A woman reaching up with flags in the background
Tamara Turner/TMD

CW: Racism, Transphobia

Disclaimer: The author of this piece was a representative on CSG’s 11th Assembly. They were not affiliated with The Daily while holding that role and they no longer have an affiliation with CSG since joining The Daily.

Blind Spots 

“Currently in progress! Protest march against the Hinduphobic conference Dismantling Global Hindutva!” My phone chimed cheerily at the latest message in the University of Michigan Central Student Government (CSG) GroupMe. Accompanying the message was a picture of several Indian students gathered in the Diag holding handmade protest signs. “Stop Anti-Hindu Hatred,” one read. “Stop bigotry against Hindus,” read another. Suspicious of the sender’s intentions, I switched into my browser, typing “dismantling hindutva conference” into the search bar. I scrolled through the results with a sinking feeling in my stomach. As it turned out, Dismantling Global Hindutva (DGH) was an academic conference aimed at critiquing Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, a right-wing fascist ideology held by the current ruling party in India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). A series of articles detailed how Hindu right activists were attempting to shut down the conference, engaging in a wide array of actions from pressuring universities to withdraw their support of the conference to sending death threats to DGH organizers. The search results confirmed my initial suspicions; the students on the Diag were Hindu nationalists who were displeased that the University was endorsing a conference that would generate awareness and scrutiny of their activities. Utilizing slogans such as “U-M vilifies Hinduism,” and banking on the fact that most people were ill-informed about their ideology, the protesters were blatantly appropriating concepts of inherent criminality, typically used to deconstruct prejudices such as Islamophobia and Anti-Black racism, in an entirely cynical attempt to evoke the traumas of systematic persecution. Their rhetoric was made all the more sickening given the decades-long history of persecution against Black people and Muslims by Hindutva-inspired organizations.

And, somehow, their tactics were working! By the time I navigated back to GroupMe, my phone had chimed two more times. 

Holy crap, how could U-M sponsor such a thing?!

Very upsetting to hear U-M push this hate. I will gladly co-sponsor a resolution condemning the Department of South Asian Studies for engaging in this xenophobia.

Fuck. Two messages of support from two otherwise staunchly progressive representatives who clearly had no idea what the DGH conference, or for that matter Hindutva, was. Going into damage control mode, I quickly typed out several messages attempting to explain that there was a clear distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva — the former referring to a wide range of religious practices while the latter was an ethnonationalist project that aimed to reformulate India into a Hindu majoritarian state. As such, I tried to argue, anti-Hindutva movements — such as the DGH conference — were not inherently anti-Hindu. The Hindu nationalist representative who sent the original text matched me message for message, at one point claiming that Hindus were being subjected to the same dehumanization tactics used against Jews in Nazi Germany. He was extremely persistent and our back and forth continued for almost an hour before I gave up. Turning my phone off, I threw it across the room.

My frustration with the whole situation was only heightened by the fact that, in the days following the GroupMe exchange, there was not even the slightest concern within CSG that one of their representatives had promoted and participated in a Hindu nationalist demonstration on the Diag. Hoping to find some support for my cause outside of CSG, I turned to some of my Indian American friends to vent. I was sorely disappointed, however, when, after I had recounted the DGH argument, they did not throw their hands up in anger and enthusiastically condemn the Hindutva protesters as well as the ambivalence of CSG. Though my friends were aware of what Hindutva represented and opposed the bigotry it spread, their dissent was passive, a private opposition that manifested in ambivalence rather than action. Many second generation upper-caste Indian Americans, myself included, had family members who were involved with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary Hindutva organization founded in 1925 with the stated goal of consolidating a Hindu society along the lines of European style fascism through “a military regeneration of the Hindus.” Revelations of such history can be quite jarring; I still remember my disbelief when my mother told me that my uncle had attended one of the infamous RSS training camps in his youth. One friend explained to me that, faced with such family history, they had a hard time outright condemning the Hindu right as it felt akin to marking their loved ones as hateful and bigoted. I was further disappointed to find that a small minority went to even greater lengths in order to avoid cognitive dissonance; they saw little to no problem with Hindutva ideology, spoke in support of the demonstration on the Diag and argued that any anti-Hindutva activism — the DGH conference included — was inherently Hinduphobic.

The debacle of the DGH conference took place in early September of 2021 and, thankfully, the Hindu nationalists did not organize any further. Though many of the DGH organizers continued to be harassed by Hindutva activists, the conference went on as planned and CSG did not release a resolution condemning the University for promoting it. Yet almost a year later, despite the fact that no real harm was done, these events still leave a bad taste in my mouth. I can’t shake the feeling that the Hindu nationalists could easily have achieved a lot more if they wanted to. Aside from the, let’s face it, inconsequential argument in the CSG GroupMe, there was no real public pressure on them to stop organizing.

At the University, and, to a greater extent, in the United States, the Hindu right lives in a blind spot. Young caste privileged Indian Americans with a history of family involvement with the Hindu right are loath to engage in a multi-faceted and sustained critique of the Hindutva movement. Those outside of the South Asian community remain ignorant of Hindutva and inadvertently endorse it when it presents a liberal aesthetic. With the BJP extra-judicially bulldozing Muslim neighborhoods in India, the current ignorance and ambivalence towards Hindutva is simply untenable. For the sake of cultivating an active and sustained resistance, it is high time that Indian Americans begin to examine the methods through which the Hindu right seeks to embed itself into our identities.

The Hindu Right And Your Identity Crisis

Identity crisis seems to be a centerpiece of the immigrant experience. As far back as I can remember, nobody has been quite certain about what to make of my brownness, least of all myself. Faced with the question mark of my complexity, people have assumed I am Mexican, African American, Arab and Chinese. The one thing that everyone was certain of (and eager to make sure that I was certain of it as well) was that I was definitely not American. At school, birthday parties, grocery stores and, once, a Subway in downtown Chicago, people demanded to know where I was from. If I told someone I was from metro Detroit they would sigh and huff back, “but no, I mean like, where are your parents from,” smiling contently while I begrudgingly muttered back, “my parents are Indian.” Once, in an effort to avoid the dreaded “but where are you really from?” question, I told someone my parents were American too. They blinked at me, confused, but then quickly recovered, asking with a smile, “noo, I mean, like, where are your grandparents from?” Not to be outdone, I quickly responded, “America!” Another blink, pause and an even bigger smile. “Noooo, I mean, like great-grandparents?” We continued like this for several “greats,” me forging my entire family tree while they added progressively more o’s onto their “no” until, finally, I relented, hinting that my great-great-great-great-grandfather might have been Indian, at which point they responded, “Oh cool! Dot or feather?” Needless to say, I fucking hate Christopher Columbus.  

It is within the context of identity crisis that labels begin to take on a life of their own. The ways in which one defines themself become contradictory and frustrating, and one finds themself constantly reconstructing their identity from top to bottom. No longer just seemingly mundane categorizations, labels become political statements, an expression of ideology. These expressions are hazy and ambiguous, sure, but the fact remains that identifying as Indian American carries a different connotation than, say, identifying as solely Indian, or more generally as South Asian or Asian American. It becomes tempting to think that if one can find just the right words put in the right order, just the right label to describe themselves, then they will finally be allowed to assert their identity in white America or, at the very least, have something to rally behind when faced with racism.

It is within this ekphrastic identity construction that the Hindu right finds its foothold. Touting their own label of “Hindu American,” the Hindu right promises disillusioned, homesick diaspora Indians an avenue through which they can reassert their customs, traditions and history (and thereby dignity) in an environment that more often than not seeks to ridicule and marginalize their identities. However, as we will soon see, this reconstruction of identity from “Indian American” to “Hindu American” has the exact opposite effect on the non-Hindu religious minorities of India, actively erasing their customs, traditions and histories.

Who is a Hindu?

One would think that “Hindu American” refers to people who live in America and are Hindus. In certain contexts this might be the case, but the label Hindu American cannot be separated from the organizations that have developed it and applied it in their work. In other words, to understand what being Hindu American means, we have to look at what self-styled Hindu American organizations wish to achieve.

To begin with, organizations with explicit ties to the Hindu right such as the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS, a sister organization of the RSS) the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA, another organization connected to the RSS) the Hindu American Foundation (HAF, a political advocacy group founded by former members of the VHPA) and The Hindu Students Council (HSC, a group of college organizations formerly connected to the VHPA) directly state their mission in terms of organizing or developing a Hindu American society. The widespread use of the term Hindu American on the part of these organizations, whose basic function is to generate support for Hindu nationalism within the diaspora community, suggests that the label identifies more closely with Hindutva politics than the Hindu religion itself. At the very least, there is a worrying aesthetic connection between Hindu American identity and Hindu right organizations.

Diving deeper, we ask: What is a Hindu American society? Again, we cannot take the term at face value, and must look at how it is being used by these organizations. Quite helpfully, the VHPA has a section on their website called Who is a Hindu? According to the VHPA:

Hindus are all those who believe, practice, or respect the spiritual and religious principles and practices having roots in Bharat. Thus Hindu includes Jains, Buddhas, Sikhs and Dharmic people, worldwide, of many different sects within the Hindu ethos. The word Hindu is a civilizational term expressed as Hindu culture or “Sanskriti.” And the word Dharma includes religious practices only as a subset. The parishad welcomes and respects people of non-Indian origin who consider themselves Hindus as defined above.

This definition inaccurately claims that “Hindu” refers to people who practice and/or respect religious principles and practices founded in India (referred to here by its Sanskrit name Bharat). Consequently, for the VHPA, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs are all Hindus. While Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism do have origins in Hinduism, it would be inaccurate (and I’d venture to say very offensive) to reduce them to “sects within the Hindu ethos.” Personally, I find it quite interesting that the VHPA considers Sikhs part of the Hindu ethos, but not Muslims. Yes, Islam was founded in the Middle East, but is it really accurate to claim that Islam is somehow not rooted in India when Muslims were present on the subcontinent during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad himself? Surely after more than a thousand years of presence, Islam has become embedded into the very fabric of Indian society and culture. How does it make sense then to say that Sikhism (a much younger religion that draws influence from Islam) is rooted in Bharat but Islam is not?  

The VHPA goes on to claim that the word Hindu is a civilizational term directly tied to the Sanskrit language. This is also an inaccurate and ahistorical claim that attempts to portray Indian history in periods of religious conquest and empire. For one, the word “Hindu” itself is Old Persian, rooted in the Sanskrit word “sindhu,” meaning river. Second, it is impossible, in the modern-day, to conceive of Hindus as any sort of civilization. This is because Hinduism has spread all over the world and in each place it has taken on a unique characteristic informed by the diverse cultures it has encountered. To portray Hindus as a cohesive civilization, one would have to conflate the East African Hindus of Mauritius with the Cham Hindus of Vietnam with the South American Hindus of Suriname, thereby homogenizing and erasing all three cultures into some bland whole. Even in India, the claims of a “Hindu civilization” fall short. While there have been kingdoms with Hindu rulers, there has never been a Hindu kingdom — the subcontinent was far too religiously diverse to consolidate power in such a way. As learned last semester from my history professor in the course I took on Modern India and South Asia, the political reality at the time meant that if a ruler, Hindu or Muslim, ever tried to impose their religion onto the population, they would not be able to keep themselves in power. Indeed, as historian Richard M. Eaton notes in his article “The Two Languages That Shaped the History of India,” a secular conception of government, including the separation of church and state, was being implemented by 11th- and 12th-century intellectuals in Iran long before their European counterparts. When these ideas reached India, Hindu elite, such as Marappa of Vijayanagara, actively embraced the Arabic term of “sultan” as it bypassed religion, fully cementing their power over their ethnically and religiously diverse kingdoms.  

A much more accurate model of Indian history, Eaton argues — and the one subscribed to by historians — is that of Sanskrit and Persian cosmopolis. According to Eaton, cosmopolis is a cultural formation that, in contrast to empire, is expanded through cultural emulation as opposed to violence and thus does not have any distinct governing centers or fortified frontiers. Transregional in nature, a cosmopolis is characterized by a widespread subscription to the prestige of a language along with other cultural elements such as architecture, cuisine, art, drama and literature. In Eaton’s estimation, Indian history has been shaped by two major cosmopolises: a Sanskrit one from 300–1300 C.E. and a Persian one from 1000–1800 C.E. with a prolonged period of interaction between both worlds.

The VHPA’s conception of Hindu society, specifically its aforementioned claim to an exclusively Sanskrit heritage, directly repudiates the idea of cosmopolis, instead playing into the false colonial notion that Indian history can be divided into three distinct periods: a Hindu “Renaissance” period, a Muslim invasion followed by a period of decline and a British colonial period. Such a view of history is actively propagated by the Hindu right in order to revitalize an oriental notion of “pure Hindu identity,” untouched by the supposedly foreign, invading and destructive force of Islam. Unsurprisingly, the Islamophobia propagated by this false historical narrative quickly makes its way into contemporary notions of Hindu American identity. As Biju Mathew and Vijay Prashad note in their article, “The Protean Forms of Yankee Hindutva”:

All these organizations attempt to constitute something called a ‘Hindu American’ with an identity distinct from all others who come from the South Asian subcontinent. While it recognizes that there are ‘Muslims of Indian origin’, organizations such as the VHPA argue that for them ‘their Muslim identity is more important than their Indian identity’. For this reason, one leader of the VHPA urges the term ‘Hindu American’ so that the disparate Hindus can act under one sign and distinguish themselves from others, not in terms of national patriotism but of religious assertion. Identity, the VHPA claims, is not a nominal feature, but it must be constituted through organizational forms. Therefore, the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh [HSS] aims to draw ‘all Hindus into one large united society’, to draw certain Indians together and rearticulate their self-designation into that of ‘Hindu American’.

In other words, the Hindu American label is used to distinguish Indian Hindus as separate and above their Muslim counterparts; a crucial step in achieving an oriental Hindu identity free from the supposedly unpatriotic and traitorous influences of Islam. Since the Hindu right does not view identity as a nominal feature, the revitalization of an oriental Hindu identity also necessitates the construction of a Hindu society. As Mathew and Prashad discuss in their work, in the eyes of the Hindu right, one is not truly a Hindu unless they actively participate in the consolidation of the Hindu “rashtra,” or nation. As such, many of the organizations mentioned previously who purportedly support a diverse and inclusive Hinduism actually operate by centralizing Hinduism behind a narrow and chauvinistic religious nationalism. It is only a short leap then to the blood and soil argument of V.D. Savarkar (one of Hindutva’s foundational thinkers) that a Hindu is one who is descended of Hindu parents and recognizes the area stretching from the Indus to Ganges as the Fatherland. In the long run, this practice of excluding “non-birthright” Hindus harms Hinduism’s syncretic belief system by stifling an influx of new perspectives and philosophies. Such an oriental, racialized Hinduism is a Hinduism frozen in time; it can neither challenge its problematic aspects nor can it find new ways of understanding and relating to a rapidly evolving world. Relegated to such a mummified state, Hinduism would surely wither away.

The Hindu Students Council

It is with this analysis in mind that I now wish to directly address the Hindu Students Council (HSC) both on our campus and at large. This is because, as young Indian Americans at the University, the HSC is the Hindu right organization most present in our lives. With the stated mission of promoting an “integrated Hindu personality,” the activities of the council provide an insight into how young people are recruited into the Hindu American identity.

The first HSC chapter was founded by Hindutva activists in 1987 at Northeastern University. Since then, the organization has only grown, boasting over 60 chapters across both universities and high schools. As Raja Swamy, a professor of anthropology at University of Tennessee, Knoxville notes, from its very first days the HSC has been tied to organizations on the Hindu right — many of its early leaders were either involved with, or went on to become involved with, organizations such as the VHPA and RSS. According to Prashad and Mathews in “Yankee Hindutva,” in terms of organizational structure, the HSC chapter is typically organized and run by “an immigrant graduate male student who has connections to the Hindu Right in India” or by “second-generation male or female students who may have immediate family connections in the VHPA.” 

However, to the casual observer, the HSC’s proximity to the Hindu right is not readily apparent. Take, for example, the Instagram page of the University’s HSC chapter. The most recent post advertises an end-of-year ice cream social, preceded by a post about the chapter’s visit to a temple in Novi. And previous to that post is a whole string of pictures showcasing the chapter’s annual Holi celebration. Indeed, the bulk of the chapter’s outreach and events are dedicated to social gatherings. Looking at the University’s HSC Instagram page, the notion that the organization is promoting right wing ideology seems downright ridiculous. Swamy sums up the sentiment as follows:

This sort of social space has been very attractive for a lot of young people. For them it is a chance to hang out with friends, to meet (potential romantic interests), to engage in what many American youth engage with in different contexts, like going to a party. I think that the kids who are in there are not going in thinking they’re learning to hate, they’re going because it is a fun thing to do, play games, hang out, which kid will say no to that?

This was certainly my first impression of the HSC. I went to their Holi celebration this year and, to put it simply, it was a lot of fun. It was extremely cathartic to celebrate a Hindu festival in a predominantly South Asian space. But such innocuous social events like the Holi celebration can’t be separated from the parties that organize them. Certainly, after I left the Holi event, I had a greatly improved image of the HSC, and was eager to go to any future events they had planned. Obviously I no longer have such a favorable view, but my opinions towards the HSC only changed after I spent a considerable amount of time looking into the organization. Most people, however, don’t research political organizations for fun (it turns out most people actually have a life … who knew?!) and will probably leave a social event with a rose-tinted view of the council. This is not to say that the organizers of such events are actively manipulating participants into becoming Hindu nationalists — far from it. Rather, the presence of the HSC in social spaces promotes Hindutva in more subtle ways, like introducing nationalistic symbols at religious events or framing cultural expression within a worldview that Hindus are under attack and must defend themselves.

In addition to fronting its activities with social events, the national HSC further obscures its Hindu nationalism by couching its views in liberal rhetoric. The council purports to provide a safe space for Hindu students; perhaps the idea is that if an organization uses the term “safe space” it cannot possibly be right-wing. Building upon this, the HSC paints its Hindu nationalist goals as fighting against bigotry; one of its biggest national initiatives is hosting its annual Understanding Hinduphobia Conference. This rhetorical approach works to maximize the council’s appeal with its target audience: young, mostly liberal, South Asians attending university.

However, a deeper look at the HSC’s activism shows that the organization has no interest in fighting against very real forms of discrimination that South Asians or Hindus face in the West. Take, for example, HSC’s 2021 Understanding Hinduphobia Conference. One portion of this conference was a half-hour discussion between a member of Rutgers HSC, Prasiddha Sudhakar, and an Oxford University graduate student, Rashmi Samant. The basic premise of this conversation was that Samant, the first Indian Hindu female president to be elected to the Oxford Student Union, had been the target of a hate campaign that harassed her so much that, within just one week of her election, she was forced to resign from her presidency. Samant further claimed that the hate campaign was Hinduphobic and had specifically targeted her Hindu identity. 

This would have been a great discussion about Hinduphobia, if not for the slightly inconvenient fact that Samant and Sudhakar’s version of events differed from what was reported in various articles to follow. As reported by The Print, calls for Samant’s resignation revolved around several of her social media posts that were accused of being racist and transphobic:

In one post, she had captioned a photo from Malaysia, “Ching Chang.” In another photo of her posing outside a Berlin Holocaust Memorial, the caption was perceived to be a pun on the Holocaust. It read: “The memorial *CASTS* a *HOLLOW* dream of the past atrocities and deeds.” Samant was also accused of separating “women” and “transwomen” in the caption of a post uploaded before the election, which was perceived as transphobic.

Oxford University’s Campaign for Racial Equality and Awareness echoed similar sentiments in their call for Samant’s resignation, stating “not only did (Samant) post racially insensitive captions on social media, but she has also proceeded to deny the harm caused by her actions when questioned.” The accusations of Hinduphobia ring even more hollow when one notes that the Oxford University Hindu Society was one of the parties actively condemning Samant, stating that “her hateful posturing towards other minority groups” was what prompted calls for her resignation, “not the fact that she is Indian or Hindu.”

Clearly there were very justified reasons for Samant to be removed from her presidency, reasons that had nothing to do with her religion or ethnicity. So, in other words, the HSC decided that the best way to bring awareness to Hinduphobia was to platform a racist transphobe and then actively help said racist transphobe rehabilitate her image by using false claims of Hinduphobia to portray herself as the victim, thereby covering up her bigotry. Yes, it makes my head hurt too. 

Leaving aside Samant’s personal bigotry, is this not an odd decision on the part of the HSC? If Hinduphobia is as widespread and concerning as they claim it to be, surely they could find someone who has actually experienced it. Just as Jussie Smollet was used by conservatives to smear Black Lives Matter, it would seem that purporting false experiences of racism and bigotry would severely undercut HSC’s message about fighting Hinduphobia.

The truth of the matter is that, for the HSC at least, Hinduphobia is nothing but a fear mongering technique to convince young South Asians to embrace a Hindu American identity. It doesn’t matter if it exists or not, it doesn’t matter if people are being hurt by it, all that matters is that it sounds scary. This fear-mongering can be seen coming full circle in Samant and Sudhakar’s conversation when Sudhakar makes the following comment:

There’s kind of this in-between gap that you’re stuck in which is what we call Desi. And a lot of people don’t really step outside of that Desi box. It’s more so ‘oh I’m a Desi because I’m in this middle’ but they don’t really feel proud of their Indian identity and they don’t feel proud of their American one either. So it’s always kind of this confused middle ground and it’s really hard to then be like I’m a Desi but I’m also a proud Hindu. 

The ploy is simple; Samant and Sudhakar’s broader discussion about discrimination serves to stoke a very real sense of fear, oppression and insecurity within their Hindu audience. The Hindu viewer hears Samant’s story and cannot help but place themselves in her situation, imagining the attacks against her as attacks against themselves. In this distressed state, the viewer is also told that it is not possible to identify oneself as Desi (or an equivalent composite identity such as Indian American or South Asian) and also be a “proud Hindu.” The Hindu viewer is in shambles at this point, the victim of a double-sided attack. On one side is the West, using Hinduphobia to oppress them through their religious identity. On the other side is their very own community, pushing upon them broad composite identities that erode the very thing that Western bigotry is attacking: their Hinduism. Thankfully, the HSC swoops in to save the day. “Leave behind your old notions of Indian American and Desi,” they say. “These are all weak and complicated and contradictory. Come with us instead, look back at your great heritage, become a proud Hindu American.” And the cycle continues.

A Better Way

As much as I despise what the Hindu right stands for, I can’t help but be impressed by how effectively they have recruited new adherents to their ideology. The fact of the matter is that Hindu right organizations intimately understand the challenges of the immigrant experience and have exploited those challenges for their own political gains. Unlike Indian American leftists, who in my experience tend to focus on academia and issue-based political activism, Hindu nationalists have engaged directly with the Indian American community. I do believe that organizations such as the HSC have contributed something positive to the Indian American community by creating spaces and networks for us to connect with each other and celebrate our culture.

Such praise, however, should be taken extremely carefully given that the theoretical discussions around the flaws and merits of Hindu right organizations is taking place in the context of the very real and violent reality Hindutva creates for India’s underprivileged communities. In recent years, Indian Muslims have been subjected to a wave of statesanctioned targeted attacks from Hindu nationalists, including calls for genocide. Much of the same violence has also been directed toward Indian Christians. Adivasis, or tribal communities, have been subjected to mass evictions ordered by India’s Supreme Court as well as legislative attempts to reinstitute the colonial-era Indian Forest Act, which, among other injustices, would allow forest guards to shoot tribal people with virtual impunity. Members of the Dalit, or caste-oppressed, community have been attacked by Hindutva supporters for both political and religious reasons. Though diaspora Hindutva supporters are, for the most part, non-violent, they most certainly aid and abet in the crimes of their Indian counterparts through financial donations and political denials of the atrocities committed in their name.

The task left to us then is to cut off this diaspora support by convincing the community that our important cultural and religious spaces can exist outside the hateful politics of Hindutva. Under the current influence of Hindu nationalists, our cultural spaces are ill-equipped to deal with the consequences of increasingly reactionary American politics, such as the current attack on women’s and LGBTQ+ rights. In order to support our most marginalized members, it is imperative that, as a community, we root out Hindutva influences from our spaces. After all, doing so will only make our cultural spaces more diverse, vibrant and rewarding.

The good news is that there are already a number of South Asian activists at the University doing this important work:

  • Founded in response to Modi’s repeal of Article 370 from India’s constitution and the subsequent wave of Islamaphobia, The Indian Muslim Student Association (IMSA) was created in order to raise awareness of the discrimination faced by Muslims in India as well as bring together the Indian Muslim community at the University. By hosting a mix of social, cultural and political events, IMSA creates a space where Indian Muslims can safely reassert their identities and fight back against Islamophobic Hindutva narratives that Muslims are not true Indians.
  • The South Asian Awareness Network (SAAN) is a community of South Asian activists who strive to promote social justice through a diverse and inclusive South Asian lens. By emphasizing a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and composite South Asian identity rather than any one national identity of the subcontinent, SAAN offers an anti-nationalist, anti-state conception of South Asian identity, a sharp contrast to the fervent Indian nationalism of the Hindutva movement. 
  • With a focus on supporting the mental health needs of the South Asian community, Dil Se provides an environment in which South Asians can safely explore the challenges, contradictions and nuances of their identity. In Dil Se, unlike the HSC, mental health challenges associated with identity, racism and trauma are not weaponized for the purpose of fear-mongering. Instead, participants are treated with compassion and empathy and work together to build community and resilience. 

However, in the process of removing Hindutva influence from our communities, we must be wary of the all too common urge to completely secularize our spaces. At the end of the day Hindu American is just a label. Though it has been defined by Hindutva activists in destructive ways, it is more than possible to reclaim a Hindu identity for more constructive purposes. Such work is also in progress through organizations such as Sadhana and Hindus for Human Rights (HHR), which aim to cultivate a progressive Hindu identity centered in values of social justice. Not only do these organizations chip away at diaspora support for organizations like the RSS, but their lens of social justice and intersectionality also spawn new interpretations of Hinduism relevant to struggles we face here and now. For example, just last week, I came across an article by the advocacy director of HHR that utilized a sex worker’s interpretation of Shiva to conceptualize a world in which women’s bodies were not policed and autonomy and dignity were afforded to people of all genders. This large body of current activism, along with the growing awareness of the pitfalls of Hindutva ideology among the Indian-American community, gives me a lot of hope that we may be able to cut off the Hindu right from its lifeline of diaspora support.

Hope I Don’t Fall Off This Soapbox

There is a lot more to say about the Hindutva movement in America and the Hindu American identity it propagates. One could probably spend an entire lifetime analyzing the complicated ways in which Hindu American identity intersects with debilitating prejudices such as Anti-Blackness, misogyny and homophobia. But one thing is for sure: in its current form, Hindu American identity is predicated on not solving, but exploiting the very real fear, anxiety and oppression that immigrants face in America.

Perhaps you, the reader, have been a victim of this bigotry. Maybe in the school cafeteria people would try and throw chicken nuggets into your food because they knew you were vegetarian. Maybe people never sat next to you on the bus if there was an open seat next to a white person. Maybe you have faced immense struggles with the immigration system and have constant anxiety over whether you will receive your citizenship or not. Maybe you, or someone you know, have been deported. Maybe you’ve been stopped by the police or stopped in an airport because you were profiled as a “terrorist.” Maybe people have mocked you and your beliefs when you tell them you are a Hindu. Maybe people have tried to convert you to “better beliefs” at every opportunity they get. Maybe people have told you that you are going to hell because you are a Hindu. 

These experiences are terrible, and they have happened to many of us. But if we want to end this bigotry, we cannot respond with more bigotry. We must remind ourselves that the strength of South Asia lies in its diversity. We must remind ourselves that Hinduism would be a shell of itself if not for the influences of other world religions. We must recognize that the racism we face is not isolated and that drawing back into our community will never get rid of the problems of white supremacy. A world free of prejudice is possible, but ultimately, the current form of Hindu American identity will not lead us to that future.   

MiC Columnist Ashvin Pai can be reached at avpai@umich.edu.