Harleen Kaur: Telling India's entire story

By Harleen Kaur, Columnist
Published January 28, 2014

Honestly, I really can’t stand the LSA Theme Semester.


Harleen Kaur

Even when I first heard that LSA would have the theme “India in the World” for the Winter 2014 semester, I was unsure of how I felt. I suppose I should have felt proud since the University felt inclined to focus on my “motherland,” but I was more anxious than anything. I knew from past experiences that my family’s story tended to get left out of the picture when discussing India. Unfortunately, this time was no different.

When the theme courses were released, I remember scrolling through them, still having some hope that they would provide a diverse array of perspectives and opportunities for students to learn about India. Instead, I found class after class on the North Indian perspective — one that is often focused on due to its because of its adoption of elements of Western culture. Bollywood, British India and the Himalayas may represent India to some, but I found myself looking at a carefully — though not necessarily accurately — constructed portrayal of India. This was created to fit into the image of India that is already present in the Western world — not one created to challenge it.

The first newsletter the Center for South Asian Studies released claimed that “All of the Theme Semester activities are geared towards helping students, faculty, and the community at large see the ways that India — whether through art and aesthetics or economics — is relevant to our everyday lives.” This is a very ambitious goal, but I would argue that the first step is at least making it relevant to those who are from India. As someone whose entire lineage is rooted in India, I cannot even bring myself to attend Theme Semester events or enroll in the classes. Does that really make it relevant?

In all of the events and courses that the Center for South Asian Studies has planned, there have been mentions of India's enormous diversity. However, a large focus on Northern India and Hinduism will overshadow any mention of other faiths and cultures. India will continue to be painted as the “world’s largest democracy,” even though it has a history of oppressing minority groups and targeting them with acts of violence. The most upsetting omission for me is that 30 years ago, the Indian government planned and carried out a military operation ending in the deaths of approximately 20,000 Sikhs. To this day, there have been no repercussions for those involved.

“India in the World” may be exactly how the University and the Center for South Asian Studies want to portray India, but it should not be mistaken for the truth. There are several gaping holes in the picture, and I hope that they attempt to mend this mistake by creating space for more diversity in their events and programming for the rest of the term. Thus far, the newsletter has showcased a very Northern, upper/middle-class and Hindu-centric India. Even though some of these identities are the largest in numbers, or most commonly portrayed by Western society, it would be silly to assume that they make up the majority of India’s identity as a nation.

Luckily, we have quite a few student groups on campus, and even students outside of those groups, who come from incredibly different families and backgrounds in India. By including multiple perspectives, we can create a broader lens for others to view India, even if it may not be the perfect story. Although it may seem problematic to display the negative aspects of a community or country, it is even more troublesome to pretend that these issues do not exist. Without recognition and acceptance of problems, it is impossible to move forward and create positive social change.

There may not be anything I can do about making the Theme Semester more inclusive at this point, especially when it comes to the courses it offers. Nevertheless, at least now I can be more aware. The underrepresented stories were very clear to me this time around because some of them were my own. In future discourse, I hope to remember that history is always written by the victors, and there will undoubtedly be perspectives left out. Just because I’m reading something out of a textbook or hearing it from the mouth of a professor doesn’t mean it’s the whole truth. It’s just one piece of it.

Harleen Kaur can be reached at harleen@umich.edu.