Coming into my adolescence in Canada, I had immediately identified with anyone being brown, regardless of the person’s national, religious, regional or caste affiliations. It is not that I had not been aware of these differences. I certainly was made conscious of caste and religious differences as a child, in an increasingly fundamentalist and sectarian Pakistan, that came into existence in the 1970s. I witnessed the “othering” of the Hindu and the Bengali in a Pakistan dominated by the West and West Pakistan.
Studying at a French high school in Québec, I was one of the three students of colour. The other two were Vietnamese and Egyptian girls. My siblings were more fortunate to have other South Asians in their English medium high schools. They made friends with other South Asians, and participated in bhangra and garba.
And then I “came out” as gay to many of my high school friends in the early 1980s. Both white and people of colour distanced themselves; the worst were the Black Jamaican and Parsee Pakistani boys. The one or two white gay allies that I thought I could count on, could not believe that I could tackle a conservative Pakistani family like mine. They told me I would never survive. Finally, when I got kicked out of my house for “coming out”, it was the white straight Christian girl who sheltered me until I found my first “real” job.
When I was “coming out” I made alliances with other gay and lesbian people of colour. At a predominantly white gay youth group, the Chinese gay and lesbian members became my friends. We went out for dinner in Chinatown, celebrated the New Year together and shared similar family histories. The following year, I was to meet my first Indian gay person. Rita was born in North America. She came from a Hindu Punjabi family and me from a Muslim one. Religious background did not make any difference. It never became an issue.
Soon afterwards, I was to meet a gay man, Mukesh, brought up in India. He was the first gay man I met whom I perceived as brown. At the sight of me, however, all his stereotypes about Pakistanis came out, even though I did not count as a “real” Pakistani as I had not grown up there. In fact, identifying me as not-really-Pakistani gave Mukesh good ground to voice his Hindu bigotry. Friends with me as he was, but with a brother nominated as a BJP candidate, Mukesh was torn between wanting a Hindu Indian nation and showing other Hindus how Muslims could be good and even compatible as Muslim friends. As for me: was I even Muslim then? Or was that even an issue, except that he made it into one?
I began to learn about South Asia from an Indian perspective. I was taught by many teachers of Indian origin. I loved Indian parallel cinema and was applauded by my teachers when I learnt to question the coming into existence of the Pakistani nation, and think about a united India, a notion I would still like to believe in.
Then the Gulf war happened. I was instantly identified as a Muslim, at airports and at university. With an obviously Muslim family name, I was at two occasions searched at airports, joked about being a relative of Sadam Hussein etc. The West and India shared in the demonization of the Muslim and I came to be perceived increasingly as a Muslim. The notion that Pakistan and the West were allies began to fade, and India emerged as the capitalist, friendly nation. But India could no longer blame Pakistan as being solely allied to the West. In fact, India gave birth to the best of capitalism through the 1990s and the beginning of the 21st century. Hindutva forces gained ground, and my relationships with Hindu men became very tense.
It has been argued, by secular diasporic proponents of South Asian community building, that Hindutva had numerically occupied a very small support base from the Indian electorate during the anti-colonial movement. Aside from the marginal Hindutva ideologues such as V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar, my readings, of the central figure in Indian nationalism and her first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, reveals that Hindutva was inextricably intertwined with the core of this nationalism. By the 1940s, it had constructed the “Muslim” as an outsider to the Indian nation and positioned the nation against the Muslim. It is Nehru’s Discovery of India that talks of the Muslim invasions and the resultant empires as more problematic than any other invaders and regimes, which were always incorporated unequivocally into being Hindu. For example, the Shakas and the Huns became “Hindus” – as if prior settlers did not construct the “other” as worshipper of one god or the other, or classify the majority of the population as untouchable or outside the caste structure.
Once “Muslim” was claimed as the first outsider, it could be concluded that only the Muslim constructed the other as “kaffir” or non-believer, only the Muslim excluded. There was no historical process through which other groups became Hindus or were Indianized. They just naturally were Hindu, set against the colonizer and the Muslim. Secularization in the West and the discovery of the Aryan race theory identified the Semite as intrinsically embodying problematic religion vis à vis the Aryan. Western historiography and Indian nationalism believed that the “Aryan” spread not bigoted systems of belief, but civilization to the entire world. Hence, “Hindu” was rendered indigenous, magically having resolved all its caste and “others” as part of the anti-colonial movement. In the context of the Harijan movement led by Gandhi and this leader’s guilt inspired tactics with Ambedkar, for Nehru, the “Muslim” was the only modern problem India confronted as the colonizer retreated back to England. In reality, however, it is still the colonizer that continues to access visas and unlimited entry into any South Asian territory, while the Indian or Pakistani cannot slip easily into one another’s.
And so it was with some of my friends. The Hindu as a category, as claimed by many Hindu bigots, always existed. There was neither invader blood nor any sense of privilege that some Hindus enjoyed as Hindus under Muslim rule. Unproblematic Hindus they had always been and would always be.
I have watched so many rich Indians and Pakistanis come into Canada and slide unquestionably into Canadian settler society. It is the poor and uneducated immigrant that has no “home” to go back to in the country of origin, nor the possibility of building rich pastures in the new colony. It is the same educated Indian on large scholarship and grants that tells me that Pakistanis are incapable of being anything else but engineers and doctors. Yet they become the sole representatives of leading research in the Sciences and Humanities. The Muslim is uncivilized and incapable of being anything but a terrorist. The only safe identity is to be a “secular Muslim” in which case you are still under scrutiny: “You’re not a terrorist, are you?” So to the Hindutva forces and the underbelly of Indian nationalism that constructed India, I would like to say: “You also had a very big hand in constructing the Pakistani nation, which you so love to hate.”
South Asia as a construct and South Asian studies in the West, continues to be heavily Indo-centric and biased towards Hindutva. I have been to two reputable South Asian Studies conferences, where the Indian ambassador is the sole spokesperson of the region, and s/he always positions her/himself against Pakistan (and recently singles Pakistan as the terrorist nation that the world should acknowledge). South Asian studies programs as currently constructed favour the study of Hinduism over Indian Islam tenfold. This of course is fuelled by the Islamization of Pakistan. This construction of Hinduism, as a religion, until very recently, has ignored the syncretic traditions such as Sufi poetry of Kabir or the figure of Jhule Lal in Sindh, as revered by Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims alike. This results in South Asian Islam being studied solely in the department of Islamic Studies, whereas Hinduism gains more ground in South Asian Studies departments. This may be a result of a lack of innovative research on South Asian Islam, but also is the result of Hindutva ideology which constructs Hinduism itself as more authentic and indigenous to the subcontinent.