AAS Annual Meeting

South Asia Session 741

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Session 741: On the Troubled Romance of Community in India and Its Diaspora

Organizer: Gayatri Reddy, University of Illinois, Chicago, USA

Chair: Kalyani D. Menon, DePaul University, USA

Discussant: Lucinda Ramberg, Cornell University, USA

Amidst shifting geo-political landscapes, notions of community have increasingly gained purchase as sites of stability and belonging. Positive valences of community are especially salient among people who consider themselves under siege by majority ideologies, viz., lesbians, gay men, dalits, the under-privileged, and religious minorities – actors who turn to the promise of “community” for a sense of future possibility. At the same time, exclusionary constructions of community are deployed to justify violence, marginalize, and “other” these very minorities. Drawing on research in India and the U.S., this panel critically explores the notion of “community” through an examination of the politico-ethical possibilities enabled therein, the exclusionary practices that inhere in consolidating a wide range of practices and desires into bounded, identity-based communities, and the violence – symbolic and physical – entailed in such imaginings. The papers address questions like: How do practices and conceptions of queer community elide and concretize vectors of social difference (Reddy)? How is the mediated process of forming community obscured by the imperative of "authenticity" (Dave)? How does the Dalit literary sphere, serving as a counterpublic, work to consolidate particular notions of community and “Dalitness” (Brueck)? How does the fraught landscape of language choice in schools serve to forge communities of difference (LaDousa)? How do Hindu nationalist religious acts sustain the movement’s constructions of self and “other,” thus providing the bedrock for violence (Menon)? Together, these papers critically examine the romance of community, exploring what it means to belong, and interrogating the inclusions and exclusions through which community is crystallized.

Queer Desi Formations and the Boundaries of Cultural Belonging in the U.S.
Gayatri Reddy, University of Illinois, Chicago, USA

Over the last decade, a growing – and visible - South Asian or desi lesbian and gay or queer community and movement has emerged in the U.S. Individuals involved in this cultural formation stake their claim both as members of an ethnic, sexual and religious minority in America, and as cultural/political citizens of a transnational world. Drawing on the narratives of self-identified South Asian gay men currently living in Chicago – and specifically, their repeated lament regarding the lack of a functioning desi queer “community” - this paper explores the various tensions evident in the crafting of South Asian sexual subjectivity, community, and the politics of citizenship in America today. If, as Alberto Melucci contends, contemporary social formations are “prophets of the present,” then an analysis of the diasporic desi gay community and movement in Chicago can perhaps teach us something not just about the politics of sexuality, subject, and community-formation in immigrant communities, but as importantly, about broader constructions of class, race, ethnicity, and the cultural politics of otherness in contemporary America.

To Render Real the Imagined: Making Sexual Locality out of Unruly Geographies
Naisargi Dave, University of Toronto, Canada

From 1991 to 1997, women from across India, married and single, wealthy and poor, in small towns and big cities, were forging a pan - and transnational imagined lesbian community through the circulation of letters. Displaying little concern against foreign origins, most proclaimed themselves “lesbian” and expressed great solace in the discovery of others “like” them. This broad and meaningful network, one that enabled previously isolated women to stake claim to a larger belonging, was produced and sustained through a series of transnational mediations, diasporic magazines, mass media, foreign travelers, and cosmopolitan scholars with ambitious agendas. I examine in this paper how, as an imagined community of writers gave way to the formation of discrete, place-based, and often politically aspiring lesbian collectives, these transnational mediations were deliberately obscured through an emergent activist discourse that sought to posit the local authenticity, and legitimacy, of a more “Indian” (and thus less “lesbian,” less mediated) same-sex desire. Efforts to transform inherently unruly productions into local truths are directly related, I will argue, to the imperatives of visibility, visuality, and authenticity that underlie the hopes of emergent political communities.

The Homogeneity of Difference? Contesting the Hindi Dalit Counterpublic
Laura Brueck, University of Colorado, Boulder, USA

Recent decades have ushered in dramatic changes for Indian Dalit communities, from political mobilization (in particular the success of the Bahujan Samaj Party), to the creation a national reservations policy resulting in a new urban Dalit middle class, to the cultural revolution of Dalit literature as a site for a radically new form of community identity formation. In this paper I illustrate the ways in which the Dalit literary sphere, operating as a “counterpublic”, consolidates the idea of Dalit community around narrowly defined notions of “authentic” Dalit experiences and political perspectives. I also consider in some detail the Dalit feminist critique of such hegemonic notions of “Dalitness” for their exclusion of gendered perspectives and simultaneous fetishization of sexual violence against Dalit women as central to the identity-construction of Dalit men. Seeking to illustrate the role of the Hindi Dalit literary sphere as a counterpublic (both as a source of the production and dissemination of various forms of community-building literary narrative, and a site for critical intervention into more mainstream Indian literatures), I focus on two prominent Hindi Dalit literary-activist associations, the Bharatiya Dalit Sahitya Akademi (Indian Dalit Literary Academy) and the Dalit Lekhak Sangh (Dalit Writers Forum). I analyze in particular several disputes among members of these associations in public forums such as Dalit conferences and literary magazines that foreground the contestation within the Dalit counterpublic sphere over the oft- exclusionary and surprisingly autocratic politics of community formation.

Making English Safe for Hindi (Medium)?: Community, Discourse, and Schooling in North India
Chaise LaDousa, Hamilton College, USA

Across the Hindi Belt of North India, a long-standing dichotomy between Hindi-medium and English-medium education has served to reflect inequality among a complex bundle of social dispositions such as class, caste, and gender. This paper draws on ethnographic fieldwork in schools located in the Hindi Belt to engage with one of the most fruitful attempts to conceptualize the relationship between communities inside and outside of the classroom in the particularly fraught language landscapes of postcolonial nations like India. Proponents of "safe talk" argue that communities, sometimes comprising the vast majority of a nation's citizens, are excluded from mastery of elite languages such as English. The notion of "safe talk" has it that in the classroom, teachers and students form a counter-community by mitigating the sting of their exclusion by couching use of the elite language in languages they control. This presentation demonstrates that Hindi-medium teachers and students do this in English class. But is their use of English primarily defensive as proponents of "safe talk" argue? This paper argues that English serves as value for those whose education is in Hindi-medium schools, and that the patterns of exegesis of English in the classroom actually match those outside. By linking practices in and out of the classroom in the shadow of an influential theoretical explanation, this paper explores the problematic relationship between practices located in communities like the school and scholarly attempts to tie them to larger contexts.

The Boundaries of Belonging: Religion, Community, and Nation in the Hindu Right in India
Kalyani D. Menon, DePaul University, USA

How do Hindu nationalists construct an imagined community that transcends divisions of caste, class, gender, and even religion in contemporary India? Here I look at religious practice as a key site of nation making. Based on fieldwork with members of the violent right wing Hindu nationalist movement in Delhi, I suggest that Hindu nationalist prayers and rituals are best understood as performative acts that create, reproduce, and sustain exclusionary constructions of the national community. I will show how elements from ancient Vedic rituals are incorporated into new ritual configurations to enable a new imaging of nation and belonging that includes some non-Hindus while simultaneously excluding “others” from the Hindu nation. Hindu nationalist prayers dredge powerful Hindu symbols and images from the past to operationalize through daily recitation new political possibilities and exclusions. Focusing on ritual, prayer, and religious symbolism, I analyze how Hindu nationalists use religious practice to enable particular inclusions and exclusions that demarcate the boundaries of belonging, and to construct a Hindu nation in plural and secular India. I suggest that analyzing these new juxtapositions of religious ideas, narratives, communities, and practices is central to understanding the everyday nationalism of Hindu nationalists, and to grasping how individuals come to see themselves as members of particular national formations. I argue that these religious practices are inseparable from the political; indeed they are a form of the political, since they generate the exclusionary cartographies of nation and community that undergird the violence of Hindu nationalism.