Religious polarization in India seeps into American diaspora

In Edison, New Jersey, a bulldozer that has become a symbol of oppression of India’s Muslim minority rolled down the street during a parade marking the 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.

Indian Americans of different religious backgrounds have peacefully coexisted for decades. But these recent events in the US – and violent confrontations between some Hindus and Muslims last month in Leicester, England – have raised concerns that sharp political and religious polarization in India is seeping into diaspora communities.

In India, Hindu nationalism has 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 faced fierce criticism over rising attacks on Muslims in recent years, from Muslim communities and other religious minorities, as well as some Hindus, who say Modi’s silence is emboldening right-wing groups and threatening national unity.

Hindu nationalism has divided the Indian diaspora just as Donald Trump’s presidency polarized the United States, said Varun Soni, dean of religious life at the University of Southern California. It has about 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 backlash for being one of more than 50 American universities that co-sponsored an online conference called “Dismantling Global Hindutva.”

The 2021 event aimed to spread awareness of Hindutva, Sanskrit for the essence of being a Hindu, a political ideology that claims India as a predominantly Hindu nation plus some minority faiths with roots in the country, such as Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism. Critics say it excludes other religious minority groups such as Muslims and Christians. Hindutva is distinct from Hinduism, an ancient religion practiced by about 1 billion people worldwide that emphasizes the unity and divine nature of all creation.

Soni said it’s important that universities remain places where “we’re able to talk about issues that are based on facts in a civil way,” But as USC’s provost, Soni worries how polarization over Hindu nationalism will affect students’ spiritual health.

“If someone is attacked for their identity, ridiculed or scapegoated because they are Hindu or Muslim, I am most concerned about their well-being – not about who is right or wrong,” he said.

Anantanand Rambachan, a retired university religion professor and practicing Hindu who was born in Trinidad and Tobago to a family of Indian origin, said his opposition to Hindu nationalism and affiliation with groups opposed to the ideology drew complaints from some at a Minnesota temple where he has taught religion classes. He said opposition to Hindu nationalism sometimes results in accusations of being “anti-Hindu” or “anti-India,” labels he rejects.

On the other hand, many Hindu Americans feel vilified and targeted for their views, said Samir Kalra, executive director 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 could result in being labeled a Hindu nationalist.

Pushpita Prasad, a spokeswoman for the Coalition of Hindus in North America, said her group has counseled young Hindu Americans who have lost friends because they refuse to “take sides in these struggles that originate in India.”

“If they don’t take sides or don’t have an opinion, it’s automatically assumed they’re Hindu nationalists,” she 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 reject equating calling Hindutva with being anti-Hindu.

Some Hindu-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 it is the fundamental tenet of Hinduism that God is in everyone, that everyone is divine, then I think we have a moral obligation as Hindus to advocate for the equality of all people,” she said. “If a human being is treated less than or as having their rights violated, then it is our duty to work to correct that.”

Tadepalli said her organization is also working to correct misinformation on social media that travels across continents and fuels hatred and polarization.

Tensions in India ran high 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 of it on social media. The slain man, 48-year-old Kanhaiya Lal, had allegedly shared an online post 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 the headscarf to interfaith marriages. Muslim homes have also been demolished using heavy machinery in some states, in what critics call a growing pattern of “bulldozer justice”.

Such reports have Muslim Americans fearing for the safety of family members in India. Shakeel Syed, executive director of the South Asian Network, a social justice organization based in Artesia, Calif., said he regularly hears from his sisters and feels a “penetrating 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, inclusive culture.”

“My Hindu friends would come to our Eid parties and we would go to their Diwali parties,” he said. “When my family went on summer vacation, we left our house keys with our Hindu neighbor and they would do the same when they left town.”

Syed believes that violence against Muslims has now become mainstream in India. He has heard from girls in his family who are considering taking off their hijab or headscarf out of fear.

In the United States, he finds his Hindu friends reluctant to publicly engage in dialogue for fear of retaliation.

“A conversation is still happening, 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 views.”

Rajiv Varma, a Houston-based Hindu activist, takes a diametrically opposite 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 waging a war against Hindus.”

Varma believes that India is “a Hindu country” and the term “Hindu nationalism” simply refers to love of one’s country and religion. He views India as a country ravaged by conquerors and colonists, and Hindus as a religious group that does not seek to convert or colonize.

“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 is saddened “to see even educated Hindu Americans not taking Hindu nationalism seriously.” He believes that Hindu Americans must make “a fundamental decision about how India and Hinduism should be viewed in the United States and around the world.”

“The decision whether to take back Hinduism from whoever hijacked it is theirs.”

Minnesota resident Zafar Siddiqui hopes to “reverse some of this mistrust, polarization” and build understanding through education, personal connections and interfaith gatherings. Siddiqui, a Muslim, has helped bring together a group of Minnesotans of Indian descent—including Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and atheists—who meet for monthly pageants.

“When people sit down, say, over lunch or dinner or over 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 gathering, some argued over a draft proposal to at some point seek dialogue with people who hold different views. Those who disagreed explained that they did not support reaching out to Hindu nationalists and feared harassment.

Siddiqui said that for now, future plans include a focus on education and interfaith events that highlight India’s diverse traditions and religions.

“Just being silent is not an option,” Siddiqui said. “We needed a platform to bring people together who believe in peaceful coexistence between all communities.”

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Giovanna Dell’Orto in Minneapolis contributed to this report.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

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