Sachin Tendulkar didn’t “take the knee” but did send a message from the stadium once. On 24 April 2011, he was in my hometown of Hyderabad to play a birthday match for the Mumbai Indians against the Deccan Chargers. There was no celebration though, nor even the usual cheerleading at the game. His guru, Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, had passed away that morning. It was a mark of respect by the players, officials and spectators, rather than a “protest”, but in a way it was a statement too; that the public’s desire for entertainment, and the sports-TV-advertising machine’s imperatives, could not override the reverence and love for Baba that many people, from Sachin to the spectators, felt.
Fast forward from that sober expression of public sentiment to the present. A few days ago, the Indian cricket team “took the knee”, just as sportspeople in the US have been doing since Nike-sponsored, Netflix-eulogised NFL Quarterback Colin Kaepernick bravely led the charge a few years ago. The Indian team’s gesture was meant to be in support of Black cricketers, according to my friend, a lifelong cricketer. Its reception, however, was mostly negative. Progressive South Asian activists, conservative British writers like Douglas Murray and Australian commentator Andrew Bolt said, “But what about the caste system?”, naturally.
As for the rest of us, we probably knew there was no point even asking about what just happened in Bangladesh. “Hindu Lives” don’t matter; to advertisers (though Hindu festivals do, as business opportunities), to celebrities prospering by preaching Hindu cultural extinction, and to most other elites who run powerful institutions in India and abroad.
Hindus don’t need to have voices, rights, even lives. It’s the way it is.
But there was a moment ten years ago when a cricket legend, and the public, and the management, all saw decency in honouring a Hindu guru. Today, they (the elites, if not the public, still) would kick a sadhu down the pitch and shout “repent” just to show their moral superiority. They are already staging simulations of it in political rallies apparently (see this image of a rally in Kerala where a person representing Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath was manhandled).
Hinduphobia and wokeness
The urge to extinguish Hindus and Hinduism has stretched the limits of truth and decency. A student magazine associated with a California university asked students to boycott Diwali with a picture of a diya with the flame put out, a well-recognised symbol of inauspiciousness and death in our culture. This is the same United States where they are so serious about fighting racism that they will, rightly, punish anyone who dares draw a noose on a wall because it signified lynching (though the US isn’t ready apparently to empower its indigenous peoples enough to punish people for making ludicrous “chop” gestures that evoke the history of settlers paying for Native American scalps).
This is the same United States where Black Lives Of Course Matter, which we can all agree with, but not Indian lives, indigenous lives, Hindu lives.
The cruel irony around this anti-Hindu hatred is that even though it’s rooted in the same history of racism and religious bigotry that the woke culture claims to fight, most avowed progressives and anti-racists deny it exists. Their claim, made in academia and NGOs, and strongly endorsed in elite corporate and tech circles, is that there is no Hinduphobia, but there is Hindu privilege akin to White privilege that one must performatively atone for.
The lack of truth and logic in this position is of course something that people have been arguing about for some years now. Hindus have seen not only the old forms of Right-wing religious Hinduphobia from traditional quarters like Christian and Islamic supremacists but now also face it from the supposedly progressive woke culture as well. The problem, though, is that we see the symptoms of woke Hinduphobia, but rarely understand the causes of it, leaving it at a shallow level of diagnosis like a “Cultural Marxist” conspiracy to “infiltrate” the pristine and pure-hearted corporate world. What anyone who cares about truth (and survival) needs to understand is the deep complicity between these two worlds.
Wokeism is capitalism
It is in this context that I found Vivek Ramaswamy’s book, Woke, Inc: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam, to be a profound analysis of the raging cultural, political, and psychological phenomenon that is wokeness. Unlike most critics of wokeness who tend to lose the debate by conceding the biggest lie to the woke peddlers (the giant corporations profiting off social causes who claim to be pro-poor), Ramaswamy, an Ivy League-trained biotech entrepreneur and WSJ columnist, accurately identifies it as a powerful capitalist hoax instead. He’s not against capitalism, not at all; he just believes, like the separation of church and state, that capitalism is best when it focuses on its products and profits, and leaves social justice alone.
Instead, what we have today is a rising “woke-industrial Leviathan” that is becoming ever more powerful by dividing people into “new identities based on skin-deep characteristics and flimsy social causes” that replace deeper forms of identity such as family, community, and nationality.
Wokeism is “crony capitalism 2.0,” a clever ploy seized upon by big businesses soon after the ignominious 2009 recession to deflect attention from their own greed and megalomania by flaunting their cool social justice credentials. I found it incredible that all this is not Chomsky or Parenti, but Ramaswamy! His diagnosis is sharp, exhaustive (virtually everything from Nike endorsements and Twitter bans of Presidents are covered), and most importantly, truly un-divisive in these polarised times. The only division he advocates, in fact, is of democracy and capitalism, for an urgent “social distancing” between the two.
A referendum on wokeness… and reality
Ramaswamy’s book should be taken even more seriously now in America where the Virginia governor’s election appears to have become a referendum on not just wokeness but on reality itself. CNN, MSNBC, and the media-academic establishment have dug into their explanations ever more deeply, refusing to meet worried parents complaining about bizarre pseudo-pedagogic rituals being imposed on elementary school children even halfway to debate them.
Virginia parents felt like they were being demonised simply for saying that a distinction should be made between teaching American history of racism and slavery as it is, and forcing small children into seeing themselves as innately and forever divided by the colour of their skin. The Democrats and their media supporters, on the other hand, simply kept repeating that “CRT isn’t taught” the same way they always say “Hinduphobia isn’t real”. Whether “it” is called “CRT” or something else, when there is something going on in schools, families have a right to talk about it, and not be talked down toby TV talk show hosts and politicians (US school history is a complex one, with big foundations and even eugenicist megalomaniacs investing in schooling as a form of social engineering, as rebel teacher John Gatto has shown in his books).
It is a small sign of hope in these polarised times that Republicans like Condoleeza Rice and truly conscientious Democrats (as opposed to phony conscientious ones) like Tulsi Gabbard have weighed in on the need to find a balance, and yet, one side seems more oblivious than ever. Rarely has propaganda been this effective in history, as far as I know.
Watching the manufactured controversies and divisions about what should be simple community and family decisions like children’s education in America (or in India too, for that matter), or how we celebrate our traditions and festivals, I cannot believe how quickly and counterproductively the well-meaning and mostly academic “critical” project many of us in universities believe in has been appropriated, commodified, and weaponised by global capitalism against the people.
But to engage with this phenomenon, we need to go beyond the symptoms to the causes. And I’m happy to accept that diagnosis from a self-professed “conservative” like Ramaswamy who is being more honest about Wall Street than the so-called Lefties and Liberals. Read his book. Left and Right both need to learn from each other if we are to wake up from the madness of our times.
The writer teaches media studies at the University of San Francisco. Views expressed are personal.