The Fourth of July is generally a time for Americans to get together, watch fireworks, and celebrate our nation’s independence. But in the period since 1776, the United States has also repeatedly sought to help other nations achieve their own independence and liberty, sometimes through war. The recent 75th anniversary of D-Day reminded us that the United States played a key part in dismantling fascism, and over subsequent decades, helped transform nations such as Germany and Japan into free, stable democracies. The United States has certainly had some important feats over its 243-year lifespan that helped free others from oppression.
Since India won its independence in 1947, it has celebrated its victory over its bygone British colonial occupiers on August 15th annually. In contemporary India the holiday is celebrated with parades, flag-raising ceremonies, and the singing of the national anthem, “Jana Gana Mana.” The festivities mark a celebration of the modern Indian state, but it is also day of remembrance and a repudiation of the repressive colonial powers of the past. Most of the princely states and regions that are now unified under the state flag of India were under the thumb of the British Raj for close to a century (and some lands had been under military occupation by the East India Company or other colonial interests for a least a hundred years before that). Thus, India is no stranger to foreign interventions, and it should be quite comprehensible that many Indians are still sensitive to soft and hard applications of power by outside influences.
As I discussed in my book, Battling the Buddha of Love: a Cultural Biography of the Greatest Statue Never Built, when an American-based transnational Tibetan Buddhist group of mostly non-heritage Buddhists sought to build the biggest statue in the world, they became embroiled in a dispute with local Indians in Kushinagar. The Buddhist group, the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), wanted to build a 500-foot behemoth Maitreya statue in Kushinagar, the site of the Shakyamuni Buddha’s death about 2500 years ago.
The “Save the Land Movement,” comprised of rural Indian farming families and their advocates, argued that the land acquisition of several hundred arable acres that had been organized by the state government for the Maitreya Project would be a complete disaster for those affected. In the process of arguing against the statue, locals said that even if they did consent to sell their farms, which most refused to do outright, the state was forcibly taking their land at far less than market value. While some Indian farmers felt that the project could offer some benefits to the local economy, they were almost in total agreement that the proposed process of land acquisition would be so imbalanced that they themselves would be shunted aside long before any potential benefits trickled down to their villages.
During my years of research on the Maitreya Project, I was often compelled by informants to think about how such a compulsory land acquisition on behalf of a foreign institution was not unlike a neocolonial incursion.
When I embarked upon ethnographic work in India in the mid-aughts, I did not seek to study the echoes of colonialism, but as many scholars in the region will attest, postcolonial India is haunted by the past, especially insofar as domination of the poor by the rich has continued unabated, albeit under new globalized, neoliberal, neocolonial guises. Even armed with the intellectual understanding of this history and cultural context, I naively hoped that the project that I was studying would be different. But my hope that the cultural logics of Buddhist morality would set this intervention on a more deliberate, ethical path were not borne out in fact. Most surprising to me, FPMT and its Maitreya Project, seemed utterly ambivalent about the local resistance movement directed against them.
An elderly woman in Kushinagar who counted herself as an anti-Maitreya Project protestor told me that she remembered Gandhi’s anticolonial protests from her childhood. She told me during our interview that they had beat the British and they would fight against this Maitreya Project too. On another occasion, I was approached by a local man, let’s call him Sanjay, who likened the Maitreya Project to a foreign parasite. He said, “We will win against the Maitreya Project. I am 100 percent sure that we will be successful. [Around 1600 CE] the East India Company came from London. The East India Company was also a ‘project.’ The Maitreya Project is like the East India Company.” When I hastily wished him and his peers well in their struggle against the Maitreya Project, he seemed skeptical and anxious.
And so, on the occasion of this year’s celebration of Indian independence, as I find myself thinking about Indian resistance movements past and present, allow me to share what Sanjay said to me by way of farewell, “We are stronger now. You tell them that we can’t be colonized again.”
About the author of this blog post: Jessica Falcone is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Kansas State University where teaches about South Asian and Asian-American cultural and religious worlds. Her book, Battling the Buddha of Love: a Cultural Biography of the Greatest Statue Never Built, will be released on September 15, 2018 by Cornell University Press. Since the release date of Manikarnika: the Queen of Jhansi was postponed until next year, she will be celebrating India’s Independence day by watching the movie, Lagaan, for the hundredth time.
The Fourth of July is so close you can almost sense it. And to most people, it feels like freedom and independence. But how does it feel to the Muslim American women wearing a headscarf (or hijab) on that day?
The question about the headscarf, its meaning, and, more than anything, the experience of the women that wear it, has fascinated me for a long time. Maybe because some people don’t seem to think much about it, beyond the simple act of wearing a scarf in itself; maybe because to others, it evokes sentiments of distrust and anxiety, led mainly by stereotypical images propagated on TV.
In April 2014 I traveled to Turkey and asked questions about this practice myself. Because I knew little about it, I was surprised to find out that most Muslim women embraced the covering of their hair, and sometimes their whole body, as an expression of their identities. They talked about religious liberty, their sense of femininity carefully embroidered and woven in cloth.
A few years later, as I strolled the streets of Casablanca, Morocco, I was witness to the same phenomena. Arm in arm, gossiping in their burkas, or with smiling eyes in a hijab, women were voicing their beliefs. How is it that I had not seen through the veil of my own cultural bias, unable to understand the subtleties of wearing a head-covering scarf?
The issue of Islamic head-covering and the political and social debates on the topic are as multiple as they are complex. This 4th of July, I invite those interested in unveiling its construction and political consequences, to listen to our latest podcast with Bozena Welborne, Aubrey Westfall, and Sarah Tobin, co-authors of The Politics of the Headscarf in the United States.
On this Independence Day, their book provides us with a chance to hear from Muslim American women, to learn about their values and beliefs, and how they express their identities in a country that aims to be the model of democratic pluralism.
“I love identifying myself as that, as a Muslim American, especially in that order, too, because this is my country and my religion is the most important to me. But after that, like . . . this is where I was born, this is where I was raised and I was born with these values, American values of tolerating freedom of expression and freedom of religion and freedom of the press, and I think that’s one reason why our country is so successful is because we’re tolerating so much diversity and therefore people from all over the world can come and bring their talents into our country. So, I take a lot of pride in that phrase, Muslim American.”
—The Politics of the Headscarf in the United States (p.162)
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About the author of this blog post: Adriana Ferreira is the Social Media Coordinator at Cornell University Press. She is grateful to have had the opportunity to travel around the world and meet people from various countries, with different cultural values and religious beliefs, and to be part of a diverse, multi-cultural and heterogeneous community.