Anokh Sohal and Deepinder Nagra: The South Asian Ethnic Classification In The U.S. Harms Minorities

Minorities are often forced to show South Asian solidarity with groups that oppress them

Anokh Sohal and Deepinder Nagra
April 7, 2021 | 5 min. read

The use of race and ethnicity has long been a way to categorize groups of people. Although the disadvantages of these terms have been extensively studied, they continue to be determining factors in how we identify people. 

The ethnic term South Asian is still used to represent people from diverse countries including Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Maldives. Many of these communities have had increased migration to the United States, and by the 21st century, the number has grown by millions. From 2010 to 2017, the South Asian population in the USA grew roughly 40%, from 3.5 million to 5.4 million people. Of those, nearly 80 percent were of Indian origin - but India is home to nearly 2,000 different ethnic groups. 

Racial and ethnic classifications are misleading and must be used cautiously. 

Many groups that are identified as South Asian, including Sikhs, Muslims, Dalits, and Kashmiris have a long history of persecution by the governments of their homeland for their religious and cultural beliefs. The homogenization of South Asian groups also contributes to the fascist concept of Hindutva, which aims to make conservative Hindu ideology the dominant, if not only, defining ideology of India.

Minorities are often forced to show South Asian solidarity with groups that oppress them.

While South Asians share some common cultural values and history, they are extremely diverse. Western academia views South Asians as a homogenous group, a construct  rooted in a Hindu-centric view, “whereby Hinduism and Sanskrit language represented exclusively the cementing forces of Indian civilization, while Muslims were considered as disruptors.” 

As recently as the 1970s, South Asians were considered white until the Association of Indians in American organized in the late 1960’s and were able to successfully petition for inclusion into state and federal Asian categories. Initially, the purpose was to gain benefits from affirmative action measures such as equal employment opportunities and admissions into educational institutions. 

The term ‘South Asian’ was created in the USA for policy-making and institutional purposes. Eventually,  South Asian immigrants, primarily upper-caste Hindus (Brahmins), began launching successful careers in high-paying sectors, making Hindu identity synonymous with ‘South Asian’. 

With this rise came the ideology of Hindutva. Hindutva seeks to create linguistic, cultural, and religious hegemony, elevating conservative Hindu thought and leaving little room for minority religious groups that also call India home. Sikhs have seen this ideology work in full force against us with falsified stories of Sikhs being lumped into Sanatan Dharma, or the “warrior” branch of Hinduism. 

India is currently ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu nationalist party dedicated to the Hindutva cause, aiming to “redefine India according to its majority Hindu faith”. Their ideology has infiltrated academia, government, entertainment, and all aspects of Indian society. With the majority of South Asians being of Indian descent, but so much ethnic diversity within India, we must be in firm opposition to the hegemony rooted in the term South Asian, and ask ourselves if it can truly embody all people or mainly upper-caste Hindus. Confining South Asians to meaning Hindutva is an inaccurate representation of that diversity and South Asian experiences.

The rise of Hindutva  is on full display in the USA with groups such as the Hindu American Foundation attempting to make textbooks refer to India alone as South Asia, and explaining the caste system, a system described in the most authoritative text on Hindu law that places Hindu priests at the top,  as “a phenomenon of the region, not as a Hindu practice.”  Earlier this year in California, tech giant Cisco participated in discriminatory practices against their Dalit employee, by two upper-caste managers, proving that implementation of the Caste system was in fact not endemic to India alone.  

Time and time again, Hindu Americans with political ambitions pine for “South Asian Solidarity” to gain votes for campaigns and largely cater exclusively to their predominantly upper-caste Hindu majority donors.

For example, Ami Bera, a representative for California’s Seventh Congressional District, is a member of the American Sikh Congressional Caucus. To date, he has never acknowledged the Sikh genocide of 1984 but has come to the defense of Hindu-centric issues such as the removal of a Gandhi statue in the City of Davis, condemning the action, although it has been proven Gandhi himself was anti-black and casteist. He is yet to make any statement on the current Farmer’s Protest in India. Tulsi Gabbard, a former presidential candidate, was actively accepting funds from the BJP and attending banquets led by BJP donors. Kamala Harris, now Vice President of the USA, paraded her proud South Asian roots but has not commented on the current Farmers’ Protests either. 

Examples like these are not the exception, they are the norm in the USA. These actions by elected officials who call for South Asian solidarity so frequently, but only champion upper-caste Hindus who fund their campaigns leads to the question: what benefit does identifying as South Asian have for non-Brahmin South Asians?

As a Punjabi Sikh who has been raised in the USA, I often reflect on the trials and tribulations the Sikh Panth has had to endure. I have listened to my grandparents tell their tearful stories of Partition, heard tales of the horrors of 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms at the hands of the Indian government, and now the continued struggles of our brothers and sisters protesting draconian farm bills in India. I often wonder how these traumatic events, which are so recent in our history, have affected our mental health as a community. I would see South Asian organizations infatuated with Punjabi culture and cheap caricatures of Sikhs in Bollywood, but never once acknowledge the plight that Sikh people had endured in India. 

Our immigration stories are not the same. We hear generalized stories of “Indians” coming to countries with just dollars in their pockets, but Sikhs also come with the burden of intergenerational trauma. Many left India in search of better opportunities, but many Sikhs left India just to survive. The distinct visual identity that Sikhs maintain makes many of us feel othered not only in the countries we immigrated to but also within the South Asian label. 

I sympathize with Bengalis whose land was partitioned in 1906, with Kashmiris whose right to self-determination has been undercut by the Indian government, with Adivasis who fight for their tribal lands, and Tamils who continue to fight for their own liberation. With all the different groups that have been negatively impacted by the Indian government through its fascist Hindutva policies, it is clear that continuing to use South Asian is futile and traumatic for immigrant communities. 

Continuing to use South Asian as a blanket term is harmful, as it is used to represent various ethnic groups who retain unique identities despite common geographical location. Further discussion should be had about the necessity of this label and how potentially detrimental it can be to various ethnic minorities that are classified within it. As immigrant Punjabi Sikhs, the discussion should be had amongst ourselves about divesting from this term and instead creating solidarity with the other groups of people who have faced similar suppression by the propagators of harmful Hindutva ideology. 


Anokh Sohal is a second-year psychiatry resident at UC Davis medical center in Sacramento, California, with an interest in global mental health and historical trauma within the Sikh diaspora. You can find him on Twitter/Instagram at @anokhtree.

Deepinder Nagra is a researcher based out of California, with interests in mental health in the Panjabi community. More recently, he graduated from the University of California, Davis with a Masters in Public Health. You can find him on Twitter/Instagram at @dpnagra.

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