmingly Hindu majority. It will give a clear-cut identity to Indians in the States, dissociating them from the Pakistanis, the Bangladeshis, the Saudis, or the Afghans. It will also help make known to the average American the extraordinary achievements of the Hindu community in the US.

Lastly, it will help the Indian government, by creating a powerful and effective lobby in the US, free from the shackles imposed by Christian, Sikh and Muslim Indians. Ultimately, it will be up to these three minorities to decide whether they want to re-join this great family that is 'Induism.' For we should then give back to 'Hindus' its proper meaning: Indus from the civilisation of the valley of Indus, probably the most ancient civilisation of the world still active today. Once upon a time, Indian Christians, Parsis, Muslims and Hindus were called 'Indus' by the invaders without differentiation of caste and religion. Is it not time to put back this habit into practice?

Finally, is America going to be perpetually the El Dorado that still make Indians dream? Not sure. There are certain signs which show that the US economy is entering a period of darkness: the slump in the stock market, the packing up of half of Silicon Valley, the near bankruptcy of many American airlines, and more than that, the erosion of the American confidence.

There are bound to be more terrorist attacks on the US in the next few years, as Samuel Huntington's prophecy of a 'clash of civilizations' between Islam and the West, with China siding with Islam (let's us not forget that Beijing already gave Pakistan the technology to build its nuclear weapons) and Hindu India allied with the West, will prove more and more true. This in turn will trigger more panic, more loss of confidence amongst Americans and eventually a stock market crash on the lines of the one which happened in 1929.

On the other hand, India, this 'Third World country,' has learnt to live with Islamic terrorism, its people do not panic as Americans do, it has a relatively stable stock market, its software business is still expanding and is beginning to offer salaries which will compete with the West. Could it be that this great brain drain towards America could be reversed and that NRIs start coming back to their country of origin in search of greener pastures? One could even dream: today one still sees this huge humiliating queues in front of the US embassy in Delhi, where visa applicants are treated like cattle. Will we one day witness Americans waiting in line in front of the Indian embassy in Washington to obtain working visas in India? It will happen my friends. One day.

Post Script: Out of the 350 e-mails, nearly 80 per cent were messages of praise and encouragement from Hindus. Out of the 20 per cent who disagreed, 14 per cent were (surprisingly) from Indian Christians, 3 per cent were from Sikhs, 2 per cent from Muslims and 1 per cent from Hindus.

Francois Gautier

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