This summer, I spent more time than I would have preferred thinking about Hindu nationalism, mainly because of an event called the World Hindu Congress (WHC). The WHC was a conference held from September 7-9 in the suburbs of Chicago, and it was organized by Hindu nationalist groups like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHP-A) and the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh. Although it was billed as a religious gathering for Hindus worldwide, it’s clear based on the organizers and speakers that this event was a platform for Hindu nationalism. For example, one of the speakers was Mohan Bhagwat, head of India’s largest Hindu nationalist organization: calling for “Hindu unity” in his keynote address, he said that “wild dogs” can overpower even a powerful lion, a remark that has sparked controversy in India.
Thankfully, progressive Hindu and South Asian Americans spoke out against the WHC. I’m a member of the Sadhana Coalition of Progressive Hindus, and we are a member of the Coalition for the Defence of the Constitution and Democracy (CDCD), a coalition of South Asian human rights, Muslim, Hindu, Dalit, and secular activist groups. Right before the WHC, we organized a press conference in New York City about the WHC and the dangers of Hindu nationalism more broadly (watch it here). The press conference featured this powerful statement by Swami Agnivesh, a Hindu monk and human rights activist who has suffered multiple physical attacks by Hindu nationalist mobs:
Additionally, Chicago alderman Ameya Pawar released this strong statement against the WHC and its organizers:
Illinois State Senator Ram Villavalam also opposed the WHC, stating that “I do not support any group and/or an event arranged or led by organizations that intimidate minorities, incite discrimination and violence, commit acts of terror based on race or ethnic background, promote hate speech, and/or believe in faith based nationalism.” Even Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who was initially named chairwoman of the WHC, later announced that she would not be attending the conference, describing it as a “partisan Indian political event.” Members of Chicago South Asians for Justice disrupted Bhagwat’s speech during the conference and were met with physical violence from conference attendees, an incident that received front-page coverage in Indian media.
To me, Hindu nationalism is just one example of the global rise in right-wing, ultranationalist political movements that are wreaking havoc all over the world; from white supremacist movements in the United States to neo-Nazis in eastern Europe. Obviously, right-wing nationalism and fascism should be opposed wherever and whenever it occurs. However, Hindu nationalism is particularly frustrating (and frightening) for me because, as a Hindu myself, Hindu nationalists claim to be speaking on my behalf.
There are many ways through which Hindu nationalism can be criticized. To begin with, its founders were inspired by the fascist movements of 20th-century Europe, particularly those of Hitler and Mussolini. On a daily basis, Hindu nationalists in India intimidate and attack Indian religious minorities, caste-oppressed groups, and intellectuals (many of whom are Hindus themselves). Hindu nationalism seeks to homogenize Indian society as a whole, subsuming India’s diversity in an upper-caste, patriarchal, north Indian “Hindu” identity. The WHC is a clear example of how Hindu nationalism enjoys ideological and financial support in the United States as well.
Most critiques of Hindu nationalism that I’ve read address it from a moral or cultural argument. Certainly, Hindu nationalism should appall anyone who cares about fundamental human rights or India’s religious and cultural diversity. However, I wanted to approach Hindu nationalism from a slightly different perspective: international security and stability. I wanted to convince American observers who specialize in international relations and Asia-Pacific affairs that they should see Hindu nationalism as their problem, and as an American problem. I wrote this article for The Diplomat a few weeks ago — I’d welcome any (constructive) feedback!
Rising Hindu Nationalism in South Asia: Implications for the United States
It’s time for Washington to take the challenges posed by Hindu nationalism seriously.
August 22, 2018
At the beginning of the month in the northeastern state of Assam, the Indian government effectively stripped 4 million people, mostly Muslims, of their citizenship, branding them as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. The government also announced it will be deporting “illegal” Rohingya refugees, and a politician from India’s ruling party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), declared that “if these … illegal immigrants do not leave India respectfully, then they should be shot and eliminated.”
Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s international image has become more robust, and the United States has designated India as its partner in balancing China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific. However, these recent developments contradict the U.S. vision for India to “strengthen the fabric of stability” in the region. Since Modi’s election in 2014, there has been a significant increase in anti-minority rhetoric and mob violence committed by Hindu nationalist groups against Muslims and other minorities. Although India’s strategic importance has led the U.S. government to largely ignore these domestic issues, the dangerous effects unleashed by Hindu nationalism have had a destabilizing effect in South Asia, compromising India’s ability to play the leading regional role the United States seeks.
In some ways, Hindu nationalism, the political ideology that guides Modi’s BJP party, resembles right-wing nationalist movements around the world, advocating for economic protectionism and increased border security. Its distinguishing factor, though, is its core belief that India’s national identity should be synonymous with a Hindu identity. In a country where a fifth of the population is not Hindu, Hindu nationalism’s hardliners argue that India should become a Hindu state, and have openly incited violence against minorities, particularly Muslims and Christians. For decades, liberal voices in India have spoken out against the values espoused by Hindu nationalists. Now, Hindu nationalism is threatening South Asia’s security and stability.
Read the rest of the article at The Diplomat!