On September 22, as India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi kicks off the event “Howdy Modi” in Houston, Texas, which is subbed to discuss the “Shared Dreams, Bright Futures” of India and the United States of America, Kashmir will enter its 48th day of blockade by the Indian government, who also at the same time aims to strip more than 1.9 million people in Assamof their citizenship.
In protest, a group of South Asian performers are organising “Fuck Modi: Noise for Kashmir”, a benefit to be held in Brooklyn, New York, that brings together artists, protestors and activists, aiming to give the Prime Minister what they call “a true New York welcome filled with opposition demonstrations”.
The artists—Desi-American punk band The Kominas, DJ Rekha of Basement Bhangra, indie band Zerobridge, singer and musician Vandana and comedian Arish Singh—will perform at music venue Baby’s All Right in NYC with activists and others that have been called to the table on the day. We talk to The Kominas (who have just released their new album) and Arish Singh (who has been on tour in August), about the benefit, some of the proceeds from which will go to humanitarian work and aid in Kashmir.
VICE: Hey guys, thanks for speaking with us. So what’s the idea behind the benefit?
Arish Singh: As we know, the removal of Article 370 and the ensuing military lockdown of Kashmir has led to an appalling abuse of basic human rights. We can’t even assess how bad it is in Kashmir because of the communication blackout, but we’ve been reading. People being detained at random, the rest locked in their homes with the curfews, others unable to go to mosques on Eid... it is revolting. And this is in a region that has already suffered decades of political repression by the Indian government. The least South Asians in the diaspora can do is to try to help those affected in some way and express solidarity, which is how we came up with the idea behind the benefit. The groundwork for this event also came from collaborating with Basim (vocalist of The Kominas) for a similar one we worked on for raising the issue of Hindutva fascism and the protests against the World Hindu Congress in Illinois in 2018.
Tell us a bit about the name.
Arish: The name is in part a take-off on the “Howdy Modi” rally in Houston, Texas, which 50,000 (allegedly) Modi supporters will attend, but will be protested by a mass of South Asians as well. It is such arrogance to have this cheerfully named rally for someone with such fascistic actions.
We see the diaspora often come together to celebrate things, but united criticism and protest have been rare. Why do you think this is so?
Arish: The bond that connects the South Asian diaspora is a fragile one since it draws from so many disparate backgrounds. But there is a long history to draw on of Desis fighting oppression: activists Eqbal Ahmad and Tariq Ali were some of the main protesters against the Vietnam War, or how Indians fought “dotbusters” in the 80s. With the prominence of Desis in the arts that has emerged in the last decade (and I’m thankful for this evolution), I think it’s particularly important for them to protest Hindutva Fascism. If you speak about your South Asian identity as a performer or artist, you need to speak out against the oppression of fellow South Asians. If you don’t, you are stripping the bonds that come with that identity and only using it as a marketing vehicle. I’m very glad to see Riz Ahmed and Jameela Jamil pull out of the Gates Foundation event honouring Modi, however it’s still not clear they will release statements and give attention to why it’s so important to pull out of the event. Many South Asians in the diaspora do condemn Modi, especially Indian minorities, but I think it’s important to do so with loud public protest.
And this can be done through music?
The Kominas: We think that a reason why these fascists are ascendant in places like India, the UK or the USA is because the “liberal” options have been too elite, too moribund. I think scenes like punk are a reaction to that evisceration of respectability or challenging what we consider to be an upper caste/class person. It’s not about collecting records, or getting another piercing. We may have to do "Fuck Modi" events all over the world, in New Delhi too, spread it like love Jihad.
Modi once used to be barred from entering the US, but how is he perceived out there now?
The Kominas: The move to ban Modi came after the massacre in Gujarat. Many South Asian activists, members of the leftist coalition like co-founders of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance successfully lobbied to have him banned. Despite this, there have always been big pockets of Modi support in places like New Jersey, Houston, and parts of the Bay Area.
Arish: There have been shifts and fractures: in the 2000s, Desi US activists got Modi banned for his involvement in the Muslim pogroms in Gujarat. But when he was elected as Prime Minister, you saw the organisation of South Asian-American businessmen supporting him, in Silicon Valley in particular. I think there is a general ignorance among the US population at large about what exactly Modi’s extremist actions are, but it's changing, especially with the press coverage over Assam and Kashmir, and also with things like this rally in Houston in the coming week. South Asians who criticise him are becoming more outspoken.
I saw online that you’ve been targeted by hoards of Hindutva trolls who have come after you with respect to the benefit. Is this demoralising?
The Kominas : Demoralising? The trolls don’t even realise they are the manure that fuels our creativity.
Do you have a strategy if they show up at the show?
The Kominas: A mukka (punch).
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