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South Asia’s ‘White’ Obsessions – OpEd

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Normally I would be amused with the Indian-origin MP from New Zealand taking his oath in Sanskrit (and not Hindi, spoken by millions of Indians or one of those dialects unique to the place he comes from, Himachal Pradesh); if I wasn’t, it’s because I saw nothing spectacular or newsworthy about it. I would’ve thought it strange if an Italian-origin MP took his or her oath in Latin and not in one of the dialects of Italian spoken by the masses. This action of the Indian-origin MP shows how far he is from his people, not how close he is to his traditions or his past, as is made out by the media.

Sanskrit is not the spoken language of the streets and not even that of Hinduism as practiced by common Indians. Countless Hindus worship their gods in dialects and the temples on any Indian street are proof of the varieties of people that come to seek blessings and favors from their deities. The Sanskrit tradition, for all its rich accomplishments, is one among many other traditions, that has made India and Hindu religion what it is: the latter’s readiness to absorb difference without allowing itself to be institutionalized in the way the Catholic Church monopolized the spiritual life of believers in Europe until the Reformation. 

Yet, if I am not carried away by this gesture of the MP to use Sanskrit for the oath-taking ceremony, it is because it falls into what Derrida calls “white mythology.” Strangely, the forced institutionalization of Hinduism, backed by a powerful organization that claims to be representative of all Hindus and the patronage of a political party that wants to equate the term “Indian” with “Hindu” – is simply pandering to white mythology in one of its neocolonial avatars. Derrida says, “A white mythology which assembles and reflects Western culture: the white man takes his own mythology (that is, Indo-European mythology), his logos-that is, the mythos of his idiom, for the universal form of that which it is still his inescapable desire to call Reason.” 

Communal Hindus, rabid Islamists, Buddhist and Christian zealots, in the South Asian context all of them are playing to the same gallery constructed for them by western imperialism, and therefore, while claiming to oppose western culture, in fact, continue to endorse its superiority. Ashamed of their bodies and their minds, these self-hating people are incapable of taking pride in themselves either as human beings or as individuals, because of their morbid colonial inferiority.  

The MP’s gesture is still the native trying to pass off as “innocent” (read “subservient”) and by extension self-explanatory or beyond explanation; by making a statement that is in theory comprehensible to a white majority, one that means little to his own people. It’s a “language” if you can call that one, spoken by every South Asian whose aspirations are both worldly and “not-so-worldly.” Without this language they know that they are nobodies in the real world that continues to be colonial while referring to itself as global. 

To make the gesture in a relatively unknown language would be to act in defiance of the “universal” – a universal that is deeply problematic because it is a notional “universal” that has to be placed in quotes. It is a universal as dictated by the white mythologist which is bounded, exclusionary and cannot be transgressed at any cost. The MP doesn’t want to risk being seen as more “Indian” than necessary; Sanskrit is still safe zone. To take an oath in any other Indian dialect or language would mean being less than “universal.” But Sanskrit justifies and protects your claims to “universality” which a dialect of Hindi cannot do. 

In the third world, especially among South Asians, you see that this mythology is a dominant force because we all want to be “white” even in the way we claim to be traditional or religious. Even our so-called nationalism or the opposition to it – both are stemming from the same white mythology. We are afraid of not being white enough. We suffer from a horror of darkness. Anything black is anathema because it comes in the way of who we are or what we want to be. 

White mythology invented the brown man in South Asia just as it did with the Arab in the Middle East and the black man in Africa. The brown man has no intention of betraying his ex-masters and when he is in power it suits him brilliantly to have an ignorant, mentally colonized population that will allow itself to be trampled upon with non-issues that have little to do with the material, emotional or spiritual progress of people. 

Rightists, leftists, centrists – they all speak the same language with different shades of whiteness. We are obsessed with being notionally universal. The communal-minded are no different from those who stand on roof-tops and profess to be secular. Both their agendas aim to reduce the other person in front of them with a set of clichés that they have memorized while pretending that what they say is original and something that they have arrived at, through their own experience of life. That’s what our parents and teachers want from us; how to be “white” before you complete school or college. That’s what our leaders and politicians expect from us: to be obedient servants without any notion of individuality or self-respect. A political order with self-respecting individuals would mean the end of despotism in any form. That’s not what we want as South Asians. 

In South Asia we love our fantasies; we’re a fantastic people and our collective fantasy is to be white at all costs. Popular culture, especially films, has taken over the local ways of living and turned them into reactionary bastions heavily guarded by indentitarians of every tint and shade. Those films are a blatant celebration of white mythologies with a strikingly simple formula: take the non-white person and make him or her white. Your refusal to be whitewashed makes you a villain, an outcast whose evil intentions are beyond comprehension. 

Being native is as much trying to be “white” as is to escape being native. In South Asia, anyway, both of them are supporters of fascism: the ones who regress into nativism and the ones who think being westernized is the logical response to home-grown varieties of repression. The litmus test to the one who wants to be neither nativized nor westernized is simple: he or she is not desperate to project a person that they want everyone else to believe about themselves. People who are truthful in their personal lives and moderate with their politics; not fanatical, but humane, and who genuinely believe that kindness and open-mindedness are the way forward for humanity, I don’t think such people subscribe to the violence that emanates from ideological obsessions.

In other words, I am not against the universal when it means recognition of the humanity of another person, irrespective of their cultural and economic backgrounds. I agree with what Seyla Benhabib says in her book Another Cosmopolitanism: “Cosmopolitanism then is a philosophical project of mediations, not of reductions or of totalizations.” We have no right to reduce or totalize. That is the cosmopolitanism which is universal in the most acceptable usage of the term. Seyla Benhabib further adds that cosmopolitanism is,

“the emergence of norms that ought to govern relations among individuals in a global civil society. These norms are neither merely moral nor just legal. They may best be characterized as framing the ‘morality of the law,’ but in a global rather than a domestic context. They signal the eventual legalization and juridification of the rights claims of human beings everywhere, regardless of their membership in bounded communities. Membership in bounded communities, which may be smaller or larger than territorially defined nation-states, remains nevertheless crucial.”

Far from being cosmopolitan, the brown man in South Asia is not only the logical offspring of white mythology but also its rightful heir. Civil and political conflicts that we see in countries like India and Pakistan or Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are colonial legacies that we don’t want to give up because it means we’re deprived of the drug that has kept us alive for as long as we can imagine; a white mythology that enables us to be brutal and condescending with those who have no means to resist our cruelty and aggression. 

In debates that revolve around topics such as caste, region or religion, it is hard to ignore the fact that both the sides of the debate are more or less speaking in the same tone. Words might be different but look at their synonyms carefully and you realize that the ends of these groups are similar; the ones that seek to actively repress using a brainless, jingoistic argument and the ones that wish to “liberate” using fashionable lines picked up from American sitcoms, both of them are leading you to an authoritarian system and both have no respect for individuals. With their bodies and souls the representatives of these groups subscribe to “white mythologies” (also the title of a book by the eminent Postcolonial scholar Robert J. C. Young) and they don’t wish to come out of it, because without this rhetoric, they lack the imagination to be anything else. In his “White Mythologies Revisited,” Young observes that,

“a postcolonial politics seeks to change the inequitable power structures of the world. Some of the world is rich. Very much more of the world is poor. In a range of different ways, a tricontinental postcolonial politics seeks to bring about a just and more equitable relation between all peoples of the world, working for societies based on values of communities rather than individuals, for popular participation rather than centralized control, for empowerment rather than exploitation, through sustainable social change developed from local knowledge systems and resources.”

Most importantly, as Young points out, postcolonial politics is about “deconstructing the white mythologies through which the West sustains itself. Its radical agenda will always be to demand equality, dignity and well-being for the peoples inhabiting all the continents on this earth, and to enable them to become the subjects of their own histories.”

This radical agenda is still about being universal. What kind of a universal is the question! A philosophy of the universal that includes is not the same as one that claims superiority of one person or group over others. The brown man’s white mythologies are about keeping the status quo intact because he wants to wear the shoes left behind by the white colonial master. This applies to the South Asian Diaspora as well.  

When I see an American soldier in Iraq, Afghanistan or any part of the non-western world, to me it doesn’t matter whether his or her origins are black or Indian or Latino. To me they are American soldiers in the third world who must be fought back, and whose agenda has to be systematically challenged. Kamala Harris, being of Indian or Caribbean origin, means nothing literally, unless she does something to control the violence of Israel against Palestinians and prevents the sale of weapons to ruling classes in the third world who use these arms against their own people. Privately I may be impressed by some of the accomplishments of the South Asian Diaspora; but it ends with that. The bottom line is that South Asians in general are an extremely self-interested people and apart from building their own images and careers, I have almost never found them to do anything useful to larger communities anywhere on this planet. If only they gave up some of their “white” obsessions I am sure that they could do a little more to make the world livable for the poor and the weak.

In the end it doesn’t matter is what I would like to tell the Indian-origin MP from New Zealand: take the oath in Sanskrit or in any language but do something to improve the lives of people wherever you are; some day they will thank you for that; in fact, this would be my sincere advice to heads of organizations and institutions or public managers and politicians, in particular the dangerously divisive ones in the third world. What you do is what counts and not what you claim about yourself. Everyone knows the breed of leaders at the helm of affairs in the non-western parts of the globe. In South Asia we can especially boast of having completely unethical, unscrupulous and dishonorable men who won’t hesitate to steal, to murder and enslave, if only it means that they can continue in power. It is these upholders of white mythologies that we need to effectively destroy if we must be genuinely postcolonial. 

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Prakash Kona

Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.

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