In India, Hindu nationalism has resurfaced under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata party, which came to power in 2014 and won a landslide election in 2019. The ruling party has faced harsh criticism for mounting attacks on Muslims. in recent years, from the Muslim community and other religious minorities, as well as some Hindus who say Modi’s silence emboldens right-wing groups and threatens national unity.
Hindutva fueling hate
In Edison, New Jersey, a bulldozer, which has become a symbol of the oppression of India’s Muslim minority, rolled down the street during an Indian Independence Day parade. At an event in Anaheim, California, a shouting match broke out between people celebrating the holiday and those who showed up to protest violence against Muslims in India.
Native Americans of various religious backgrounds have peacefully coexisted in the United States for several decades. But these recent events in the US, and the violent confrontations between some Hindus and Muslims last month in Leicester, England, have raised concerns that the sharp political and religious polarization in India is seeping into communities in the diaspora
Attacked by one’s own identity
Hindu nationalism has divided the Indian expatriate community just as Donald Trump’s presidency polarized the United States, said Varun Soni, dean of religious life at the University of Southern California. He has around 2,000 students from India, among the highest in the country.
Soni has yet to see these tensions emerge on campus. But he said USC received a setback for being one of more than 50 US universities to co-sponsor an online conference called “Dismantling Global Hindutva.”
The 2021 event aimed to spread awareness of Hindutva, the Sanskrit for the essence of being a Hindu, a political ideology that asserts that India is a predominantly Hindu nation, in addition to some minority religions with roots in the country, such as Sikhism. , Jainism and Buddhism. Critics say it excludes other minority religious groups such as Muslims and Christians. Hindutva is different from Hinduism, an ancient religion practiced by around a billion people around the world that emphasizes the unity and divine nature of all creation.
Soni said it’s important that colleges remain places where “we can talk about issues that are based on facts in a civil way.” But as USC’s senior chaplain, Soni is concerned about how the polarization over Hindu nationalism will affect the spiritual health of students.
“If someone is being attacked for their identity, ridiculed or scapegoated because they are Hindu or Muslim, what I care about most is their well-being, not who is right or wrong,” he said.
Rejection of Hindutva akin to being anti-national
Anantanand Rambachan, a retired religious college professor and practicing Hindu who was born in Trinidad and Tobago to a family of Indian origin, said his opposition to Hindu nationalism and association with anti-Ideology groups prompted complaints from some at a temple in Minnesota where he has taught religion classes. He said opposing Hindu nationalism sometimes results in charges of being “anti-Hindu” or “anti-India”, labels he rejects.
Hinduphobia on the rise?
On the other hand, many American Hindus feel reviled and persecuted for their views, said Samir Kalra, managing director of the American Hindu Foundation in Washington, DC.
“The space to freely express oneself is shrinking for Hindus,” he said, adding that even agreeing with Indian government policies unrelated to religion can result in being branded a Hindu nationalist.
Pushpita Prasad, a spokeswoman for the Coalition of North American Hindus, said her group has been counseling young American Hindus who have lost friends because they refuse to “take sides in these battles emanating from India.”
“If they don’t take sides or don’t have an opinion, they are automatically assumed to be Hindu nationalists,” he said. “Their country of origin and their religion are held against them.”
Both organizations opposed the Dismantling Global Hindutva conference, criticizing it as “Hinduphobic” and failing to present diverse perspectives. Conference supporters say they refuse to equate calling Hindutva with being anti-Hindu.
Misinformation generates polarization
Some Indian Americans, like 25-year-old Sravya Tadepalli, believe it is their duty to speak out. Tadepalli, a Massachusetts resident who is a board member of Hindus for Human Rights, said her activism against Hindu nationalism is based on her faith.
“If that is the fundamental principle of Hinduism, that God is in everyone, that everyone is divine, then I think we have a moral obligation as Hindus to uphold the equality of all human beings,” he said. “If any human being is treated inferiorly or his rights are infringed, then it is our duty to work to correct it.”
Tadepalli said his organization also works to correct misinformation on social media that travels across continents fueling hate and polarization.
‘Bulldozer justice’ takes control
Tensions in India reached a peak in June after police in the city of Udaipur arrested two Muslim men accused of slitting the throat of a Hindu tailor and posting a video on social media. The slain man, 48-year-old Kanhaiya Lal, had reportedly shared a post online supporting a ruling party official who was suspended for making offensive comments against the Prophet Muhammad.
Hindu nationalist groups have targeted minority groups, particularly Muslims, over issues related to everything from food to wearing headscarves to interfaith marriage. Muslim homes have also been demolished with heavy machinery in some states, in what critics call a growing pattern of “bulldozing justice.”
‘I’m not sure what tomorrow will bring’
Such reports have Muslim Americans fearful for the safety of their relatives in India. Shakeel Syed, executive director of the South Asian Network, a social justice organization based in Artesia, California, said he regularly listens to his sisters and feels “general fear, not knowing what tomorrow will look like.”
Syed grew up in the Indian city of Hyderabad in the 1960s and 1970s in “a more pluralistic and inclusive culture.”
“My Hindu friends would come to our Eid celebrations and we would go to their Diwali celebrations,” he said. “When my family went on summer vacation, we would leave the house keys with our Hindu neighbor, and they would do the same when they had to leave town.”
Syed believes that violence against Muslims is now widespread in India. He has heard of girls in his family who are considering removing their hijab or veil out of fear.
In the United States, he sees his Hindu friends reluctant to engage in public dialogue because they fear reprisals.
“A conversation is still taking place, but it’s happening in pockets behind closed doors with like-minded people,” he said. “It’s certainly not happening between people who have opposing views.”
Hinduism ‘kidnapped’ by Hindutva brigades
Rajiv Varma, a Houston-based Hindu activist, has a diametrically opposite view. The tensions between Hindus and Muslims in the West, he said, are not a reflection of events in India, but stem from a deliberate attempt by “religious and ideological groups who are waging war against Hindus.”
Varma believes that India is “a Hindu country” and the term “Hindu nationalism” simply refers to love for one’s country and religion. He sees India as a country plagued by conquerors and settlers, and Hindus as a religious group that does not seek to convert or colonize. “We have the right to recover our civilization,” he says.
Rasheed Ahmed, co-founder and executive director of the Washington DC-based American Indian Muslim Council, said it saddens him “to see that even educated Hindu Americans don’t take Hindu nationalism seriously.” He believes that American Hindus must make “a fundamental decision about how India and Hinduism should be viewed in the US and around the world.”
“The decision to take back Hinduism from whoever hijacked it is theirs.”
Education and dialogue to reinforce peaceful coexistence
Zafar Siddiqui, a resident of Minnesota, hopes to “reverse some of this mistrust and polarization” and build understanding through education, personal connections and interfaith assemblies. Siddiqui, a Muslim, has helped bring together a group of Minnesotans of Indian descent, including Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and atheists, who gather for monthly potluck meals.
“When people sit down, say, over lunch or dinner or coffee, and have a direct dialogue, instead of listening to all these leaders and spreading all this hate, it changes a lot of things,” Siddiqui said.
But during a recent meeting, some discussed a draft proposal to at some point seek dialogue with people who have different points of view. Those who disagreed explained that they did not support approaching Hindu nationalists and feared harassment.
Siddiqui said that for now, future plans include a focus on education and interfaith events that highlight India’s different traditions and religions.
“Remaining silent is not an option,” Siddiqui said. “We needed a platform to unite people who believe in the peaceful coexistence of all communities.”
(With contributions from AP)