Religious Polarization in India Seeps into American Diaspora
In Edison, New Jersey, a bulldozer that has become a symbol of the oppression of India’s Muslim minority rumbles down the street during a parade marking that country’s Independence Day. 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 diverse religious backgrounds have coexisted peacefully in the United States for several decades. But these recent events in the United States – and violent confrontations between some Hindus and Muslims last month in Leicester, England – have heightened concerns about the strong political and religious polarization in India that is seeping into communities across the country. diaspora.
In India, Hindu nationalism surged 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 come under heavy criticism over increased attacks on Muslims in recent years, from 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.
Hindu nationalism has divided India’s expat community just as Donald Trump’s presidency has polarized the United States, said Varun Soni, dean of religious life at the University of Southern California. It has about 2,000 Indian students, among the highest in the country.
Soni has yet to see these tensions arise on campus. But he said USC has come under fire for being one of more than 50 US universities to co-sponsor an online conference called “Dismantling Global Hindutva”.
The 2021 event aimed to raise awareness of Hindutva, Sanskrit for the essence of being Hindu, a political ideology that claims India as a predominantly Hindu nation as well as some minority religions with roots in the country such as Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism. Critics say this excludes other minority religious groups such as Muslims and Christians. Hindutva is different from Hinduism, an ancient religion practiced by approximately 1 billion people worldwide that emphasizes the unity and divine nature of all creation.
Soni said it was important that universities remain places where “we can talk about fact-based issues in a civil way.” But, as USC’s chief chaplain, Soni worries about how the focus on Hindu nationalism will affect students’ spiritual health.
“If someone is attacked for their identity, ridiculed or scapegoated for being a Hindu or a Muslim, I am mostly concerned for their welfare – not who is right or wrong,” he said. declared.
Anantanand Rambachan, a retired religion teacher and practicing Hindu born in Trinidad and Tobago to a family of Indian descent, said his opposition to Hindu nationalism and association with anti-ideological groups has drawn complaints from the share of some in a temple in Minnesota where he taught religion. He said opposing Hindu nationalism sometimes results in accusations of being “anti-Hindu” or “anti-Indian”, labels he rejects.
On the other hand, many Hindu Americans feel vilified and targeted for their views, said Samir Kalra, chief executive of the Hindu American Foundation in Washington, DC.
“The space for free expression is shrinking for Hindus,” he said, adding that even agreeing with Indian government policies unrelated to religion can lead to being branded. of a Hindu nationalist.
Pushpita Prasad, spokesperson for the Coalition of Hindus of North America, said her group counsels 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 have an opinion, they are automatically assumed to be Hindu nationalists,” she said. “Their country of origin and their religion are held against them.”
Both organizations opposed the Dismantling Global Hindutva conference, calling it “Hinduphobic” and failing to present diverse perspectives. Supporters of the conference say they reject equating the appeal to Hindutva with being anti-Hindu.
Some American Hindus, like Sravya Tadepalli, 25, 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 influenced by her faith.
“If this is the fundamental principle of Hinduism, that God is within everyone, that everyone is divine, then I think we have a moral obligation as Hindus to uphold the equality of all beings humans,” she said. “If a human being is treated less or as if their rights are being violated, it is our duty to work to correct this.”
Tadepalli said his organization also works to correct social media misinformation that travels across continents, fueling hatred and polarization.
Tensions in India peaked in June after Udaipur city police arrested two Muslim men accused of slitting the throat of a Hindu tailor and posting a video of it on social media. The slain man, Kanhaiya Lal, 48, reportedly shared an online message supporting a ruling party official who was suspended for making offensive remarks against the Prophet Muhammad.
Hindu nationalist groups have attacked minority groups, especially Muslims, over issues related to everything from food or wear scarves at interfaith marriage. Muslims’ houses were also demolished using heavy machinery in some states, in what critics call a growing “bulldozer justice” model.
Such reports cause American Muslims to fear for the safety of their family members in India. Shakeel Syed, executive director of the South Asian Network, a social justice organization based in Artesia, California, said he regularly hears about his sisters and feels “pervasive fear, not knowing what tomorrow will be 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 left our house keys with our Hindu neighbor, and they did 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 considering taking off their hijab or headscarf out of fear.
In the United States, he sees his Hindu friends reluctant to publicly engage in dialogue because they fear reprisals.
“A conversation is still going on, but it’s happening in pockets behind closed doors with like-minded people,” he said. “It certainly doesn’t happen between people who have opposing points of view.”
Rajiv Varma, a Houston-based Hindu activist, has a diametrically opposed view. Tensions between Hindus and Muslims in the West, he said, are not a reflection of events in India but rather stem from a deliberate attempt by “religious and ideological groups to wage war against Hindus”.
Varma thinks India is “a Hindu country” and the term “Hindu nationalism” simply refers to love for one’s country and religion. He views India as a country ravaged by conquerors and settlers, and Hindus as a religious group that does not seek conversion or colonization.
“We have the right to reclaim our civilization,” he said.
Rasheed Ahmed, co-founder and executive director of the Washington DC-based Indian American Muslim Council, said he was saddened “to see even educated American Hindus not taking Hindu nationalism seriously”. He believes that American Hindus must make “a fundamental decision about how India and Hinduism should be viewed in the United States and around the world.”
“The decision whether or not to take back Hinduism from the one who hijacked it is up to them.”
Zafar Siddiqui, a resident of Minnesota, hopes to “reverse some of that mistrust, that polarization” and build understanding through education, personal relationships and interfaith assemblies. Siddiqui, a Muslim, helped bring together a group of Minnesotans of Indian descent — including Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and atheists — who meet for monthly potlucks.
“When people sit down, say, for lunch, dinner or coffee, and have a direct dialogue, instead of listening to all these leaders and spreading all this hate, that changes a lot of things,” Siddiqui said. .
But at a recent rally, some squabbled over a draft proposal to seek dialogue at some point with people who hold different viewpoints. Those who disagreed explained that they were unwilling to reach out to Hindu nationalists and feared harassment.
Siddiqui said that for now, future plans are to focus on education and interfaith events highlighting India’s different traditions and religions.
“Just keeping silent is not an option,” Siddiqui said. “We needed a platform to bring together people who believe in the peaceful coexistence of all communities.”
Giovanna Dell’Orto in Minneapolis contributed to this report.
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