(RNS) — As India suffers through a devastating surge of COVID-19 infections and deaths, the Indian diaspora is experiencing a swirl of conflicting emotions. Our relief in North America, where widespread vaccinations have likely put the worst of the pandemic behind us, is shadowed by the fear we hear from our loved ones on video calls and WhatsApp. We also hear the rage many feel toward India’s political leaders for their deadly decisions.
Faced with a pandemic that coincided with state elections, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and others allowed political rallies to continue despite the impossibility of social distancing. They encouraged dangerous behavior by speaking and interacting with others while not masked. Modi’s government and local allies in Uttarakhand also failed to cancel the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu festival in Haridwar, allowing it to become a superspreader event; attendees carried the virus back to hundreds of towns and villages.
Human-made tragedies that occur as a result of allowing such events as the Kumbh Mela to continue are especially hard for diasporic Hindus like me to watch, because Hinduism is so much a part of how we understand our relationship to India. Modi’s rise to power, and his increasingly authoritarian governance (like the wannabe dictator we Americans just kicked out of the White House), means we must critically examine how ethnic pride results in soft-pedaling our criticisms of the Indian government.
Immigration is a theologizing experience. Amid the turmoil and challenge of moving across the world, many immigrants find in religion not just spiritual comfort but the space and time to connect with those who share the experience. Hindu temples and cultural organizations are places where immigrants and their children can be their authentic selves and experience their heritage through its languages, cultural traditions and religious rituals.
This often results in a conflation of religion, culture and national identity. Hinduism is by far India’s majority religion, and it defines culture and identity as Christianity does in the U.S. We can see this in the way Hinduism’s traditional funeral pyres have come to symbolize India’s COVID-19 crisis. These scenes of suffering simultaneously render invisible India’s many religious minorities, including Muslims, Christians and Zoroastrians (Parsis) who do not cremate their dead.
Having written a book on white Christian privilege in the U.S., I see how Hindus in India are affected by the power of being the majority, even as they do not see that power, common for a dominant group. India used to be better at squaring its diversity with its principles.
This is not to hold up India, in any time, as an ideal. Bollywood imagines Sikhs as buffoons, and the history of partition and wars with Pakistan cause Muslim Indians to be viewed as suspect. No decade or election has been completely free of sectarian violence.
Still, when I started my academic career more than 20 years ago, I thought India might emerge as a model for religious pluralism in a secular democracy. Unlike the United States, where national holidays of religious origin are Christian, many faiths’ holidays are recognized in India. Despite Hindus comprising about 80% of India’s population, religious minorities have held top government positions, including Muslim presidents and a Sikh prime minister.
By contrast, among U.S. presidents, being Catholic counts as religious diversity. The constitution that identifies India as “secular” protects the rights of all to freely practice their religion.
Modi has been changing the nation’s trajectory, politicizing religion by embracing and governing from Hindutva, an ideology that emphasizes Hinduism as essential to India’s identity and superior to the nation’s other faiths. From a proposed ban on the sale and slaughter of beef cattle, to a new citizenship law that Human Rights Watch calls “inherently discriminatory” against Muslims, Modi and his allies aim to make one religion the law of the land.
Modi’s governance is part of an emerging illiberalism around the globe, amid appeals to exclusionary national identity. Because of India’s history of sectarian conflict and political violence, not least the Hindu-Muslim violence associated with Modi’s political beginnings in Gujarat 20 years ago, Modi’s Hindutva flexing doesn’t just go against secular traditions; it fans the flames of violence. Indian American Hindus need to raise our voices in opposition.
Diasporic Hindu opposition to Modi is made harder, however, because in both academic and progressive political circles there is a bias against religion and a discomfort with talking about faith. Some have left organized religion because of its role in the oppression of marginalized communities; others regard it, to quote Marx, as “the opiate of the masses.” In academic and activist spaces, particularly among South Asian Americans, to identify as Hindu is to be equated with Hindutva and, by extension, the pro-Modi BJP.
When I was a graduate student, soon to be looking for a faculty position, I was attending a conference with my ethnic studies colleagues. It happened to fall on Shivratri, a holiday that I observe by fasting. Knowing that the bias against religion in the field of ethnic studies often extends to a bias against people who are religious, I went out of my way to fast in secret. I kept quiet about the holiday and found somewhere else to be at mealtimes, because I worried my faith practice would be held against me based on the presumed political stance it represented.
Since then, I have struggled — not to reconcile my faith with my political progressivism, since I regard them as complementary, not contradictory. Rather I have struggled to find ways to voice my love for India in the same way I express my love for the United States: by taking pride in its culture, ideals and vision, while working hard to correct what’s wrong.
More of us need to understand loving India not as uncritically defending it, but as making sure India can flourish as a religiously pluralistic democracy.
In the diaspora, we need to divorce the idea of supporting India, or being Hindu, from supporting the Modi government or Hindutva. For those of us who are Hindu and are angry about the oppression of religious minorities in India, that means expressing our support for India by raising our voices against that oppression.
Wanting justice, supporting the greater good for everyone in India, means getting out of our comfort zones. India is our beloved nation of origin and the growing global power that makes us proud. Today it is also a troubled nation sliding toward autocracy and greater peril for religious minorities.
The Indian diaspora has a tremendous amount of influence here and in India, and it’s time we used it. For Hindus, that means asking the hard question: Are we for justice, or just us?