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South Asians in America

Vijay Prashad’s Uncle Swami is an eye-opening picture of Asian Indians in the United States—insightful, acerbic, and totally revealing.  In his preface, the author (a frequent contributor to CounterPunch) explains that his intent is to show that  after 9/11, Americans and South Asians in the country began to share a troubling “intimate relationship” that largely supports his premise: “the excuse for war continues largely to be color and race…that war making is a natural outgrowth of the culture of the hierarchy within the United States, a culture that has resulted in the creation of vast swaths of disposable people for whose control we have created an archipelago of prisons and ghettos, and a culture that relies upon spending on the military rather than on social goods to maintain the equilibrium.”

Historically, the affinity between Americans and South Asians (read: Hindus) did not exist.  But after 9/11, when many immigrants were united by fear, things began to change, certainly exacerbated by citizen attacks on South Asians (particularly Sikhs).  “Indian Americans did not know political struggles for freedom.  In India they were born after independence had been won, and in the United States they arrived after the civil rights battles had already won them dignity and rights.”  But once they were being attacked, it became necessary for Hindus, especially, to align themselves with mainstream Americans.  How did they do that?  They emulated Jews, setting up professional and, in fact, lobbying organizations to gain recognition and power at the expense of African-Americans and other minority groups.

India aligned herself with Israel.  In the United States, the push for multiculturalism in the academy helped the alignment without eliminating racism, while continuing to reward those who were regarded as white, which included Hindus.  Our post-civil rights era is supported by a deregulated state.  That state, controlled by a ruling elite, has “opted for military and police spending and petroleum-funded transportation networks rather than for social spending, largely because the latter would create the basis for social solidarity.  If you provide universal health care and public transportation, it will link the destiny of individuals and families into a collective, which will then provide the kinds of collective feelings that threaten the basis of hierarchical power and wealth.’”

“Military force has become an even more necessary component of statecraft as the United States sees its manufacturing wither and its society become addicted to credit and cheap goods from elsewhere.  The United States has one main comparative advantage, its military force, which it uses as a means to maintain its authority over the planet, despite its termite-ridden financial house.” Prashad later adds, “Globalization makes the world an island for corporate power.”

Uncle Swami is as much about the United States’ choke hold on the world via its vast imperial goals as its is about the insidious ways that certain cultural groups (Hindus) have aligned themselves with that power—again, at the sake of continued racism and exploitation of those less fortunate.  Thus Uncle Swami has become Uncle Sam.  “The Hindu Right thrives on the humiliation of Indian Muslims, Christians, and oppressed castes, and it derives its social power from those who are survivors of the failed experiment in globalization.”

It didn’t have to be this way, of course.  Gandhi’s writings pointed clearly in another direction, but few paid any attention.  “Good feelings of charity are often more for the bourgeois than for the deprived: it makes us feel good to give, doing nothing as it were to change the system of deprivation.”  Even “air-conditioned priests” have been complicit.  “Hinduism that cares more for its reputation than for its relevance is no longer a living tradition.”

Nowhere is Prashad more relentless than in his attack on organized religion: “It is a mark of shame that our religious traditions, all our religious traditions, have paid so little interest in the mounting suffering of the people….  What we need is a plan that takes us past the world’s horrendous poverty into something that resembles equality.  A roadblock right before us is the belief that religious chauvinism is a reasonable substitute for a good meal.”

Uncle Swami is chockablock with insights about an America gone wrong and the way that certain groups have become its clones in order to march to the same drummer.  Vijay Prashad has a profound understanding of what ills our country and the powers that want to keep things as they are.  The  book is a scathing attack on Hindus who have sold their souls to become part of America’s elitist system, but Prashad is harder—as he should be—on the culture that has become their model.

Vijay Prashad: Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today

The New Press, 196 pp., $21.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email:

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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