Forging alliances or widening divisions?
-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao
Personal experience is one of the most powerful determinants in shaping one’s attitudes towards the world and in shaping our perception of reality. Attitudes and values acquired when young are very hard to change. Thus a Kenyan-American thoracic surgeon, practicing in Aurora, Colorado and seeking to build alliances with his Hindu doctor colleagues may have simply succumbed to and consumed by his childhood experiences. In an op-ed essay titled “A history of racial tension”, published in The Denver Post(April 28, 2004) one of their regular contributors, Dr. Pius Kamau begins by writing that the new Indian doctors who have recently begun practicing in Colarado -- the “whitest medical community in America” -- may “help dilute the vitriol that chokes so many hearts”. With that he means the Indian-Hindu doctors will work with him to fight White racism in the very White communities of Colorado. Strangely, however, the author of the mystery-thriller, “The Doctor’s Date with Death”, Denver Postop-ed contributor and National Public Radio commentator, does a double-take and accuses the Hindu doctors and their religious traditions of a racist tradition in a hateful, simplistic diatribe.
Dr. Kamau accuses the Hindu community worldwide of a racist mentality far worse than the White racism that colonized and shackled Africa and his forefathers and he believes that the only redemption for Hindus is therefore to seek succor in monotheistic religions – Christianity or Islam. Since the only two Hindu Indian men who he thinks are worthy of respect (Mohandas Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore) are both dead and the only Indians that he has found any ease interacting with are Indian-Christians, Dr. Kamau is therefore allowed free rein to express a hatred for Hinduism that no serious media outlet in the world would dare express for any other religion. But it is the season for Hindu-bashing and The Denver Post, a major metropolitan daily, sees fit to publish a hateful canard against a whole religion and its billion adherents.
In the few days after it was published, there have been no signs of protest from White, Black, Muslim, Jewish and Christian readers of the newspaper against the racist essay. What does this say about the fate of the Hindu-American minority and what does it say about our own propensity to run ourselves down continuously? In the various discussion lists run by Indians I have seen the expected range of responses, including the politically correct ones which sought to invite the surgeon for a convention, to win him over with charm, to educate him and enlighten him and to discuss the nature of Indian-Hindu racism.
French author Michel Houellebecq was sued by four Islamic organizations for saying in an interview that “Islam is the stupidest religion”. Except for one very angry friend who wanted to write to the Denver Medical Association and get Dr. Kamau reprimanded, most others on these discussion lists spent endless hours dissecting the essay for its “truthfulness”. A number of them were quick to send letters to The Denver Posteditor, but I have not heard of one serious attempt to have both the newspaper and its contributor hauled over the coals for what is clearly one of the most egregious pieces of religious slander.
Dr. Kamau writes that “Certain religions govern their followers’ behavior, controlling every motion, emotion and thought. Hindus can’t help themselves. Humanity exists in a rigid chamber in Hinduism; one’s caste never changes. Brahmins are empowered; lower castes enslaved. Blacks fit nicely within this group” and that “Any religion whose gods consign a large number of its children to slavery and bondage is suspect and odious”.
Dr. Kamau makes the kind of mistake that any high school student in logic would have apprehended a mile away: the fallacy of false causation. Kamau conflates Hinduism – the religion/philosophy -- with caste-based discrimination, one of the social practices of not just Hindus, but of those of Indian Christians, Muslims and Sikhs! And unfortunately, he also shows himself rather ignorant of Hindu philosophy and values when he reduces the millennia old and multi-fold Hindu traditions to caste. Hinduism is rich in philosophical thought, sacred rituals and is the only major native religious tradition that has withstood the onslaught of aggressive monotheisms. Instead of acknowledging the glorious tradition of philosophical thought, of the sacred rapture its serious adherents experience and the continuous attempts by myriad Hindu saints, gurus and ordinary men and women who have sought to rid the world of oppression and discrimination, the scientifically trained doctor makes the egregious and common error of false cause.
We are continuously told these days that we are guilty of conflation if we accused Christianity and Jesus for the horrors of the holocaust, the crimes of colonialism and the injustices of the inquisition. We are reprimanded if we allege that Islam and the life of the Prophet Muhammad are related to the sins of the September 11 terrorists and the wanton calls by Wahhab is to destroy infidels. One may be less guilty of conflation in these instances since scholars have carefully argued that the monotheistic ideals that Dr. Kamau embraces may in fact have led to a lot of the violence in the world in the last two millennia. Be that as it may, Dr. Kamau fails to acknowledge that Hindus have not robbed Africans of their culture, their names, their lands and their wealth. Who was it who said that “Europeans came to Africa with just a Bible in their hands and we then had all the land and now we have the Bible and they have all our land”?
Racism is a human trait. It is hard-wired into us, in the sense that even six-month old babies indicate likes and dislike for certain human shapes, colors and features. If not, what would Dr. Kamau trace the racism of the Chinese and the Japanese, for example? Surely, they are not the followers of the “odius” Hinduism? What about the Whites in Colorado? Surely they are not all members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness? What would he trace the racism of Christian Korean-Americans in Los Angeles to? Surely, not their Hindu neighbors! And for heaven’s sake, what would he trace the murderous response of Hutus to Tutsis? Not surely to Shiva, the Hindu “God of Destruction”?
We live in interesting times and it is not a happy season for intercultural understanding or for healthy human alliances. However, if a practicing doctor and a social commentator exhibits the attitudes and uses the stereotypes of ignorant and hateful people, then surely something is seriously wrong. Hindu-Indians/Americans and Africans and African-Americans, if they have to begin to work together, then will have to be aware of certain requirements for establishing intercultural alliances: the impact of power and privilege and the impact of history. Whatever were the dynamics between Hindus and Blacks in Africa over a period of centuries (which Dr. Kamau reduces to one simplistic racist relationship) and in the last three hundred years in the cauldron of colonialist practice, little good will come if at present we start our dialogue with hateful assertions. We do know that people who have not experienced feelings of powerlessness or been discriminated against have a hard time recognizing their impact. Could Hindu Indians be accused of being ignorant of and inexperienced about the impact of colonialism and racism? The interpersonal and group dynamics between the colonized and the colonizers cannot be easily generalized. This is not to say that all Hindu-Indians are color blind. After all, we continue to see matrimonial ads for “fair brides”. Also, Dr. Kamau seems to have imbibed the assertions of Christian missionaries and Marxist scholars that caste hierarchy is based on color. I was born into a Brahmin family. On my mother’s side, all my aunts are very light skinned and all my uncles are very dark-skinned! Many South Indian Brahmins are much darker than many Vaishya and Shudra North Indians.
To repeat, racism is a human trait, not a Hindu trait. And in terms of our orientation to affirming healthy relationships, we have to value and appreciate differences and should be committed to a relationship even in the face of difficulties and misunderstandings. Any conciliation between cultures must provide a voice for all interactants, Indian and African, Hindu and Christian and Muslim and to men and women. Labeling the religious affiliation of a billion Hindus as odious is surely not the way to repair any damage, let alone forging any new alliances.
Originally published on May 14, 2004.