Religious polarization in India seeping into US diaspora

In Edison, New Jersey, a bulldozer, which has become a symbol of the oppression of India’s Muslim minority, rolled down the street during a parade marking that country’s Independence Day. At an event in Anaheim, California, shouting erupted between people celebrating the holiday and those showing up to protest anti-Muslim violence in India.

Indian Americans of different faiths have lived together peacefully in the States for several decades. But these recent events in the US – and violent clashes between some Hindus and Muslims in Leicester, England last month – have heightened concerns that India’s deep political and religious polarization is spilling over into diaspora communities.

In India, Hindu nationalism has seen a resurgence under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, which came to power in 2014 and won a landslide victory in 2019. The ruling party has been heavily criticized for mounting attacks on Muslims in recent years. The Muslim community and other religious minorities, as well as some Hindus, say Modi’s silence emboldens right-wing groups and threatens national unity.

Hindu nationalism has divided the Indian expatriate community just as Donald Trump’s presidency polarized the US, said Varun Soni, dean of religious life at the University of Southern California. It has about 2,000 students from India, which are among the highest in the country.

Soni has yet to see these tensions on campus. But he said USC received a backlash because it was one of more than 50 US universities to co-sponsor an online conference called Dismantling Global Hindutva.

The 2021 event aimed to raise awareness of Hindutva, Sanskrit for the essence of being Hindu, a political ideology that claims India is a predominantly Hindu nation as well as some minority religions with roots in the country such as Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism . Critics say that excludes other religious minorities like Muslims and Christians. Hindutva differs from Hinduism, an ancient religion practiced by approximately 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 are able to speak in a civil way about issues that are fact-based.”

“When someone is attacked, ridiculed or scapegoated because of their identity because they are Hindu or Muslim, my main concern is their well-being – not who is right or wrong,” he said.

Anantanand Rambachan, a retired college religion professor and practicing Hindu who was born in Trinidad and Tobago to a family of Indian descent, said his opposition to Hindu nationalism and association with groups opposed to the ideology has left some at a Minnesota temple, where he is, complaints triggered religious instruction. He said that rejection of Hindu nationalism sometimes leads to accusations of being “anti-Hindu” or “anti-India,” labels he rejects.

On the other hand, many Hindu Americans feel slandered and attacked 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 to Indian government policies that have nothing to do with religion can result in being branded a Hindu nationalist.

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

“If they don’t take sides or don’t have an opinion, they are automatically assumed to be Hindu nationalists,” she said. “They are accused of their country of origin and their religion.”

Both organizations rejected the Dismantling Global Hindutva conference, criticizing it as “Hinduphobic” and failing to present different perspectives. Conference supporters refuse to equate Hindutva with anti-Hinduism.

Some Hindu Americans, like 25-year-old Sravya Tadepalli, believe speaking out is their duty. Tadepalli, a Massachusetts resident who serves on the board of directors of Hindus for Human Rights, said her activism against Hindu nationalism was shaped by her faith.

“If that is the fundamental principle of Hinduism, that God is in everyone, that everyone is divine, then I think that as Hindus we have a moral obligation to work for equality for all human beings,” she said. “When a person is being treated less or more than their rights have been violated, then it is our duty to work to rectify that.”

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

Tensions in India reached a high in June after police in the city of Udaipur arrested two Muslim men accused of cutting the throat of a Hindu tailor and posting a video of it on social media. The man killed, 48-year-old Kanhaiya Lal, had reportedly shared an online post in support of a ruling party official who was suspended for making offensive remarks against the Prophet Muhammad.

Nationalist Hindu groups have attacked minority groups, especially Muslims, over everything from food to the wearing of headscarves to interfaith marriage. In some states, Muslims’ homes have also been demolished with heavy machinery, in what critics say is 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, California, said he hears regularly from his sisters and feels an “ever-present fear of not knowing what tomorrow will be like.”

Syed grew up in “a more pluralistic, inclusive culture” in the Indian city of Hyderabad in the 1960s and 1970s.

“My Hindu friends came for our Eid celebrations and we went for their Diwali celebrations,” he said. “When my family went on summer vacation, we left our house keys with our Hindu neighbor, and they did the same when they had to leave town.”

Syed believes that violence against Muslims has 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 US, he is reluctant to see his Hindu friends openly engaging in dialogue, fearing reprisals.

“There’s still a conversation 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 Hindu activist, takes a diametrically opposite view. Tensions between Hindus and Muslims in the West, he said, were not a reflection of what was happening in India but rather stemmed from a deliberate attempt “by religious and ideological groups to wage war against Hindus.”

Varma believes that India is “a Hindu country” and the term “Hindu nationalism” simply refers to love for his country and religion. He views India as a land devastated by conquerors and colonists and Hindus as a religious group that does not seek to convert or colonize.

“We have the right to restore our civilization,” he said.

Rasheed Ahmed, co-founder and executive director of the Washington DC-based Indian American Muslim Council, said he was saddened “to see that even educated Hindu Americans don’t take 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 as to whether Hinduism will be taken back by whoever kidnapped it is up to them.”

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

“When people sit down, for example, at lunch or dinner or over coffee and have a direct dialogue instead of listening to all these leaders and spreading all this hate, a lot of things change,” Siddiqui said.

But during a recent gathering, some squabbled over a draft proposal, eventually seeking dialogue with people of different views. Those who disagreed said they did not support reaching out to Hindu nationalists and feared harassment.

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

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


Giovanna Dell’Orto in Minneapolis contributed to this report.


The Associated Press’s religion coverage is supported by AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

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