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Hobson’s Choice: Is Denouncing Modi the Only Avenue for Acceptance For Hindu Americans?

Hobson’s Choice: Is Denouncing Modi the Only Avenue for Acceptance For Hindu Americans?

  • In the past eight years of my involvement with Hindu advocacy in the United States with HAF, the main challenges we face are not what the general public might suspect.

Issues like xenophobic anti-Hindu bias and discrimination from the American public or skin color-based racism directed at Indians certainly exist. Indeed the majority of discrimination reported by Hindus in the U.S. is based on these. But both of these are more slowly simmering background issues, and are not dissimilar to the bias and xenophobia that many immigrant communities have faced in this country since its founding. Until rasmalai becomes as American as apple pie, as former HAF staffer Jay Kansara used to say, these will exist to some degree.

But the biggest challenges specifically faced by Hindu American advocacy groups and many Hindu Americans who put themselves out into the public gaze, be it intellectually or politically, stem from two main sources and are enabled by a third.

First are advocacy groups and activists whose primary focus is minority religious communities in India — activists who assume that because you are Hindu in the US you inherently take a position on politics and communal tensions in India; and if you are proudly and publicly Hindu you are assumed to support the BJP and RSS, which are portrayed in the West exclusively as oppressing non-Hindus. 

This assumption is made regardless of whether an individual has any connection to India beyond their Hindu identity or regardless of what place a group’s stances on other contemporary issues land on the American political spectrum. Unless you are vehemently and publicly opposed to the current government of India, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in particular, you must be not just right-wing, but a fascist and an extremist.

Second is the Progressive movement in the U.S. — which too often reflexively expresses an anti-India and anti-Hindu sentiment. This seems to be based on an absolutist viewing of history and contemporary society from a perspective of there being oppressor and oppressed groups that are immutable across time and place. Because of this view, any claim from an oppressed group is viewed as an unquestionable fact, while any counterclaim from the group labeled as an oppressor is viewed with suspicion at best, but most often as a further indication of inherent guilt. You can’t just be against discrimination based on caste and not discriminate against others, for example, you must be anti-casteist and root your worldview in that.

Ironically, even though Hindus are a minority group in the U.S. (in fact, a micro-minority in most parts), the influence of anti-India activists causes Hindu claims of discrimination in the U.S. to be viewed with suspicion. 

A third factor, enabling the previous two, is much of the mainstream media in the West, which gives more credence to both the anti-India and Progressive perspectives than others. Both the New York Times and Washington Post are particular offenders in this regard, but far from the only ones.  

This has happened through a combination of factors: still seeing the world through Cold War-era frameworks that were suspicious of India’s neutrality, imbibed with simplified colonial-era misunderstandings and stereotypes about Indian and Hindu culture, and a lack of deep understanding of contemporary Indian politics and culture. And that lack of understanding and intellectual curiosity makes them rely on a tiny non-representative set of what used to be called ‘native informants’.

There have been victories in improving religious literacy about Hinduism, working with elected officials to recognize the significant contributions of Hindus to American society, and working with law enforcement to recognize and track incidents of bias against Hindus. However, pressure and attacks against Hindus in the US from these sources continue unabated and feels as though they are only increasing. 

How This Affects Our Work 

Earlier this year, HAF was approached by a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services looking to partner on faith community-specific videos to encourage seeking help for mental health issues. We were happy to assist and co-produce a public service video for the Hindu-American community. Shortly after it was released, there were protestations coming from a vocal group of Hindu Progressive professional psychologists about how having an allegedly right-wing group like HAF participate in a video such as this was problematic and triggering. The worthiness of the video’s message didn’t matter because the messenger was critically tainted, which was the gist of their complaint. 

Paralleling this is the disturbing incident, that took place in 2019, where HAF was essentially bullied out of the South Asian Roundtable on Bullying Prevention after helping plan the event, because one Muslim group participating objected to HAF’s involvement, on the mistaken grounds, based on what they had read in the media, that HAF is an Islamophobic organization that backs the BJP in India. 

Both of these examples were situations where a Hindu perspective was relevant and needed. But because of Progressive absolutism, Hindus end up not being served. 

Similar incidents have taken place in other ostensibly liberal groups dedicated to combating genocide, promoting interreligious dialog, and preventing hate crimes. Because of differences of opinion on India (which isn’t even the issue at hand), in their view, no collaboration is appropriate. 

In August of this year, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, I spoke on a multifaith panel on the importance of the swastika within the Dharmic faith tradition. Representatives from Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, and Zoroastrian traditions all spoke, with a Jewish Rabbi as the moderator. The message was one of religious understanding. Multiple panelists, myself included, specifically condemned white supremacist, antisemitic, and fascist uses of the Nazi emblem and these ideologies. 

Afterwards, Hindus for Human Rights and the Indian American Muslim Council targeted me on social media, questioning why a representative of a hate group was allowed to speak at the event. Both groups’ work centers on condemning the current government of India’s alleged treatment of religious minorities; the former being a group that mostly speaks for the human rights of any group except for Hindus and continuously condemns Narendra Modi. 

This targeting occurred despite the fact that I spoke on no topic that either group publicly discussed. My mere presence, because of my organizational affiliation with HAF, was critically problematic for them.

These same groups targeted other Hindu groups at the event that they believed were too aligned with the stances of the Government of India. Even a Hindu plenary speaker was removed from the event after activist pressure because of supposed too-close ties with the Government of India. 

To be clear no other groups, from any religious community, seemed to take issue with Hindu participation at the Parliament and the majority of Hindu programming at the Parliament was positive. But because HAF does not condemn the Government of India, we are called right-wing extremist hate-mongers by anti-India activists. Rather than support the debate and discussion, and ultimately the universal principle of free speech, these groups would rather have any opposition silenced, not even at the table. And to be fully clear, none of the Hindu groups targeted at the Parliament made objections regarding the participation at the Parliament of those groups calling for the cancellation of Hindus. 

Accompanying all this has been the steady drumbeat of accusations of caste discrimination being rampant in the US with the only solution being the addition of caste as a standalone category under non-discrimination law. 

As India continues to rise on the world stage and global politics continues moving towards a multipolar dynamic, with both China and India vying for greater power regionally and globally, the underlying politics and concerns fueling anti-India voices will intensify. 

Leading this has been Equality Labs. Even though Equality Labs is a for-profit organization, its perspective has been uncritically accepted because it claims to speak out for a historically disadvantaged community in India. Equality Labs can say outright bigoted things about Hindus, getting a free pass by the media, other activists, and politicians, lest they be called out too. Even when prestigious institutions like the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Johns Hopkins University, and Penn call into question their assertions regarding the prevalence of caste discrimination in the U.S. — Equality Labs says it is rampant; Carnegie found it is exceedingly rare — the media place the Equality Labs viewpoint on equal footing or worse, ignore Carnegie data altogether.

The accent notes to this rhythm become even more pronounced if you are Hindu. In which case, if you don’t announce that you are caste-privileged on every in-breath and out-breath, any statement you make about the issue is seen as further proof of your inherent casteism or ‘caste fragility’ and, of course, your association with Hindu nationalism — this too in spite the fact that the current Indian Prime Minister and both former and current presidents have come from protected caste or tribal backgrounds. 

The parallels with historic witch trials, or post-revolutionary show trials, should be obvious. 

All of this is despite the fact that no one in the Hindu community in the US that opposes a separate category for caste under the law is doing so because they want to discriminate or they deny the possibility of intra-community biases. Rather they have concerns about how doing so breaks with legal precedent and could cause further stigma and additional discrimination against Hindus, Indians, and South Asians regardless of national origin. 

Just under the thin veneer of the social justice language used by the majority of activists agitating for a caste category is a framework of anti-Hindu sentiment — one constructed with Critical Caste Theory, built on the belief that Hinduism as a tradition writ large is an irredeemable system of made up of oppressors and oppressed, a belief that ignores or distorts actual teachings and any social reforms inspired by the tradition, and that speaks of Hinduism in language that were it applied to other traditions would unquestionably seen as bigoted.

In this, caste weaponization showcases the worst absolutist tendencies of the Progressive movement. While not as politically authoritarian in outlook as right-wing conservatism by any means, in caste weaponization we see all the worst tendencies of the revolutionary mindset — ideological absolutism, denunciations of any deviations from a new, yet ever-shifting, orthodoxy, due to this assumption of always being morally and tactically correct. 

In these tendencies, the Progressive movement cannot be objectively described as a liberal worldview, despite being a subset of the US left wing with allies in the Democratic Party. 

Nuanced Thinking, Analysis, and Discussion

This is where the history of discrimination in the U.S. post 9/11 faced by Muslims living in the U.S. (as well as Sikhs, mistaken as Muslim due to cultural ignorance) intersects with the well-intentioned and ethically well-grounded tendency of both Progressives and more classic liberals in the U.S. to sympathize with individuals and communities who have faced discrimination.

Such natural sympathy, though, shouldn’t be a substitute for nuanced thinking, analysis, and discussion. 

Because Sikhs did face discrimination post-9/11 and have faced violence at gurdwaras due to white supremacists more recently, a growingly assertive and violent Khalistan movement (a separatist movement that desires to seize part of northwest India as a Sikh homeland) is overlooked in the West or actively downplayed as existing. This despite the fact that in the past 18 months, Khalistani separatists set fire to the Indian consulate in San Francisco, attacked the Indian embassy in London, vandalized Hindu temples in Canada and Australia, vandalized statues of Mahatma Gandhi in several places in the United States, and threatened and assaulted Hindu American bystanders.

Because Muslims genuinely faced and face suspicion and discrimination from some quarters in the US, hyperbolic claims by anti-India activists that there is a planned genocide of Muslims about to happen any day now in India are taken as unquestioned facts. Ditto the absurd claims that India has Third Reich-like territorial ambitions in South and Southeast Asia and that soon Americans won’t safely be able to walk the streets of India — both of which were asserted by the head of the Indian American Muslim Council at the Parliament of the World’s Religions and were received by the audience without even a single skeptically-raised eyebrow. 

Because of that same recent history of suspicion and discrimination, combined with an innate part of the American national psyche that sympathizes with any group wanting out from under the yoke of a bigger nation, activists wanting an independent Kashmir are taken as the arbiters of truth. The fact that a Kashmir outside of India, either as an independent nation or merged with Pakistan (the most likely outcome), would be an undemocratic Islamic theocracy is overlooked. Ironically, in what can only be described as some perverse intellectual game of Twister, the creation of what will be a deeply socially conservative and illiberal theocracy in an independent Kashmir, that saw the modern-day cleansing of its indigenous Hindu population, is upheld as the best solution to the India-Pakistan conflict over the region by many liberals and Progressives, even though these same groups rightly argue for the separation of church and state at home, fighting against undue conservative Christian influence of government, and frequently offer indigenous land acknowledgments in the U.S.

The same intellectual knots are tied by activists and media enablers when it comes to India’s passed-but-yet-to-be-actually-implemented Citizenship Amendment Act. 

By the letter of the Act, CAA creates a fast track to citizenship in India for members of religious minority communities in surrounding nations, who arrived in India prior to 2014 because they fled religious persecution at home. All were fleeing religious discrimination because they were not Muslim in nations where Islam is the state religion i.e. Hindus, and Christians in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. 

The level of discrimination faced by these religious minority groups in the nations covered under the CAA cannot be overstated. The repressive rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan is well publicized in the West (all but the most conservative Muslims are targeted, with the native Hindu and Sikh population dwindling to under 50 people in the entire nation). But the plight of Hindus and Christians in Pakistan is not as well known. Here, both groups face weekly outright attacks on places of worship, kidnapping of 1000s of girls a year to be sold or given as child brides to wealthy Muslim men, accusations of blasphemy at the least perceived or fabricated slight against Islam (a charge which carries a death sentence). Hindus in Bangladesh face rampant persecution as well, with dozens of attacks, rapes, and other crimes against person and property faced on a regular basis. In the early 1970s, as part of Bangladesh gaining its independence from Pakistan a full-scale internationally recognized genocide against Hindus was carried out.  

Underreporting in the West 

See Also

Cold War politics and the War on Terror politics play the dominant role. Pakistan has long been seen as an ally of the U.S. First as a bulwark against Russia when it occupied Afghanistan and then as a partner in fighting the Taliban, harboring Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, post-9/11. Ultimately Osama bin Laden found refuge and was killed in Pakistan, combined with the plight of religious minorities there, should be all the indication needed that there is no solidity in calling Pakistan an ally of the U.S. and of secular democratic values in South Asia. The level of daily danger that groups such as IAMC and Hindus for Human Rights say is happening to religious minorities in India under BJP rule — again, communal tensions in India definitely exist — is happening one thousand-fold in Pakistan and only slightly less than that in Bangladesh, with the situation in Afghanistan on a different scale entirely.     

Coming back to CAA: while it is an oversight to not include certain Muslim minority sects who also face persecution in these nations (the Ahmadiyya community, considered heretics by other Muslims in Pakistan, immediately comes to mind), the intent of CAA to provide more efficient legal refuge for religious refugees is a noble one. In 1990, the US enacted a similar legislation, the Lautenberg Amendment. It was initially done to facilitate the resettlement of Jewish people fleeing the former Soviet Union and was later expanded to include members of the Jewish, Christian, Baha’i, Sabaean-Mandaean, and Zoroastrian communities fleeing persecution in Iran. 

Nowhere in CAA is immigration to India through existing channels by Muslims prohibited or curtailed in any way. Nowhere is it stripping citizenship for Muslims, or anyone, either. Yet, according to the tales told by anti-India activists and repeatedly unquestioned by Western media, not only is CAA deeply anti-Muslim to its core, it is a precursor to forcibly removing all Muslims from India. 

Keep in mind that India is the second most populous Muslim nation on the planet and that according to recent surveys nearly all Indians, regardless of faith identity, say that respecting others’ religion is a crucial part of being Indian. 

In short, despite genuine communal tensions that violently flare in India, the sometimes heavy-handed response by law enforcement, and heated rhetoric by all concerned, and most importantly despite what anti-India activists would have you believe, no expulsion of Muslims from India is imminent.  

So How Does This Resolve Itself? 

As India continues to rise on the world stage and global politics continues moving towards a multipolar dynamic, with both China and India vying for greater power regionally and globally, the underlying politics and concerns fueling anti-India voices will intensify. 

It’s worth noting that as citizens of the US, we don’t actually have a vote in what government will run India. What’s more, a strong U.S.-India relationship, no matter who is in power in India, is a positive thing for both nations — including in addressing human rights concerns. Comment and criticism are often more listened to when coming from a friend and partner than from an adversary.  

India can help itself in this (to start): by doing all it can to diffuse domestic communal tensions, plus not respond in an overly heavy-handed way when incidents occur; and, thoughtfully improving its messaging on and implementation of policy changes (including Ahmadiyya Muslims in CAA would’ve been both the objectively right thing to do and cut off an easy line of criticism that Muslims were being implicitly targeted by the act). 

In terms of the Progressive movement in the US and its often illiberal tendencies, at the moment there does seem to be a bit of a pause for assessment on the part of policymakers. 

In the past month California’s Governor Gavin Newsom, leading the most liberal state in the U.S., just gave the Critical Caste Brigade a brushback. In vetoing the so-called California Caste Bill, SB-403, Newsom said both that the state was opposed to all forms of discrimination and that caste was already a protected category under existing state law — essentially agreeing with the viewpoint of those Hindu Americans in the state opposed to SB-403, HAF included. In advocating for a separate category of ‘caste’, Progressive activists were overreaching in their pursuit of enshrining into law divisive identity politics. 

Will this pause hold and the tide turn in the U.S. back towards a more classically liberal vision of social progress? One factor is the outcome of the 2024 elections. If Donald Trump weathers his legal storms, becomes the Republican nominee, and defeats President Biden — all possible, if not assured — then the movement towards greater illiberalism in the pursuit of social progress may intensify. In many ways, in the past decade, an absolutist left has been a reaction to the authoritarian tendencies of the right, as much as it was an evolution of the movement for increased social equity in the US over the past decades.

As for the media, a change in tone on India and Hinduism will proceed at a glacial pace if it proceeds at all. There seems to be an entrenched unwillingness to engage India conceptually as a civilizational equal or to even attempt to unpack the complex internal national political, historical, and cultural dynamics for a Western audience. A paternalism that the West knows best soaks the pages, virtual or print, of coverage of India and South Asia as a whole. Whether this results from laziness or bias or some balance of both no doubt varies from publication to publication and from editor to editor, writer to writer. Those of us in the Hindu advocacy space working on improving coverage of India and Hinduism for a Western audience have a lifetime’s work ahead of us.

The consequence of this massive mainstream media failure is the perpetuation of stereotypes about India — soon to be the largest nation on the planet by population, the world’s largest democracy, the fifth-largest nation economically, and major world power — and, perpetuation of colonial-era stereotypes and misunderstanding about Hinduism — the third largest world religion, the oldest still-practiced spiritual tradition, which has contributed immensely to every aspect of human endeavor over the past millennia, often without full recognition. 

What Can the Hindu American Community Do? 

Stand firm in the conviction that Hinduism offers something beautiful and invaluable to the modern world culturally, spiritually, and philosophically. Know that those segments of society that want to convince the world otherwise aren’t going to stop anytime soon. In standing up to these forces and voices, don’t be baited into extreme reactions that can be easily turned against us. Know that, even if takes longer than we would like and often seems like it is taking longer than it should, it is through our traditions that truth will prevail.

(Top photo, courtesy Narendra Modi/Facebook)

Mat McDermott is the Senior Director of Communications at the Hindu American Foundation.

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The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of American Kahani.
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