10 Questions for Vinay Lal

10 Questions for Vinay Lal

Going by the title of a witty and insightful book by Vinay Lal, associate professor of history, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and U.S. Surgeon General-designate Sanjay Gupta are among "The Other Indians," distinct in many ways not just from native Americans but also from India's 1 billion people. Lal's book was recently published by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press and HarperCollins (India). Here, he discusses the Indian community in the U.S. and geopolitical events in South Asia.

UCLA Today

By Ajay Singh

How do you think Barack Obama's presidency will shape U.S. relations with India?

There is a feeling among Indian elites that the Obama presidency may not be as much in India's interest as the Bush presidency. Even though there are people who are delighted over the prospect that Obama would get tougher on Pakistan, they nonetheless fear that any escalation in Pakistan and Afghanistan would have repercussions on India. Obama's promise to keep more jobs in America has also unsettled outsourcing businesses in India.

The Other Indians

What were the recent attacks in Mumbai about?

Mumbai 2008 clearly had geopolitical ramifications. It wasn't just about the injustices against Muslims in India, but also about the global status of the 'war on terror,' disputes within Islam and the ascendency of terrorism movements. Pakistan's drumbeat is that the rest of the world is hounding us and we need to put all our options on the table. It has said it's willing to engage in conflict, if necessary, with India.

India's options?

It can attack terrorist camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. But these are likely to be have been emptied out by then. Anything India does, by the way, is in consultation with the U.S. Thankfully, India does not have the prerogative of shock and awe.

But it aspires to become a superpower.

India's a long distance from being a superpower. A very clear sign of that is the fact that it must consult the U.S. before launching a military strike against Pakistan. There's a lot of talk, some of which the rest of the world has accepted, about 'India shining'. But it's also in serious distress: 80 percent of its population lives on an absolute pittance – roughly a dollar a day.

Is India's superpower potential largely a media myth?

That's part of it, but the desire to become a superpower is also part of the aspirations of the middle class. It sees the kind of status that people of Indian origin enjoy in the U.S. and Britain, and that creates an aspiration to see India on a standing that they think an ancient civilization deserves.

China has made a very conscious decision to pursue superpower status. Does India know what it wants to be?

There's always been an ambivalence in India. Part of it has to do with the legacy of Indian traditions, which, however materialistic, have also urged people to think about the fact that the ultimate human condition is not about material progress but about the dignity of human life and sound human relationships. I think China has had to barter its soul to achieve what it wants to achieve. In India, there is still some degree of resistance.

Indians in the U.S. are not particularly known for assimilating. Are there demerits to this?

I'm not in favor of assimilation, by which I mean not that a group should make an effort to stand out and play identity politics, but that there should be no moral onus on any ethnic group to assimilate with the dominant mainstream.

How do the 'other Indians' you write about differ from their subcontinental brethren?

For one thing, you find larger support for Hindu nationalism in the U.S. than you do in India. In contrast, one of the most phenomenal stories of Indian politics is the rise of the lower classes through very unlikely electoral alliances between upper-caste and lower-caste parties. The majority of Indians in India are politically active. Among Indians here, there is relatively little political involvement. Maybe the Obama presidency will change that, or has already changed that, given how various ethnic groups and the young voted in the recent election.

Do you think the worst consequences of Hindu nationalism are over, given that Hindu nationalists have failed to capture outright power in India?

A lot will depend on how things will play out in South Asia over the next two or three years. Obama has pledged to escalate the war in Afghanistan. I think that's a complete folly. Afghanistan has been a quagmire for every foreign contingent that has gone there in the last 200 years. You also have to consider Pakistan. In the recent attacks in Mumbai, there is evidence of Pakistan's complicity. When things of this kind happen, Hindu nationalists play upon it. Of course, they are projecting, as Bush did in the U.S., that any assault on India has to be met with force.

Do you think the old cliché about South Asia being a potential nuclear flashpoint has become more alarming than ever?

A famous political scientist, Selig Harrison, wrote a book nearly 50 years ago, titled "India: The Most Dangerous Decades." What dangerous decades was he talking about? The next 10 years, 20 years, 30 years? There's also the cliché that India is going to fall apart. The British advanced it for a long time. Much of this talk isn't persuasive. On the other hand, you can't minimize the fact that South Asia has two nuclear-armed states and the arsenals could fall into the wrong hands. There are people who are willing to barter nuclear arms, crazy enough to take the risks.

Published: Thursday, January 22, 2009