- Despite facing resistance from Hindu American groups for its alleged partisan and Hinduphobic motives, organizers say over 44 speakers addressed the event which received more than 30,000 views and over 4.7 million impressions.
Scholars, academicians, journalists, and activists discussed various topics exploring the concept of Hindutva during a three-day international online conference, “Dismantling Global Hindutva,” held Sept. 10-12. Speakers discussed the threat and power of Hindutva, its historical development, the fascist dimensions of the ideology, its alignment with other supremacist movements and define all that is at stake across a range of political, socio-cultural, and economic issues.
“The conference received a cumulative 30,000 views across the three days, and the conference Twitter account received more than 4.7 million impressions,” organizers told American Kahani. Organizers said they received “many compliments from academics who attended the conference,” adding that “the sessions at the conference were nuanced, informative, and sparked new thoughts in many.”
Over 44 speakers including Anand Patwardhan, Christophe Jaffrelot, Meena Kandasamy, Mohammad Junaid, and P. Sivakami spoke on various panels over three days.
Despite facing a “massive disinformation campaign,” and resistance from Hindu American groups and Hindu supporters for its partisan and Hinduphobic motives, the organizers claimed on the conference website that more than 70 “cosponsoring entities from 53 universities,” supported the event.
Several individual speakers like author and activist Meena Kandasamy received death threats, threats of sexual violence and violence against their families to withdraw from the conference and accusations of being anti-Hindu.
“Women participants have been subjected to the vilest kind of misogynistic threats and abuse and members of religious minorities associated with the conference have been targeted with casteist and sectarian slurs in the ugliest sorts of language,” Rohit Chopra, an associate professor at Santa Clara University, who is one of the conference organizers, told The Guardian. Chopra said he had received several emails accusing him of betraying Hindus. “Whether on email or on social media, there has also been a relentless barrage of messages accusing those involved in the conference of being terrorists, Hindu-haters, Hinduphobic, anti-Indian, and the like,” he said.
“We felt this conference was a remarkable achievement,” Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR), one of the speakers at the conference, told American Kahani. “In spite of vicious and relentless trolling, the organizers persisted,” she said, adding that “they brought to one platform so many brilliant speakers, both academic and non-academic, that have different and sometimes seemingly contradictory approaches to this urgent challenge of dismantling Hindutva. And yet, Viswanath noted that “the panels were provocative and civil, and the three days were riveting.” She hoped that “the right-wing trolls got a lesson in how to exchange ideas and engage in sincere dialogue without resorting to disinformation and personal attacks.” Noting that her organization is “glad” that “practicing Hindus” were involved in the discussions since the majority of Indians are Hindu,” she said, “it will be impossible to annihilate caste and defeat Hindutva if Hindus are not part of the struggle.”
What is Global Hindutva?
Remarks from documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan opened the first session of the conference on global Hindutva, calling it “a casteist protect, in which a Brahmanical elite recruit the powerless in an endless war against imaginary demons,” which is “staunchly different than the composite culture of Hinduism.”
Once a student in the U.S., Patwardhan said he is aware that “diaspora Indians face racism and discrimination and need to feel a sense of pride about their land of origin. This is natural. The question is, can we choose what to feel proud about and what to feel ashamed about so we become agents of positive change?”
In his presentation titled, ‘Hindutva is as Hindu as the Ku Klux Klan is Christian,’ Patwardhan concluded that “if armed, our revolution would be easily crushed by any modern state. Our revolution must then be a revolution of ideas and culture, and our weapons: Knowledge, Reason and Compassion.”
Joining Patwardhan in the discussion were Kandasamy and Christophe Jaffrelot, a French political scientist and Indologist, specializing in South Asia, particularly India and Pakistan. Jaffrelot, in his presentation, explained the term global Hindutva and the evolution of the RSS and the Sangh Parivar and its growth in the U.S.
Speaking on the evolution of political Hindutva, Kandasamy in her talk titled ‘Sanatana Dharma’ to ‘Sangh Parivar,’ broke down “the toxic compound of Hindutva into its elemental form — the two fundamental inequalities built into its system, into its philosophy and its daily practice: the oppression of caste, and the oppression of women.” She continued: “I say this not as my own academic finding, or as something I read in a research article; I say this in the feminist, caste-annihilation tradition of Mahatma Jyotiba Phule, the revolutionary Dr. Ambedkar, or Periyar and most recently Thirumavalavan, all of whom view the Hindu social order, or Hindutva, as a combination of caste inequality and male chauvinism.”
Gender and Sexual Politics of Hindutva
Film clips of sexual violence being used as a way of harassing political dissidents opened the second day of the conference. Leena Manimekalai, an Indian independent filmmaker, poet and actor opened the poignant and important discussion. “Women’s bodies have been turned into a battlefield, she noted. In her talk, titled “Rape Nation,” she noted how rape was used “as the subjugation and humiliation of communities.” In conclusion, she stated that while rape should “definitely” worry us, “the politics behind rape should worry us further.”
Joining Manimekalai in the panel were Akanksha Mehta, lecturer in Gender, Sexuality, and Cultural Studies and the co-director of the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths at the University of London and P. Sivakami, an Indian Dalit-feminist writer, a former IAS officer and activist predominantly writing in Tamil.
Mehta faced a lot of ire on Twitter for her comments relating to Hindutva and Hinduism. Critics of the conference accused her of propagating hate, adding that the conference aimed at dismantling and disparaging Hinduism and not Hindutva. “I emphasize, without hesitation, that Hindutva is inseparable from Hinduism. And arguments that Hindutva is not Hinduism are deeply dangerous and will not lead us to the future we want,” Mehta said.
Hinduism and Hindutva
Viswanath, in her remarks during the panel on ‘Hinduism and Hindutva,’ shared experiences and pushback she has faced with her “progressive Hindu identity, which opposes both caste and Hindutva.” Noting that she’d “much rather keep her faith in my house and in my heart,” she added that “because others have brought this aberration of my faith into the streets, I have no choice but to meet them there. The only alternative would be to renounce my Hindu identity, and then, the murderers will have won.”
Viswanath said she brings an activist perspective to the discussion and acknowledged that she has “all the privileges of being an upper-caste born Hindu.” Viswanath notes that in their advocacy, they state “clearly, that Hindutva ideology is not the same as the Hinduism we aspire to.” But at the same time, she said that “we cannot deny that proponents of Hindutva are doing so as Hindus, in the name of a monolithic Hinduism. In conclusion she hoped that her organization might be able to “persuade some Hindus who are influenced by Hindutva to join us on a more compassionate path against caste and Hindutva. I hope our justice movements will find a place for them. Our liberation is bound up with each other. We all rise or fall together.”
Viswanath was joined by other panelists including musician, activist and author, T.M. Krishna, also an advisory board member of HfHR. During his opening remarks, Krishna presented three windows of perception that are open to “inter-move, but would broadly define the way the words ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Hindutva’ are perceived within the Indian community.”
Raja Gopal Bhattar, in his remarks, shared his experiences as a queer Hindu. “It was the temple community, the one that I thought would be there for me, that shunned me because I was queer.” The diversity, equity coach made some observations about the Hindu community in the U.S. “Diasporic Hindus are often seen as not Hindu enough,” he said. “Some try to hold onto a myopic set of practices and texts to project a conservative vision of what Hinduism is,” he continued, adding: “This ignores so much of Hinduism.”
“Honored to have shared space and insights with other Hindus committed to addressing the Hindutva that has grown out of our tradition and must be faced as part of our collective liberation,” Bhattar tweeted after the panel.
Panelists discussed different viewpoints on whether is part of Hinduism, organizers noted in a Twitter feed, “but there was total unanimity that Hindutva is a violent and vile ideology that must be pushed back.”
Panel discussions were also held on the political economy of Hindutva; caste and Hindutva; Hindutva, Science, and Healthcare; Hindutva Propaganda and the Digital Ecosystem; and Islamophobia, White Supremacy, and Hindutva.
The backlash was almost immediate, from Hindu American groups, and activists and religious leaders, both in the U.S. and India. Hindu groups in the United States, including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), the Coalition of Hindus in North America (CoHNA), and the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), had allegedly sent over 1.3 million emails to several universities urging them to pull out of the conference.
The HAF wrote to the presidents and key administrators of all universities listed as event co-sponsors, asking them to distance themselves from the event, calling it “the antithesis” of their values. In the letter, the HAF urged the university officials to ask the event organizers to remove their university’s name and logo from its website, promotional materials, and social media posts. And “to ensure the safety and wellbeing of Hindu students, faculty, and staff on your campus who may feel targeted, threatened, or face hostility or harassment as a result of this partisan, anti-Hindu event.”
In an op-ed in American Kahani, HAF executive director Suhag Shukla emphasized that her organization does not use the word “Hindutva” to describe our work, nor one we engage with politically or ideologically. But the DGH website makes clear that its interpretation of Hindutva is political, and its intention is to dismantle the word and the Indian political party that espouses it, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Noting that the HAF has “no quarrel with those who have a quarrel with the BJP or are involved in Indian politics,” Shukla wondered if “U.S. universities actually sponsor partisan political events about a foreign nation.” She continued: “From our engagement with Hindu advocacy over the past two decades, I know well that criticism of Hindutva — even when it is a legitimate condemnation of vigilantes carrying out attacks in the name of Hinduism or Hindus — has a history of veering quickly into Hinduphobia. Hindutva is a loaded word with definitions that span the spiritual to political.”
Ohio State Sen. Niraj Antani, a Republican, issued a statement criticizing the conference. “This conference represents a disgusting attack on Hindus across the United States, and we must all condemn this as nothing more than racism and bigotry against Hindus. I will always stand strong against Hinduphobia.”
Commenting on the backlash, organizers noted that they “welcome substantive and evidence-based critiques of the contents of the conference.” Noting that “within the conference itself several speakers critiqued each other, in the best tradition of academic freedom,” organizers added that “such critiques enrich the conversation and we are happy to engage with them.”
Organizers noted that “the contents of the conference have made amply clear that other criticisms of the conference, including absurd claims that it was promoting ‘genocide’ against Hindus or making Hindu students unsafe, are utterly baseless.” Emphasizing that “conference was always an academic conference with panels full of evidence-based and nuanced conversations on Hindutva ideology, which is a topic of urgent socio-economic importance, the campaign of lies that was launched against this conference before a single word was said is precisely an example of how the Hindutva disinformation and propaganda machinery operates,” organizers noted. “This includes spreading baseless fear among Hindus and making false claims that Hindus are under attack in order to further their ideology. Those who attended the conference now know that all these were simply tall tales told by those hoping to shut the conference down.”
The timing of the event has also been questioned. “Conference is deliberately timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the 11 September attacks by Islamist terrorists against the USA. The idea is to try and portray Hinduism as the same kind of violent religious ideology as that practiced by the Taliban,” wrote Rajiv Malhotra.
Others drew a connection between the dates as Swami Vivekananda addressed the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893,” tweeted Indian Supreme Court and Delhi High Court counsel and author, Say Deepak J. “On September 11th, Swami Vivekananda addressed the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. #NeverForget and this is the day they have chosen to hold the #DismantlingGlobalHindutva conference. #NeverForgive”
A user named Ayushi, from Sharjah, UAE, who describes herself on Twitter as “Sanatani, Brahmin |and “Dreamer of #HinduRashtra,” went a step further with her displeasure on the conference. Sharing a photo of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, she wrote: “People who talk about #DismantlingGlobalHindutva deserves this treatment.”