I’ve spent the past month in Delhi, and in my typical fashion, plans to write have fallen through the cracks. But I’ve had a lot of thoughts in the past few weeks, and wanted to share a few.
Reading the news makes me really sad sometimes. There is so much happening in India every day. From recurring cases of state-sponsored violence against minority groups– such as police violence and home demolitions–, to impunity for those who perpetrate these actions, trying to keep up with current events is overwhelming. In the last couple of weeks, the government arrested two high-profile journalists, one (a human rights activist) for allegedly fabricating evidence, and another for his 2018 Tweets that apparently “hurt religious sentiments.” Numerous human rights organizations have projected that India is in the early stages of genocide, and the crackdown on dissent points to unprecedented levels of authoritarianism.
It’s not like I’m hearing these things for the first time; I certainly had some understanding of the gravity of the situation prior to coming here. But after a month of living in Delhi, and working for a progressive media organization and a social justice-oriented NGO, I have come to realize how much living in diaspora has disconnected me from the reality of the motherland. A day after Teesta Setalvad was arrested, there was a palpable tension in the newsroom, supplemented by an attempt to make light of the situation. The editors and journalists I work with frequently make jokes about “when” they will get arrested. When I told them I would be at the office for the next two months, someone responded “oh nice, you’ll get to experience a couple of raids at least.”
The attack on freedom and the violent actions of the government seem so obvious and hard to ignore, now that I’m reading the news everyday and working in this space. It’s wild to think, however, that just a couple of months ago, I wouldn’t have recognized the names of recently-jailed journalists Teesta Setalvad and Mohammed Zubair. I would have been confused when someone brought up the Bhima Koregaon case. I would not have understood that the allegations of “tax fraud” and other accusations being deployed against certain news organizations and NGOs were part of a larger scheme to suppress voices that bring light to truth.
I guess living away from India makes it so easy to walk away from what’s going on. Even if I was previously concerned and interested, anti-minority violence and nationalism were things I read about when I occasionally chose to “catch up” on the news. My findings would end just as I closed my tabs. Despite nearly all of my friends being brown– a large number of whom are of Indian origin– these aren’t really topics that come up during our dining hall conversations, phone calls, and late night discussions on politics. Even if we are critical of issues in India, it’s more from the standpoint of navigating the tension between inherited ideologies and political realities that we aren’t familiar with. Living in India has not only forced me to become increasingly aware of the ongoing violence in this country, but has also made me realize that people I know– even people who I am close to– are often supportive of this violent majoritarianism, or see it as a mere side effect of the “progress” that the country is making.
It all feels quite frustrating. I have so many questions. From a theoretical lens, I don’t know what an equitable, inclusive “India” would look like; after all, don’t all national projects require exclusion and violence? What is “India,” in that case? Practically speaking, I don’t know enough, and if anything the past month has just exposed me to how much catching up I need to do– there is so much history, political knowledge, and of course, lived experiences that I will never come close to understanding. More importantly, is it even my place? As someone who has lived in a privileged bubble in the US all my life, I fear becoming another armchair academic in the end, offering thoughts based in theory and case studies, but without enough of a connection to the people and places I study.
At the same time, I can’t help but feel that despite the distance created by an ocean and a generation, something about this place is “home.” The other day, in my workplace, some of the people who sit at my table were talking about the way in which the Indian diaspora is one of the most powerful forces for fueling and sustaining Hindutva and exclusionary nationalism in India. Growing up in diaspora, I have always had the advantage of picking and choosing the aspects of my heritage that I engage with. It’s so easy to practice the classical arts or cook my family recipes, without having to actively think about heavier issues. But the conversation with my co-workers made me realize that the relationship between the diaspora and the motherland is more than just the visible cultural practices– it’s concrete, political, and often very harmful, and gives us all a responsibility.
I don’t really know what that responsibility looks like– I’m genuinely at a loss, because I’m not even “from” here. I don’t know the basics of navigating the streets of Delhi, and I get nervous about my accent in my mother tongue, despite speaking it all my life. Yet, at the same time, I feel so sick when I read the news, and realize that I can’t just forget this as soon as I get on my flight from Delhi to Austin at the end of the summer. That’s what “home” means, I guess.
When people ask how India is going, I usually tell them I’m loving it. Sometimes, I feel so comfortable here. Sometimes, I feel that I “belong.” Sometimes, I can pretend I’ve lived here all my life, and listen to my music that everyone else listens to and speak a language that feels so personal with literally everyone I meet on the street. But the rest of the time, I find myself just thinking a lot and asking questions that I feel like I’ll never be able to answer. That’s what “home” means, I guess.