Thursday, February 01, 2007

Layered Identity

I have never considered myself to be living in the Indian or Malaysian diaspora. I made this assertion at two recent academic conferences in India and Malaysia.

For some my assertion may have come as a surprise. It may even have sounded like I was denying the Indian and Malay strands of identity that run through my being.

This is not what I intended.

My assertion had more to do with decentering the nation-state from the ‘permanent' and domineering intellectual space it commands in theorization about origins, place, and belonging. I did not want to frame my discussion of my identity around the very ‘modern' and Eurocentric trajectory of the nation-state.

But try as hard as one may, there seems to be an almost reflexive determination to conflate the business of the nation-state with the purpose of discussing origins and identity. Perhaps this is a problem that bedevils just about anything in the age where the nation-state system is increasingly confined by neo-liberal orthodoxies.

It is inside of this ‘confinement' that the term "diaspora" is purposely weighted to drive the assumptions of the neo-liberal state system. It is the ‘commonsense' of capitalization and development that underwrites moves to ‘map' diasporas, or to have conversations between diasporas.

In Kuala Lumpur I sought to distinguish my discussion of Malay identity in post-apartheid South Africa from the narrow and nationalist-friendly concept of diaspora. I needed more than the restrictive 20 minutes that was afforded to me and can't claim that my points were registered.

See International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) where conference was hosted:

See also co-sponsor GOPIO website:

In my discussion I drew attention to the manner in which the diaspora is being marshaled as a narrow agent of nationalism. It should come as no surprise that the Indian government is very busy courting its diaspora to contribute to India's development.

Would India, or Malaysia for that matter, be reaching to their diasporas if they were potential liabilities? I think not. During the agonizing years of apartheid neither India nor Malaysia offered citizenship to Indians or Malays in South Africa. (The picture includes Hadji Fatima from Joburg with family members from South Africa and Malaysia.)

The business of the diaspora means that India is interested in mostly affluent overseas Indians. Capital and influence is the name of the game when the diaspora is conjured.

Not a word is wasted on less influential Indians in Malawi, for example, because they hardly meet the requirements of capitalist agents. In fact, New Delhi has hardly raised an eyebrow in response to the land dispossession policies that target Indians in Malawi.

I have chosen to avoid using the term diaspora because of these limitations. This does not mean, as Professor Ajay Dubey (in picture) has argued, that the term excludes my concerns. Perhaps there is the hope that careful scholarship will add to the sophistication of the term.

Unfortunately, much of the recent attempts to establish Diaspora Studies as a sub-discipline in the Academy appears too settled with accepting, promoting, and consequently legitimizing, the ‘ordered' spaces and elite business of nation-states.

I therefore remain hostile to any precept that my search for origins must align with the purposes of the nation-state and the hierarchical global system where some are more equal than others. Who among my fellow Muslims (or any brown/Black people anywhere) can ignore the fact that the global system has been at war with, and on, our bodies for six centuries?

See Proton website:

Moreover, as I argued in Kuala Lumpur, my Malay identity is more than just a springboard to negotiate a deal with Proton (Malaysian car manufacturer) to own a dealership in Cape Town. In other words, my heritage and identity are not for sale, nor is my search for origins negotiable in terms of trade.

It is for these reasons that I will hold on to my conviction that I do not live in the diaspora. This does not mean that I am denying my roots. What it does mean is that I refute the assumption that my identity is ‘located' inside or in-between nation-states.

I belong everywhere. So do you.


Da' Square Wheelman, said...

Hey Man!

Thanks for your comments on Bicycle Diaires. I actually have a connection to South Africa. A close grad colleague, Bob Mattes, worked for IDASA and now teaches poli sci at UCT!

BTW - your blog is wonderful so put me in your blog roll and I'd be honored to do the same!


Ridwan Laher said...

Good to hear from you man. I have added you to my blogroll with great pleasure. I will look in on Bob Mattes when I make it to UCT in a few months. I taught poli sci up the road at Stellenbosch Univerity/Military Academy before leaving for Jawaharlal Nehru U. in Delhi. Anyway, thanks for a great blog.