Tulsi Gabbard v. – Vamsee Juluri – Medium
Like most Hindus in America, I came to know about Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard because of her engagement with issues faced by the Hindu community. Unlike the usual superficial characters in the usual Indian American press stories on American politicians with some vague tie to India that might interest readers, here was someone who wasn’t just a photo op, but a voice; and a clear, smart, and sincere voice expressing concerns barely talked about by American political figures before.
Tulsi wrote a letter of strong support for the Hindu children and parents fighting off smears and lies during the California textbook issue. Soon after that, she also spoke up against one of the most dangerously racist media stunts being pulled against Brown people in America in an especially fraught and dangerous time: CNN’s contemptuous White Savior (sorta, considering here was a Persian-origin man playing White Savior to Hindoos this time) mock-documentary series Believer which aired against all good counsel even as Hindus and Sikhs were being shot and shot at in America in early 2017.
It was “as if touring a zoo,” was Tulsi’s precise phrase, and I used it in the title of my HuffPost article at that time too. No one in public office had spoken up against Anti-Hindu racism in the media as far as I know. She did. And when she appeared on the CNN Town Hall after announcing her run for President, she named that form of racism most academics and activists have been arrogantly reluctant to do so too. She named Hinduphobia.
And while she has not quite addressed it again, I think all of this, and her publicly proud admission of being influenced into service by Hindu philosophy, should be an inspiration enough for Hindus of Indian and non-Indian descent.
Now for the tricky question. Clearly, Tulsi is proud of being Hindu, brave enough to speak out against Hinduphobia, and very popular with Hindu Americans (and others). But what is the relationship between Hindus and her other constituencies ? Tulsi is not running to represent Hindus alone. She has spoken for us, but at the same time, her concerns lie with a very broad set of issues that American people, Hindu and others, have been facing for a very long time. In the past few days, it almost seems that she has focused so much on some of them that her prior attention to Hindu concerns (which are also hers, since she is Hindu), have vanished.
In an interview, she did not really set the record straight on a biased question about Narendra Modi (I have written about it here). And, as many supporters are noticing, she has not publicly congratulated Mr. Modi on his re-election as Prime Minister. I share some of these concerns somewhat, and I hope the Tulsi campaign will figure out that there are ways to broaden her appeal and at the same time not fall into the trap of normalizing the attacks on her Hindu supporters by Hinduphobic apparatchiks in the US war media system.
At the same time, I also think Hindus, both in America and in India, who are accustomed to reading about Tulsi only through the lens of being a Hindu, understand the wider import of what she is trying to accomplish here in the United States, against the odds, as it were (and I think Hindus who tend to equate not just the Hindu movement but the whole universe with their organizational get-togethers as some sort of loyalty-test should get over this and recognize why she had to excuse herself from their ineptly conceived head-in-the-sand Great Hindu Gathering last year). I say that as a friend and a contributor to the Hindu anti-colonial struggle who sincerely wishes to see an end to all the unfair demonization that our community, and some of its leaders, have faced. For that, we have to expand our horizons a little bit.
The best way to understand Tulsi’s role in the US is to see a parallel between what she is taking on here, and what Prime Minister Modi in India called the “Khan market consensus” (Khan Market is a fancy shopping area in New Delhi associated with what in the US one might call “limousine liberals”). In India, the phrase refers to a system of privilege and exploitation centered around one powerful political dynasty inherited from colonial times. In the US, the equivalent of the Khan Market Consensus is not any one single family, but a whole system of business, politics, media and even academia, all centered around the one great moral failing in the history of a land so idealistic in many other ways, which is its “addiction to war.”
Tulsi is the anti-war candidate, and this she is in not some superficial placard-holding fashion, but in the manner that nature and history produce only so rarely; as a morally credible and singularly forceful presence who is going at the nerve-center of the US war economy itself. She has sidestepped the path of money and easy support into the war-economy political machine. She owes no favors and future wars to defence companies who whisper into the ears of Presidents after they win, so the habitual US Wag the Dog experiments in using media to create false enemies and then going and bombing up people and letting dangerous terror groups rise in their wake need not continue as they have. If Modiji’s rise has shaken up a corrupt power system in India, Tulsi’s rise is promising to do that to the American equivalent of the same. It is an extraordinary possibility really.
I must add that my own education in the centrality of this issue to American politics and life, and by extension, world affairs, started only when I began teaching a course called Media, Stereotyping and Violence around the time of the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq war. Media studies scholars have produced some fine scholarship and documentaries on the close ties between the US military and the broader entertainment culture which makes war, conquest, and killing seem like a normal, natural, and often “fun” part of life. Just like how for seventy years after independence the Indian elite consensus held that it was “natural” for Hindus to remain denied equal representation and a voice in their affairs or to speak of their own historic pain and suffering after centuries of imperialism, the US media-business-political consensus has held war as a “natural” part of affairs in the country, outdoing growing anti-war movements and resistance after each Vietnam or Iraq with even smarter propaganda — and even more pliable political candidates who do their bidding even while mouthing platitudes for peace.
Tulsi Gabbard is a rare phenomenon in American politics. Even as her voice is sought to be silenced and her image demonized by the Big War Media, the possibility that she is not what she is being caricatured as is occurring to more and more intelligent, alert, and conscientious people, of many races, faiths, and positions. It is of course going to be the moment of pride for Hindus too when she moves ahead to where anyone with hope for peace and faith in truth believe she will go. It is of course quite revealing, and increasingly obvious to many observers, that there is something rotten by way of prejudice and bigotry in not just the conservative Right and is often believed, but also in the desperately unresponsive and self-righteous attitude of the so-called Left too. Every Hindu, and non-Hindu, should recognize that a big part of the attacks on Tulsi Gabbard are centered around that name, that identity, and it only shows us how long this particular prejudice has been allowed to fester unchecked. But all of us who are Hindu, and see Tulsi as a proud member and representative of our faith, culture, and philosophy, should also broaden our horizons and see that what she can accomplish will be more than just for our community alone. It will be for the whole of humanity, and nature, if she succeeds in steering American affairs from their present trajectory of wars and more wars simply because it’s good for business. One American President warned of this reality after World War 2 by speaking of the ominous nature of the Military-Industrial Complex. Maybe this American President will finally be the one to do something about it. I believe she will.