According to the Dharma Shastras (a corpus of medieval Sanskrit texts on Hindu ethics and moral code) traveling abroad or crossing large bodies of water 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.
While the scriptural injunction against traveling overseas has been discarded for the sake of enhanced career prospects, innocent people continue to be lynched and maimed for the ‘crime’ of eating beef or even transporting cattle – an ominous precursor of the nascent Hindu Rashtra.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other organizations that fall under the umbrella of the Sangh Parivar have grown roots in the United States and have become 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 and individuals that critique India’s Hindu nationalist government or it’s leader Narendra Modi.
Indian PM Narendra Modi, 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”.
In response, the HAF (Hindu American Foundation) has repeatedly slammed various resolutions passed by the USCIRF, which criticize atrocities and violence perpetrated against religious minorities in India.
In lock step with the HAF, Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu-American in the US Congress (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/16/tulsi-gabbard-krishna-cult-rumors_n_6879588.html), voted against House Resolution 417 which criticized India’s dismal record on violence directed towards minorities – Christians, Muslims and Dalits, calling 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 organization, 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 wingnut Subramanian Swamy as the keynote speaker.
The rationale for refusing to endorse the VHP should be clear to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Indian politics.
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad 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 not a 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 organization that forms the youth wing of the VHP. They operate close to 2,500 akhadas, similar to the shakhas (branches) of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. It was labeled 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 of India 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”. Other extremist Hindu groups like Sanatan Sanstha, referred to as ‘shadow armies’ in Dhirendra K Jha’s book, have been investigated for the murders of Kalburgi, Pansare and Dabholkar, and most recently Gauri Lankesh, rationalist thinkers targeted for their outspoken views against fundamentalism, superstition and religious bigotry.
According to Reporters Without Borders, India in 2015 was among the three most dangerous countries for journalists – worse even than Pakistan and Afghanistan.
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 firebrand 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. Gorakhnath Mutt, Adityanath’s spiritual home, has a tradition of extremism: Digvijay Nath, the head priest until 1969, was arrested for goading his followers to execute Mahatma Gandhi only a few days before he was assassinated. And his successor Avaidyanath, in tandem with the VHP, exhorted Hindu mobs to tear down Babri Masjid in 1992, to build a temple in its place, setting off some of the bloodiest communal riots in recent times.
One wonders why the HAF does not speak out against fanatics like Adityanath and his ilk, who claim to represent all Hindus. Do they agree with him?
The HAF’s silence on vigilante 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 normalize Hindu supremacist discourse in the West. In this they are eerily similar to the Alt-Right – white nationalists currently dominating political discourse 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.
“Historically, the HAF alliance has attempted to appear to be an organization that is committed to pluralism, and one that is liberal on the issue of caste, observes Dalit-American activist and scholar Thenmozi Sounderarajan. “However, a close reading of HAF’s advocacy reports reflects a shocking level of bigotry for South Asian religious and cultural communities, especially Dalits, Adivasis, Bahujans and their religious autonomy. In a 2006 report, HAF went as far as calling Dalit representatives of the textbook campaign “Christian Missionaries“ representing themselves as Dalits.
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 right wing hate politics.
Malhotra has also been accused of plagiarism by Andrew Nicholson, an eminent 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 Magazine – prominent US academic Anantanand 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”
“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”
“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 color, including the murder of Indian immigrant Srinivas Kuchibotla.
And to dispel any lingering doubts, Subramanium Swamy recently on twitter called for US based Hindus to come out in support of Trump and stand in solidarity with the white nationalists.
Right wing hysteria from Zionist, Hindutva or White/Christian supremacist camps only serves the Jihadi cause. As the commentator 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 hyper-nationalists?
It would seem so; Sadhana: The Coalition of Progressive Hindus, a non-profit organization started by New York-based activist Sunita Vishwanath, has positioned itself as a voice against these forces. They publicly criticized the recent appointment of Adityanath as CM 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 “organization of thus far U.S.-based Hindus who are committed to the heart of Hinduism we 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”.
Sadhana recently issued an official ‘Hindu Apology for Caste and Untouchability’:
“We, Sadhana Coalition of Progressive Hindus, deeply apologize for the violence, injustice, and indignity that the beliefs, practices and structures of caste and untouchability have inflicted, and continue to inflict, on diverse so-called “lower caste” communities.”
“We acknowledge the inhumanity and oppression of the caste system and the fact that it continues to be legitimized by many of our traditions and practitioners.”
“We acknowledge the fact that millions experience our tradition as oppressive and as negating their self-worth and dignity as human beings”
“We must cease all defensive and apologetic justifications of the caste system and especially those that explain the system as a creation of foreigners or as a response to foreign presence on the Indian subcontinent. The fact is that, as early as 400 CE, the practical manifestations of caste, including physical segregation and prohibitions on socializing and intermarriage were firmly in place. We Hindus are not exempt from the corruption of affirming self-value by devaluing and exerting power over others. We must take responsibility for the physical and psychological violence perpetuated by caste practices”
Professor Rambachan is on the advisory board of Sadhana as is Dr.Varun Soni, the first Hindu Chaplain at the University of Southern California.
Unsurprisingly, Sadhana’s public stand against Brahminism and Hindutva fascism has enraged Rajiv Malhotra and his army of unhinged trolls who have taken to attacking them viciously on Facebook and Twitter.
Indeed 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, Subramanium Swamy and their ilk have stated frequently
It is too early to say if Sadhana has the commitment and integrity to make a significant impact. Mere tokenism and lip service to progressive values, however well meaning, will probably not do much to stem the tide of sectarian bloodlust and toxic nationalism that threaten to engulf the land.
This is an expanded version of an article previously published on DailyO