The Children of the Subcontinent

Uncle-Swami-CoverReviewed: Uncle Swami: South Asians in American Today by Vijay Prashad (The New Press, 208 pp., $21.95). Preet Bharara, A Punjab-born U.S. attorney, prosecutes Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri-Lankan born billionaire insider trader:

For people of South Asian descent, United States assimilation has arrived. It happened quickly after race-based immigration quotas were lifted in 1965. Immigrants then were mostly politically aloof professionals, while their children embraced pan-South Asian multiculturalism and political activism. Now the children of the subcontinent appear in all walks of American life.

Through it all, South Asian Americans have enjoyed (and have been pigeonholed by) “model minority” status. In Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today, Trinity College professor Vijay Prashad revisits that mythic status, which he originally criticized in his 2000 book The Karma of Brown Folk.

In both works, he examines the racism of holding up South Asian Americans as the ideal immigrants, a practice that ignores the facts that those allowed entry in recent decades were disproportionately well-educated and familiar with English. Here he examines the myth’s links to anti-Muslim prejudice, arguing from a Marxist perspective that the hate crimes that South Asian Americans experienced after September 11 are linked to American imperialism. Despite the book’s subtitle, which would suggest some cultural as well as political history, the author sticks mainly to politics.

Much of the book is devoted to the way in which the India lobby in Washington, minted in the ’90s, sought to model itself on Israel’s. Its supporters have equated Kashmir with Palestine and lauded both Indians and Jews as being “passionate about education.” The lobby’s intent, Prashad writes, is to render South Asian Muslims invisible and “create an image of the Indian as a victim of Muslim terrorism in South Asia, and therefore the Indian American’s dilemma as akin to the Jewish American’s distress over ‘Muslim’ terrorism in Israel.” He also takes us behind the scenes of Chicago’s elite Indian American business community and its ties to the Rod Blagojevich scandal, as well as critically assessing Bobby Jindal’s rapid rise and assimilation among white Southern elites.

Turning his attention abroad, Prashad discusses anti-Muslim persecution in India, introducing us to Hindu nationalism and the “Vedic Taliban.” Prominent Indians in the United States have ties to such groups, he contends; in fact, it was the multicultural movement here that helped conceal “cruel, cultural chauvinism in India.” Right-wing Hindutva adherents in the United States push to arm against Pakistan, but fail to grapple with social problems like malnutrition in the mother country or race crimes against South Asian Americans.

Blurbed by reviewers with South Asian names, the book treats subjects that deserve a wider audience, but the author doesn’t make it easy. Uncle Swami meanders. It stitches together material previously published in 14 other periodicals, and the seams show. Prashad organizes topics in confusing ways, with some appearing first in parentheses and others showing up in passing before being properly introduced.

Indeed, he has a maddening habit of referring without explanation to unfamiliar names and ideas, and those not familiar with South Asian affairs will need to Google frequently to keep up. I spotted one clear error, in which Prashad states that the United States barred Indians from entry into the country from 1924 to 1965 but fails to mention the Luce-Celler Act of 1946, which allowed some Indians to immigrate and naturalize thereafter.

Despite its shortcomings, Uncle Swami will be of interest to thinkers about race in American politics and to those who want to better understand India’s political ties to the United States.

Its eye-opening treatment of anti-Muslim politics in India is important as well. Readers may find it easiest to approach the book as a browsable collection of essays about this important group of Americans, one whose history and ties to South Asia are still seldom discussed.