On March 5th, a week before Holi, students across more than 15 American college campuses held protest rallies under the name #AHoliAgainstHindutva. These efforts were led by new organization Students Against Hindutva. Instead of wearing white and playing with colors, participants wore all black in protest against the political ideology of Hindutva, discriminatory policies introduced in India such as the CAA/NRC, and recent anti-Muslim violence in New Delhi.
Students Against Hindutva is a diverse organization with members from many religious backgrounds and includes many Hindus. Although they have repeatedly stated that they are protesting against Hindutva and not against Hinduism, several Hindu American leaders and organizations have criticized them. Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, branded the campaign as “an anti-Hindu project” that “is about rejecting and demeaning Hindu traditions and celebrations.” Writer Sunanda Vashisht described the campaign as “a nasty and reprehensible case of Hinduphobia.”
A few Hindus have responded to the #AHoliAgainstHindutva campaign by organizing a campaign of their own called #HoliForUnity. Its organizers have argued that their goal is to resist the “intentional misuse of Holi and its traditions.” Their campaign has been endorsed and promoted by major Hindutva organizations in the United States such as the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (the overseas affiliate of India’s Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), its youth branch Hindu YUVA, and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad-America (World Hindu Council of America).
The long history of South Asians in the diaspora shows a community who has drawn on popular religious symbols and festivals to advocate for social justice.
Hindus who characterize #AHoliAgainstHindutva as “anti-Hindu” or “Hinduphobic” have argued that mixing politics with religion is “disrespectful” to the spiritual significance of the holiday and those who celebrate it. A day before the rallies, Shukla tweeted, “Have your protests. But please, leave dharma, our festivals, our traditions alone.”
The initiative taken by Students Against Hindutva cannot be branded as “Hinduphobia.” The long history of South Asians in the diaspora shows a community who has drawn on popular religious symbols and festivals to advocate for social justice. About 40 years ago, a group of young South Asian and Afro-Caribbean women called the Southall Black Sisters (SBS) celebrated Diwali with a unique performance of Ramleela in London’s Southall to protest racism.
In an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, scholar Paula Richman described the performance that took place. Members of the SBS “ranged from teenage school girls to young postgraduates and working women.” In April of 1979, several members of Southall’s South Asian and Afro-Caribbean community were arrested in a demonstration against a British neo-Nazi political party, the National Front. Later that year, a few members had the idea of putting on a Ramleela performance for Diwali, in which all the funds raised would go towards the protesters’ legal fees and would contain a strong political message against white supremacy and racism.
Ramleelas are dramatic performances of the Ramayana story, traditionally held across northern India and in parts of the world with large Indian diaspora populations. Ramleela performances typically span multiple days or weeks, culminating with the festival of Dussehra, on which fireworks are lit to celebrate the god Rama’s victory over the demon Ravana, and effigies of Ravana are burned.
The actor playing Ravana, the ten-headed demon king of Lanka, in the Southall performance wore a massive mask on which each of his heads symbolized an aspect of racism, such as conservative politicians, neo-Nazi leaders, riot police, and even restrictive immigration laws. This ten-headed effigy of Ravana, literally representing “the many faces of racism,” was burned at the end of the performance. Richman writes that “in this Ramlila the burning of Ravana stood for more than the triumph of goodness over evil in general terms; it also expressed a desire to destroy racism in Britain so that people in Southall could live without fear, humiliation, or deprivation of rights.”
As a group of young feminists, many of whom were Hindus themselves, Southall Black Sisters chose to “combine cultural appreciation with cultural critique.”
As a group of young feminists, many of whom were Hindus themselves, SBS chose to “combine cultural appreciation with cultural critique.” In their Ramleela production, they reimagined many patriarchal aspects of traditional Ramayana narratives through a combination of social critique and humor. For example, when Rama is preparing to go into exile, he tells Sita to stay in the palace in Ayodhya, because a life in the forest “would be too harsh for her: her tender lotus-feet would get cut by thorns and bruised by rocks.” Here the SBS Sita’s response departs from traditional Ramleela dialogue: she slaps Rama on the shoulder and says, “I’m good enough to wear myself out doing all the housework in our home but not good enough to go to the forest with you?” Rama has no choice but to abashedly reply “Whatever you say, my dear.”
In contrast to the more conservative responses #AHoliAgainstHindutva has provoked today, the organizers of the Southall Ramleela were not condemned as disrespectful or Hinduphobic. Richman describes the numerous ways through which the local community embraced this new political Ramleela and contributed to its success: “A local teacher of Indian classical music and his students volunteered to play music. An Indian restaurant in Southall provided free sweets for distribution to the audience. Several women gave old saris for constructing a stage curtain, while others lent jewelry and other props for the performance. Shops in the area willingly put posters for the Ramlila in their windows, and the performance was publicized by local community groups as well as some nationally based anti-racist groups.”
Forty years later, the grass roots initiative of the Southall Ramleela is worth remembering again. #AHoliAgainstHindutva follows this tradition of critical community engagement with Hindu religious festivals. For decades, South Asian student groups across North America have staged Holi festivals on college campuses as joyous affirmations of South Asia’s religious and cultural diversity. Holi festivals played an especially important political role in asserting a proud and brown presence on college campuses in the face of white supremacy, xenophobia, and Christian nationalism. In recent years, campus Holi festivals have become one of the most popular spring events at many US and Canadian colleges and regularly draw participants from a wide range of ethnic and religious backgrounds. Now, as the diversity and pluralism of India are threatened by the violent ideology of Hindutva like never before, #AHoliAgainstHindutva is a courageous effort to show solidarity with fellow students and minority communities in India.