Sri Lanka’s alternatives abroad

I co-authored an article with two other members of Lanka Solidarity for Himal Southasian’s special December issue on diasporas. You can find it on the Himal site here: Sri Lanka’s alternatives abroad

We believe members of Sri Lankan diasporas with alternative politics must reassert their claims to space in the conversation about Sri Lanka’s future. For us, this article was one step toward that. We look forward to your feedback, ideas, and yes, arguments–

Cross-posting it here.

Sri Lanka’s alternatives abroad

Are the island’s diasporas to be seen as a source of remittance, a threat, or legitimate sites for political engagement and critique?

By: Kitana Ananda, V V Ganeshananthan & Ashwini Vasanthakumar

There is no such thing as ‘the Sri Lankan diaspora’. Sri Lankan communities exist in the plural. And yet, nearly thirty years of conflict have rendered a nation with multiple minority communities and religions as though it has only two groups. If you generalise about what you read at all (and most people do), you are likely to believe that Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority are pitted against each other, not only inside the country but in diasporas all over the world.

While conflict and geographic dispersal present real challenges to Sri Lankan diasporas, this image of Sinhalese versus Tamil is far from the whole truth. Although the war ended with a decisive victory by government security forces over the LTTE in 2009, the reductive image remains: Sri Lanka, a nation with Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher communities, rarely appears that way. The media is not the only culprit. In the wake of that resounding military victory, both the Sri Lankan government and its critics have failed to engage Sri Lankan diasporas and to understand their complexity. Indeed, their collective actions have excluded diasporic populations.Lankan diaspora histories often begin with 1983, when anti-Tamil violence and the rise of Tamil militancy led to the civil war that displaced hundreds of thousands of Tamils from the island. In fact, a longer and more complicated history of migration is responsible for today’s Lankan diasporas. During the 1930s and 1940s, English-speaking upper-caste Ceylonese who worked in the British Empire’s civil service formed diasporic settlements from Burma to Malaya.

After independence in 1948, new legislation disenfranchised Tamils of Indian origin, who had been brought in to work on colonial plantations during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many members of that community were subsequently repatriated to India. An attempt to nationalise government administration with the 1956 Official Language Act–popularly dubbed ‘Sinhala Only’–led to the migration of Ceylonese professionals of all communities who were not proficient in Sinhala. Large numbers of Burghers, the community of mixed Sri Lankan and European descent, migrated to Britain, Canada and Australia; Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim professionals followed, accompanied by their families.

In these transitional decades, there was no such thing as a Tamil or Sinhalese diaspora; but by the late 1970s this was no longer the case, as factionalism escalated within the country. Three decades of state and economic restructuring had not created a united ‘Sri Lankan’ nation, and tensions mounted between a Sinhalese-dominated government and Tamil political parties. Disaffection with the political status quo gave rise to a 1971 insurrection among predominantly rural Sinhalese youths in the south, and growing militancy among Tamil youths in the north and east by the latter part of the decade. University admissions quotas, among other policies, effectively reduced opportunities for middle-class Tamil students and young professionals, who began to seek employment abroad.

Diasporas today

In July 1983, nearly 3,000 people were killed and thousands more displaced over five days of government-sponsored anti-Tamil violence, creating a new wave of migrants. The scale of destruction and spectacular displays of enmity spurred sympathetic Western governments to create special categories for refugee resettlement. As the country descended from ethnic conflict into full-scale war between the government and Tamil militant groups, the tide of migration continued. In the 1980s, as the LTTE rose to supremacy by brutally eliminating other Tamil militant groups, non-LTTE Tamil militants and their families emigrated. Internally, too, the country saw mass displacement of Muslims and Tamils.

The war with the state intensified through the mid-1980s and 1990s, again prompting hundreds of thousands of Tamils to depart. By some estimates, nearly 900,000–one in three–Tamils from Sri Lanka today live abroad, hailing predominantly from the country’s north and, to a lesser extent, the east. India was often their first stop and, for some, their final destination. Others headed to Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States, each of which offered the possibility of citizenship. Others remain refugees in India, Southeast Asia and Europe. As the war escalated, the pro-LTTE section of the diaspora became famously militant, pouring money into the Tigers’ movement, while their relatives and friends back home lost children, homes and livelihoods. The Tigers even developed an overseas wing, which managed its propaganda so successfully that other sections of the Tamil diaspora were virtually erased from the public sphere.

Admittedly, the largest Sri Lankan diaspora is a Tamil one, which has commanded considerable attention as a result of post-1983 migration, the war, and visible propaganda and financial support for the LTTE among some of its sections. Some use Sri Lankan diaspora and Tamil diaspora interchangeably, but Sinhalese and Muslim Sri Lankans have also gone to other shores amid political crises and economic uncertainty, and they continue to emigrate, predominantly as temporary migrant workers to West Asia. Sizeable and diverse Sinhalese diaspora communities have formed among workers in Italy, professionals in the United States, and several generations of migrants to the United Kingdom and Canada.

Today, some Sinhalese (and, to a lesser extent, Muslim) groups maintain ties with each other and with Sri Lanka through various associations. For some organisations, ‘Sri Lanka’ becomes a proxy for displays of Sinhalese nationalism that make critiques of the Sri Lankan government difficult. Similarly, prominent diasporic Tamil organisations have long showcased arguments for separatism, sometimes accompanied by endorsements of the LTTE. Those who do not agree with these respective lines face isolation from their own ethnic communities.

In May 2009, the war’s end saw the differing trajectories of these diasporas converge in tense confrontations in Canada, the UK, Australia and elsewhere. Thousands of Tamils around the world protested the war and the suffering it imposed. Those waving LTTE flags monopolised media attention, sidelining the message of ‘peace through negotiations’ emanating from other quarters. In response, smaller Sri Lankan groups with close connections to embassies and missions abroad organised counter-demonstrations. Their predominantly Sinhalese ranks also included anti-LTTE Tamils who cheered the Tigers’ defeat and hailed the soldiers who ended the war through military action.

Just remittances, please

Over the course of the war, the visibility of dominant sections of the Tamil diaspora–and their stunning vocal and financial support for the Tamil Tigers–has helped the Sri Lankan government to project the entire group as a terrorist threat. Post-war, the authorities’ attempts to derail a monolithic ‘Tamil diaspora’ have transformed into interest in that diaspora’s sizable collective wallet. In anticipation of a post-war Lanka, the government handpicked leaders and activists of the Tamil diaspora to attend a March 2009 conference in Colombo. At the meeting, dubbed the Sri Lankan Diaspora Dialogue, many of the invitees expressed dismay with the government’s heavy-handed agenda. Even as the government invited some Tamils to return to the island, it has made the following conflicting claims: The LTTE has been completely decimated; the LTTE could re-emerge at any time, and has powerful supporters abroad; the diaspora is invited to engage with us financially; we are no longer a colony, and those who criticise us from abroad have the mindset of colonisers (or support the LTTE).

The LTTE’s claim to be Tamils’ ‘sole representative’–and its well-known allies abroad–is convenient for the government, which wants remittances, not opinions. If it links all its overseas critics to the Tigers, it can dismiss their concerns. As pro-LTTE activists in the diaspora say they will continue to fight for Eelam from abroad (the most visible iteration being the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam, formed in May following a diaspora-wide election), their statements fuel Colombo’s ire. In retaliation, the government has announced local and international campaigns to gather intelligence, seize assets and shut down the LTTE’s remaining international network. In such a climate of suspicion, the government has been quick to conflate any criticism with support for the LTTE, leaving no room for serious diasporic engagement with the state.

On the other hand, the government does recognise diasporas’ economic and political power, as well as the effectiveness of pro-LTTE activists overseas who have made it difficult for their critics to speak out. Indeed, since the Diaspora Dialogue, Colombo has learned much from the LTTE’s hegemony in diaspora communities. The government sidesteps political criticism by appealing to the desire of many to aid the war-torn regions of north and east Sri Lanka. To initiate development projects in these areas, it turns to ex-members of the Tigers. Former Tiger arms procurer and international-affairs representative Kumaran Pathmanathan now sits under house arrest in Colombo, dispensing advice to the government; his own public rehabilitation was announced with the launch of the North-East Rehabilitation Development Organization, for which he claimed ‘the Tamil diaspora’ was ready to work with the president. In the Eastern province, former Tigers and current government officials Pillayan and Karuna have their names bandied about as evidence of state engagement with minorities.

The power of foreign exchange as a potent resource for post-war reconstruction is not limited to the Tamil diasporas alone. With the war’s end, Sri Lankan embassies have raised funds (more than USD 690,000 to date), mainly from Sinhalese entrepreneurs and organisations, for Api wenuwen api (Be together for all), a Ministry of Defence campaign to build 50,000 houses for soldiers. Opposition groups also mobilise Sinhalese diaspora communities for their own ends. For example, in September, Sinhalese workers in Italy protested the Colombo government’s continued detention of the former head of the Sri Lankan armed forces, Sarath Fonseka.

The government’s latest statements continue to entreat ‘the Sri Lankan diaspora’ to participate in economic development. At the Asia Security Summit in August 2010, Minister of External Affairs G L Peiris said, ‘Our message to the diaspora in the Western world and elsewhere is that they have a dynamic role to play; we do not want them to distance themselves from the exciting developments which are taking place in Sri Lanka today.’ Such pronouncements are made even as the government cracks down on dissent and political opposition within Sri Lanka, and invokes the spectre of threats to national security to silence activists abroad. Peiris, a chief negotiator during the Oslo peace process, has recently argued that earlier talks and attempts at political reform failed due to a lack of consensus among dominant political interests. This top-down approach has allowed generations of Sri Lankan politicians to suppress debate and dissent while claiming to remain committed to political reform, and the same technique is now being used to mobilise the diaspora communities’ economic power.

This dual approach to (particularly) Tamil diaspora communities dismisses legitimate grievances and criticisms. Simultaneously, it invites potential investors to capitalise on the war’s end and selectively wields former LTTE leaders to collect economic contributions from the former. This not only privileges the economically secure and undermines the political engagement of diaspora communities in general, but also silences the many moderates–in-country and abroad –who did not provide unqualified support to the narrow agendas of successive governments or the LTTE. Such groups could not publicly criticise these agendas before, nor are they able to do so now. Instead, they remain sceptical and watchful of the many projects undertaken in their name.

Discounting nationalism

The government’s dismissal of the Tamil diaspora as being little more than LTTE henchmen is not surprising. It is less encouraging, however, when the same attitude is revealed in progressives’ discussions of, and engagement with, the diaspora. The left has largely disengaged from diasporic politics, preferring to direct its limited energies to the battles to be waged in-country. But this myopia prevents engagement with the considerable resources of moderates within the diaspora.

During the war, progressives from all communities attempted to create space within the diaspora from which exclusivist nationalism could be challenged. Emphasising marginalised histories to refute nationalist narratives, these activists deployed the language of human rights and political pluralism. But they largely engaged with diasporic politics because of its importance to politics in Sri Lanka. Now, in the aftermath of the Tigers’ defeat, this effort has atrophied. And by equating the Tigers’ totalitarian politics with Tamil nationalism and the government’s brutal tactics with Sinhalese nationalism, the left only reaffirms these actors’ respective claims to represent Sinhalese and Tamil peoples.

This cedes important ideological and political ground. Furthermore, by depicting nationalism as static, regressive and exclusivist, the left fails to appreciate the varieties of nationalism, its potential as a source of solidarity, and its importance in forging and transforming identities. Indeed, national identity is what ties those in the diaspora–including progressives who would rather identify themselves as expatriate or exile–to politics in Sri Lanka. But from the diaspora various nationalisms can also emerge, where the multiple identities and affiliations of those in the diaspora can fruitfully inform and expand nationalist politics in Sri Lanka. Many Tamils were privately critical of the LTTE’s tactics; many Sinhalese were critical of the state’s growing authoritarianism. Clearly, between the poles there is space for common ground.

Progressives fashion themselves as exiles who, after years in the ideological hinterlands of the diaspora, can return to Sri Lanka and resume agitating for the transformations they failed to secure thirty years ago–as though those intervening decades did not happen. What this has meant among many leftists in exile is supporting a project of authentic nationalism–for some ethnic, for others, multi-ethnic–from abroad, without engaging the communities living in their midst.

Responsible resource

The Colombo government will not successfully engage diaspora communities in large-scale reconstruction if it continues to approach them in the same manner as it did throughout the war. Without a political process aimed at ending minority grievances on the island, many Tamil expatriates will continue to view the government’s embrace with scepticism. More fundamentally, diasporas should not be engaged only because they are deemed useful to ‘real’ Sri Lankan political actors engaged in the serious business of realpolitik. Rather, diasporas should be recognised as legitimate arenas of Sri Lankan politics. To claim otherwise is to reward regimes that neutralise political opposition and silence dissidents by expelling them.

For their part, members of Sri Lanka’s diasporas need to begin a process of critical reflection regarding the last thirty years of war, something that was discouraged amidst calls for solidarity. Instead of forgetting the so-called ‘tragic decades of nationalism’, communities across the political spectrum need to consider their complicity in its crimes, their complacency in the face of its manifest excesses, and their failures in advancing compelling alternatives. Such efforts might be most effective in Sri Lanka, and have begun in various fora there; but, given the significance of the diaspora in Sri Lankan politics and the relatively greater freedoms enjoyed outside Sri Lanka, it is imperative that these conversations happen outside too, and happen publicly.

This political reflection is especially important as the Sri Lankan government woos overseas communities for economic contributions, and contributions alone. Many are understandably excited by Sri Lanka’s post-war economic prospects. And in some respects, economic involvement can be more tempting than political engagement: its requirements are more discrete, its rewards more apparent, and it can look refreshingly (if deceptively) apolitical. In reality, of course, economic development in post-conflict Sri Lanka is subject to intense contestation, with economic fortunes inevitably linked to political positioning (see Himal Oct-Nov, ‘Capitalism contradictions’). Alternatively, the economic clout of responsible diasporic investors can ensure that the war and its bloody aftermath do not get airbrushed away, as in the glossy picture the government and its uncritical allies are so eager to promote.

The diaspora can also promote reconciliation by mirroring it abroad. In the absence of reliable media coverage from Sri Lanka, youth overseas have been too easily radicalised by incomplete histories and half-truths. This can only be countered by collective action to share stories and political pasts. As those private conversations become public, salient criticisms can gain traction through coalitions of progressive voices. Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher activists forming alliances overseas can become a powerful medium for critique and change. Those critical of diasporic extremists have rightfully called for grounding, and for true accountability to those on the ground in Sri Lanka. With action comes responsibility: if we want to work within Sri Lanka, we must listen to those who live there. Sinhalese and Tamil activists abroad must note that certain populations marginalised inside Sri Lanka–for example, Muslims, Burghers and Up-country Tamils–are correspondingly underrepresented in the diaspora. Their interests are Sri Lanka’s interests, and critique of the country must consider and engage them.

Sri Lankan diasporas are an easy target. They are easily ridiculed, their most vocal members often spouting opinions that seem ignorant. Their memories of grievance and grief are embarrassingly fresh, their suggestions oversimplified and trite, their language loaded. Their physical absence from Sri Lanka seems to preclude their involvement in its political life. Their hyphenated identities and modified accents undermine their authenticity. They are not really Sri Lankan–that is, at least, when they do not serve the interests of the ‘authentic’ political actors in Sri Lanka. But they are also an unrivalled resource, with legitimate claims to space in Sri Lankan politics, and filial and financial ties to the country. They genuinely care about Sri Lanka and, in a world with increasingly porous borders, they have every right to do so. Their transnational politics is a product of the war, and they remain connected to Sri Lanka, even though their homes are abroad. Can the country afford–from a practical or moral standpoint–to turn its back on a million people who could contribute to its future?

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268 thoughts on “Sri Lanka’s alternatives abroad

  1. @Zach: actually that guy looks like he could be indian/pak to me…I mean indians are like one of the most diverse-looking groups ever imo. still, ads with blonde haired blue eyed indians girls selling shampoo will always seem unusual to me because I’m just not used to seeing it.

    and you’re right, the song ain’t bad either hah :)

    what’s funny is in afghanistan the taliban demands women are covered up head-to-toe. but in afghani ads, the women are bare-faced with a hijab (head scarf) just covering their hair.

  2. the people typically look afghani, but in indian ads/billboards, the people typically look….also persian? Or at least not like the indians I see around here.

    seen the same. when i was in bangladesh in 2004 my younger brother, who was 12, asked me why all the depictions of bangladeshis in billboards were so white.

  3. alina & zach. u guys wouldn’t be interested in a brown related group blog, would you? the comments are pretty good.

  4. @razib – hey sorry, i’ve been posting like nuts here for the past week because I’m on winter break and there’s blizzards raging in my hometown, but in a few days I’ll be back at college for my new job so I wouldn’t want to commit to any type of group blog where I couldn’t regularly update. I waste too much time online as it is hah. Thanks though

  5. “Many scholars believe that Zoroastrianism was the first monotheistic religion.”

    And yet several ancient South Asian schools of thought are monist.

  6. “@razib – hey sorry, i’ve been posting like nuts here for the past week because I’m on winter break and there’s blizzards raging in my hometown, but in a few days I’ll be back at college for my new job so I wouldn’t want to commit to any type of group blog where I couldn’t regularly update. I waste too much time online as it is hah. Thanks though”

    that’s sad but completely understand; same here Christmas in London means that the city is pretty much shut down (i’m a trader) but I’m enjoying the time at home with the family and online.

    but imho Alina the great thing about a trio is that the commitment is far less since its a group and there’s a varying range of talent and skills. so for instance when any of us go into hibernation the others can prop it up..

    as it is this thread’s been racing; i think we three have a good combo. good set of skills and interests too.

    anyway I’m not pitching or anything (of course not lol :) but just a reflection that think there’s great group chemistry and we have fairly similar approaches (sceptical western liberals of brown muslim origin).

    • my thoughts are in line with zach’s fwiw. my marginal time varies quite a bit as well.

  7. Razib, SM is already a brown related group blog. Instead of creating your own, why don’t you, Alina and Zach just blog here? SM always seems to be in the market for new bloggers – guests or permanent.

    • there are different ways a flower can bloom. SM is a more general interest brown american blog. the stuff that zach, alina and i have been delving into are more abstruse.

  8. Guys,

    I found out some interesting tidbits about Ashoka/Vivek/Prema’s identity. He/she is most likely a member of the Ambedkarite Buddhist movement. It was covered here on Sepia Mutiny a few years ago.

  9. Ambedkar could have just as easily converted to the Gaudiya Vaishnava Sect which was founded by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in Nadia, West Bengal a little over 500 years ago and forbade discrimination based upon race, gender and caste.

    It is now an international phenomena.

  10. Maryam,

    I wouldn’t go that far. People should have the right to choose whatever religion they want, as long as they aren’t causing physical harm to others (the way Buddhists in Sri Lanka and Bhutan are persecuting Hindus in their countries– for more on this, see the report published by the Hindu American Foundation in 2009).

  11. “Maryam,

    I wouldn’t go that far.”

    What are you referring to here, TTCUSM?

    Anyway, the Abrahamic faiths have taken over the world in the last 2,000 years. Perhaps the New Millenium will be a time when the non-Abrahamic faiths, new and old, take it back.

    But this time with a post-modern feminist twist.

    • What are you referring to here, TTCUSM?

      I was referring to your suggestion that Ambedkar consider Gaudiya Vaishnavism as a means of uplifting India’s Dalits. Personally, I believe they should be the ones who determine which religion is best for them, as long as they don’t harm others.

  12. Anyway, the Abrahamic faiths have taken over the world in the last 2,000 years. Perhaps the New Millenium will be a time when the non-Abrahamic faiths, new and old, take it back. But this time with a post-modern feminist twist.

    Well in the west at least, people seem to be getting less religious if anything – especially in Western Europe. The US and Canada in general have gotten less religious in the past century or so as well. According to this site though: http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html the followers of Christianity and Islam together make up over half the world’s population. Most people (here in America at least) who shift away from their Abrahamic faith seem to shift toward atheism/agnosticism/deism. And I imagine that Dharmic religions won’t become popular anytime soon in Muslim regions in the Middle East/South Asia either.

  13. Well TTCUSM, GV has already had a large number of converts from the lower and out castes. Even some Muslims.

    Alina, the West is becoming less religious but more spiritual. Enter non-Abrahamic faiths to the left of the stage: YOGA, WICCA, NEW-PAGANISM, BUDDHISM, etc. I’m all for it.

    • Alina, the West is becoming less religious but more spiritual. Enter non-Abrahamic faiths to the left of the stage: YOGA, WICCA, NEW-PAGANISM, BUDDHISM, etc. I’m all for it.

      Maryam,

      If I were you, I wouldn’t be so quick to associate Buddhism with religions like Wicca and Neo-paganism. Historically, Buddhists have placed great emphasis on evangelism, and in some cases, it resulted in conflict with the indigenous pagan traditions that they encountered.

      There is some evidence that they persecuted followers of the Bon religion of Tibet. The current situation in Sri Lanka can be traced back to tensions between Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus. A couple of months ago, there was an incident in Mumbai where Buddhists tried to desecrate Hindu icons.

  14. I haven’t seen stats on it, but I would guess that most people leaving Abrahamic faiths are shifting toward atheism/agnosticism, rather than Dharmic faiths. To be honest (and I hope this isn’t offensive because it’s not meant to be) sometimes I get the feeling Eastern faiths are being “exotified” (probably not a word) by a subset of people here in North America – the young liberal “starbucks intellectual” crowd; frequently featured on blogs like Stuff White People Like (#15 on STWP is yoga: http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2008/01/22/15-yoga/ I think Buddhism, especially, has become popular with young white American hipsters who are typically raised Christian, get fed up with the materialism of our Western culture, and turn East for inspiration because everything Eastern seems “mystical” and “exotic”. Again, not a bad thing that people are exploring their spirituality, but it would be nice to see more people be genuine rather than regard it as some kind of trend. By no means am I saying most people who convert to Eastern religions fall into this subset.

    It’s also interesting to see how certain Eastern philosophies (Buddhism) are favored while others (Shintoism) remain largely ignored by westerners though.

    I’ll use yoga as an example since you mentioned it. Here in NYC, every other well-to-do white woman practices yoga, and plenty are vegetarian, but it has more to do with fitting into a size 4 Catherine Malandrino dress and less to do with spirituality.

  15. also, indian/dharmic religious ideas are much more popular than indian religion in the west. e.g., reincarnation

    http://www.pe.com/localnews/religion/stories/PE_News_Local_N_faithmix14.4d42a50.html

    this is not that abnormal. in east asia this is the general model. people are less attached exclusively to a specific religion which is an expression of communal identity, but rather consume a buffet of religious beliefs, practices, and services. muzzies and south asian hindus may find this behavior strange, but it is probably (thank god) expanding outside of the crazy-religious-nut-nations (india + north african & asian muslim nations).

  16. “Again, not a bad thing that people are exploring their spirituality, but it would be nice to see more people be genuine rather than regard it as some kind of trend.”

    By “genuine” do you mean officially converting to a particular sect?

    I see the ability to appreciate a plethora of spiritual concepts without being pressured by family, society or culture to “commit” as a good thing.

    I see it as a post-modern approach to spirituality and the wave of the future.

    Of course, those who are dedicated to just one particular path may find it odd or frivolous, but so be it.

    Those trendy white ladies sipping lattes at Starbucks and talking about how pranayama has really helped them to regain their focus are often kinder and more empathetic than what you refer to as “genuine” adherents to whatever practice or path.

    Believe me, I’ve been on both sides of the fence and I’d rather chill out with those size 4 yoginis who gifted their boyfriends (or girlfriends) a Kama Sutra for Christmas this year, even though that book is so 2004.

  17. Maryam, I have stayed out of this discussion thread, but for the sake of completion, are you or are you not Pardesi Gori? (I am in agreement with many of you arguments on this thread, btw)

  18. Razib,

    I think most Hindus already treat their religious beliefs as a buffet . That whole idea of there being “many paths to God” is something that is very prevalent among most people who have been raised Hindu. I know that my Mum who went to a Catholic School in India has icons of the Virgin Mary along with Hindu Gods in her prayer area at her home..

    I also know people who often visit Dargahs of various Islamic Saints, and have faith in those particular saints without any intention of actually becoming Muslim.

    Most Hindus I know, definitely have a very pick n mix approach to the faith, even in the same family you will have some members who believe in different ‘gurus’ , some who follow different dietary rules, some who are basically agnostic and so on, without it really being an issue.

  19. “I think most Hindus already treat their religious beliefs as a buffet . That whole idea of there being “many paths to God” is something that is very prevalent among most people who have been raised Hindu. I know that my Mum who went to a Catholic School in India has icons of the Virgin Mary along with Hindu Gods in her prayer area at her home..

    I also know people who often visit Dargahs of various Islamic Saints, and have faith in those particular saints without any intention of actually becoming Muslim.

    Most Hindus I know, definitely have a very pick n mix approach to the faith, even in the same family you will have some members who believe in different ‘gurus’ , some who follow different dietary rules, some who are basically agnostic and so on, without it really being an issue. “

    Precisely why Hinduism is the perfect post-modern approach to spirituality. I wonder if Alina would call for them to be a little bit more “genuine” as well.

  20. By “genuine” do you mean officially converting to a particular sect?No, by “genuine” I mean that they actually know a bit about the origins and meaning of the religion, maybe have a read some of the religious texts, etc…not random college kids whose idea of reaching enlightenment is smoking weed in the quad all day. Although to be fair, I’d rather chill with the pothead buddhists over the size 4 yoginis, and with both over the “real” buddhists, but hey. Precisely why Hinduism is the perfect post-modern approach to spirituality. I wonder if Alina would call for them to be a little bit more “genuine” as well. hey, I’m not religious and i don’t care if people are worshipping yahweh, allah, jesus, the multi armed elephant god, the flying spaghetti monster, or whatever the latest trend in spirituality is…just keep your religion out of my government and I’m happy

  21. ” I mean that they actually know a bit about the origins and meaning of the religion, maybe have a read some of the religious texts” ….

    If you are not religious what does it matter to you?

    I used to wish that many Desi Hindus would do the same, but hey, if they want to eat beef and claim to be “Hindu” while declaring that non-Desis cannot be Hindu despite having diksha in a sampradaya and knowing way more than they do – that’s there business.

    There seems to be a double standard.

    I guess it’s “pc” to say that “white ladies exotify and cheapen Eastern religions.”

    NO. They do not.

    But why non-religious people should concern themselves with any of this is a curious thing.

  22. But why non-religious people should concern themselves with any of this is a curious thing. Haha do you take “non-religious” to mean “anti religious”? I can read about and discuss religion the same way I can read about/discuss italian politics and culture without actually belonging to that nationality.I used to wish that many Desi Hindus would do the same, but hey, if they want to eat beef and claim to be “Hindu” while declaring that non-Desis cannot be Hindu despite having diksha in a sampradaya and knowing way more than they do – that’s there business. well I don’t think anyone is dumb enough to think hinduism should be limited to a handful of ethnic groups in the indian subcontinent.

    there are plenty of people though who are “culturally religious” – so I can totally see how beef-eating hindus would consider themselves hindus the same as non-beef eating ones because of their heritage and the holidays they celebrate. There’s no pope of hinduism that gets to decide. Hell, I could be considered “culturally muslim” by these standards. who gets to decide what’s “religious” anyway?

  23. . well I don’t think anyone is dumb enough to think hinduism should be limited to a handful of ethnic groups in the indian subcontinent.

    a significant number of people on this blog have asserted just that position. also, check out what happened at the jagannatha temple in india

    http://news.iskcon.org/node/692

    i have to had to point out that bali and several cham villages in vietnam have indigenous hindu traditions which date back over 1,000 years repeatedly on this weblog because many south asians are totally unaware of ignorant of that.

    oh, and i’m pretty sure that maryam is pardesi gori ;-)

  24. “well I don’t think anyone is dumb enough to think hinduism should be limited to a handful of ethnic groups in the indian subcontinent”

    Read what Razib says above. In fact, MANY Desi Hindus think exactly that and are politically incorrect enough to state it out loud (but that’s OK coz they’re not white so any racism or un-pc-ism from them gets a pass)

  25. @razib: what about hindu communities in the west indies (which include non-indian folk I think – I have met a Black Guyanese-American hindu girl in college and I imagine she’s not the only one) and in southeast asia, like in Vietnam as you just mentioned? Is this hindu bias toward non-Indians purely racist in nature, or does it have any religious basis whatsoever (doubtful, but I know very little about hindusim to begin with)

    @Maryam: I’m just curious, are you of moslem heritage? people keep saying you’re pardesi gori but it would be unusual for a white woman who converted to hinduism to have such an Arabic name – just wondering.

  26. @razib: what about hindu communities in the west indies (which include non-indian folk I think – I have met a Black Guyanese-American hindu girl in college and I imagine she’s not the only one) and in southeast asia, like in Vietnam as you just mentioned? Is this hindu bias toward non-Indians purely racist in nature, or does it have any religious basis whatsoever (doubtful, but I know very little about hindusim to begin with)

    first, many of the interlocutors are DBD (desi-born-desis) who simply aren’t too conscious of balinese hinduism, and like 99.9999999% of humanity are ignorant of the cham saivite villages of vietnam (though these same people are clearly aware of angkor wat, so it shouldn’t be that surprising). second, these individuals dismiss ISKCON and other groups which take on converts. third, there is obviously a stream of implicit racialism among many south asians about these sorts of things. that racialism becomes explicit in variants of hindutva which adhere to a blood-based model of indianness, and aim to reclaim those south asians who have left the hindu fold through conversion. a good analogy i think would be ‘german christianity,’ which turned race into a sacrament (some forms of judaism are similar, insofar as the jewish people take center stage, and a hint of jewish blood means one is targeted for conversion).

    as for ABD, i don’t think most of them would be so un-PC (i think justifiably PC IMO btw) to dismiss ISKCON as true hindus. but there is an attitude among hindus that conversion is aggressive and that people should stay with their ancestral religion. on a deep level they don’t “get” attempts to proselytize. i wonder if that might be because so many american hindus are from exclusive high caste groups, and not affiliated with more devotional groups like gaudiya vaishnava, one of whose saints was from a muslim background.

    anyway, it’s all superstition to me. who are we to arbitrate? but its the USA, and anyone can define anything however they like. some hindus insist that their religion is monotheistic. others proudly assert a distinctive polytheism.

  27. I’m pretty alienated from bollywood bhangra and hindi ‘culture’ anyway but yeah those peeps are way whiter Than me. And yeah I view non desi hindus with bemusement It’s an ethnicity, not just a religious buffet.

  28. @Tambrahm: “And yeah I view non desi hindus with bemusement It’s an ethnicity, not just a religious buffet.”

    That’s because you believe in the caste system.

  29. “this is not that abnormal. in east asia this is the general model. people are less attached exclusively to a specific religion which is an expression of communal identity, but rather consume a buffet of religious beliefs, practices, and services. muzzies and south asian hindus may find this behavior strange, but it is probably (thank god) expanding outside of the crazy-religious-nut-nations (india + north african & asian muslim nations).”

    I was reflecing on Razib’s statements about religiosity in South Asia and its blown up dimensions.

    In a way however the intense communalism and diversity of South Asia may have prevented the East Asian violent excesses, where homogenous states were able to craft a national ideology and impose it on their populations at huge human cost (Great Leap Forward etc.)

    South Asia may have been spared from a overly unitary government precisely because ultimately it is so caste and religion ridden; very difficult for a government to impose the official line. Means we grow slower, are more conflicted but are ultimately “freer”; South Asian autocracy seems kinder than its East Asian equivalent.

    Again observation so if there are facts to prove or disprove what I’ve just said happy to read them.

  30. @ Fleur: ” But that depends on what you think “typical Persians” look like, but having been to Iran, I can safely say that Indian beauty ideals definitely don’t fit with their looks, and I mean facial-features-wise not skin colour-wise. “

    Interesting. There is a Persian (Iranian) American community where I live and most of them do look like Indians.

    In fact, I thought they were Indian til I was corrected.

  31. “tis true. Don’t hate on me because i’m grounded. You just keep dtifting.”

    That’s usually what we Americans think about foreigners – so right back at ya!

  32. “@ zach The final solution for the muslim issue in south asia is (re)conversion”

    The final solution for the immigration issue and clash of civilizations in the Western World is:

    a.) only immigrants who can fully support themselves financially be allowed in b.) only immigrants who can fit in with the principles of a liberal democracy be allowed in c.) only immigrants who are Feminist be allowed in

    The problem with “non-occidental” immigrants is that their countries and cultures have not undergone extensive Feminist social reform so they bring regressive and repressive attitudes against women to our lands.

    Muslims are not the only ones.

    Do people who hang on to a caste system and arrange marriages and oppose divorce fit in well in a liberal democracy that has undergone extensive Feminist Social Reform for the past 5 decades?

    Who is a better fit for immigration to the US – a liberal Swedish Feminist who pops into a yoga class on her way to a zikr session at the local new-age Sufi center led by a lesbian Sheikhaa – or someone with the attitude of “Tambrahm” – emphasis on the “brahm”???

    America needs to consider this.

  33. Pardesi Maryam, Sigh! Just when I thought that I could agree with your views on something, you have to turn weirdly chauvinistic and blow it all away.. You can hit us with the stick of casteism, but you can’t deny the racism that immigrants face in your magical chosen land. What’s wrong with consensual arranged marriages? We desis need to be married too- It’s not that the WASPS are lining up to mingle with us… And how will you determine who is feminist enough to enlist to team America, the bastion of tolerance and all round equality? do we need a special tattoo? please educate.. Also, btw, Tam Bram is a ethnic identifier, much like the Gori in your more common handle. Most of these hapless ppl have been forced out of their state due to ‘affirmative action’ reservations. They have my sympathies. As regards to your immigration criteria 1 and 2, you would have to extradite about a third of the US population as they do not fulfill your norms. If you include no.3, it would be about half. Seriously, your post made me want to howl at the moon.

  34. @Fleur: Like I said, I have never been to India, and my exposure to Indian media is basically limited to the 2-3 Indian channels we get at home. I do think the Indian girls on TV commercials don’t look much like the Indian girls I see on campus everyday (that is, the models in these commercials are Indian but they’re very deviated away from the norm. The models in American ads also look very different from the average American girl, but typically just prettier/skinnier, not like an entirely different group. India is a very diverse country but based on their ads, they hone in on one particular “look” and neglect the looks of what most Indian women look like. I don’t mean just pigmentation, but also facial features. For example in this Indian Pepsi ad, the girl on the left looks Indian, the one on the right doesn’t really to me: http://www.adpunch.org/images/kreena.jpg I never see Indian models on tv who look like her: http://thehindimusic.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/06/meenal_indian-girl-model.jpg (she’s an Indian model btw). On America’s Next Top Model, they had an Indian-American girl named Anchal a few cycles ago who was very beautiful, and I assume there are models in India who look similar to her, but I never see anyone who looks like her on TV either: http://www.victoriaduke.com/images/anchal_1resized.jpg

    • @Alina Did you mean the girl on the left of the Pepsi ad (Kareena) or girl on the right (Priyanka)? Because, it seems you meant the opposite. Because otherwise you are saying: Kareena looks Indian while Priyanka does not?! LOL, no offence! Kareena’s looks are quite rare here, while Priyanka’s (minus the lips, which I guess are collagen induced) are a dime in a dozen.

      I’d say the average Indian girls here in Delhi looks similar Deepika Padukone [Google is your friend :-) ..] and Freida Pinto in facial features/structure. Do the girls on your campus look similar to them?

      Obviously there aren’t many models like Meenal/Aanchal/Mindy on Indian TV that would like asking why aren’t there many white models like Gemma Ward selling toothpaste on American TV? All of the three have extreme and odd looks and facial features in comparison to the Indian norm. Living most of my life in India, I can’t say I’ve ever met women who look similar to Aanchal, at all. I don’t see why it is necessary to represent them. Dark-skinned women need to represented, of course, because most Indians are dark-skinned, but I don’t see why Meenal/Mindy/Aanchal need to represented because the vast majority of Indian look nothing like them (in facial features). Most high fashion Indian models on the ramp are dark, BTW. I’d say that the India media chooses much lighter-skinned ones than the Indian norm, but the facial features of the model seem to always fit the norm. Mostly because Indian people prefer our own facial features and structure greatly, but want them in a lighter skinned version. You have interested me greatly by saying that the Indian media that they promote one look over what most Indian women look like even in facial features. I’d be interested what “most” Indian women look like around your area, and that too facial structure and features wise, since skin colour shuffles a lot. Could you give me a picture or celebrity example or at least a short description? Do you really see more girls looking like Aanchal/Meenal than Deepika/Freida?

      Thanks.

  35. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with consensual arranged marriages either – the problem is, for a lot of women especially, the marriages are hardly “consensual” because they’re pressured at a very young age. I have Desi girls here whose parents get them engaged around 16 or so, then when they turn 18 they’re flown out to India/Pakistan/Bangladesh one summer to marry a boy they’ve never met. It’s done at a young age to prevent them from being tempted to date American boys. It’s hardly the norm for ABD’s, but it happens a lot more than you think.

  36. In a way however the intense communalism and diversity of South Asia may have prevented the East Asian violent excesses, where homogenous states were able to craft a national ideology and impose it on their populations at huge human cost (Great Leap Forward etc.)

    fair enough. not “too big to fail.” BUT, i have argued before that the sclerosis of the permit raj and “hindu rate of growth” has killed more people integrated between 1947 and today than the great leap forward. south asia has the majority of the world’s very poor now, and most of the decrease in poverty of the past generation can be attributed to china.

    we will see if india is ultimately freerer. i think that by liberal democratic standards the india upper and upper middle classes have more freedom than that of china. but would you rather be the median india or median chinese

    re: homogeneity, bangladesh and pakistan are a good test over the long term. pakistan is purging all its hindus, but it will retain large shia and christian minorities, and remain linguistically diverse.

  37. That’s because you believe in the caste system.

    I always thought the caste system was part of Hinduism? Although the Indian government has recently banned caste-based discrimination, we can’t just pretend that a system which for centuries defined India’s social structure simply doesn’t exist.

    And Maryam is not “chauvinistic”, she seems pretty feminist to me!

  38. @Maryam: “I have Desi girls here whose parents get them engaged around 16 or so, then when they turn 18 they’re flown out to India/Pakistan/Bangladesh one summer to marry a boy they’ve never met. It’s done at a young age to prevent them from being tempted to date American boys.”

    This needs to be outlawed. I think there has been so many abusive situations come to live over arranged marriages in the UK that they are considering outlawing it.

    GOOD!

    @Old Spotter: “We desis need to be married too- It’s not that the WASPS are lining up to mingle with us…”

    Old Spotter, you’d be surprised how many WASPs, Jews, and other types are willing to cast their stones in the circle of Desi Romance.

    All you really need is a makeover – fashion and grooming (growing one’s hair long can add 1-2 points to guys on the looks scale, see John Abraham), and a few other tweaks.

    I once thought of starting a business to help Desi guys in this department.

    You have to become comfortable with being “exoticised” – it’s a selling point. You never hear Black dudes complaining that their sexuality as been exoticised and commodified, do you?

    Au contraire, they milk it.

    My opinion is that Desi guys should also milk the “exotic eastern mystique” as a means to getting women.

    There’s a lot of new-age yoginis out here with a “Krishna fetish”.

    Can you play flute?

  39. I always thought the caste system was part of Hinduism?

    not the real hinduism :-) the real hinduism is about equality.

  40. This needs to be outlawed. I think there has been so many abusive situations come to live over arranged marriages in the UK that they are considering outlawing it.

    Well how would they enforce something like that? I mean if the 18 year old Paki girl says she wants to get married to the nice boy abroad, who’s to stop it? Never mind that her parents picked the nice boy out for her when she was 16 and forced her into it….

    On the other hand, I’ve met plenty of Desi Muslims here in America who don’t really care for arranged marriages, but go along with it for the sake of keeping their parents happy – and they insist they have “no choice” or else their parents will cut them off. Honestly, I don’t feel bad for a lot of these people because they’re just so damn infantilized. I mean, if you’re 26 and you’ve never left Mommy’s house, and she insists you marry that nice boy you’ve never met from Lahore or else she and Daddy will cut you off…hey, maybe its time to move out and be an adult. Either go along with the arranged marriage because you’re ok with it, or refuse if you don’t actually want it – because in America at least, no one can “force” you to get on a plane to Bangladesh and be married against your will. This doesn’t include teenagers whose parents force them to get engaged (although they too have the option of leaving home at 18).

  41. That would be easy. Make a law that nobody can marry a foreigner. I think they implemented something along those lines for all those old, fat, white dudes in the US who were bringing home mail order brides from Russia, Eastern Europe and Phillipines. I remember reading about all these old dudes screaming ”MISANDRY”.

    So if they can stop old, fat, white dudes from doing it – they can surely stop brown people too – no?

  42. Brown folk are a lot sneakier than fat old white guys, I’ll have you know. Arranged marriages, in my experience, typically happen abroad: western spouse flies out to old country for the wedding, so families of both parties can be present. Once married to western spouse, desi spouse is now eligible for a visa abroad and in a short period of time, will be a citizen of his/her western country of citizenship, where they will be eventually live. I’ve seen this process happen with several families at my mosque – I’m 20 now, and when I run into desi girls I used to go to sunday school with in my early teens, I’ll find they often have a ring on their finger. Ironically enough, in India/Pakistan, I think women are getting married later and later and have more freedom…you’ll find that often immigrants from these countries remain trapped in the era they immigrated in. They assume Indian culture is just like how they left it, 30 years ago, when in reality their worldviews are often antiquated by Indian standards.