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BBC Documentary ‘India: The Modi Question’ Screened at Columbia and Harvard; Rise of Hindutva in America Discussed

BBC Documentary ‘India: The Modi Question’ Screened at Columbia and Harvard; Rise of Hindutva in America Discussed

  • Activists, academicians and journalists urged the Indian American community to speak up against the growing threat of Hindu nationalism.

The Hindu community in America needs to galvanize, talk about and resist the rise of right-wing Hindu nationalism in the West, before it emerges to the forefront and dictates not just diaspora politics but also impacts U.S.-India relations. This was the concern echoed by panelists at a recent discussion hosted by the Columbia School of Journalism after the screening of the BBC documentary “India: The Modi Question.” 

The two-part documentary focuses on Modi’s role during the Hindu-Muslim riots that tore through the state of Gujarat in 2002 when he was its chief minister. The deaths of a group of Hindu pilgrims in a fire at a railway station prompted a wave of mob violence in which about 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed, and perhaps 150,000 uprooted. 

The Indian government has invoked emergency laws to block the documentary, leading to rancor among many, with Modi supporters rallying to his defense and opposition politicians criticizing the move. Despite the ban, many social media users have shared clips on WhatsApp, Telegram, and Twitter, with students screening the documentary on campus. Students organizing screenings in India have been faced with arrest, electricity cuts, and violence from right wing student organizations. 

Panelists at the Feb. 3 Columbia event criticized the Indian government’s decision to block the documentary, arguing that it comes amid an increasingly challenging environment for media and freedom of the press under the Modi government. Last year, India slipped eight places in the press freedom index to 150 out of 180 counties, its worst position on record.

Sunita Viswanath, co-founder and executive director of Hindus for Human Rights admitted that she “can’t get over” the lack of conversation about the rise of Hindutva in the larger Hindu community. Citing personal experiences, she noted how she has been “immediately shut down” when she has raised these issues. “In the best case scenario, they’d say ‘she is brainwashed by the western media,’ or call her naive;” and in the worst case, they’d tell her she’s “a demon,” or call her anti-Hindu or anti-Indian. “It’s a travesty given that the Hindu community is the majority and also the one that’ll vote,” she said. “It’s a failure on part of everybody that cares about democracy and human rights in India and the world,” she added, urging everyone to “have these difficult conversations with the majority Hindu community.”

Elaborating on Viswanath’s point, Safa Ahmed, a media associate at the Indian American Muslim Council reiterated the significance of this resistance happening in the West. “Right now, India remains a very close ally to the U.S. and that is not going to change anytime soon,” she said. “What can change is the way the U.S. government chooses to look at India as an allay and how it chooses to frame its criticism towards India,” for which she stressed the need for “a very strong voice” from U.S. citizens. “Unfortunately, what we are seeing in the U.S., within the Indian diaspora, is the normalization of Hindu radicalism,” she noted, adding that while it is “still living in the shadows,” if not confronted, could penetrate the mainstream. 

Viswanath and Ahmed were joined by other panelists including Audrey Truschke, Associate Professor of South Asian History at Rutgers University in Newark; author and journalist Salil Tripathi, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee; journalist and writer Raghu Karnad; and author and professor Zia Jaffrey. 

Before the discussion, attendees heard a recorded message from Aakashi Bhatt, daughter of Sanjiv Bhatt, a former Indian Police Service officer of the Gujarat cadre. The young daughter is fighting her legal battle to free her father.

Truschke, who’s not a stranger to being targeted by the Hindutva factions, spoke about the government crackdown in India and threw light on the rising right-wing Hindu elements here. “It’s not very pleasant to be hated by Hindu nationalists,” she told the gathering. “They are not a super nice crowd.” Speaking about the BBC documentary, she noted how it “fairly accurately” gives a little bit of the history of Hindu nationalism and how it is inspired by European fascism. “One of the deep and dark ironies of Hindutva is that the Hindutvavaadis claim to be the true Indians  and true Hindus who are taking Bharatmata back to your roots, but actually the are just copying a bunch of Europeans.” 

She also pointed out that the second half of the documentary covers the Namaste Trump event. “The far right in the U.S. gets along very well with the Hindu nationalists because they see eye-to-eye on a whole lot of issues including censorship, authoritarianism, and the desire of keeping communities separate.” 

She highlighted the importance of conceptualizing Hindu nationalism as a global phenomenon. “The Sangh Parivar — the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] — “the Hindu family of hate, maybe the center, but it has tentacles that go out all over the place including a robust presence in the United States,” she said, adding that although it’s the RSS, “here we call it the HSS [Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh].” She also talked about the VHP [Vishwa Hindu Parishad], which the BBC documentary mentions, and informed the audience about its branch here — VHPA  [Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America] 

Explaining the complexities of the workings of the Hindutva groups here, she said: “On the one hand there is a recourse back to India as many of the Hindu nationalism goals are focused on India and on the subcontinent, but that said, Hindu nationalists also have their agendas here and among them is the targeting of professors.”

Karnad spoke about the role social media companies play in the free speech debate. “The other aspect that prevents running this documentary — and relates to the west and the United States — is how social media companies agreed and bowed to the Indian government’s arbitrary order that a documentary produced by the BBC should be removed from certain social media platforms or should be censored in the country.”  

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He touched upon the need for “some very important conversation and some very important lobbying that needs to happen,” about platforms like Twitter. “If we are going to have the new owners of social media or the old ones, strutting around and talking about free speech, then this is the essence of what free speech is. It is the ability of responsible and recognized journalistic organizations to talk about historical facts in severance of avoiding future genocides. And if that can’t be Twitter, then there’s a big problem,” he said. “The question of what’s essential to free speech is important to the state at which things are happening right here.”

Before the discussion, attendees heard a recorded message from Aakashi Bhatt, daughter of Sanjiv Bhatt, a former Indian Police Service officer of the Gujarat cadre. The young daughter is fighting her legal battle to free her father, who filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court of India and accused Modi, the then chief minister of Gujarat, of complicity in the 2002 Gujarat communal riots. “My father  is paying the price of being honest, upright, courageous,” she told the audience. 

Similar screenings were hosted last week by Harvard University at multiple locations, with organizers calling for open discussion concerning the issues raised by the documentary and respect for freedom of speech. 

The Harvard Undergraduate Students for Forward-Thinking Advocacy and Research (SAFAR), a new progressive South Asian affinity group at the college, hosted a public screening of the first part of the documentary on Feb. 2. The showing and accompanying discussion brought in over 75 South Asian and non-South Asian attendees from across Harvard’s colleges and members of South Asian groups in the Greater Boston area. In the post-screening conversation, attendees discussed state repression of journalism in India and South Asia and the history of communal violence in the region. A screening of the second episode has been scheduled for this week.

The following day, Feb. 3, the India Caucus at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government hosted a full house screening of both parts of the documentary, followed by a discussion. Students from India make up the highest number of international students at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the screening included students from South Asian and non-South Asian backgrounds, organizers said in a press release.

South Asia GSD, a student organization at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, hosted a screening on Feb. 5.

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