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Our Divided Indian American Family: Some Reflections in the Wake of My Mother Jamuna’s Passing

Our Divided Indian American Family: Some Reflections in the Wake of My Mother Jamuna’s Passing

  • I would like to draw attention to the spirit of my mother’s legacy as someone who was loved across the political divide in India. She embodied a generation and a time when the same family could include nationalists and communists.

In the end, the only modern symbol that would be placed on my mother’s body other than the traditional markers of Hindu ritual was the red flag.

“Jamuna, the muddu-bidda (sweet child) of Praja Natya Mandali (People’s Theater Group),” they sang, “Johar! Johar!”

My mother, a former Congress Party Member of Parliament and (briefly) a BJP campaigner, famous for playing Hindu goddesses and saints in some of Telugu cinema’s greatest works, being given a Laal Salaam by theater activists from the Communist Party on her final journey, even as the poor among her fans brought flowers to the Movie Artist Association office where she had been taken for a final viewing.

“Garibollavamma memu!” (“We are poor people, mother!”) cried one man as he offered a garland.

The author and his mom.

After the VIPs had made their TV appearances and left, it was only the people who adored my mother who were there, weeping as if they had lost their own mothers… and for me, alone, shattered, stuck in a plane in the sky far above the world that fateful January evening, this was closure, this will have to be closure. A mother, a son, and a lifetime of millions of adoring fans in between us.

I write these words for American Kahani’s diverse readers after three intense months of helplessness, despair and sorrow in my life hoping to return to a bit of a statement or expression of possibilities for our understanding of things happening around us and to us, doing my duty, that is, as a public intellectual when it is only my private grief that seems to have any relevance to me. 

Yet, I remember the words of sociologist C. Wright Mills with which I began my teaching career in the late 1990s. Our seemingly private sorrows might well be manifestations of real public phenomena, indicators of broader social, historical or political trends. Conversely, what seem like vague public commentaries on distant concepts might well turn out to have profound consequences to us and our lives.

I do not know where to begin when it comes to the issues that have seemingly divided the Indian American community, except to say I will try to honor my mother’s memory with these words somehow, and also attempt to honor the different claims to reality being made by different voices in these troubled times.

What is it that is dividing our community? Is it the caste conversation? Or the Hinduphobia one? Is it “populism”? Or “wokeism”? Right-wing or Left-wing?

I do not know whether any of these have easy answers, but I will try to begin where the ominous (and not unwarranted) tone of a recent American Kahani article title left off – if we are heading for “caste wars,” or any wars based on our identities, should we not understand our positions and stories beyond caricatures of each other? Should we not understand that there is one thing that is equally at play against all of us here now, and that is the peculiar nature of polarization itself in the digital media age? After all, Indian Americans are in some ways a microcosm of American society today too, and what divides us may not be our own cracks alone.

In an ideal world, we would perhaps find common ground or at least enough empathy to desist from deeming the other side incurably evil. But we do not.

There is, it appears, an Indian American Left and Indian American Right, which has got caught in a clash of realities, while in truth there are people who fall perhaps in many positions in between.

Broadly, the Indian American Left, or South Asian American, position seems to be that since 2014, India’s Modi government has spread Islamophobic, Brahminical Hindu Nationalism, which manifests as violence against Muslims, Dalits, Sikhs and other minorities. Hindu Nationalism, or perhaps just Hinduism, generally, has become a source of harm to non-dominant caste diaspora members and caste discrimination needs to be explicitly addressed and banned.

Broadly, the Indian American Right, or Hindu American position seems to be that they are not really “the Right” because most Hindu Americans vote Democrat and support liberal policies such as generic prohibitions on discrimination such as ancestry which includes caste anyway, and the currently proposed anti-caste policies in California are actually anti-Hindu/ Hinduphobic because they single out one community for scrutiny.

In an ideal world, we would perhaps find common ground or at least enough empathy to desist from deeming the other side incurably evil. But we do not. And each of these claims have advanced through a time of enormous antipathy, polarization and indeed, propaganda enabled by social media ubiquity (curiously, the one thing that both sides now seem to believe in, and not unlike the broader American public today, is that the other side is a victim of disinformation or propaganda: one side would blame mainstream media like NPR and the New York Times, and the other would blame Putin-bots and B.J.P. I.T. cell perhaps).

It is not surprising then to also see that opponents and critics seem to have similar complaints about the other side’s cherished beliefs. Hindu Americans opposing caste legislation argue that the case for intervention on caste discrimination in the diaspora has been made on a flawed study with flimsy data. South Asian Americans and their white academic allies say that while there might be some discrimination Hindus face, there is no “systemic” phenomenon that can be called “Hinduphobia.”

In any case, the present situation seems to be as follows. Those who believe that caste discrimination in the diaspora is at an alarming level and demand laws to ban it have been successful in making their case to the public and have actually brought about legislation to see it through. Those who believe in the existence of Hinduphobia, on the other hand, have for the most part not taken any steps to make an objective, consistent case for Hindu human rights beyond fringe social media silos, and of course, not taken any steps to secure legislation against Hinduphobia.

Given these facts, the Indian American community should expect to see anti-caste laws becoming a reality soon, and anti-Hinduphobia talk remaining just that (or worse, losing even more steam because the professional Hinduphobia research done by a minority of academics and activists is appropriated and misused by social organizations inclined towards promoting Indian political figures rather than securing real social change).

All of this is, of course, likely to lead to more resentment and divisions in the Indian American community, as predicted, with opponents of caste legislation neither welcoming these laws nor offering a better alternative based on their own constituents’ concerns.

While this seems pessimistic, I would like to try and offer a few ideas respectfully in the spirit of my mother’s legacy as someone who was loved across the political divide in India. She embodied a generation and a time when the same family could include nationalists and communists, and words like these did not become the tribal identification markers they seem to have ended up as now.

Before things become even more precipitous in our community, there needs to be an effort towards clarity on what we want for ourselves and for our children. One side believes in social justice and radical change, and the other, seemingly in the status quo and meritocracy, although with more explicit pats on the back for Hindus as Hindus from employers, legislators and so on (it is telling that Hindu organizations have obtained many declarations of praise for Hindu Americans from political bodies but only one resolution naming anti-Hindu bigotry as a concern).

But both camps here seem to be indifferent to the bigger picture which has to do with the nature of corporate power in America today – the growing co-optation of the progressive social change agenda by the economic status quo as it were.

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Indian Americans, of the self-styled “model-minority Hindu” and “progressive South Asian” variety have both lost sight of the stark realities of economic class as a determinant of life and death in their own communities and outside.

One group extrapolates from its specific privileges as the U.S. born and raised children of selectively-admitted first-generation skilled immigrants to claim that Hindus are all privileged and have no problems so there is no Hinduphobia. Another group talks about Hinduphobia but seems to view poverty as a sign of civilizational or cultural failure, as seen by some of the nastier BJP camp social media references to Pakistan as a nation of “beggars” or Indian Muslims as “puncturewallahs.”

Classism, and obliviousness to privilege in a basic economic sense, are the real problem here, and perhaps offer a chance for a deeply divided community to come together again.

A few years ago, a bright South Asian film maker reached out to me to share his idea for a movie which would end with the Brahmin residents of a posh Indian apartment complex being machine-gunned by the Dalit workers. I shared my feedback, based on what the new generation of scholars like Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee were telling us about the origins of anti-Brahminism in colonial European Christianity.

The film maker expressed a sense of grief and righteous anger I have seen so many times in my students and perhaps in my own self years ago. When I think of billionaires like Bezos.. he said softly. I think the answer is right there.

Half the Indian American diaspora knows there is something wrong when a few billionaires hog the world’s resources but yet have somehow been persuaded to let them off the hook while demonizing a dwindling, impoverished community living on the goodwill of often poor Hindu devotees in return for upholding ancestral traditions as if they have inherited the estate of the East India Company itself (I recognize that the critique is intended not for poor traditional Brahmins but for their privileged cousins, but still, when was the distinction made, in academia or in media?)

The other half of the Indian American diaspora knows there is something wrong in how brazenly the old religious-racial hatred for Hindus from colonial times has been normalized in even avowedly liberal or progressive discourse now, but seems to think the billionaires or CEOs or politicians will somehow come and save them in return for all the “simping” they do on social media for them.

Both halves will do well to understand that “divide and rule” has been going on for a very long time, and has not ended even now.

So, in conclusion, in the spirit of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, I would say that the antidote is not to offer platitudes to unity through labels like either “Hindu” or “South Asian,” but to restore a sense of rule over one’s own minds and hearts first. Let the stories, songs, novels, movies come forth again from Indian Americans that will show us new and better ways to be.

I dedicate this column to my mother, Jamuna, The People’s Actress, and to her unsung fans who wept for her passing as we did.


Vamsee Juluri is a Professor of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco. His latest book is “The Firekeepers of Jwalapuram,” part 2 of a trilogy titled “The Kishkindha Chronicles,” … “because the world was a better place when the monkeys ran the world.”

View Comments (3)
  • Vamsee Juluri has a meandering and self-indulgent style that can be very grating. It takes him forever to come to the point. And yet, the opening is never explained. Not everybody knows his mother’s accomplishments in theater and cinema or her shifting political affiliations. It would have been helpful of Mr. Juluri to explain to the audience the opening and closing references to his mother and how they accentuate the key point he is making.

  • IT is not Hinduphobia but more important, Hinduisim does not even get mentioned in the main media when they speak about major religions o fthe world. There is misinformation about Hindusim being taught in Schools. We have to get recognition for Hinduisim first before you see any Hinduphobia. And the Hindui right wingers want majority to have its way in India but wants protection as minority in US. That is why most Indians (over 70%) in last elections voted progressive but want India to become a Hindu Rashtra. That is the conflict I see in Indian American diaspora which this article completely missed.

  • If the so called progressives as well as their political opponents both claim that US is a judayo-christian country, it is difficult to understand the ‘progressives’ objecting India being called a hindu rashtra. This is extreme duplicity and no wonder the extreme progressives of soviet empire are practically gone.

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