Friday, February 5, 2016

Lesson for my students: No, you are not God's gifts

As professors, students, researchers, we live amid incredible privileges.

These privileges are products of organizing structures of societies that enable and reward specific forms of participation while simultaneously undermining other forms of participation.

One of the outcomes of an identity-based education that is all too ensconced in apolitical identity politics is its inability to interrogate the politics of knowledge production.

As a consequence, in many of the classes we teach, we leave un-interrogated our own positions of privilege and the positions of privilege our students occupy.

By being in the classroom, our students occupy positions of privilege.

Especially so when access to education is a commodity, out of reach for large sections of the population.

I am often struck therefore by students who walk into the classroom with the deeply held notion that they are Gifts of God, that they are special.

An identity-based education that is propped up on the tools of empowerment, self-efficacy, and nurturing the identity of the student as consumer fails to take into account the privileges and deep inequities that constitute education. That the very production of, circulation of, and participation in knowledge is a deeply unequal exercise remains out of the view of both educators and students.

Part of my pedagogy of communication then is built on Dewey's notion of communication as community.

For Dewey, experience connects us to our communities, and communities both mediate and constitute our everyday interactions with our environments. To explore this link however is also to challenge the identity-based notion of communication as individual self-expression.

To cultivate linkages with communities we live in is to fundamentally interrogate the individualism that constitute contemporary academe.

To cultivate linkages with our communities is to come from a place of humility that opens us up to the possibilities of connection.

To recognize that one is not special, that one is not God's chosen one or God's special gift is essential to this transformation. That one does not arrive into the classroom simply because of her or his inherent qualities, but also as a product of socio-cultural-economic-political inequities is a starting point to the journey of turning to the other.

From this place of humility, we can start reworking education as a space for cultivating access, participation, and social justice.

To recognize one is not special is to recognize the limits of one's knowledge that comes from privilege.

To recognize one is not special is to turn toward communities, to explore connections, to explore the erasures constituted by knowledge as a tool of "othering." To recognize one is not special is an invitation to empathy, to communication as communion, the everyday interactions of connection that we find ourselves amid.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The silence of postcolonial scholars on caste violence

Postcolonial scholarship offers an excellent theoretical anchor in interrogating the binaries that constitute colonial rationality, rupturing these dichotomies and bringing forth the fragments, disjunctures, and hybridities that are constituted in spaces touched by colonialism. Moreover, as an overarching framework for understanding questions of agency, postcolonial theory offers insights into the communicative processes through which the multiple disjunctures and flows are negotiated within and across global sites of colonial hegemony.

As a conceptual node for entering into the theorizing of colonialism and the "inter-plays" of multiple cultural threads in postcolonial contexts, postcolonial scholarship offers an important framework for disrupting the monolithic narrative of Whiteness that is rooted in "othering."

At its best, postcolonial scholarship interrogates the orientalist gaze, depicting the ways in which the gaze is intertwined with the materiality of colonialism, offering vital insights into understanding old and new forms of imperialism and thus, entry points for intervention into the neo-colonial-liberal project.

Something however that has often struck me as an irony in postcolonial scholarship is the upper class-upper caste dominance in postcolonial work.

The Chakravartys and Chatterjees of India (and more specifically a narrow region of India, West Bengal) dominate the conversation on postcolonial scholarship. This means that the cultural explanations offered in postcolonial analyses come from these upper caste, upper class positions, mostly/often oblivious to caste and class privilege. Questions of agency thus are examined in relationship to certain structures (such as imperial formations and to a much smaller extent, social class) whereas other equally powerful structures such as caste formations remain (un)der-theorized.

Without the interrogations of the privileges inherent in these positions, postcolonial theory remains incomplete in its theorizing of context, especially when theorizing highly unequal postcolonial societies such as India.

The historically situated aspects of Indian culture that have allowed for systematic oppression of the under-caste (dalit) remain outside of the lens of cultural explanations.

The interrogation of imperial formations in symbolic representations is incomplete and one-sided without the examination of deeply entrenched inequalities within postcolonial contexts that are both culturally and structurally rooted.

This upper caste dominance in postcolonial scholarship perhaps explains the absence of the caste question in postcolonial works.

As Whiteness and its assumptions emerge as sites of analyses,  depicting the cultural flows and the complexities of  cultural representations, postcolonial scholarship remains silent on the question of caste violence. In doing so and in its inability to interrogate the caste violence that remains implicit in its own enunciative position, postcolonial scholarship remains complicit with knowledge production as a form of oppression.

To align with its emancipatory and decolonizing agenda, postcolonial scholarship emerging out of and theorizing the Indian context needs to seriously engage with the question of caste.

Also, the Brahminical position of established postcolonial scholars needs to be turned into a site of interrogation so spaces can be be made for the voices of the under-caste. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

An ethic of selflessness

January 1. 2016.

The beginning of the new year was marked by a sense of loss that I am continuing to struggle to make sense of.

Around noon on the First of January, I received a frantic whatsapp message from my sister-in-law to call my parents in Hyderabad who had been trying to reach me for the previous twenty minutes. They wanted to speak with me about the deteriorating health of my uncle, Godaikaka, who had been going through dialysis for the past six months.

As I called my parents in a state of anguish, they shared with me that Godaikaka needed to be shifted from Kharagpur to Kolkata because he had been having trouble breathing.

As we were trying to figure out our schedules so we could get to Kolkata at the soonest, my parents received a call from my elder sister in Kharagpur that my uncle had passed away on the way to the hospital.
Over the last decade, I have lost many a family member in my large joint family. We often share as a family how the joys of a big family also come with the magnified experiences of loss as family members age and pass away.

Loss is something that I have come to accept as a part of growing older, as the generation before us age, face health crises, and come to negotiate the reality of death.

Yet this death left me struggling to find an anchor in meaning-making. It is as if I have been left in mid-air, trying to make sense of events, trying to come to terms with the reality that my Godaikaka is no more a silent presence in my life, urging me to take up new projects, offering gentle guidelines, and always standing as an invitation to do much much more for those who are exploited by an extractive system.

Godaikaka was a source of inspiration for many of us siblings. An inspiration for our entire family. A bachelor all his life, he dedicated himself to his students in the village school that was over 30 miles away from our house in Kharagpur, to helping the poor, and to organizing workers at local factories. As a union organizer, he listened to the voices of the workers he worked with and sought to create spaces for their presence.

As an uncle, he dedicated himself to our learning, always inspiring, offering lessons and guidance, and nurturing us. As he became a grandfather over the last decade, he took to giving the same special attention to his grandchildren. For many a family event, Godaikaka was the chief organizer, silently putting together plans, making sure that we had many joys to celebrate as a family. Our garden blossomed with flowers that he gently took care of. The garden was his favorite place, and we all learned gardening working beside him, taking care of the seed, planting it, watering it gently. The winter months were full of vegetables, cauliflower, okra, eggplant, that he grew in the garden.

That an ethic of selflessness is possible, Godaikaka demonstrated with his life. He lived a life of giving, ensuring that many of his students from the village of Benapur had access to pathways of education that were otherwise beyond their reach. He spent hours teaching them outside the classroom. Our living room would turn into his classroom on weekends and in the evenings, with his students spread across the room, trying to solve math problems. He did all this for free, also stepping in to offer them encouragement and inspiration.

For students that didn't have financial resources, he negotiated with my grandmother (nana) provisions for adopting the students so they could live in our home and continue their studies.

Godaikaka's ethic of selflessness also meant that he paid attention to the needs of those that didn't have access to basic resources. I am reminded of the time when I took him for dialysis and saw the torn shirt he was wearing. I was frustrated. "What happened to the many shirts we bring for him?" I thought. He stacked away each new shirt he received as a gift so he could give away the shirt to someone in need. He planned the ration of his new clothes to give out to the poor who were in need.

Another time I noticed he didn't finish all his food after the dialysis, putting away the eggs and other special treats. When I asked him why he didn't finish the food, he just nodded his head. On his way out of the clinic, he would hand over the neatly packed food that he put away to the support staff that care for him.

Such was Godaikaka. Even amid suffering, thinking about the needs of someone else.

That an ethic of selflessness can offer a very different kind of anchor to the neoliberal narrative of self-driven accumulation, I had the privilege to witness a different possibility in the life of my uncle.

In his life, by living his life, Godaikaka taught me the meaningfulness of a life that is more than self-centered calculation. The possibility of a life that is grounded in a commitment to the other, to nurturing the other.

As I struggle with the loss of my Godaikaka, I know one lesson that will stay with me: That ethic of selflessness is a possibility. A lesson that I hope my children carry with them as a mantra.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

My love affair with Singapore and why Narendra Modi's visit here makes me uncomfortable

I visited Singapore first in 2008 when a dear friend, then a professor at the Wee Kim Wee School put me in touch with another dear friend, then the Head of the Department of the Communications and New Media at the National University of Singapore.

I was on sabbatical from Purdue University in the US and this was the first time that my spouse, who was then in India, and I would spend time together starting our family.

These were six months of joy and wonderment. Six months of experiencing cultures, diversity of voices and traditions, and confluence of ancient traditions.

We were expecting our first child then, and the six months flew by in a flurry. I cherished every bit of those six months in Singapore. I fell in love with the city, its Chinese New Year and Hari Raya and Thaipusam.

The colors, aromas, and confluences of Singapore felt a welcome break from the monolithic culture of the US where I never really fit in, after having spent a decade there.

Singapore and its culture of syncretism stayed in my heart, and when the opportunity arrived for us to teach at the National University of Singapore, we took it up with great joy and anticipation.

These three years in Singapore have only reinforced my love for this space as a confluence of many cultures, many traditions, many ways of life. I understand the essence of Singapore as the kind of multiculturalism that is a celebration of difference, the intermingling of faith traditions and ways of being.

Singapore and its cultural syncretism feel like home to me. It reminds me of the India I grew up in, the India that celebrates differences and creates dialogic spaces for many worldviews to come together. It reminds me of the idea of India, where I as a Hindu grew up amid Eid and Christmas celebrations of neighbors and friends.

Yet, it is this idea of India that is in question today as the government ruled by Mr. Narendra Modi silences dissent, harasses activists, and remains largely silent about the increasing intolerance toward minority communities in India. It is this idea of a syncretic India open to difference that is increasingly in question as the Hindu Right takes center stage in Indian public discourse.

Mr. Narendra Modi's visit to Singapore is being advertised as the gateway to new economic possibilities. What however these advertisements hide is the growing climate of intolerance in India and how that fundamentally differs in its essence from Singapore, the Singapore I have come to love.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Whiteness and discursive closures: When the garb of multiculturalism comes tumbling

Multiculturalism is a performance of Whiteness in neoliberal times. Multiculturalism is a performance of Whiteness for neoliberal times. Multiculturalism is a performance in the service of neoliberalism, establishing the neocolonial hegemony of Whiteness through the codes of appropriate speech in the service of democracy and the market.

A performance that works through the norms of civility, decorum, and speech code to silence difference. The image of multiculturalism thus established at the global sites of neoliberal articulation is based on White ideas of acceptable speech, constituted in relationship to the market.

A performance that works to uphold a neocolonial narrative that justifies violence, torture, and imperial invasion under the guise of democracy and promotion of freedom.

As the multicultural narrative works to reproduce imperial power by paradoxically marking symbolic articulations of cultural voices as inappropriate and therefore unacceptable, it reproduces unmarked ideas of communication as culture mirrored in the language of the market. In my own work on communication and neoliberalism, I have referred to these communication strategies of neoliberalism as "communicative inversions." These strategies work precisely because they silence difference.

Whiteness, the taken-for-granted notion of White norms serving White agendas as universals of human aspiration, extends neoliberal assumptions of the free market, capitalism, and democracy  through its adoption of a multicultural narrative that equates the market with the cacophony of ideas, cultures, and voices. The ideas, cultures, and voices that do get included within this multicultural framework are aligned with the agendas of the market, dictated by normative ideas of communication and participation intrinsically immersed in Whiteness.

What is acceptable, what can be discussed, and how it can be discussed are dictated by the White structure, using criteria of multiculturalism. Cultural speech codes that threaten the hegemony of Whiteness are written off as violent, uncivil, and barbaric.

Whiteness thus is fundamentally built on a hypocrisy, a hypocrisy that assumes the norms of Whiteness as the guiding standards for communication in cultural spaces, further silencing ideas and voices that challenge the garb of multiculturalism.

To create spaces for diverse cultural voices calls for closely interrogating the language of multiculturalism embedded in the norms of Whiteness and in the service of the market.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Brown bodies that don't matter

[Drawn from Lydia Wilson's "What I discovered from interviewing imprisoned ISIS fighters" published in The Nation and retrieved from on November 15, 2015]

Listening to the voice of a
young brown body
all of 26,
married, two children,
with a large family
to support.

Listening to the voice of a
young brown body
all of 26,
a lost adolescence,
to the occupation
that brought Freedom.

Listening to the voice of a
young brown body
all of 26,
wrapped in faith,
love for family,
lost for meaning.

Listening to the voice of a
young brown body
all of 26,
that lost a father,
disappeared, murdered, jailed,
perhaps in one of your Guantanamo camps.

Listening to the voice of a
young brown body
all of 26,
in search of faith,
in search of meaning,
in search of dignity.

Why it is so important to connect the dots and interrogate the narratives of convenience

The acts of violence on the streets of Paris depict the ongoing role of religious extremism as a site of terror.

As my Facebook wall is inundated with the flow of emotions showing support for the people of Paris, I am struck by an all-too-familiar narrative that emerges in a global network of emotions mediated through new communication technologies.

At the heart of this network of emotions is the framing of the world into a binary, parsing out "freedom loving" spaces and spaces that "threaten freedom." The freedom loving spaces are White, cultured, and democratic, juxtaposed against the brownness of the primitive bodies that inhabit the freedom threatening spaces.

The Facebook narrative of 13/11 invokes the 9/11 archetype. When Hollande promises us a "pitiless response," I am eerily reminded of George Bush's promise: "America and our friends and allies join with all those who want peace and security in the world, and we stand together to win the war against terrorism."

This is the narrative that quickly took hold in the post-9/11 U.S., and rapidly anchored itself as a global pivot for framing 9/11.

This narrative juxtaposes "our" freedom against "their" barbarianism. Declaring the resilience of freedom as a trope, the narrative quickly anchors itself in a war cry.

Attacking the Middle East will bring justice and teach the barbarians a lesson.

The structure of the symbolic enunciation and its potential material manifestation are both familiar.
What had unfolded into the Iraq war, opening in 2003, is a spatial-temporal enactment of the "freedom" narrative. Operation Iraqi Freedom was launched on the pretext of fighting Iraq's supposed support for terrorism, a premise that was cooked up by the US propaganda machine and its paid mainstream media.

The terror of 9/11 served as a catalyst for a much larger scale state-sponsored terror launched by the imperial powers US and UK to invade Iraq and Afghanistan. The everyday terrors experienced by Iraqi families and families in Afghanistan in the hands of the imperial military remain unaccounted for in the mainstream media. The large scale violence and the large numbers of murders in Iraq and Afghanistan unleashed by the US remain unaccounted for, written off ironically as collateral damage in an operation of bringing freedom to the Middle East.

The attack on Paris is similarly being portrayed as the backdrop for the mobilization of an attack on Syria. Within just a few hours of the attacks, the power of the war cries and imperial calls for invasion has proliferated through the short phrases of Facebook posts and tweets.

The simplicity of this story, the primitive Middle East calling for a Western invasion, ignores the lessons that emerge from the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The simplicity of the story of terror also obfuscates the terror and violence perpetrated by the agents of freedom and democracy, US, UK, Australia, and Poland, carrying out the acts of terror in the very name of freedom.

The US attack on Iraq that killed over a half million Iraqi civilians, and created the structure for the emergence of the Islamic State, often offering training to specific groups and supplying weapons to these groups that would later emerge as members of the ISIS.

That many of the ISIS members were trained by Western military and were supplied weapons by the US and UK is a key point that remains missing from the symbolic representations of the attacks. In Libya, Egypt, and Syria, the US and UK offered at various points vital resources to actors that would coalesce around the structure of ISIS. The US and UK funded and trained religious sectarian groups with the broader goal of toppling the Assad regime in Syria. ISIS thus is very much a product of the imperial strategy of divide-and-rule perpetuated by Western imperialism, couched in the language of freedom.

Further connecting the dots points toward the role of Saudi Arabia, a key Western ally, in supporting ISIS. In spite of evidence that point toward the implicit role of the House of Saud in disseminating and funding the violent strands of Wahaabism, the Western apostles of freedom continue to support the Saudi structure to safeguard imperial interests in the Middle East.

Much of the Western media are complicit in reproducing acts of terror by creating symbolic resources around terrorism in selective ways, by projecting binaries, and by carrying out propaganda functions on the basis of these binaries. Even as media narratives rally around the terrorist attacks on France, they remain mostly silent about ISIS attacks on Beirut and Iraq.

Even when the Beirut attack does emerge into the occasional story, the attack gets framed as an attack on Hezbollah strongholds, somehow thus offering implicit justifications for the ISIS attacks. The Western media narrative here cooperates with the ISIS agenda, symbolically depicting the symbiotic relationship between ISIS agendas and Western agendas at specific points and spaces.
Similarly, the ISIS attack in Iraq that led to 25 deaths remains mostly invisible from the media narrative.

In selectively sharing specific stories of freedom and terrorism while largely remaining silent about various other forms of terrorism, the media actively construct the dichotomy between Western freedom and Middle East terrorism. Moreover, the media actively participate in cultivating a public opinion climate that sees imperial invasion as the solution to terrorist threat.

The lessons of Iraq call for cultivating deep skepticism toward this narrative of violence and geosecurity. The paradigm of violence circulated by Western imperial powers is cyclically connected to various forms of violence across time and space.

To really address the questions of violence and terror globally, the rhetoric of freedom needs to be examined closely. The very narrative of freedom that birthed ISIS can't offer a way out of the network of violence established in strategies of response and counter-response.

That freedom is often used as the trope for disseminating terror needs to be acknowledged, critically interrogated, and resisted. Each of us must critically examine simplistic frames that depict the Paris attacks as attacks on fundamental freedoms.

Finally, a fundamental transformation is needed in the global narrative of geosecurity, shifting the discourse from imperial invasions to protect freedom to a global discourse of peace and dialogue that challenges the terror implicit in acts of violence.