Throughout history, the powerful have found it fruitful to divide the world into “us” and “them”. The “other” can be very useful, once isolated by those in power. The “other” can be depicted as anything — uncouth, inferior, and even dangerous.
Tribalism is defined as an unreasonable loyalty towards one’s own group, or tribe. A mistrust of other groups and/or a belief in one’s own group’s superiority usually drives this loyalty. Such sentiments are often exploited by politicians who wish to come into or stay in power.
Tribalism has affected the Indian American community since the very first pioneers immigrated to America in the early 20th century. In 1907, the “Asiatic Exclusion League” triggered a series of race riots against East and South Asian immigrant workers, killing an unknown number of people and leading to a new era of restrictions on immigration for Asians. The Asiatic Exclusion League’s goals were laid out in their pamphlet, “American Manhood vs Asiatic Coolieism. Which shall survive?”
Tribalism is the root cause of intolerance and dogmatism. It has driven people to hold the most irrational beliefs and commit unspeakable acts. And yet, it seems that we’ve never quite learned the damage it has done and continues to do. History tells the story of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, where up to 30,000 Huguenot Protestants in France were slaughtered by majoritarian mobs.
Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime is the most methodological example of tribalism. Hitler exploited Germany’s terrible conditions and gave the German people a scapegoat — the Jews. Having divided his country into “us” and “them”, he was able to isolate the Jews and give them any label he wanted. This culminated in the final form of tribalism — the Holocaust.
Again and again, similar tactics have been used to demonize, isolate, and slaughter people from a community. The world saw this in the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda, and more recently in the genocide of Yazidis carried out by the radical jihadist Islamic State.
There are similar forces behind the “Great Replacement Theory” espoused by white nationalists. They believe that immigrants from non-white countries (such as India) will lead to the replacement of whites in the Western world and the eventual downfall of western civilization. In 1975, Jean Raspail wrote Le Camp des Saints, a novel describing a mass invasion of Indian immigrants to France, ending with the “filthy, brutish immigrants” overcoming the best efforts of heroic white nationalists trying to save Western civilization. The “Great Replacement Theory” is rapidly gaining followers — in 2011, Le Camp des Saints was a top 5 bestseller in French bookstores.
India has defied those who doubted her by uniting over a billion people of different ethnicities, religions, languages, and political thought all under one constitution and one flag. That being said, it is critical to examine tribalism in India. Let it be said — a criticism of an idea or a law should never be taken as a criticism of a group of people. There are some, of course, who may perceive it as such.
India’s diversity sometimes lends itself to be exploited to create tribalist sentiments among people.
Perhaps one of the biggest prices of this exploitation of tribalism and its fears were paid by the subcontinent in 1947 when about 2 million people lost their lives in senseless massacres in just a few months. Jinnah exploited the unfounded fears of Muslim subjugation in a free India and was able to influence not just the Muslim masses but also Congress and British alike to pave the way for Pakistan on religious lines.
Unfortunately, militant action didn’t end there. In the 1990s, Islamic fundamentalists in Kashmir committed ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Hindus, forcing them to leave their homeland in an orgy of tribalistic fervor. With some sick logic, these perpetrators saw themselves as ‘liberators’. To this date, most Kashmiri Hindus haven’t returned home.
More recently, one of the most striking examples of sectarianism getting mainstreamed in India is the absurd “love jihad” conspiracy theory becoming legislation in some states. According to its believers, there is an international conspiracy of lecherous Muslim men to seduce Hindu women and convert them to Islam, eventually displacing Hindus in India. Of course, the woman’s choice is assumed to be inconsequential, as she is simply an object, a possession, to be protected from the other tribe. This wild theory has been propagated by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), social misinformation campaigns, and right-wing media. This is a classic example of the exploitation of tribalistic insecurities to further a political agenda.
The Trump administration used tribalism to its advantage as well. His message of immigrants taking jobs has appeal to right-wing voters. It was concerning when Steve Bannon commented that South Asian CEOs undermine “civic society” in America.
Naturally, White nationalist tribalism is a cause of great alarm to the diaspora. In the 1980s in New Jersey, an Indophobic gang known as the “Dotbusters” brutally attacked Indians on the streets. In 2017, a man in Olathe, Kansas shot two Indian men dead while screaming “get out of my country!”.
Tribalism’s strength is in its power to convince someone that there is an “other”, an enemy. As it spreads like wildfire on social media, not enough is being done to stop it. While we should speak up against these trends everywhere in the world, the least we can do is to not read and forward any sensational conspiratorial messages on social media.
Together, all people must stand united in condemning its unrelenting attacks, whenever and wherever it rears its ugly head. Then, and only then, we can come closer to achieving the peace the world has been thirsty for since the dawn of humanity.
Ashir Rao is a student at Los Gatos High School, CA. He likes programming and history — especially as it relates to current events.