Hinduphobia is a smokescreen for Hindu nationalists

Hindus do experience racism, but co-opting the term to critique a conference on Hindu nationalism doesn't help.

Poster for the Dismantling Global Hindutva conference. Courtesy image

(RNS) — This weekend, the Dismantling Global Hindutva: Multidisciplinary Perspectives Conference, sponsored by more than 70 departments and study centers at 53 universities, is gathering online to address the ideology of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism. Hindutva is a growing threat to minority faith communities, oppressed caste groups as well as to academic freedom and democratic values.

The conference has been met with violent threats, litigious tactics and other attempts at intimidation from right-wing Hindu nationalist organizations. One organizer of the meeting recently got an email saying: “if this event will take place then I will become Osama bin Laden and will kill all the speakers, don’t blame me.”

We are writing as scholars of Hindu studies, founders of the Feminist Critical Hindu Studies Collective and as people of Hindu heritage to speak out in support of the conference’s aims.

Hindutva is a political movement that claims that only Hindus can be legitimate citizens of India, excluding India’s thriving Muslim, Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi communities. In South Asia, resistance to Hindutva has been led by Muslim, Dalit and feminist activists. The DGH Conference builds on the momentum of such activism.

Over the past few weeks, Hindutva-aligned organizations and individuals have been objecting to the conference, calling it a form of “Hinduphobia.” In a letter dated Aug. 19, the Hindu American Foundation asked the presidents of sponsoring universities, which include Harvard, Stanford, the University of Chicago, Rutgers University, and the University of Virginia, to withdraw their support.

RELATED: Conference fuels growing US debate over Hindu nationalism

The letter was framed around a claim of victimization, insisting on the need to “ensure the safety and wellbeing of Hindu students, faculty, and staff on your campus who may feel targeted, threatened, or face hostility or harassment as a result of this partisan, anti-Hindu event.”

The fact is there is little evidence that Hindus on university campuses face widespread religious persecution, and their use of “Hinduphobia” is little more than a smokescreen. The term co-opts the language we use as social justice activists to challenge racism, white supremacy, casteism and Islamophobia, even as Hindu nationalists claiming victim status troll and threaten South Asian studies and Hindu studies scholars. The term, and the violent rhetoric employed by Hindutva supporters, is built on misinformation and fear, which are classic tools of fascism everywhere.

Yes, Hindus do experience racism. But challenging a casteist, Islamophobic way of being Hindu does not equate to Hinduphobia. Calling caste discrimination a form of Hinduphobia and a violation of religious freedom merely attempts to erase the history of caste from the history of Hinduism and South Asia. This would be akin to erasing the history of race and racism from the history of the United States. We must be able to look critically at our own communities if we want to create change.

RELATED: Practicing Hinduphobia in the guise of academic freedom

The Dismantling Global Hindutva Conference is about actual bodies, not just abstract theoretical ideas about academic freedom or freedom of speech. It seeks to expose and criticize the ways that Hindutva has sanctioned violence against Dalits, women, Muslims, Christians and anyone who speaks out about the disingenuous ways they are seeking power and control. 

To be clear, we were not involved in the planning of this conference. We became involved as organizers because we have privilege as American and Canadian citizens and as people who benefit from caste privilege. We are committed to challenging Hindu complicity in the oppression of others and also to challenging racism in its multiple forms. Can the critics of the DGH Conference claim the same?

(The Feminist Critical Hindu Studies Collective: Shreena Gandhi is an assistant professor of religious studies at Michigan State University. Sailaja Krishnamurti is an associate professor of religious studies at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Harshita Mruthinti Kamath is an associate professor of Telugu culture, literature and history at Emory University. Tanisha Ramachandran is an associate teaching professor of religion and director of religion and public engagement at Wake Forest University. Shana Sippy is assistant professor of religion at Centre College and co-director for the Religious Diversity in Minnesota Initiative at Carleton College. Dheepa Sundaram is an assistant professor of Hindu studies at the University of Denver. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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