Sunday, March 24, 2013

Dr Franklin, Meet Shri Modi: Right-Wing Transnationalism and the Limits of Postcolonial Critique

Dr Franklin, meet Shri Modi
Photo from The Daily Pennsylvanian

On Saturday, the group “Americans for Free Speech” joined up with diasporic segments of the Indian right to protest the Wharton India Economic Forum’s disinviation of Narendra Modi from participating in the event. Modi had been disinvited due to a protest raised by various segments of a U.S. and South Asian left (myself included) who did not want the Islamaphobic Chief Magistrate of Gujarat, culpable in some manner for a 2002 pogrom against Gujarati Muslims, to purify his personal record and legitimate his Hindutva-plus-neoliberal-technocratic development policies under the sign of “Wharton.” And so the protestors marched, claiming that we denied Modi his right to free speech (I write about the absurdity of that claim here), chanting, “We want Modi,” and holding signs that put the Indian CM into a common ideological space with Ben Franklin.

The iconographic juxtaposition is striking, and one imagines that Modites walking on 34th Street revelled in the comparison. Modi is, like Franklin was, invested in technology, in science; the latter tied keys to kites and developed communication technologies and networks, the former offers stunning, Thomas-Friedman-esque formulas like “IT+IT=IT.” More importantly, Modi is, like Franklin was, acutely aware that nations are formed out of and through a manipulation of a global/international fabric of institutions, ideologies, and materialities. Franklin went to England and France to constitute the outline of a nation that had not yet been formed; Modi desires to go to the U.S. to naturalize and legitimate a Hindu-supremacist image of a nation-to-come. Indeed, it is in the U.S. that Modi’s Hindu nation can be pawned off as a nearly accomplished reality.  The signs that his supporters carried read “Narendra Modi | Future P.M. | India”; the mood is indicative, not subjunctive, as if his rise is ineluctable. The sign functions as a request that local Philly audiences treat the transnational collectivity of U.S-Indian right-wingers as proleptically representative of the Indian nation and so deserving of the international recognition such a representative deserves. The sign—and, more broadly, Modi’s invitation to Wharton in the first place—isn’t merely proleptic; it attempts to produce the reality it can now only project. The Indian right hopes to use transnational circuits to secure the patterns of recognition facilitating international relations so that Modi can turn to his national electorate and pass himself off as having already been recognized, by the global polis, as India’s ruler. It’s simple scale-jumping: you leap from the local (Modi’s Gujarat, say) to the international so as to back-form the national.  (That somewhat obscure senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, did something similar with his trip to Europe during his first campaign.) The key to such scale-jumping is that sites of transnational connection (Modi at Wharton in Philly, Obama in Berlin) need to be coded and re-figured as scenes of incipient international recognition. Otherwise, Modi would simply appear as another rando addressing a foreign crowd with platitudes about India, the internet, and what he calls democracy.

What has astonished me is the extent to which Modi is successful in this operation. It is partially a problem of the nearly non-existent transnational competencies possessed by your average Yankee. Students at Penn—particularly, those running the student paper—can’t wrap their heads around the idea that, in this case, Penn and Wharton are not local sites embedded within the U.S. but are rather scenes of a transnational struggle with potentially extraordinary ramifications for India. But the provincialism of Yankees is exacerbated by a certain form of liberal-postcolonial normativity. Consider this counter-factual case: the Penn students, professors, and administrators who support protests against Modi’s disinvitation in the name of “free speech” would (I think) be unwilling to support, say, a propagandistic presentation from a member of the Greek Golden Dawn on campus. I think that they would be able to see that allowing such a presentation would be tantamount to legitimating and supporting Greek fascism. But the BJP is no less vicious than Golden Dawn. How, then, to account for this discrepancy between (possible) receptions? Aside from the BJP’s possession of a better propaganda machine, aside from the fact that BJP supporters are enrolled at and teach at Penn, I want to suggest that a certain form of postcolonial normativity inhibits U.S. liberals from protesting and preventing their manipulation by Modi. The soft postcolonial normativity of the U.S.’s liberal public sphere enables India’s diasporic right to achieve incipiently international recognition for its racial-nationalist aims.

We can see this dynamic at work in Rajiv Malhotra’s article, “The Hijacking of Wharton.” A crazy conservative, Malhotra is syndicated on the supposedly progressive Huffington Post. To be blunt, Malhotra is a moron, and he has a made a career of deploying postcolonial critique for crazy Hindu-right ends. Malhotra is just outraged that “Indian professors specialize in scholarship criticizing colonialism” (he’s talking about my teachers and friends) could be complicit in “serving…American policies on interventions in India.” Malhotra calls my teachers and friends “sepoys,” a term he helpfully glosses in parentheses: “(The sepoys were Indian soldiers serving the British army to fight against other Indians.)” A few things are happening here. First and foremost, Malhotra assumes an audience entirely unfamiliar with South Asian history; anyone with the barest modicum of knowledge would not need “sepoy” glossed (or, indeed, would accept so inadequate a gloss). Malhotra hopes to capitalize on the ignorance of the average HuffPo reader. Second, Malhotra abstracts what was a transnational dispute between a transnational South Asian left (with Yankee allies) and a transnational Indian right (with Yankee allies) into the international field, coding the dispute over Modi speaking at Wharton as having taken place “in India” and as a struggle between the Indian nation and Yankee imperialists. Third, Malhotra uses anti- and postcolonial symbolics to transform race into the bedrock of the nation and so as a regulative principle for international relations. Think about how Malhotra defines and uses the figure of the sepoy. Given the uneven and complex political cartography of 18th and 19th century South Asia, it’s difficult to understand how a sepoy could recognize himself as an “Indian” conscripted to “fight against other Indians.” But that’s no problem for Malhotra, for whom Indianness functions as a racial essence; it’s there even when it isn’t or could not be. In yesteryear, British colonialism prevented this racial nation from achieving full institutional positivity; today, it is race-traitorish “sepoys” like my friends and teachers who inhibit India’s ability to become a fully sovereign India (which means an India in which non-Hindus know, or are put in, their place). By returning to the cathected symbolics of colonialism, Malhotra can code the Hindu right’s blockage from circuits of transnational power (Modi's disinvitation) as an international and imperialist denial of Indian sovereignty. Malhotra’s message to a liberal Yankee public is clear: Keep your hands off India, let it “be different” (as one of his book title’s has it), or else you’re supporting a racist neo-colonialism.

This soft postcoloniality poses the moral and political borders of the international as ethically impregnable (e.g., I, a white Yankee, can’t offer a critique of Modi without being coded as an EIC operative) in order to provide cover for an Indian right eager to deploy transnational economic and political resources for racial-nationalist ends. Of course, every single postcolonialist ever knows that Malhotra is perverting the legacy of anticolonial revolution and the ever-necessary practice of postcolonial critique. If postcolonial critique begins with anticolonial resistance to Eurocentric forms of power—political, economic, cultural, epistemic, and so on—it’s very next step is to critique those elites who, seizing upon the affective and ideological rush of anticipated sovereignty, transform anticolonial revolt and access to global capital into a process of inegalitarian nation-state-building. Malhotra holds onto the first, necessary moment, using anticolonial negation as a means to assert a multicultural right to hard-right difference. He seizes upon aspects of 90s poco/multiculti theory, a theory that valued the difference of dispersed particularities, in order to justify the will-to-power of a phobic, violent particularism. He’s doing it consciously, poisonously, making a mockery of the very real necessity to confront the structures of racial power that he supports.

But it works. For a U.S. public sphere, for well-intentioned liberals and college students who don’t want to be racist or colonialist and love the right to free speech, such claims are convincing. (I refer again to his early millennial—and ongoing—critique of South Asian religious studies, which [I think] knotted U.S.-based scholars up in fear that this racist asshole was going to accuse them of being colonialist racists because their scholarship could not be made to jive with a racial-nationalism organized by a transhistorical image of Hinduism.) The effect is that, in the name of postcolonial difference, in the name of the right of colonized peoples to sovereign statehood, U.S. liberals are willing to tolerate the intolerable, to provide institutional spaces and pseudo-constitutional cover for a Hindutva technocrat with blood on his hands. It’s not a question of “intervention,” as Malhotra puts it; this shit is happening in West Philly. The soft normativity of postcolonial respect transforms transnational interactions into scenes of international recognition. Thus, the claim, “the U.S. needs to respect India’s sovereignty” becomes, by a conservative poco sleight of hand, “Penn needs to welcome Modi.” By legitimating Modi and assisting in the purification of his bloody record, such welcome might end up producing the reality it assumes: enhanced by a positive reception in the U.S., Modi might end up personifying India on the international stage as its PM.

We desperately need to update postcoloniality for transnational times. Not in theory (it’s already there) but in our pedagogy, whether in classrooms or in the public sphere. This is a boots-on-the-ground question: soft postcolonial normativity calcifies the political and ethical purchase of international borders, producing what the arch-conservative Burke called a “moral geography” utterly out of sync with the transnational political exigencies of our times, and so inhibiting potential allies from helping out. Indeed, those of us who organized against Modi’s coming to Wharton were a little saddened by the lack of reception that we expected from our friends and colleagues—people who, just last year, were out and about for Occupy. I’m also saddened that anti-racist and anti-fascist organizers are not more invested (invested at all?) in preventing the BJP from using U.S. localities to gain enhanced power for anti-Muslim ends—they certainly go after Golden Dawn. We need, then, to develop a public political language for relating the necessity of challenging this pernicious form of transnational right-wing organization. I’m not sure if the rhetoric of “fascism” that some of us have been using—myself included—is useful, no matter how accurately it describes either the existent phenomenon or anticipated project of Modism. I say this because the sign “fascism,” in the U.S. public sphere, invokes an event so horrendous as to be removed from politics and so (except for antifa people) from politicization. The horrific grandeur of the term might turn some off (“That’s an exaggeration”) or reduce others to quietism (“What can I do?”). In the U.S., fascism is (for better or worse) in a museum, but Modism is on the streets.  It walked across 34th Street yesterday, arm in arm with the U.S. right, carrying posters of Franklin and Modi and racist caricatures of my teachers and friends. College liberals clapped their hands, congratulating them on defending their rights.

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