Madam Kamala Harris, here’s why Holi is Indian, not ‘south Asian’

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It was a seemingly innocuous Holi wish by the US Vice President meant for the “south Asian community”. Just that while trying to bring a candy box out of an old cellar, Kamala Harris pulled out an entire trail of dead past, rotting present, and smelly intent.

Madam Vice President, which South Asian communities are celebrating Holi except Hindus in India and maybe Nepal? A day before Holi in 2019, two Hindu girls were abducted from Dhaka town of Pakistan’s Sindh, raped, and converted. They are mere statistics. Thousands of Hindu girls meet the same fate. Even this year just three weeks before Holi, there was a large protest at Okara in Pakistan’s Punjab against forced conversions.

In another South Asian nation, Bangladesh, this year a mob of 200 Islamists led by Haji Shafiullah ransacked the Iskcon Radhakanta temple a day before Holi, injuring many devotees.

So, which South Asians are Kamala Harris wishing on Holi? Is she tone deaf, or is it an attempt to dilute Indians and Hindus’ relationship with Holi?

These questions arise because of well-orchestrated attempts in the past. Publisher and author Sankrant Sanu had done a Google Ngram search across many scanned books and journals tracing the use of the term ‘south Asia’.

He writes in his piece, ‘How South Asian is a racist trope of cultural erasure’: “So South Asia as a term is negligible till the 1940s, and really starts to be used in the late 1950s and 1960s. This is when the CIA is setting up ‘South Asia Studies’ departments in US universities. The premise of ‘South Asia’ is that India was never a nation or civilisation and is simply composed of different ‘sub-nationalities’ to be grouped together. This is, of course, ahistoric. Even in the Western consciousness, India has been a far more prominent term than ‘South Asia’.”

But the attempt to subvert the Indian identity in American academia did not stop with the Cold War. Shadowy anti-India interest groups took over the cause. In 2015, for instance, the South Asia Faculty Group in California did something quite brazen. It sent letters to the California Department of Education arguing for several changes in the curriculum. They wanted “most references to India before 1947 should be changed to South Asia”. They also asked references to “Hinduism” be changed to ‘religion of ancient India”.

“Thirty-six of these edits had to do with simply eliminating the words ‘India’ or ‘Hinduism’ from the curriculum. Were these simply harmless recommendations about the Indus Valley lying in Pakistan today and ‘South Asia’ being more appropriate as the LA Times made it out to be? No. Several edits change the meaning of the lines severely and support the South Asia Studies scholars' view that there essentially was no ‘India’ before 1947,” scholar Vamsee Juluri wrote in Huffpost.

These sweeping, diabolical changes would have sneaked into the syllabus, given the initial enthusiasm of the California education department.

But a massive Hindu backlash began, with the Hindu American Foundation at the forefront. More than 25,000 signatures of professors, scholars, students and parents whooshed in under the ‘Don’t Erase India campaign. It forced the Instructional Quality Commission to retain the word India in every instance with the curriculum framework. An old civilisation triumphed.

Many Western scholars have stood against the attempted dilution of the idea of India. Krzysztof Iwanek, Indologist and the head of the Asia Research Centre, War Studies University, Poland, is one such. While pointing out that Gautam Buddha was technically born in modern Nepal, he brilliantly explains the context.

“Buddha’s teachings were a part of Indian philosophy and they built on and referred to (and sometimes rebelled against) earlier Indian thought and religious customs. The Buddhist canon was preserved in Indian languages (mostly in Pali, to some degree also in Sanskrit). If, instead of this, we would say that these were “South Asian philosophy” and “South Asian languages,” such descriptions, even though theoretically correct, would fail to explain anything, to paint any context, to understand linkages and divisions,” he writes in The Diplomat. “India is historically a broad cultural notion (a civilization), and at present a political one as well. As such, it cannot be described only with reference to time and space, but primarily with reference to people, their thoughts and actions.”

Harris’s wishes may seem innocent, but its context clearly isn’t. With anti-India lobbies on overdrive in the West since India’s assertive nationalism under Narendra Modi, it is ever more important to stay vigilant. The more this civilisation flourishes despite its deep wounds, the more its aggressors seem to hate it.

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Madam Kamala Harris, here’s why Holi is Indian, not ‘south Asian’
Madam Kamala Harris, here’s why Holi is Indian, not ‘south Asian’
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