During an Independence Day parade in Edison, New Jersey, a bulldozer, which has become a symbol of oppression of India’s Muslim minority, rolled down the street. A shouting match broke out at an event in Anaheim, California, between those celebrating the holiday and those there to protest violence against Muslims in India.
For decades, Indian Americans of various faiths have coexisted peacefully in the United States. However, recent events in the United States, as well as violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims in Leicester, England, have raised concerns that India’s stark political and religious polarization is permeating diaspora communities.
Hindu nationalism has grown in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, which came to power in 2014 and won a landslide election in 2019. The ruling party has faced harsh criticism from the Muslim community and other religious minorities, as well as some Hindus who believe Modi’s silence emboldens right-wing groups and threatens national unity.
Hindu nationalism has splintered the Indian expatriate community at the same time that Donald Trump’s presidency has polarized the United States, according to Varun Soni, dean of religious life at the University of Southern California. It has approximately 2,000 Indian students, which is among the highest in the country.
Soni hasn’t noticed any of these tensions on campus yet. However, he claimed that USC received backlash for being one of more than 50 universities in the United States that co-sponsored an online conference called “Dismantling Global Hindutva.”
The goal of the 2021 event was to raise awareness of Hindutva, Sanskrit for the essence of being Hindu, a political ideology that claims India as a predominantly Hindu nation, as well as some minority faiths with roots in the country, such as Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism. Critics argue that this excludes other religious minorities, such as Muslims and Christians. Hindutva is not the same as Hinduism, an ancient religion practiced by approximately one billion people worldwide that emphasizes the oneness and divine nature of all creation.
According to Soni, it is critical that universities remain places where “we can talk about issues that are grounded in facts in a civil manner.” However, as USC’s chief chaplain, Soni is concerned about how the polarization over Hindu nationalism will affect students’ spiritual health.
Anantanand Rambachan, a retired college religion professor and practicing Hindu born in Trinidad and Tobago to an Indian family, said his opposition to Hindu nationalism and association with anti-ideology groups sparked complaints from some at a Minnesota temple where he has taught religion classes. He claims that opposing Hindu nationalism sometimes leads to accusations of being “anti-Hindu” or “anti-India,” labels he rejects.
Many Hindu Americans, on the other hand, feel vilified and targeted for their beliefs, according to Samir Kalra, managing director of the Hindu American Foundation in Washington, D.C.
The Coalition of Hindus of North America’s Pushpita Prasad said her organization has been counseling young Hindu Americans who have lost friends because they refuse to “take sides in these battles emanating from India.”
Both organizations spoke out against the Dismantling Global Hindutva conference, calling it “Hinduphobic” and failing to present diverse viewpoints. Supporters of the conference argue that criticizing Hindutva is not the same as being anti-Hindu.
Some Hindu Americans, such as 25-year-old Sravya Tadepalli, believe it is their responsibility to speak out. 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.
Tadepalli said her organization also works to correct misinformation on social media that travels across continents fueling hate and polarization.
In June, police in the city of Udaipur arrested two Muslim men on suspicion of slitting a Hindu tailor’s throat and posting a video of it on social media. Kanhaiya Lal, 48, was assassinated after he allegedly shared an online post in support of a governing party official who had been suspended for making offensive remarks about the Prophet Muhammad.
Hindu nationalists have targeted minority groups, particularly Muslims, over issues ranging from food to the wearing of head scarves to interfaith marriage. In some states, Muslims’ homes have also been demolished with heavy machinery, in what critics call a growing pattern of “bulldozer justice.”