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A Tide of Turbans
Obama in India
by VIJAY PRASHAD

On November 6, before the election dust settles in the United States, President Obama will arrive in Mumbai, India. He will go to the Taj Mahal Hotel, the site of the November 2008 terrorist attack. The Obama team will commandeer the hotel. Bill Clinton’s favorite restaurant in India is the Bukhara, in Delhi’s Maurya Hotel, where there is an overstuffed platter that retails in his name (over $100). The Taj has a restaurant more to Obama’s taste, the Masala Kraft, Indian food cooked in a minimalist way, with low oil. No flamboyant tastes. It is his style.

On the day of his arrival, Obama will go to Mani Bhavan, where Gandhi would stay when in Mumbai. In 1959, Martin Luther King, Jr., came to this “Gandhi Museum.” He was moved by the space where Gandhi sat, now cordoned off from the public. King wanted to go and sit in the room, among Gandhi’s remaining objects. The Museum’s curator was hesitant, but could not refuse a State guest. King meditated on the floor, where Gandhi once did. Hours went by. The curator asked King’s companions when they planned to leave, since he had to close the Bhavan. King asked if he could stay the night, by himself, and sleep where Gandhi had slept. The curator, once more, had to allow his guest this privilege. King did so, to the discomfort of his friends.

The next morning, King wrote in the guest book, “To have the opportunity of sleeping in the house where Gandhiji slept is an experience that I will never forget.” A few days later, on All India Radio, King hoped that “India may have to take the lead and call for universal disarmament.” No such statement is on offer from the U. S. President. The balance of forces in the U. S. is too ugly today for any repeat of this, or even of Obama’s September 2009 call at the United Nations for nuclear non-proliferation. This Nobel Peace Prize winner, unlike King (who also won the prize, in 1964), has seldom good news for the world.

Obama and his team come to India with a different agenda. On the political front, movement seems unlikely. The Indian government’s opening gambit is to seek U. S. support for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. But even if this comes through there is no guarantee that India will offer any concessions to U. S. war aims in Afghanistan and Pakistan; India has its own interests in the region, driven by the view that its must seek primacy over developments in its immediate neighborhood. In Afghanistan, India’s interests are legion, and not always in line with those of Pakistan – herein lies the rub, as the United States must walk a fine line between the antagonisms that bedevils its two allies, not to point to the lack of its own strategy for a war that is now almost out of control.

Bob Woodward (in Obama’s Wars) portrays a torn president, eager to secure Afghanistan so that the “cancer doesn’t spread” to Pakistan. The thinking about the region, as shown in Woodward’s book, is pedestrian. It does not consider the many overlapping considerations, from Iran, from China, from India, from Pakistan, from Russia, from the Central Asian states, and of course, from the Afghan people themselves. Slogans of terrorism and failed states are not up to the task. Doubtful that Obama’s team and that of the Indian government will find a common language.

The buffet table set for the corporations will find hearty eaters from both the Washington and New Delhi teams. Last week, Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economic Affairs Mike Froman told the press, that Obama’s main theme is going to be that “India is a tremendous market, potential market for U. S. exports and a source of investment back to the U. S.” Obama will want the Indian government to open the door to more agricultural exports from the United States to India.

Behind all this, full steam ahead, is the agenda of Monsanto, the giant agro-business firm. When Bush came to India in 2006, Monsanto’s agricultural policy masqueraded as his own, and much the same is on offer from Obama. The push is to bypass public domain science for the secret and profitable world of private capital dominated intellectual property – the Umbrella Science Agreement (2005) sets the terms. Perhaps Obama should smuggle onto his plane some farmers from Iowa who have lost their land to the financial crisis, and go with them to visit the families in Vidharba who have lost their loved ones to the epidemic of farmers’ suicides. They might find that the distance between Saikheda village and Rockwell City, Iowa is not so far after all.

In a twist, it is no longer the United States that asks India to dismantle its barriers to trade. Now, Washington begs for investment and the opportunity to enter the Indian market; Indian industry demands that Washington end its protectionism. The Confederation of Indian Industry released a report a few days ago, pointing to a slew of U. S. laws that restrict imports (such as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a boondoggle for U. S. iron and steel through the “Buy America” provisions). The CII need not worry. Occasional bouts of protectionist rhetoric come from both U. S. parties, and a few weak laws here and there hit one or more sectors of the Indian economy. But there is no stomach in the U. S. for a return to the 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariffs; the only sector that continues to slide under the radar of the WTO is U. S. agriculture, fully subsidized on behalf of agro-industry against the interests of farmers and consumers everywhere.

In India, both the Right and the Left are unhappy with the current state of U. S.-India relations. Commentators of the Right bristle that the U. S. has paid more attention to China than India (Hillary Clinton went to Beijing before she descended on the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai; in 2009, Obama and Hu Jintao signed a comprehensive statement to strengthen their relations). The Indian Right is obsessed with China, and any sign, however weak, that anyone is cozy with China, sets them off.

The Left will organize mass demonstrations during Obama’s visit, but they won’t have the same energy as the enormous protest that engulfed Bush’s trip in 2006. Bush and his agenda were so much easier to despise; he was a cartoon image of U. S. imperialism. Obama’s approach is similar, but his style is sophisticated, and it disempowers his critics. The Left’s list of complaints includes the failure to extradite Warren Anderson (who headed Union Carbide in 1984, and should bear some responsibility for the Bhopal Gas accident), the U. S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the U. S. move to bring India into its military orbit.

The latter point is central. It will happen on the margins of Obama’s visit. The Generals will meet, and the arms dealers will shake hands. Already India and the U. S. have a very intimate military and arms sales relationship. It is expected that the arms deals will total between $5-$12 billion. The U. S. wants to use sale of military technology as a quid-pro-quo for India’s signing the Logistics Support Agreement, allowing U. S. military forces to use India for refueling and transit. In 2003, the Indian Parliament refused to allow Indian troops to enter the Iraq war besides the U. S. and U. K. That strand of independence remains, and the Congress-led government might not be able to get a full embrace with the Pentagon.

One newsflash has yet to send the requisite tremor through the Indian establishment: the United Kingdom, for the first time since the Spanish Armada ran aground in the English Channel, has decided to cut its military force, and so, its projection of imperial power. The removal of the colonies by the 1960s did not dampen Britain’s imperial ambitions (as in the Falklands, and, in a secondary role, in Afghanistan and Iraq). This is the death knell, as historian Eric Hobsbawm pointed out at Cambridge last week. India might want to sneak into the absent British role.

During Obama’s passage to India, he has declined to visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar. This is a pity. I was there this summer, at 4am, to experience the full glory of the palki, when the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, comes from the Akal Takth to the Harimandir. Even a hardened atheist like myself is moved by the beauty of the moment. This might have been the decompression that Obama needs. But it will not be so. India’s two prominent cheerleaders for the United States must be grievously insulted by this decision. Both the Prime Minister (Manmohan Singh) and the Montek Singh Ahluwalia (Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission) are Sikhs. A few of my friends believed that the visit to the Golden Temple was cancelled on the advice of members of Obama’s circle who have close ties to the Hindutva Right. More likely is the toxic political noise on Sikhs that has inflicted U. S. political discourse since 9/11.

After 9/11, one of the first casualties of the backlash was Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona. He was mistaken for a terrorist because of his beard and turban. The turban has always provoked anxiety; the Sikhs who came to California in the 19th century were greeted with hostility. But the Sikhs didn’t take it lightly: “I used to go to Maryville every Saturday,” one man recounted in the 1920s, “One day a drunk ghora [white man] came out of a bar and motioned to me saying, ‘Come here, slave!’ I said I was no slave man. He told me that his race ruled India and America, too. All we were slaves. He came close to me and I hit him and got away fast.” George W. Bush spoke out against the post-9/11 backlash. His was the typical case of fire starter in one hand, fire extinguisher in another.

The violence against Sikhs was not only the work of the hoi polli; this is Congressman John Cooksey (Republican-Louisiana), “If I see someone [who] comes in that’s got a diaper on his head and a fan belt wrapped around the diaper on his head, that guy needs to be pulled over.” The gap between Sikhs and Muslims was irrelevant. Senator Conrad Burns (Republican-Montana) fulminated against the “faceless enemy” who “drive taxicabs in the daytime and kill at night” (August 2006).

Since the Park 51 (mosque in lower Manhattan) episode, political discourse sounds like a Lydia Lunch song. Here is Congresswoman Sue Myrick (Republican-North Carolina), “The Quran makes worthless toilet paper. I like desecrating their holy stuff.” If it were not offensive, it would be plainly silly, the worst juvenile flatulence. The seriousness of it forced South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) to produce a report in October 2010 entitled From Macacas to Turban Toppers: The Rise in Xenophobic and Racist Rhetoric in American Political Discourse. My examples are from here.

Obama’s team has been skittish about allowing their candidate to be associated with the tide of turbans, the display of dupattas. In June 2008, his campaign staff asked two Muslim women in Detroit to move from the section behind Obama. The staffer told Hebba Aref, “because of the political climate and what’s going on in the world and what’s going on with Muslim Americans, it’s not good for [Aref] to be seen on TV or associated with Obama.” Shimaa Abdelfadeel was told, “We’re not letting anyone with anything on their heads like baseball [caps] or scarves sit behind the stage. It has nothing to do with your religion.” This is Sarkozy’s assault on the head-scarf by stealth. No wonder the Golden Temple was off the agenda.

Ties between India and the United States should properly be seen as ties between the Chambers of Commerce of the two countries. The authentic people-to-people linkages have withered. After 9/11, anthropologist Jessica Falcone shows (in an essay in the new issue of Diaspora) the Sikh community in the Washington, DC area, bent over backwards to prove their patriotism. A Washington Post journalist came to visit a Sikh community leader, who told her, “we condemn harassment, we condemn terrorism. We are American, and we fully support the Bush administration.” One of his nephews had just been shot at because of his turban. “We are united as Sikhs,” he told the reporter, “and as Americans.” Patriotism is not, in this instance, the refuge of scoundrels. It is an act of desperation.

Anthropologist Rita Verma’s young Sikhs in an American town told her many, many stories of their own fears. Harminder talked of being chased from school everyday, and Parminder said, “Some of the girls grabbed my hair and pulled some strands out. They thought I was a Muslim girl and they thought I was evil. They kept shouting you are evil, you are evil. I just started to cry and felt like I had nowhere to go.” Obama’s entourage has Generals and CEOs. It will not build the real bridges that allow children like Parminder to live with dignity.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu