Growing Up Extreme:
On the Peculiarly Vicious Fanatacism of [Indian] Expatriates
by Shashi Tharoor
[ From Washington Post ]
ON AUG. 6, 1994 some 15,000 mostly Indian expatriates will assemble at the
Washington Hilton and the Omni Shoreham Hotel for a "global conference"
grandly titled "World Vision 2000." A glossy brochure promoting the
conference describes it as "a grand effort to bring (together) youths from
across the USA and around the world" to "deliberate on the Vision of
Wholeness for the future of life on our planet."
Under the blazing headline "Look Who Is Comming (sic) to the Global
Conference!" one finds, in bold, the names of President Clinton and the
Dalai Lama and, in more modest type, Bill Moyers and Carl Sagan. Careful
scrutiny, however, reveals that these luminaries have not yet accepted their
invitations. And that those "dignitaries and spiritual leaders" who have
agreed to "guide the Global Conference" represent most of the pantheon of
India's Hindu extremist fringe.
The "Global Conference" is timed for the centenary of the appearance at
Chicago's World Parliament of Religions of the brilliant Hindu humanist
Swami Vivekananda, and its breathless blurbs seek to appropriate his luster.
But its organizers have no claim to the all- embracing tolerance and wisdom
of the late sage. They are the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, whose "Vision" extends
most famously so far to the destruction of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya in
northern India last December, an act that unleashed violence and rioting on
a scale not seen in India since independence.
The VHP, which enjoys the rare distinction of being considered more
extremist than the RSS, the party of Mahatma Gandhi's assassin, has made
something of a specialty of incitements to hatred. Under its auspices during
the recent Bombay programs, Muslims have been abused, attacked, turned out
of their homes, deprived of their livelihoods, butchered in the streets. Its
more articulate sympathizers have expressed admiration for Hitler's way with
inconvenient minorities. This is the happy crew of moral and spiritual
guides to whom 15,000 Indian emigre youngsters, some no doubt inveigled by
the prospect of hearing the Dalai Lama and the president,will entrust their
Washington weekend. When the brochure declares that "this celebration will
include a variety of high-quality programs to raise the awareness of human
beings about their future direction," one's natural tendency to yawn is
replaced by a shudder down a slowly chilling spine. Washington seems an
unlikely setting for a celebration of Hindu fanaticism. And yet it is not
such an improbable venue after all. For there seems to be something about
expatriation that breeds extremism.
The American ethnic mosaic is full of imported bigotry, from the Muslim
fundamentalists who have been trying with commendable ineptitude to blow up
New York to Miami's many Cuban votaries of vicious virtue. Indian Americans
have done their best to compete with these Fidelios of the foreign fringe. A
coven of well-heeled Hindu professionals from Southern California recently
swamped newspapers in India with a post-Ayodhya advertising campaign
designed to counteract the bleeding-heart "pseudosecularism" of appalled
liberals like myself who published denunciations of the destruction of the
mosque and its aftermath. The ads - a farrago of ahistorical half-truths
calling upon Indians in India to "awake," for otherwise "India and Hindus
are doomed" - were merely the latest evidence that exile nurtures extremism.
The "Global Conference" continues in this tradition.
The strident chauvinism of these American Hindus is, after all, only one
more installment in a long saga of zeal abroad for radicalism at home. We
have already had expatriate Sikhs pouring money, weapons and organizational
skills into the cause of a "pure" (tobacco-free and barberless) "Khalistan";
Irish Americans supporting, willfully or otherwise, IRA terrorism in
Northern Ireland; Jaffna Tamils in England financing the murderous drive for
Eelam in Sri Lanka; and lobbying groups of American Jewry propounding
positions on Palestinian issues that are far less accommodating than those
of the Israeli government itself.
The irony of political extremism being advocated from distant aeries of
bourgeois moderation is only the most obvious of the contradictions of this
phenomenon. The more visible Khalistanis of North America may have carefully
regroomed their beards and thrown away their cigarettes as enjoined upon
them by the Sikh scriptures, but they derive sustenance almost entirely from
clean-shaven expatriate co-religionists largely unfamiliar with the
prohibitions and injunctions of their faith. And the Hindu chauvinists of
Southern California flourish in a pluralist melting-pot whose every
quotidian experience is a direct contradiction of the sectarianism they
trumpet in the advertisement pages of newspapers in India.
The explanation for this evident paradox may lie in the very nature of
expatriation. Most of the contemporary world's emigrants are people in quest
of material improvement, looking for financial security and professional
opportunities that, for one reason or another, they could not attain in
their own countries. Many of them left intending to return: A few years
abroad, a few more dollars in the bank, they told themselves, and they would
come back to their own hearths, triumphant over the adversity that had led
them to leave.
But the years kept stretching on, and the dollars were never quite enough,
or their needs mounted with their acquisitions, or they developed new ties
(career, wife, children, schooling) to their new land, and then gradually
the realization seeped in that they would never go back. And with this
realization, often only half-acknowledg ed, came a welter of emotions:
guilt, at the abandonment of the motherland, mixed with rage that the
motherland had somehow - through its own failings, political, economic,
social - forced them into this abandonment. The attitude of the expatriate
to his homeland is that of the faithless lover who blames the woman he has
spurned for not having sufficiently merited his fidelity. That is why the
support of extremism is doubly gratifying: It appeases the expatriate's
sense of guilt at not being involved in his homeland, and it vindicates his
decision to abandon it. (If the homeland he has left did not have the faults
he detests, he tells himself,he would not have had to leave it)
But that is not all. The expatriate also desperately needs to define himself
in his new society. He is reminded by his mirror, if not by the nationals of
his new land, that he is not entirely like them. In the midst of racism and
alienation, second-class citizenship and self- hatred, he needs an identity
to assert - a label of which he can be proud, yet which does not undermine
his choice of exile. He has rejected the reality of his country but not, he
declares fervently, the essential values he has derived from his roots. As
his children grow up "American" or "British," as they slough off the
assumptions, prejudices and fears of his own childhood, he becomes even more
assertive about them.
But his nostalgia is based on the selectiveness of memory; it is a
simplified, idealized recollection of his roots, often reduced to their most
elemental - family, caste, region, religion. In exile amongst foreigners, he
clings to a vision of what he really is that admits no foreignness.
But the tragedy is that the culture he remembers, with both nostalgia and
rejection, has itself evolved - in interaction with others - on its national
soil. His perspective distorted by exile, the expatriate knows nothing of
this. His view of what used to be home is divorced from the experience of
home. Expatriates are no longer an organic part of the culture, but severed
digits that, in their yearning for the hand, can only twist themselves into
a clenched fist.
(Shashi Tharoor is the author of The Great Indian Novel and Show Business.
His collection of short stories, The Five-Dollar Smile, is published by
Arcade in 1995.)
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