Postcard from America by Shashidhar Nanjundaiah: Yogi-ism reaches New Jersey

15 Sep,2022

By Shashidhar Nanjundaiah


Shashidhar NanjundaiahAn immigrant always takes a piece of culture with them. But what some people are smuggling in isn’t exactly the kind of culture you’d expect.


The most significant period of advent of the Indian-American immigrant group started at the turn of the century and is ongoing. From less than 2 million in 2000, the desi population in the United States has leapt to nearly 5 million. The main reason, of course, is the IT boom that began with the Y2K bug. In the 1990s, green cards took only about two years, fresh-off-the-boat Indian students had to explain in their communities they were “Asian Indians” and didn’t really know what our race was.


And as a result, the new Indian immigrant, even after decades of settling in, is under little pressure to plunge into the cauldron. Instead, the new political and liberal narrative — although the political shift from assimilation to multicultural accommodation dates back to the 1970s—expects them to bring their culture into the country. For the Indian press, a Diwali celebration at the White House is a cause for national rejoicing. The Indian stamp on American landmarks is the latest display of conquest over the West—the revenge of the desi. A 220-feet-long Indian tricolour made of khadi was flown over the “iconic Hudson river” on the occasion of India’s 75th Independence Day celebrations, brags an NDTV lede.


Similar jubilation was missing in the Indian press when Bulldozer Baba made the rounds a weekend earlier on the annual India Day parade in Edison, New Jersey. Perhaps it was too embarrassing for many publications, although some of them did run it with a positive spin. The community press in central New Jersey, including the Indian-American press, which has mostly been languishing in terms of readership, seemed more startled and less amused. News 12 channel headlined the story as “Bulldozer used in Edison’s India Independence Day Parade seen as Islamophobic”. Post facto, Edison’s Mayor Sam Joshi criticised the organisers of the India Day parade for featuring “symbols of hatred and discrimination.”


To me, the most significant part of this story is that most Americans do not understand its significance. A bulldozer can represent construction or destruction, development or impoverishment. So in itself, the presence of a bulldozer does not signify anything. Across it, triumphant photos of Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath accompanied the text in English: “Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav” and underneath it in Devnagari: “Baba Bulldozer”. The connotation is highly contextual. This bulldozer is a celebration that the questionable justice meted out in India rendering homeless people who question authority. In that context lies the intolerance and impatience of unjust vigilantism. It is not as much a dog whistle as it is in India, since it is unlikely to rouse mob justice. Still, it is what it seems— a gesture of threat. The intolerance among sections of Indian-American community runs deep, but for the most part has lurked underneath the surface.


The organisation of these annual parades is hardly a secret. It is a routine event for the Indian Business Association of New Jersey, whose president Chandrakant Patel initially refused to apologise, but did so more than a week later after the Mayor’s statement. The Mayor himself is a well-connected Indian-American. This newly emboldened stamp of intolerance is a reflection of the vigilante stamp of territory-marking we have been observing in India. The American society has lived long and painful centuries of discrimination and hatred, and is striving hard to emerge from it. The past decade has marked fresh battles for identity and respect. Will this new resonance of authoritarian values across the seas pose a new challenge to that struggle? I wonder.


Shashidhar Nanjundaiah currently lives in the United States and likes to comment on eclectic, sometimes random, stuff. When he isn’t, he teaches and researches media literacy. Postcard from America will appear every month on MxMIndia, though it may well appear more often. Shashidhar’s views here are person.


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