With additional reporting by Sunita Viswanath.
On July 26th, U.S. lawmakers, government officials, and NGO leaders attended an event organized by the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) at the nation’s capitol for the release of its new report, “India: Democracy in Diversity.” The report’s release was timed to coincide with a conference organized by the U.S. State Department on international religious freedom.
In recent years, religious freedom has become a topic of major concern in India. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has placed India on its Watch List since 2009. Hindu nationalist organizations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) have been listed as “extremist” groups in past reports. In 2017, the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life listed India as the fourth most religiously intolerant country in the world.
As a multimillion-dollar nonprofit, HAF seeks to educate the American public on issues affecting Hindus worldwide. Their stated mission is to promote “dignity, mutual respect, and pluralism.” HAF’s event was intended to showcase India’s “civilizational perspective” on religious pluralism and celebrate its long history of welcoming refugees. The event featured speakers from Indian minority communities who had been invited to share their thoughts and experiences on what was described as “the most religiously diverse democracy in the world.”
However, HAF’s idea of diversity has raised eyebrows in activist and faith communities alike. The event featured a Tibetan Buddhist, Zoroastrian (Parsi), Indian Jew, Sikh, Kashmiri Pandit, and a person of mixed Christian-Muslim heritage. While the other participants spoke on behalf of religious or community groups, it was striking that the Christian-Muslim participant did not represent any community organization. Additionally, there was no representative for Dalits or other caste-oppressed communities, who comprise at least 200 million people in India.
The event failed to address the threat that Hindu nationalism poses to Indian democracy and society. Nearly every speaker praised India’s ideals of religious tolerance while avoiding a discussion of the dark realities of Hindu nationalist violence. A notable exception was Harminder Kaur, founder of a nonprofit called Sikh Kid to Kid (SK2K). Ms. Kaur said that we must not normalize the violence currently taking place in India. “Dialogue, not denial,” she insisted, “is the only way to address religious violence.”
We agree with HAF that a conversation about democracy, diversity, and religious freedom in India is urgent. But this cannot happen without the voices of those communities who have been the most targeted and affected by religious persecution.
Hindu nationalism is destructive to Indian democracy and society. It endangers the lives of India’s minorities and caste-oppressed communities (many of whom are Hindu), and often results in retaliatory violence committed against Hindu minorities living in other South Asian countries. It does not tolerate dissent or pluralism and actively targets Hindus who stand up to its terrifying agenda.
Today, India is in the iron grip of a political party whose mission is to transform the nation into a Hindu rashtra: a country for Hindus and Hindus alone. Its Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is a man who is forever stained by his association with the 2002 Gujarat riots, some of the worst communal violence India has seen since the 1947 Partition. Today, right-wing Hindu politicians garland men who lynch religious minorities and actively obstruct the legal prosecution of religious fanatics. India’s secular democracy and religious minorities have never been in a more vulnerable place.
Hindu nationalism is the greatest threat facing Indian democracy and religious freedom today. As Hindus who are horrified at the brutal violence being perpetrated in the name of our religion, it is our dharma (duty) to speak up and oppose fundamentalism and violence committed in the name of our faith. Hindus must not be resistant to self-criticism; instead, we are called to embody para-dukha-dukhi — feeling the pain of fellow living beings as our own.
HAF’s report condemns “individual incidents involving attacks by Hindus on Christians and Muslims,” but doesn’t name Hindu nationalism once. Will HAF find the courage to unequivocally denounce rising Hindu nationalism in India as well as the United States? How many more Indians will be lynched by Hindu fundamentalist mobs before Hindus confront threats to religious freedom in their communities?
We ask all peace-loving Hindus around the world to embrace the pluralism that lies at the heart of our religion and join us in fighting the menace of Hindu nationalism. This September, a “World Hindu Congress” has been organized in Chicago to raise funds for Hindu nationalist causes and welcome Hindu nationalist leaders such as Yogi Adityanath and Mohan Bhagwat. If HAF is serious about combating bigotry and claiming India’s history of tolerance and diversity, will they join us in taking a public stand against the World Hindu Congress? Will they help us hold community and political leaders who have created a hostile climate for India’s minorities morally accountable?
Gautham Reddy and Sunita Viswanath are board members of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus. Its members “refuse to let our holy symbols, religious beliefs, and sacred spaces be turned into tools of hate and oppression.” More information about Sadhana and its work can be found on their website.