Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to visit Washington and New York, where, in addition to meeting President Obama, he will receive a "rock star welcome" from nearly 20,000 Indian American supporters at Madison Square Garden on Sunday. The community event will be watched live by many more viewers at Times Square, and in homes around the country and in India.
The excitement about the event is incredible, and rarely has a political figure visiting from India inspired such adulation from the diaspora. It has been reported that Mr. Modi's community event has outflanked even a major Bollywood show, something that might not have happened with anyone else. Even if the visit is slated to be all about business and trade, as state visits tend to be, there is no denying the profound symbolism that is also coming to the United States with Mr. Modi.
In my view, the community event to welcome the Prime Minister is going to be the 3.2 million strong Indian-American community's equivalent of some of the great historical marches to Washington that have taken place in American history. Even if not everyone is traveling to New York, and even if not everyone has changed their earlier perceptions of him yet, it is still, in spirit a 3 million manav (human) march.
The Indian-American community is, historically speaking, one of the youngest immigrant and minority communities in the United States. With the notable exception of the early 20th century Sikh migrants to Canada and California who have earned an honored place in Indian history for their contribution to the freedom movement, most of the Indian-American community has hardly been in this country for fifty years (the landmark immigration act that opened America's door if not to the tired and the hungry at least to the qualified and dedicated will turn 50 next year). The first generation of immigrants who came were doctors, scientists and engineers, and they were followed later by families and workers, and more recently, by the iconic computer professionals of Silicon Valley. They believed in the American Dream, and to a large extent, made it too, as one might say. But, and there is a but, despite their relative affluence as a community, Indians in America (and Indians in India too, for different reasons) lost nearly two generation's worth of time in terms of finding their own sense of place in the world.
There is a historical context for this. India won its freedom from England in 1947. The first generation of immigrants were children of a tenuous era, when poverty and uncertainty about one's own culture and identity remained widespread in India. India did not lose its culture or religion under colonialism, but kept it in a strange way, by compromising, going quiet about it. Hinduism became, with the exception of Mahatma Gandhi, perhaps, a private, ceremonial religion, very different from the vast, civilizational, almost trans-religious cultural and philosophical force it had been for millennia. Hindus, in India, and in America, did not know how to speak about their worldview, or who they were, and who they were becoming. Hindu parents continued the old colonial-era survival strategy of silence even when their children faced problems emanating from old colonial-era myths and stereotypes about Hinduism in the media and in school textbooks.
Colonialism was over, the US had civil rights, everything was fine, but only so much. Indians had legal validation and a fair amount of social tolerance in America. But they had no voice. They did what their parents and grandparents had done in colonial India even when the British were saying silly or false things about them; they ignored and went on with life. It was obviously not enough, and it was obviously not good for Indians, or for others Americans, who somehow never could find the genuine dialogue they might have wanted with their newest large immigrant group.
A new generation of Indian-Americans has come of age now, and they are, as a whole, thoroughly dedicated to the idea of completing the cultural decolonization that plagued their representation in the media and in the public sphere. They no longer accept the 19th century myths and stereotypes textbooks written by colonial scholars with no real knowledge of India or Hinduism. They are speaking, to themselves, and to the world, as Indians, Hindus, and Americans. To some extent, this generational assertion is also taking place now in India. For the last two decades, the first generation of middle class children born after India's economic liberalization has been growing up on MTV and the internet, but at the same time with a renewed interest in what it means to be Indian, and as the case may be, Hindu, as well. Their culture has been described by experts as one of "rebelling in," to a middle class dream from failing socialistic and flawed secular pasts. They are not conforming blindly though. Their religion, their sense of self and values is different. Everything is changing, and everything is coming back to a center, still, in a way.
Mr. Modi's arrival in New York comes at a moment when a sense of civilizational renewal is powerfully in the minds and hearts of Indians in India and the diaspora. It is especially keen among Hindus and Hindu Americans, not because they see themselves in a petty intercivilizational rivalry with others (that sort of thinking was never really compatible with the grand universalism of Hindu spirituality and India has historically respected diversity rather than suppressed it), but simply because they want their civilization, and just Civilization, perhaps, restored to what it was before colonial degradation, and what it might be still, in a more equal, reasonable and compassionate world.
For some observers, especially in the media, the thought of seeing Prime Minister Modi as a part of this historic moment remains difficult to accept. The narrative associating him with religious extremism and blaming him for the riots of 2002 though will prove an ever dwindling one in terms of credibility in time, not unlike how the media and nearly everyone believed once that there were WMDs in Iraq too. His actions and his words in the last few years have proved very different from what was widely believed in the press. Indian voters have clearly made up their mind about who he is, and so have his many admirers in America. The contradictions between the media narratives and who he seems to be to those culturally rooted in Indian civilizational nuances are obvious. The media calls him "steely," but to many Indians, he just seems "spiritual," in his austere lifestyle, his self-denial, and his ability to speak in a manner that is seamlessly connecting ethics, civics, and politics in a way few have done in public life since the Mahatma. Critics call him a big business Prime Minister, an Indian one-percenter, and yet, he has spoken about the reality of poverty and inequality in India more frankly than any self-glorified national leader merely stoking pride and middle class egos. The truth, whether it fits everyone or not, is that Mr. Modi represents civilizational hope of a kind India and Indian America has not seen until now.
As someone who observes the everyday flow of media and pop culture for a living, I am struck by how resonant the sense of civilizational renewal is right now among Indians. It is expressed in varying forms by different people, perhaps. For some, it may be about business, science, and technology. For others, it may be about power. But undeniably, there is a sense that a Hindu and Indian way of looking at the world is beginning to re-emerge, and in a contemporary rather than retrograde form, after a gap over at least five centuries. The world looked to India for its wealth, culture and knowledge from the earliest days of history, and in the aftermath of the violence and madness of colonialism, in the last five centuries, India forgot to how to see. That somehow, is changing now. One man in search of India landed in what is now America in 1492. Another man leading an India searching for its soul anew is landing once again, in this, the New India of the world, this land with a home and hope for all, and the best in all, this United States of America.
Something is getting remade in our world of many civilizations, and one Civilization, of humanity, still.