Hindu and Indian Advocacy Aren't the Same

Three years ago, I was invited to lecture at Tel Aviv University in Israel on my research about how nationalism and masculinity are represented in Indian and Israeli media texts.

Shortly after my lecture, a middle-aged professor told me that he was disappointed in President Obama and the Americans. I initially assumed that he was let down because of Obama's dislike of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a right-wing nationalist who accelerated Jewish settlement building in the Occupied Territories. What the professor said next nearly floored me:

"Obama needs to do more to pressure [Netanyahu]," he said. "The Americans can't let blindly support Israel, especially when it's clearly in the wrong."

I've been reminded of this conversation more and more as of late, as many Hindu Americans -- particularly those who also identify as Indian Americans -- are put in the position of having to speak about (or for) India. The presumption, of course, by many non-Indians and non-Hindus, is that Indians are Hindus, and their identities are inextricably tied to a sense of Indianness. Many scholars, even those of Indian descent, have made similar -- but inaccurate -- claims. To be sure, there are many Hindu Americans who identify with India (whose heterogeneity is vastly understated in the West), but there are also those that don't.

Why is this important to emphasize? Simply put, many Hindus -- regardless of their background -- are put in positions of trying to explain India, even if they have minimal connection to or interest in the country. They are also wrongly assumed to be the spokespeople for India, particularly its social and economic issues. What makes this problematic is that it essentializes both the Indian and Hindu experience, minimizing their diversity and global diaspora.

To be sure, some of India's most passionate and fervent advocates within the country and abroad are Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jain or atheists, while more than a handful of the country's most vocal critics (particularly on issues such as gender and LGBT rights, environmental protection, and militarization along the border with Pakistan) are Hindu. Likewise, some of Hinduism's most passionate defenders in the West are not Indian - or of any South Asian descent. This underscores the problem we face when conflating national, religious, and political identities.

This is a problem that Indian-Americans must contend with. Criticizing India, a political party or leader (such as Indian prime minister Narendra Modi) does not make one a self-loathing Hindu, just as being opposed to Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories does not make one a self-loathing Jew. Indeed, our faith is often strengthened by our ability to speak out on issues which we are passionate about.

Hindu Americans who advocate for accuracy about the religion can acknowledge India's importance in Hindu philosophy and cultural traditions, but it's important to understand that they shouldn't feel compelled to become India experts -- or become India's flag-wavers in America. There are many Hindus -- including me, as a second generation Tamil whose family left India in the late 1960s -- who don't have a strong connection to India or its political, social, and economic conditions (or are deeply critical of its militarized and hypermasculine nationalism). However, when media outlets like the New York Times (which frequently blames India's social ills on Hindus and Hinduism) misrepresent the religion within the context of Indian society, some of us momentarily cast aside our ambivalence to hold them accountable.

With that said, I think it's important for us to understand and differentiate between what it means to be an Indian and what it means to be Hindu. We need to appreciate the fact that those who belong to Indian religious minority communities should feel comfortable in identifying as Indian-Americans, and that space must be carved out for them to express their identities (and even their grievances). Similarly, we should be more than willing to make ample room for the Hindu voices who either have little to no connection to India or are critical of the country's political, social, and economic issues. For Indian-American Hindus who are struggling to articulate their religious identities while remaining critical of Indian policies, organizations such as J Street (a pro-peace Jewish organization that has been one of the top opponents of the settlements) might be a good model to emulate.

Overlap might be inevitable in some cases, but as Anantanand Rambachan and I have written, we need to make the stronger argument for defining what it means to be Hindu in a way that transcends national, cultural, linguistic, and social considerations. I think removing the burden of having to defend India can - in the words of my friend and HAF colleague Suhag Shukla -- hasten the transition of Hindu Americans from self-conscious to self-confident.

Until then, that Israeli professor's comments from several years ago will continue to replay in my head as what can go wrong when we conflate politics with religious loyalty.