In Edison, New Jersey, a bulldozer, which has become a symbol of 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, a shouting match erupted between people celebrating the holiday and those who showed up to protest violence against Muslims in India.
Indian Americans from diverse faith backgrounds have peacefully co-existed stateside for several decades. But these recent events in the U.S. — and violent confrontations between some Hindus and Muslims last month in Leicester, England — have heightened concerns that stark political and religious polarization in India is seeping into diaspora communities.
In India, Hindu nationalism has surged under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, which rose to power in 2014 and won a landslide election in 2019. The ruling party has faced fierce criticism over rising attacks against Muslims in recent years, from the Muslim community and other religious minorities as well as some Hindus who say Modi’s silence emboldens right-wing groups and threatens national unity.
Hindu nationalism has split the Indian expatriate community just as Donald Trump’s presidency polarized the U.S., said Varun Soni, dean of religious life at the University of Southern California. It has about 2,000 students from India, among the highest in the country.
Soni has not seen these tensions surface yet on campus. But he said USC received blowback for being one of more than 50 U.S. universities that co-sponsored an online conference called “Dismantling Global Hindutva.”
The 2021 event aimed to spread awareness of Hindutva, Sanskrit for the essence of being Hindu, a political ideology that claims India as a predominantly Hindu nation plus some minority faiths with roots in the country such as Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism. Critics say that excludes other minority religious groups such as Muslims and Christians. Hindutva is different from Hinduism, an ancient religion practiced by about 1 billion people worldwide that emphasizes the oneness and divine nature of all creation.
Soni said it’s important that universities remain places where “we are able to talk about issues that are grounded in facts in a civil manner,” But, as USC’s head chaplain, Soni worries how polarization over Hindu nationalism will affect students’ spiritual health.
“If someone is being attacked for their identity, ridiculed or scapegoated because they are Hindu or Muslim, I’m most concerned about their well-being — not about who is right or wrong,” he said.
Anantanand Rambachan, a retired college religion professor and a practicing Hindu who was born in Trinidad and Tobago to a family of Indian origin, said his opposition to Hindu nationalism and association with groups against the ideology sparked complaints from some at a Minnesota temple where he has taught religion classes. He said opposing Hindu nationalism sometimes results in charges of being “anti-Hindu,” or “anti-India,” labels that he rejects.
On the other hand, many Hindu Americans feel vilified and targeted for their views, said Samir Kalra, managing director of the Hindu American Foundation in Washington, D.C.
“The space to freely express themselves is shrinking for Hindus,” he said, adding that even agreeing with the Indian government’s policies unrelated to religion can result in being branded a Hindu nationalist.
Pushpita Prasad, a spokesperson for the Coalition of Hindus of North America, said her group has been counseling young Hindu Americans who have lost friends because they refuse “to take sides on these battles emanating from India.”
“If they don’t take sides or don’t have an opinion, it’s automatically assumed that they are Hindu nationalist,” she said. “Their country of origin and their religion is held against them.”
Both organizations opposed the Dismantling Global Hindutva conference criticizing it as “Hinduphobic” and failing to present diverse perspectives. Conference supporters say they reject equating calling out Hindutva with being anti-Hindu.
Some Hindu Americans like 25-year-old Sravya Tadepalli, believe it’s their duty to speak up. Tadepalli, a Massachusetts resident who is a board member of Hindus for Human Rights, said her activism against Hindu nationalism is informed by her faith.
“If that is the fundamental principle of Hinduism, that God is in everyone, that everyone is divine, then I think we have a moral obligation as Hindus to speak out for the equality of all human beings,” she said. “If any human is being treated less than or as having their rights infringed upon, then it is our duty to work to correct that.”
Tadepalli said her organization also works to correct misinformation on social media that travels across continents fueling hate and polarization.
Tensions in India hit a high in June after police in the city of Udaipur arrested two Muslim men accused of slitting a Hindu tailor’s throat and posting a video of it on social media. The slain man, 48-year-old Kanhaiya Lal, had reportedly shared an online post supporting a governing party official who was suspended for making offensive remarks against the Prophet Muhammad.
Hindu nationalist groups have attacked minority groups, particularly Muslims, over issues related to everything from food or wearing head scarves to interfaith marriage. Muslims’ homes have also been demolished using heavy machinery in some states, in what critics call a growing pattern of “bulldozer justice.”
Such reports have Muslim Americans afraid 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 regularly hears from his sisters and senses a “pervasive fear, not knowing what tomorrow is going to be like.”
Syed grew up in the Indian city of Hyderabad in the 1960s and 1970s in “a more pluralistic, inclusive culture.”
“My Hindu friends would come to our Eid celebrations and we would go to their Diwali celebrations,” he said. “When my family went on summer vacation, we would leave our house keys with our Hindu neighbor, and they would do the same when they had to leave town.”
Syed believes violence against Muslims has now been mainstreamed in India. He has heard from girls in his family who are considering taking off their hijabs or headscarves out of fear.
In the U.S., he sees his Hindu friends reluctant to engage publicly in a dialogue because they fear retaliation.
“A conversation is still happening, but it’s happening in pockets behind closed doors with people who are like-minded,” he said. “It’s certainly not happening between people who have opposing views.”
Rajiv Varma, a Houston-based Hindu activist, holds a diametrically opposite view. Tensions between Hindus and Muslims in the West, he said, are not a reflection of events in India but rather stem from a deliberate attempt by “religious and ideological groups that are waging a war against Hindus.”
Varma believes India is “a Hindu country” and the term “Hindu nationalism” merely refers to love for one’s country and religion. He views India as a country ravaged by conquerors and colonists, and Hindus as a religious group that does not seek to convert or colonize.
“We have a right to recover our civilization,” he said.
Rasheed Ahmed, co-founder and executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Indian American Muslim Council, said he is saddened “to see even educated Hindu Americans not taking Hindu nationalism seriously.” He believes Hindu Americans must make “a fundamental decision about how India and Hinduism should be seen in the U.S. and the world over.”
“The decision about whether to take Hinduism back from whoever hijacked it, is theirs.”
Zafar Siddiqui, a Minnesota resident, is hoping to “reverse some of this mistrust, polarization” and build understanding through education, personal connections and interfaith assemblies. Siddiqui, a Muslim, has helped bring together a group of Minnesotans of Indian origin — including Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and atheists — who meet for monthly potlucks.
“When people sit down, say, over lunch or dinner or over coffee, and have a direct dialogue, instead of listening to all these leaders and spreading all this hate, it changes a lot of things,” Siddiqui said.
But during one recent gathering, some argued over a draft proposal to at some point seek dialogue with people who hold different views. Those who disagreed explained that they didn’t support reaching out to Hindu nationalists and feared harassment.
Siddiqui said that for now, future plans include focusing on education and interfaith events spotlighting India’s different traditions and religions.
“Just to keep silent is not an option,” Siddiqui said. “We needed a platform to bring people together who believe in peaceful co-existence of all communities.”
Giovanna Dell’Orto in Minneapolis contributed to this report.