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Beware of the rise of Hindu supremacists in America

Is there a progressive Hindu counter-narrative to the one propagated by supremacists and ultra-nationalists?

 |  10-minute read |   13-06-2017
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According to the Dharma Shastras, travelling abroad or crossing large bodies of water (Samudrolanghana) was sufficient cause for chaste Brahmins to be downgraded in the social hierarchy or lose their caste.

Elaborate purification rites had to be performed to ward off the polluting effect of overseas travel. With the advent of globalisation, the scriptural injunction against travelling overseas has been discarded for the sake of improved career prospects, unlike the beef ban enacted in several Indian states - an ominous precursor to the nascent Hindu Rashtra.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other organisations that fall under the umbrella of the Sangh Parivar have grown roots in the United States and are active in fundraising and propaganda activities. Taking advantage of their status as an ethnic minority, these groups nakedly pursue a majoritarian Hindu agenda in the West and lash out against institutions that critique India's Hindu nationalist government or its leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The Indian PM was once described by Katrina Lantos-Swett, vice-chair of the influential US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) as the "poster child for India's failure to punish the violent".

The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) has repeatedly slammed various resolutions passed by the USCIRF, which criticise atrocities and violence perpetrated against religious minorities in India.

trump-fb_061317082029.jpgWhat do Trump's United States and Modi's India have in common? Photo: Reuters

"Whataboutery" is the preferred mode of argument of the Hindu Right. According to this logic, cracking down on Hindu terrorists for lynching Muslims or murdering Dalits is hypocritical unless one also speaks out against atrocities being perpetrated against the Hindu minority in Bangladesh and Pakistan, and the displacement of Pandits from Kashmir.

The pea-brained foot soldiers of the saffron brigade are unaware or ignore the fact that all the "secular" journalists, and major news organisations, both Indian and international, have vehemently spoken out on those issues and continue to do so.

In lock step with the HAF, and eagerly parroting their contrived equivalences, Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu-American in the US Congress, voted against House Resolution 417, which criticised India's dismal record on violence directed towards minorities - Christians, Muslims and Dalits - and called for concrete steps to ensure their security.

Yet, a few years later, Gabbard tabled a resolution that focused on the neighboring state, Muslim-majority Bangladesh, saying she was "particularly concerned over issues of religious freedom, and specifically, attacks against minority Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and others" in the country.

In recent months, Gabbard has emerged as a de facto spokesperson for Syrian mass murderer Bashar Al-Assad, vigorously defending his brutal regime, to the point where she has denied his undisputable role in the chemical weapons attack in April, killing dozens of people, an act so heinous it was condemned by hawks in the GOP.

Some years back, the reputed interfaith organisation, Council for a Parliament of World Religions (CPWR) rejected attempts by the HAF to get them to co-sponsor an event with the VHP-A that featured Subramanian Swamy as the keynote speaker.

The rationale for refusing to endorse the VHP should be clear to anyone with even cursory knowledge of Indian politics.

The VHP was a prominent player in the demolition of Babri Masjid and the communal mayhem that followed, expeditiously creating a fertile environment for the ascension of the BJP. It was founded in 1964 by MS Golwalkar, one of the founding fathers of the RSS, whose admiration for the Third Reich was no secret: "To keep up the purity of the Race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic races - the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for Races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by."

The Bajrang Dal is a militant Hindu organisation that forms the youth wing of the VHP. They operate close to 2,500 akhadas, similar to the shakhas (branches) of the RSS.

It was labelled as an extremist group by The United States Department of State's annual report on international religious freedom in 2000 and has been described as the Indian equivalent of Nazi Germany's Sturmabteilung by Paul R Brass, Professor Emeritus of Political Science and South Asian Studies at the University of Washington.

So extreme are the activities of the Bajrang Dal that former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a one-time member of the RSS said that they "only embarrassed the BJP" and urged the RSS to "rein them in".

Under Modi, not only has the extremist fringe gone firmly mainstream, it is projected as the new face of India, in the form of Hindtuva ideologue Yogi Adityanath, the recently appointed chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state and his gang of violent street thugs, the Hindu Yuva Vahini.

Adityanath's regressive comments on same-sex relationships were widely shared in an online video in which he strongly opposes acceptance of the gay community and calls for full denial of their constitutional rights. In another incendiary video, he says it is the duty of Hindus to murder a hundred Muslims for every one Hindu killed.

training-e,bed_06121_061317082625.jpgMS Golwalkar, one of the founding fathers of the RSS, admired the Third Reich. Photo: PTI

One wonders why the HAF does not speak out against fanatics like Adityanath and his ilk who claim to speak for all Hindus. Do they agree with him?

The HAF's silence onvigilante lynch mobs, cow politics, Dalit massacres, threats and physical violence inflicted on artists, writers and academics, and muzzling of free speech speaks volumes. By championing groups like the VHP, they are clearly attempting to normalise the Hindu supremacist discourse in the West. In this they are eerily similar to the Alt-Right - white nationalists currently dominating politics in the US. Like rightwing populists the world over, both groups champion cultural purity in their ancestral homelands and long for a return to "traditional values" ostensibly under siege by liberals, leftists, seculars and minorities.

A techie-turned-Hindutva-rabble-rouser based on the East coast of the US, Rajiv Malhotra, regularly goads his troll army into attacking academics, journalists and public figures deemed "anti-national". These online lynch mobs are known to make death threats and rape threats to soft targets and folks not inclined to wrestle with trolls in the sewers of righ- wing hate politics.

Malhotra has also been accused of plagiarism by Andrew Nicholson, a senior Indologist from whose writings he has lifted massive portions without attribution and distorted them to suit his agenda: "I invite open-minded people to read the concluding chapter in Unifying Hinduism and compare it to Malhotra's conclusions in Indra's Net. Then they can decide for themselves whether he is improving upon my work or merely distorting and dumbing it down to fit his own Hindutva worldview."

In a scathing article published in Open - prominent US academic Ananatanand Rambachan wrote about Malhotra's dirty tactics: "Earlier this year, Malhotra spearheaded a campaign, unprecedented in the history of the Hindu tradition in North America, to prevent me from speaking at a Hindu-Catholic Dialogue at the Durga Temple in Virginia (23 May 2015)... I was warned ominously by one of his supporters "not to come to the Durga Temple in Virginia."

"Tensions, ignited and fanned by Malhotra, reached such a boiling point that law-enforcement protection for my safety was required, a first in my 40 years of public speaking at Hindu temples. The Durga Temple, to their great credit, did not waver in the face of considerable intimidation and I refused to pull out".

"Malhotra and his followers have succeeded in creating an atmosphere of fear ("bhayam") in which scholar-practitioners of the Hindu tradition are afraid of challenging him. I refuse to be silenced by fear or be forced to whisper my dissent in the corners of meeting halls. I will not cede to Malhotra the authority to be the arbiter of Hindu orthodoxy...History is littered with the tragic consequences of religious authoritarianism and with individuals who claim the right to judge and condemn others."

The affinity between Hindutva and white nationalism is hard to miss. The Republican Hindu Coalition under Shalabh Kumar was one of Trump's biggest campaign donors and heartily endorsed his Muslim ban. The profound and unapologetic Islamophobia has emboldened white supremacists across the land and led to a spate of attacks on people of colour, including the murder of Indian immigrant Srinivas Kuchibhotla.

yogi-body_0322170500_061317082812.jpgOne wonders why the HAF does not speak out against fanatics like Adityanath and his ilk who claim to speak for all Hindus. Do they agree with him? Photo: Screengrab

Right-wing hysteria from Zionist, Hindutva or White/Christian supremacist camps only serves the jihadi cause. As commentator and writer Wajahat Ali observes, "It's critical how a society and government responds to violence and terror. Either unite, together, over shared values and need for security against a common enemy - the attackers themselves. Or, allow anger and scapegoating to divide from within and paint entire, innocent communities as enemies. The latter is exactly what the enemies want - Hope for overreaction and strong crackdown, especially on minorities and Muslims. Eliminate all grey zones. Turn 'us' against 'them'. Promote 'West' hates 'Islam'."

Is there a progressive Hindu counter-narrative to the one propagated by supremacists and ultra-nationalists?

It would seem so; Sadhana: The Coalition of Progressive Hindus, a non-profit organisation started by New York-based activist Sunita Vishwanath, has positioned itself as a voice against these forces.

They publicly criticised the recent appointment of Adityanath as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. "We felt disturbed by the strong Hindu nationalist voice in the public discourse with no progressive Hindu voice to counter it. Other religious communities had their 'Not in Our Name' contingent which spoke up against more conservative voices, and we very badly wanted our own.'

On their home page, Sadhana claims to be an "organisation of thus far US-based Hindus who are committed to the heart of Hinduism they were raised with: ekatva (oneness of all), ahimsa (peace and nonviolence), seva (a commitment to putting our shoulder to the wheel in service to struggles for justice everywhere). "We seek to build a platform for social justice-oriented Hindus to speak up and participate whenever justice is denied."

On March 19, 2017, Shanti Bhavan Mandir, an Indo-Caribbean temple in Queens, New York, in conjunction with Sadhana, became the first Hindu temple in the US to declare itself as a sanctuary for those affected by the anti-immigrant policies under the Trump administration.

Non-profits have a mixed reputation in both India and the West. Attention hungry individuals will often get into the game only to attend soirees, give speeches, be present at cute photo-ops and/or raise money through grants and foundations, a sizeable part of which goes into "operational overheads".

A portion of the funds raised by Hindu supremacist outfits in the West are funnelled into terrorist activities back home while the left has often been accused of using public funds to feather its nest.

Well-known activist Teesta Setalvad has been embroiled in a misappropriation case for many years, accused of pilfering funds from her NGO, ostensibly meant for delivering justice to Gujarat riot victims.

One thing is undeniable; Hindus in the diaspora and in India could definitely use a progressive voice to counteract the idea of a Hindu Rashtra - a sovereign Hindu state in which minorities would be relegated to second class status or worse, stripped of citizenship and voting rights as "Guru" Golwalkar, Subramanian Swamy and their ilk have stated frequently.

It is too early to say if Sadhana will end up as another cautionary tale in the world of non-profits, or whether it has the commitment and integrity tomake a significant impact.

Mere tokenism and lip service to progressive values accompanied by staged photo-ops, Facebook outrage and sophomoric speeches, however well-meaning, will probably not do much to stem the tide of sectarian bloodlust and toxic nationalism that threatens to engulf the land.

Also read: Everybody loves to compare Modi with Trump

Writer

Vikram Zutshi Vikram Zutshi @getafix2012

The writer is a filmmaker, columnist and scholar. He divides his time between the United States, Asia and Latin America

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