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  • Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans by Sangay K. Mishra
  • Nalini Iyer
DESIS DIVIDED: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans. By Sangay K. Mishra. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2016.

Sangay Mishra's book breaks new ground in South Asian American studies because he moves beyond the work of earlier scholars such as Vijay Mishra, Kamala Visweswaran, Monisha Das Gupta who had critiqued the model minority discourse used to frame the experiences of South Asian Americans. Mishra builds on this earlier work but provides a systematic analysis of the divergences and schisms within the ethnic group to study how this immigrant community has mobilized politically in recent years and in particular post 9/11. Based on interviews with South Asians in New York city and Los Angeles as well as analysis of national data from the 2000–2001 Pilot Study of the National Asian American Political Survey and the 2008 National Asian American Survey, Mishra looks at the patterns of political participation amongst South Asians both within the US and transnationally.

The book begins with a socio-political history of South Asians in the U.S. which is familiar territory for those working in the field but necessary to introduce the book's overall project. He continues with an analysis of theories of ethno-racial mobilization and their relevance to the study of South Asian Americans. He then proceeds to explore post 9/11 racial targeting of South Asians and how that shapes political mobilization. The book continues with an examination of dominant modes of political mobilization amongst South Asians and concludes with two chapters that examine the community's transnational political engagement and how diasporic nationalism influences the members' engagement with U.S. politics.

This study is timely and conceptualized well. As an economically powerful and rapidly growing community, South Asian Americans are increasingly active in politics at the local, regional, and national levels. However, Mishra's major intervention is that the South Asian American community is not a monolith and that national origin, religion, caste, and class are important factors that complicate how we understand the community. This approach of considering vectors of identity within the group is necessary in the evolution of South Asian American studies and has a significant methodological impact on the field.

There are a couple of aspects of this study that could have been nuanced. The first is the question of gender. Although Mishra does devote about a dozen pages to social justice politics in chapter four and addresses how organizations like Sakhi and Manavi among [End Page 117] others that did ground breaking work on domestic violence prevention and advocacy and provided an avenue for political mobilization, the issues of gender, sexuality, and working class issues are lumped into this section and the analysis feels perfunctory. Is gender not a major factor if turbaned Sikh men and hijabi women were targets of racial violence post 9/11? It is not clear what percentage of respondents to the interviews were women? The discussion of South Asian racialization needs to be an intersectional one that accounts for gender and sexuality in the formation of race. The second issue is that of national origins. Mishra admits in his introduction that despite his best attempts, the study is dominated by Indian American issues. He justifies this because Indian Americans are numerically the largest amongst South Asians and also because South Asian American studies as a field has not produced enough scholarship on Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and other smaller South Asian communities. Both these reasons are real and important, but this Indo-centrism skews the argument. In particular, much of the chapter on diasporic nationalism is Indo-centric. Had Mishra engaged in a discussion of a smaller South Asian community such as the Sri Lankan American community and their diasporic nationalism, a more nuanced picture would have emerged. Sri Lankan Tamils who escaped a decades-long civil war have had an active and different form of diasporic nationalism during and after the civil war. Does the different post-independence political history of India and Sri Lanka impact diasporic nationalism differently?

These critiques of the question of gender and Indo-centrism do not...


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pp. 117-118
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