One of the most interesting and enduring debates in academia and popular culture is over the use, prevalence, and necessity of the moniker “South Asian.” At its most basic level, the phrase describes the experiences of all the people who either live in the countries often identified as being in South Asia (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, the Maldives, etc.) or who live elsewhere, but have ancestral roots that tie to this region. Yet, this very point that necessitates some resistance: how can two words possibly encapsulate the breadth of the experience? There are other concerns as well:
“How can two words possibly encapsulate the breadth of the experience?”
First, according to Sharmila Rudrappa, the term is also problematic because it implies a hegemonic group and doesn’t take into account the inherent diversity. “South Asian” neither implies diversity nor intersectionality, but presupposes an acceptance in a monolithic identity.
Second, many people don’t identify themselves as “South Asian,” often preferring to identify themselves with a specific nationality or country of origin (“Nepali,” “Sri Lankan”).
Third, many authors use “South Asia” or “South Asian” in book titles, but barely mean what they say; in their 2013 edited volume, Vivek Bald et al. titled their book, The Sun Never Sets: South Asian Migrants in an Age of U.S. Power, but only discussed the experiences of Indian immigrants. Consequently, “South Asian” implies “Indian,” which connotes a Big Brother kind of feel.
However, there is a growing group of scholars, including myself, who are using the phrases “South Asian” and “South Asian American” to explicitly create new knowledge about the experiences of more than just Indians or those of Indian descent — Bandana Purkayastha (2005), Shyam Sriram (2016), and now, Sangay K. Mishra. Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans (UMN Press) is a new book by Mishra, an assistant professor at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, and it is a detailed and fine study of South Asian American political identity with a focus on the Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi American communities.
“Mishra is, to my knowledge, one of the first political scientists to create an intersectional understanding of South Asian American political behavior.”
Mishra’s focus is “the nature and extent of ethnoracial mobilization leading to political incorporations of South Asian Americans and the manner in which it intersects with internal distinctions along multiple lines” (p. 10). In other words, he is interested in how South Asian American political mobilization works since it is a function of the tremendous internal diversity present in the community.
If that seems rather self-explanatory, consider that most work on race and ethnic politics often does not take into account multiple points of identity and resistance, and rarely address how these axes intersect with each other. Mishra is, to my knowledge, one of the first political scientists to create an intersectional understanding of South Asian American political behavior.
Using a combination of qualitative and quantitative data from 60 in-depth interviews in New York and Los Angeles, as well as national Asian American surveys, Mishra paints a picture of a community whose heterogeneity has manifested itself in remarkable ways. The author includes the mandatory South Asian American history component, but also goes in new directions and uses his intersectional understanding retroactively to explain past political phenomena, as well as current ones.
“South Asian American political identity can only be told through the people who live it.”
From his discussion of the 1913 founding of the Ghadar Party to the September 2014 speech by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Madison Square Garden, Mishra does not paint broad strokes, as much as explain, primarily through his interviews, that a South Asian American political identity can only be told through the people who live it.
I saw only two weaknesses in Desis Divided. First, while I stand behind this work as one that truly engages a broader, South Asian understanding of American political behavior, there were still a couple of places where the focus went squarely back to the Indian American community, and no others. Nowhere was this more apparent than Chapter 6, itself an extension of earlier work by Mishra (2009). In this chapter, he looked at the Indian American IT community, the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Deal, and the supportive and oppositional mobilizations surrounding Hindu nationalism.
The second weakness was Mishra’s lack of attention to the question of why the Indian American community has higher rates of political participation than other South Asian American communities. It would be easy to say that this was just a function of numbers — more Indian Americans, so more participants — but there is likely a deeper story to be told, and one that could be understood in light of the pejorative context of Bangladeshi and Pakistani American negative racialization, post-9/11. While Mishra provides a strong discussion of Muslim American racialization, he doesn’t connect the dots between prejudice and political ambition.
I would like to believe that as a student of Asian American Politics, I have a better understanding of the nuances of political behavior and identity than most people. And yet, there was so much about the South Asian American political experience that I did not truly appreciate till I read Desis Divided.
“There was so much about the South Asian American political experience that I did not truly appreciate till I read Desis Divided.”
Whether it was on the “selective mobilization” techniques of the Los Angeles Taxi Workers Association and the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, the availability of a “Green Card Lottery” for Pakistanis, or the tremendous growth of the Bangladeshi American community, Mishra’s qualitative technique was the real winner here. This is a valuable contribution to the field, and can only improve the prospects of future scholarship on this highly salient community.
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Shyam Sriram is a Ph.D. student in the department of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he originally wrote this essay for a graduate seminar. His primary area of focus is Asian Pacific American politics, but he also works on the political attitudes of refugees. Although born in Chicago, he lived in India from age nine to 17.