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Why I’ll be wearing a salwar this Friday: On diaspora, identity, and visibility

My father, like most fathers, has his stories. This particular story takes place when I was three or so. As my father tells it, I came home from preschool one day and informed him with the utmost solemnity that, while Gopal (his name) was an Indian name, my name was American.

I’ve heard this story a thousand times – muffled by my comforter when my father would talk me to sleep, over the roar of the car engine as he taught me to drive – but over the years, I’ve come to unpack it a little more, to fill in the pauses in his speech. Of all the things I must have thought and said when I was small, my father remembers this one instance so vividly, every retelling the same. I wonder whether it’s because this is the moment that he started to realize that the life in this country he and my mother were working so hard to give me was shaping me in new and unpredictable ways. I wonder whether he even had an answer for me that day – whether he told me the true origins of my lofty Sanskrit name and the aspirations he had given voice to when he affixed it to me. Worst of all, I wonder exactly when in my mind this idea first took root, that I couldn’t be Indian and “American,” that the Indian parts of me were un-”American,” that the best way to survive was to pick “American” over my own father.

When I know what to look for, I notice moments like this one dotted throughout my life like drops of payasam that drip off the ladle in my unpracticed, too-American hand when I serve myself. There was the day I stopped letting my parents and grandparents speak to me in Tamil. The day I’d dread every fall, when my mother would come talk to my classmates about Diwali (how privileged was I to have a mother who did this for me, and a school system that permitted it?) and I’d have to sing one of the classical Sanskrit devotional songs I studied on weekends. The fans I’d furtively turn on when I had friends over, hoping they wouldn’t say my house smelled “exotic” or “like spices” or “different to my house.”

There weren’t many South Asian kids at my school, and over time the invisibility (or perhaps the hypervisibility?) of it all started to wear me down. I remember being elated the day we learned about Jim Crow laws and segregated bathrooms: My first grade teacher knelt down and told me gently that if I’d been around back then, I would have been waiting in line for the “Colored” bathroom with her. I forgot to be sad, so glad was I that there was a space outside of “White” where I belonged with other people who looked like me, but didn’t really look like me. Over time, I grew up, I started reading more, and I came to realize what’s wrong with the term “person of color,” but in that moment, suddenly less alone, I was flying.

Things have gotten a bit better since then. I’ve met South Asians of all sorts and non-South Asians who let me drop words like “diaspora” and “second-generation” and “post-9/11″ into casual conversation. I’m learning how to find the music and poetry in the negative space around this country’s dominant picture and coming to understand that my choice to identify as “Indian-American” is real and politicized and itself an act of resistance that challenges the dichotomies I internalized so long ago. But despite  these supposed indicators of “progress,” when Gautam and I took a long-awaited trip to the Smithsonian over spring break, I could hardly believe my eyes when I read that one in every one hundred people in this country is Indian-American.

Visibility isn’t everything, and there’s so much else that I wish were different about South Asian-America (a lot of it starts with and comes back to histories of colonialism and anti-blackness). But I really do believe that there is power in asserting the right to self-identity, and there is so much to be learned from examining how the identities of those around you intersect with and diverge from your own. This year in SAPAC, we’ve talked about elections and women’s rights in the world’s largest democracy, about partition and trauma in Kashmir and statelessness and governance in Tibet. But as the year draws to a close, we feel that it’s time to turn our attention back to this campus, where South Asian strength, kinship and identity exist in a multitude of ways. This Friday, we invite all of you who link some part of your identity to South Asia – whether you were raised there or are the product of any of its multitudinous diasporas, or if it has shaped your life in other ways – to join our “South Asians of the Hill” photo campaign. We hope that you’ll take this opportunity to reflect on what South Asia has or hasn’t meant to you, and that this event will begin the process of charting new pathways of support, understanding, and solidarity. If you are comfortable, we also encourage you to consider wearing South Asian clothes for the day – I know I will be, as part of my un-learning how to separate my worlds and compartmentalize myself.

Vidya Srinivasan is a sophomore at Tufts University and a member of SAPAC’s Executive Board

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“Google brought nations together in 3 minutes and 32 seconds. The politicians of both countries couldn’t do this in 66 years”

“Google brought nations together in 3 minutes and 32 seconds. The politicians of both countries couldn’t do this in 66 years,” announced a comment on Google’s Facebook page. This got me thinking.

The positive impact of the media is, more often than not, underrated. While most people focus their energy on scoping out the negative effects of the media – whether it is racism or sexism – Google’s recent ad, “The Reunion,” is a step in the right direction toward improving India and Pakistan’s long-sour relationship.

Google released the ad two weeks ago and it has already garnered over 6 million views. The short ad tells the story of how two long-lost friends who were separated during partition, Baldev and Yusuf, are re-united through the power of Google search. Baldev’s granddaughter Suman intelligently makes connections from her dadu’s stories and utilizes Google to connect with Yusuf and his grandson in Pakistan. Together, the friends’ grandchildren organize Yusuf’s visa and plane tickets so that he is able to surprise Baldev for his birthday. The last scene shows the emotional reunion of the two friends and instantly brings the viewer to tears.

Ogilvy and Mather, India (an international ad agency) was responsible for the creation of this masterpiece that received an overwhelming response in both India and Pakistan. This ad evoked such emotional responses because of the importance that the partition of India and Pakistan holds in South Asia’s collective memory. 1947 lingers on in the memory of South Asians, crowded with images of separation, violence, hostility and agony.

Several years on, the relationship between India and Pakistan still has yet to see better days. Wars have been fought, bullets have been shot, negotiations have been attempted, but the media’s power has not usually been harnessed. Millennials across the world spend most of their time using some sort of media, whether it is watching TV shows, tweeting or blogging. It has often been posited that the future of the relationship between the two states must therefore go beyond mere empty political gestures and feeble negotiations. Instead, a lot rests in the hands of us millennials.

Ogilvy and Mather did it right. They targeted the millennials – the generation that grew up hearing stories about partition from their grandparents and through (often one-sided) narratives in history textbooks. It is this generation – the future of South Asia – that has formed strong bonds with their Indian and Pakistani counterparts in universities across the world. Therefore, by showing how the granddaughter (a tech-savvy millennial) surprised her grandfather, O&M and Google were able to touch the hearts of both those who actually experienced partition and those who can proactively do something about it.

The difficulty in obtaining visas for both countries has proved challenging for several reasons. A land that was once joined can no longer be accessed with ease, thus limiting cultural exchange and sustenance of friendships – both old and new. Recent improvements allow those over 65 a visa on-arrival, but lack of awareness about this option has resulted in low usage.

Nawaz Sharif recently stressed the importance of improving India and Pakistan’s relationship at the opening of a literary and cultural conference in Lahore. “India and Pakistan are mirror images of each other and therefore we must have good ties. This is a necessity,” he said. “We must aim to dismantle visa requirement between the two countries.”

Sharif’s choice to talk about such an important issue at a cultural conference again ties back to the importance of using media tools in world politics. Global beverage giant Coca-Cola also released an ad early this year showing the machines they installed in India and Pakistan. The machines enabled citizens of both countries to interact with each other, thus offering actual connections between the people. Using media to create social change at a micro-level is a step in the right direction. These micro-changes will hopefully encourage broader political and social change – allowing India and Pakistan to finally work on mending the wounds of partition.

Google’s ad illustrated the emotions associated with the reunion of two long-lost friends, whereas Coca-Cola’s effort demonstrated the ability to form new friendships across borders.

What politics can’t achieve, the media can strive to.

Watch the video here and (keep a tissue handy – tears are guaranteed). It is also interesting to take a look at the comments on the video.

Sunaina Basu is a senior at Tufts University and a member of SAPAC’s Executive Board

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To Tackle Poverty, We Have To First Understand It

From the tactical beggar who knocks persistently on the BMW car window to the spirited 10-year-old entrepreneur selling phone chargers – every street corner in New Delhi is bustling with contradiction. Growing up in a city as multifarious as my own, my message to the respective leaders on how to more effectively end poverty would be to first, understand it.

In our increasingly convoluted new world order, just as development can no longer entail a one-size-fits-all approach, poverty too must be understood from a contextual standpoint. Like development, poverty cannot be addressed through a linear and progressive series of widely agreed upon processes. The reality for a man engaged in crude-oil theft in the Niger Delta differs immensely from the marginalized widowed woman in Vrindavan, India. Demographics, politics, historical trends, cultural values, economic models – these are amongst the many factors that determine the nature of poverty and thereby its remedy. While pro-poor growth measures have proved to be statistically successful in China, Brazil’s pro-poor social policies have been better suited to its national context and capacity for redistribution methods. Poverty is not homogenous, so neither is its solution.

Beyond context, comes sustainability. As economist Colin White stresses, modern economic development is a process by which economic development becomes self-sustained. Relatedly, short-term fixes often perpetuate vicious poverty cycles. The scope of India’s poverty is at great odds with its growth story. Why? – Because India has persistently pursued unsustainable lack of poverty-reducing growth. While liberalization and information technology has invigorated its burgeoning middle class, the one in every six urban Indian residents living in slums is a parallel reality that is too often sidelined. The need for long-term participatory measures is growing increasingly apparent.

To end poverty in a sustainable manner, we have to change the way we view those in poverty. They are not targets or recipients of development. Further, poverty reduction must be understood beyond the quintessential notion of meeting basic needs. Instead, the approach to reduce poverty must be participatory and address the precursors to economic development. Whether through education, integration or job creation, the fight to alleviate is a protracted one. Nonetheless, across the developing world, the potential to do so lies in its promising demographic dividend. While countries like Singapore have recognized the importance of harnessing its youth potential, others like India have failed to create opportunities for its young. 85% of India’s jobs remain within ‘informal’ enterprises due to a dire lack of job creation on the part of the government. Walking through my own neighborhood towards the main street, these facts and figures are so pertinent between the idle security guard and the disheveled shoe-cleaner.

Embrace the context, ensure its sustainability and make it participatory. Poverty reduction begins only once we move away from a skewed paternalistic understanding of it.

- Zara Juneja, Chair of SAPAC & Senior at Tufts University

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South Asia Week 2.0!


Wednesday, April 17th marks the start of SAPAC’s second annual ‘South Asia Week’.
South Asia Week aims to cultivate meaningful dialogue surrounding South Asia’s pressing political issues, celebrate the region’s diverse cultures, and suggest innovative solutions to the current obstacles facing the region.

Every day, the South Asian region is at the forefront of news for both international and domestic political affairs. South Asia is the geographical region in Southern Asia that includes Afghanistan,Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Iran, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.  However, the importance of this region within the international context is often underplayed. For instance, a few issues that pose important global effects are “the nuclearisation of the India-Pakistan rivalry, with the assistance of outside powers like China and North Korea”, the US occupation and invasion of Afghanistan and the emerging markets in the region.

Throughout South Asia Week, SAPAC hopes to engage students and faculty members across various disciplines pertaining to South Asia. Both Tufts University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy place great importance on international affairs. In keeping both of the school’s focuses in mind, SAPAC hopes to create awareness about the region throughout the Tufts community.

This year the South Asian Political Action Committee (SAPAC) is proud to present Tufts’ second annual South Asia Week in coordination with BUILD: India and HSC.

South Asia week will provide an eclectic blend of events, ranging from a roundtable discussion regarding the drone strikes in Pakistan, to the joyous celebration of Holi. This week will provide not only engagement with South Asia’s pressing political issues but also a diverse taste of South Asian culture. Here are some of the events to look forward

-Drone Strikes Roundtable: Game of Drones: Counterterrorism Measure or Human Rights Abuse? (Wednesday [17th April])

There have been 344 Drone Attacks in Pakistan alone since 2004, resulting in more than hundreds of Civilian Deaths. The Obama Administration has defended the legality of Drone Attacks and said strikes are conducted only with permission from states. We ask you: Counterterrorism Measure or Human Rights Abuse?

-BUILD: India presents “Bollywood, Bazaar and Bites” Movie Screening of Cocktail (Thursday [18th April]

Watch a Bollywood film, eat delicious FREE Indian food, and buy some beautiful Indian Handicrafts. All donations will provide Thottiyapatti’s members with better supplementary education, access to ECOSAN toilets and an additional source of income.

-Afghanistan Movie Screening (Thursday [18th April])

Back Home Tomorrow, by Fabrizio Lazzaretti and Paolo Santolini. The film received the Cinereach Award for conveying vital messages through artful storytelling during its US premiere at the 2009 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in New York City.

-HSC: Holi (Sunday [April 21st])

Holi is the festival of colors and welcomes the joys of spring. The festival is exhilarating and joyous, and reminds us to celebrate the excitement and happiness of friendship and love.

With these exciting events in line, we are looking forward to South Asia Week and hope you all will join us in engaging with the region’s cultures and issues.
south asia week

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Sectarian Violence in Pakistan: The Minority Discourse

Recent years have seen a dramatic intensification of violence against Shias in Pakistan. Last year, nearly 400 Shia lost their lives in targeted killings. In the first two months of this year, 204 Shia have been killed in Quetta alone. The unchecked violence has provoked two nationwide protests and much introspection.

The following post reflects on the liberal response to sectarian violence. It is written by Shayan, a student at Tufts University. 


Many years ago, when the representatives of newly created Pakistan had assembled to decide the framework of their future constitution, words of caution had rung out. In the moments leading up to the passage of the Objectives Resolution of 1949, Sris Chandra Chattopadhyay, the leader of the opposition in the Constituent Assembly had said, “By introducing the religious question, the differences between the majority and the minority are being perpetuated, for how long, nobody knows … I say, give up this division of the people into Muslims and non-Muslims and let us call ourselves one nation. Let us call ourselves one people of Pakistan.”

But his plea was ignored. Pakistan was divided, legally and discursively, into majority and minority. As Chattopadhyay had predicted in the rest of his speech, “Pakistani” became linked to “Muslim” and non-Muslims could not appeal to a shared Pakistani identity for protection. Non-Muslim Pakistanis and their advocates had to fall back on the unpopular discourse of minority protection.

Today, when Shias in Pakistan are facing an unprecedented bloodbath, liberals have rallied with the same slogans of protecting religious minorities. Suddenly, the unfortunate fate of Hindus, Christians, Ahmadis, and Shia “minorities” are all being condemned in one breath. In 1949, no one would have dreamed of speaking about the Shia “minority”. Yet today, Shias are relocated and subsumed without comment into the discourse of minority.

Sunni extremists on the right have been trying for decades to evict Shias from the fold of Islam. Liberals, while condemning these efforts, do not realize that their minority discourse is contributing to that very process. Subtract all the minorities in the liberal’s list and you find revealed the Sunni majority, the same majority the extreme right has been trying to bring about.

Then why insist on recasting Shias as a minority? Perhaps because it is a readymade discourse that the liberals can mobilize in their defense. But it is also a discourse proven to be politically ineffectual. Chattopadhyay had recognized this long ago. In calling for the abolition of majority/minority distinction he had also understood the constructed and mutable nature of these categories. He would not be surprised at the reconstitution of these seemingly fixed and self-evident categories that is taking place today. He would, I am sure, be confounded by liberals’ uncritical affirmation of this process, when the way forward is not to create more minorities but rather to do away with this discourse entirely.

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