Beyond Occident – an opinion column by Avatans Kumar that explores a native perspective on the Indian diaspora

When UPenn Professor Amy Wax found an opportunity to indulge in her racist and Hinduphobic opinions on an episode of Fox Nation, host Tucker Carlson did nothing to challenge her remarks. Instead, he remained a willing participant.

Among other denigrating comments, Wax called India a “shithole” country. She  went on to claim that “the role of envy and shame in the way the third world [sic] regards the first world […] creates ingratitude of the most monstrous kind.” She also said that ‘Brahmin women’ of India are taught that they are better than everybody. 

Professor Amy Wax on Tucker Carlson Today

Wax, the Robert Mundheim Professor of Law at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania  Law School,  is no stranger to controversies. In a 2018 podcast, Wax reportedly claimed that she had never seen a black student graduate in the top quarter of the class and rarely in the top half. Wax said that the US was “better off” with “fewer Asians” on another podcast

Earlier this year, UPenn’s Ted Ruger, Dean of the Carey Law School, announced that he would initiate a peer review process against Wax. The “review” could result in a reprimand, suspension, or termination of employment.

India is only about Caste, Cows and Curry

One can assume at least theoretically, that Wax’s outburst against India had roots in her education, interactions with people on campus, and her exposure to India via media. To some Americans, India is only about “caste, cows, and curry,” to steal a phrase from one of Jeffery Long’s talks.

It’s no secret that the perception of India in Western culture, texts, and traditions is at odds with the ground reality. The overriding Orientalist and colonial discourse about India fosters a dubious and distorted “outsider” narrative at the cost of an authentic insider one. This perspective has permeated deep into the Western consciousness and manifests in academic and popular presentations. 

From grade school textbooks to popular bestsellers and academic writings, information about India burgeons with biased inaccuracies.  In California’s school textbooks, the chapter on Hinduism for example, had a picture of cows eating trash. A discussion on the Mauryas, one of the world’s greatest dynasties, pictured laborers working alongside monkeys

Indian-Americans have fought hard to rid the textbooks of these distortions.

Anti-Hindu Image removed from a California textbook

South Asia (SA) centers and the departments of Indology worldwide have produced an enormous amount of India-related literature. But few do justice to presenting India truthfully. In the US they view India as  “populous but poor, largely democratic but politically fragile” (Nicholas B Dirks, Chancellor, University of California, Berkeley.) 

Blame ‘Atrocity Literature’ for distorted views of India

Independent researcher Rajiv Malhotra condemns much academic writing on India as “atrocity literature” that shows the target non-Western culture committing horrors on its own people, and hence “in need of Western intervention.” Understanding of the Devi-Devatas has been distorted by the twisted interpretation of influential academics. 

US media outlets are equally to blame. During the pandemic’s peak last year, the American press was obsessed with burning pyres of the dead Indians. This news probably got higher coverage in the media than the dead bodies in refrigerator trucks in New York. The American press often features stereotypical information about caste and cows without any nuanced understanding – see Reza Aslan’s ‘Believer’ on CNN. How much do educated Americans know about India’s contribution to science, mathematics, art, architecture, language, literature, or philosophy?

One could argue that the institutional presentation of India has shaped Wax’s understanding of the country. If so, why haven’t representative elites from the Indian diaspora – the academics, authors, artists, high profile CEOs, and media personalities – ever challenged Wax on her views?

Left -leaning ‘Rudalis’ should counter biased views on India

A significant contingent of Indian-American faculty, including those from the Indian diaspora at many prestigious US universities, are left-leaning. Ania Loomba, a liberal arts faculty at UPenn, successfully campaigned against inviting Prime Minister Narendra Modi to address the Wharton India Economic Forum. Cancelling Modi’s speech was a gross violation of freedom of speech at a renowned US campus. 

Some “English-educated elites” are contemptuous of India, Indian culture, Indian texts and traditions. Linguist and Indologist Kapil Kapoor calls them “Rudalis”  (professional mourners)  who constantly whine about everything. For example, Indian-American elected representatives like Ro Khanna, Pramila Jayapal, and Kshama Sawant, sometimes indulge in India-bashing. Last year, Indian-American scholars organized the “Dismantling Global Hindutva” conference, using the forum to demean Indian culture and religion. The Conference was an attempt to weaponize academic enterprise to bully and silence Hindu students and scholars.   

Whatever the source of Wax’s contempt for India, representative elites of the Indian diaspora have failed to counter her perspective with an authentic and positive image of India. 

And that means we everyday folks have our work cut out for us.

image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brahmin.jpg

Avatans Kumar

Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. A JNU, New Delhi, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign alumnus, Avatans holds graduate degrees in Linguistics. Avatans is a recipient...