- India’s Hindu nationalist movement poses an existential threat to minorities and could impact the United States, warn panelists in San Diego.
“India is subsumed in a momentous political crisis, the most daunting since 1950,” warned Dr. Angana Chatterji of the University of California, Berkeley on March 12. “The practice of illiberal democracy today is accompanied by the call to fascism and the extermination of Muslims.”
Chatterji (who joined via Zoom) was speaking at a San Diego, California panel on impending Indian Muslim genocide and global Islamophobia. Approximately 200 people joined the event to hear six panelists, including myself, converse about the threat facing Muslims — as well as other minorities — under India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The threat impacts the U.S., speakers agreed, not only because the country is home to over four million Indian- Americans but also because the BJP and its parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) paramilitary, have a major support base in America.
“I sort of felt that I was the embodiment of what India was,” said Dr. Samina Salim of the University of Houston. “Pay attention: I said what India was. I am not proud of what India is today, sadly, because how can I represent an India where Muslim girls and Muslim women are stripped of their head covering, which is part of their clothing, in the middle of the streets, before they step into their schools and colleges? How can I represent an India where Muslim women are sold on an app and on other online platforms? I do not represent this India where Muslim women are raped, killed, and burned alive. I am not proud of that India.”
“The moment Modi became prime minister, and the BJP came to power, vigilante Hindu extremist groups took it as kind of a pass to engage in routine violence, humiliation, and lynching of Muslims,” noted Dr. Rohit Chopra of Santa Clara University. “What I’ve seen happen since then is, the hallmark of being a good Hindu was you don’t speak up against such violence. I want to say this is from 2014 to 2018. If you speak up against the lynching, you’re not a good Hindu and therefore you’re not a good Indian, because only a Hindu can really be an Indian. From there, we have now moved to a position where the hallmark of being a good Hindu and being a good Indian is actually endorsing this violence.” According to Dr. Chatterji, “The political blueprint of Hindu nationalists signals an illiberal turn and absolute nationalism that, unchecked, may enkindle the would-be erasure of Muslims in India.”
Speakers highlighted the recent ban on Muslim students wearing hijab at educational institutions in Karnataka (which was upheld by the state’s High Court on 15 March) as emblematic of structural Islamophobia in India. “This hijab ban is just another sequel to this genocidal language,” explained Dr. Salim. “Anti-Muslim hysteria with hijab ban has reached a whole new level now.”
Dr. Khaled Beydoun of Wayne State University noted, “Gendered Islamophobia is distinct in the sense that the State engages in the policing of women’s bodies. That becomes the principle way in which the State engages in gendered Islamophobia — by saying how a woman can dress and cannot dress. India is parading around the world claiming to be the largest democracy in the world, and we know that the cornerstone of any democracy is what? The ability to practice your religion as you see fit or to not profess a religion. Why is this cardinal right, that is attached to any democracy, being denied to Muslim women? And the way it’s being manifested is through the erosion and the encroachment of the ability of Muslim women to express their religiosity in ways that align with their spirituality.”
“When Taliban prevented women and girls from going to schools, and colleges, and universities, there was an uproar from the Western world,” said Dr. Salim. “Where are the feminists now? Where is the Western media? Why this silence when this is going on in India with Muslim women?”
“It’s really salient that we center white supremacy as a system that intersects and interacts with Islamophobia, Hindu supremacy, and other forms of bigotry that we’re seeing unravel on a global stage,” said Dr. Beydoun. The similarities to white supremacist ideology were also echoed by Dr. Hatem Bazian of UC Berkeley. Invoking the idea of “replacement theory” (which is also known in the West as the “white genocide” conspiracy theory), Dr. Bazian said, “Hindu nationalists are using the same type of argument. Replacement theory is the idea that the Muslims who are coming to Europe, or the minorities who are coming to Europe, or the Mexicans that are coming to the United States are attempting to replace the white race. In a similar way, within the Hindu nationalists, it is that the Muslim population that are there are attempting to replace Hinduism.”
“India has become a hard incubator of conspiracy theories,” said Dr. Salim. “History tells us of the dangers of these theories. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion led to the extermination of six million Jews. That was a result of conspiracy theories. It was Radio Rwanda that propagated conspiracies against Tutsis, killing almost a million Tutsis. The same type of ludicrous and dangerous conspiracy theories are flourishing in India now for quite some time. These theories and false propaganda are being pushed by the Indian media, funded by the elite within the Indian political system and business class, endorsed in one way or the other by the State — sometimes by overlooking the propaganda and, at times, by supporting it.”
Dr. Chopra warned that not only has social media played a pivotal role in fostering these conspiracy theories but that the major corporations are doing little to stop it. “It’s really important to raise this issue, to bring it to awareness in the global community, and particularly to talk about the role of social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp in fomenting anti-Muslim violence and anti-Muslim sentiment,” said Dr. Chopra.
“Facebook has admitted its role in the genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar, they’ve admitted their role in anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka. In the Indian context, they’ve hired people who are from the Hindu Right, and when the government has pushed back, they’ve sort of fallen in line. It’s the same with Twitter…. In the Indian context, because of the pressure of the government, again, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp are completely compromised. Facebook and Twitter both have blood on their hands.”
Meanwhile, I asserted that not only is the Indian Government controlled by the RSS, but that the paramilitary’s affiliates in the United States have provided a great deal of assistance to the regime in India.
Oldest Fascist Movement
“The RSS is the world’s oldest, largest, and fastest-growing fascist movement,” I explained, noting that the RSS, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (the RSS’s religious wing), and the Bajrang Dal (the VHP’s youth wing) have a combined total of perhaps 15 million militant members. “The RSS today is essentially, you could say a shadow government, or you could say that it is the government because the ruling Hindu nationalist BJP is, actually, the political wing of the RSS.
It was founded by the RSS in 1980. And the RSS basically controls and pulls the strings of the BJP. So the RSS today is basically the government of India.” “RSS is here [in America],” warned Dr. Salim. “The problem is hate — this hateful agenda, this bigotry, this misogyny — which is here amongst us in the form of RSS and its friends. And that is why, I tell you, ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got to get more involved.”
Expanding on the presence of RSS in America, I noted: “The RSS-BJP regime in India is heavily dependent on and owes a great debt of gratitude to its affiliates here in America, especially tracing back to 2014. To a great extent, Modi’s election in 2014 is due, in part, to the actions of the RSS-BJP affiliates here in the United States, specifically the Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP) as well as the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), which is the name for the RSS equivalent here in America.”
“From America, they organized phone banks of hundreds of people — Indian-Americans, not people with Indian citizenship — to call back to India to tell Indian voters to vote for the BJP,” I explained. “In addition, they mobilized thousands of people — the public numbers are at least about 3,000 people — to travel from America to India to serve as boots on the ground to canvass, knock on doors, run polling stations. I like to flip this and say, can you imagine the outrage here in America if we had a lot of Americans that emigrated to Russia, gave up their American citizenship, settled in Russia, became Russian citizens but didn’t give up their love for the Republican Party. So, every election cycle, they would mobilize with their Overseas Friends of the Republican Party based in Moscow. They would set up phone banks in Moscow, call American voters, and say, ‘Vote for the Republican Party.’ And they would go a step further.
They would send thousands of now Russian citizens — who used to be Americans — back to America to campaign, canvas, come knock on your door, and maybe even staff your local polling booth. Would Americans be upset about that? One thing that I still fail to understand is why Indians are, in India, not more outraged over this blatant interference in their sovereign, sacred elections that have occurred.” What’s happening in India impacts the United States, I added, not only “because those groups are using American free soil to organize those efforts, but they’re also using American soil to do things — like with the HSS, and OFBJP, and other Hindu nationalist affiliates — to serve as a propaganda mouthpiece in America to whitewash and legitimize the RSS-BJP regime in India.”
Dr. Beydoun, however, suggested that the threat facing Indian Muslims is also linked to America because U.S. foreign policy has helped enable it. “The American Global War on Terror did a couple of things,” he said. “It legitimized this demonization of Muslims as categorically ‘terrorists’ and then it accelerated, it intensified pre-existing and indigenous campaigns across the world, of which Hindu supremacy is one of them…. It’s critical to really highlight the fact that the United States Government and four administrations since, even liberal and democratic administrations like the Obama Administration, had a mighty hand in emboldening and accelerating these anti-Muslim campaigns happening on a global scale, of which India, I believe, is one of the most ominous and nefarious.”
The situation in India is so ominous that it is now one of looming genocide, claimed speakers.
“The term ‘genocide’ can be used when it can be proved that a State or non-State actors engage in actions or they have a very specific intent targeted at one particular community to commit violence or to exterminate them,” noted Dr. Chopra. “Incitement to genocide is also a crime…. You don’t actually have to commit genocide to be guilty of a crime under international humanitarian law.” As Dr. Bazian pointed out, “Often when we use the term ‘genocide,’ we think that we’re just going to the graveyard after the genocide had been committed. That’s not what the Convention on Genocide actually speaks about. Any aspect of taking steps that would facilitate genocide could be subject to bringing a case.”
Yet speakers suggested that the world seems to be taking little notice of the situation. “It’s impossible not to juxtapose what’s taking place in places like India with what’s unfolding in real-time right now in Ukraine,” said Dr. Beydoun. “In addition to Islamophobia, in addition to Hindu supremacy, we have another issue that is expanding on a global stage, which is white supremacy. There’s a reason why Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees resonate so strongly when we see them on television. However, when we see brown and black individuals who are fleeing places, fleeing war-torn countries, they don’t get a sliver of coverage, they don’t get a scintilla of the attention that Ukrainians have received in two weeks.”
“We’ve got to take more interest,” urged Dr. Salim. “We’ve got to speak up. It’s the silence that emboldens these people, by virtue of which we become accomplices in that violence.”
The panel was sponsored by the San Diego Coalition for Human Rights, which included the Council on American-Islamic Relations (San Diego), Indian American Muslim Council, Jewish Voices for Peace, Muslim American Society (San Diego), Muslim Leadership Council of San Diego, Pillars of the Community, and others.
(Photos, courtesy of CAIR-San Diego)
Pieter Friedrich is a freelance journalist specializing in the analysis of affairs in South Asia. Learn more about him at www.PieterFriedrich.com. He tweets @FriedrichPieter.