Making Space For South Asian Culture

As I scanned the screen, my brows furrowed and my eyes narrowed in anger and frustration, but not in shock. I could easily believe the events of Tuesday, Sept. 8,, 2015, when a United States citizen was viciously attacked in a Chicago suburb. Inderjit Singh Mukker was accused of being a “terrorist” before he was severely beaten. When it was announced that there would be no hate crimes charged, the Sikh community put pressure on officials and succeeded in adding hate crime charges on Sept. 10.

The notion that hate crimes would not be charged in Mukker’s case was absurd because Mukker was clearly targeted on the basis of his race and outward religious expressions. Mukker is a South Asian Sikh-American. He is brown, has a long beard, and wears a turban. He was easily targeted because of his ethnicity and adherence to Sikh customs.

This horrifying incident reeks of racism, Islamophobia, intolerance and general ignorance. The news and social media have analyzed those topics thoroughly, but I want to discuss the marginalization of Sikh and broader South Asian communities on our campus.

While the term “South Asian” is a broad category, our community is not homogenous: there are differences in the social hardships that each group, faces. The Sikh turban and beard are prominent markers of their religion, which gives way for the general public to assume that they are Muslim.I, as a Hindu, never worry that my family will be attacked. As a (relatively) fair-skinned woman, I do not face the same level of shaming that white beauty standards impose on darker-skinned South Asians. There are endless examples of invisible barriers that make it difficult to discuss “South Asia” as one whole. But for the sake of convenience and unity on our campus, “South Asian” is a salient identity.

This incident shook me not just because of the racism and violence, but also because it portrayed an extreme version of the marginalization that the South Asian Hoya community faces everyday.

How many of your professors do you think are of South Asian descent? How many courses that are consistently offered discuss South Asian religion, philosophy, history, movements, politics, economics or arts? How many South Asian languages are offered on campus?

In answer: Georgetown only offers a couple classes on South Asian religion and philosophy in addition to a special course taught by a professor sent by the Indian Embassy each year. No modern South Asian languages are taught here.

There is no prayer space dedicated to either Hindu, Sikh or Jain faiths on campus. In general, South Asian faiths are left out of interfaith dialogue and events—especially, Sikhism, which is an important faith to include during this uptick of Islamophobia. Although we had a Hindu chaplain for a while, currently there are no Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh or Jain chaplains or chaplains-in-residence. Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, or Jain religious holidays are hardly afforded the same level of respect as holidays of the Abrahamic faith traditions are.

“But we have Rangila!” Sure, we have one token cultural event. But Rangila is not a true representation of South Asian culture as a whole. Rangila showcases a watered-down version of North Indian culture. But South Asia includes many countries. Each culture is rich and diverse.

Every culture is worth studying and has value, perspective, and depth. When Georgetown’s Asian Studies department excludes South Asia, it tells me that my people, culture and heritage don’t matter. When I can’t study Hindi, my family’s language, the university tells me that it’s okay for students to not even acknowledge the fourth most-spoken language in the world. When the School of Foreign Service, one of the most prestigious international affairs institutions in the world, dismisses South Asia, it tells the South Asian community that our cultures are not worth appreciating, are not worth our intellectual thought, that “globalization” does not include the 1.7 billion people in South Asia. According to Georgetown, I, as a South Asian, don’t matter.

How does this connect to the Chicago Sikh man? He was marginalized: his identity was deemed unimportant and less valued. Our society makes no effort to counter unawareness and ignorance. Maybe if our educational institutions put more value on studying the Sikh religion, on learning about Indian and Pakistani customs, on discussing American racism in a South Asian context, then maybe that man wouldn’t have been attacked. After all, more Americans than ever are now attending higher-education institutions. It’s up to us to extend our academia to South Asia in order to truly globalize our education and perspectives. The more ignorance we counter on our campus, the more ignorance we can dispel in the real world.


Piyusha Mittal is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service.


Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.


  1. Hello!
    Overall great article.
    You are correct – there seems to be a notable dearth of South Asian students at this university, and there are limited academic opportunities and social opportunities on campus in relation to South Asian Culture. It’s a shame – South Asia is so rich in culture and history, and is so important to current international relations and politics.

    I would like to point out a small factual error:
    “When Georgetown’s asian studies department excludes South Asia, it tells me that my people, culture and heritage don’t matter.”
    First, “asian studies” should be capitalized. But more importantly, I am not sure what you mean by South Asia being excluded from this department. I am a Master’s student in Asian Studies here. My department just hired Irfan Nooruddin last year, who is an excellent South Asia specialist. There is even an option to specialize in South Asia in my Master’s program. I am not sure if that option is available for undergrads pursuing the certificate, but I know the courses about South Asia are available to undergrads. There are also other faculty studying South Asia, although since this is not my area of interest I am not familiar with them. Additionally, several South Asian holidays are regularly celebrated in my department (Asian Studies) as well. So perhaps you could clarify a bit more in your article what you mean by South Asia being excluded, because it doesn’t seem that way to me.
    Thanks again for your article and your perspective!

    • Piyusha Mittal says:

      Hi David!

      Thanks so much for reading my article and leaving some feedback.

      1) I actually did point out the capitalization error to The Hoya before it was published and they never fixed it…
      2) I think South Asia is excluded from the department in a significant number of ways, the most important being a lack of languages. There are no modern South Asian languages offered at Georgetown. Furthermore, while Chinese/Japanese/Korean history are frequently and almost always offered at Georgetown, South Asian history only comes around when the Indian Embassy sends a qualified professor. Specialized courses seem to pop up here and there, but there is no consistency that tells me that the department values South Asia enough to put in real resources. Also, almost a quarter of the South Asian courses that are offered are taught at the Chinatown location, which is another indication that they don’t think the courses are important enough to make accessible to undergraduate students.

      Also I haven’t taken a good look at the Master’s program in comparison to the undergrad program, so I can’t really speak to the differences, but I would assume that there are more options for grad students than for undergrads.

      Again, thanks so much for reading and for the feedback! I really appreciated it.


      • Hi Piyusha!

        Wow so cool to have gotten a response from you!

        I didn’t know about the courses being taught at the Chinatown location – that must be a hassle!

        It’s a shame that a language like Hindi isn’t offered. My undergrad university (I went to University of Chicago) had some of the richest language course offerings you could think of, including Hindi, Urdu, and even Marathi!

        One of my professors, who was also involved with developing and planning the Asian Studies department, said he was really interested in having Hindi being offered, until he found out how much it would cost. He didn’t give us an exact figure, but apparently they couldn’t garner enough interest to offset the costs of such a language program.

  2. Mrs. S. G. Pai says:

    Glad you expressed your opinion via this article.

    I feel creating awareness of world religions must start in the Elementary Curriculum.

  3. Mrs. S. G. Pai says:

    Glad you expressed your opinion via this article.

    I feel that awareness of world religions must start in elementary school itself while the kids are studying their own religion.

    • Piyusha Mittal says:

      Hi Mrs. S. G. Pai,

      Thanks for reading my article and leaving some feedback! I completely agree that our public school system needs to do more in educating children from a non Christian perspective. Too often our reading books revolve around Christian themes, our history is told from a Christian perspective, and our social discussions value Christian morals over others. Informing our society has always started from our public school systems and one of the most sure-fire ways to eliminate bias and general ignorance about world religions is to start by teaching them in schools from a non-biased and neutral viewpoint.

      Thanks again!


  4. Here is an interesting fact: Some historians believe upwards of 70 million Hindus were killed bu Muslims in the Muslim centuries long jihad of southern Asia.

    It seems particularlu odd that a Hindu would give credibility to the made-up word “Islamophobia” as no people under the sun should be more fearful of Muslims than Hindus.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>