Battling Dominant Narratives: Struggles of a Critical Hindu American
It was somewhere in the first few minutes of watching the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission’s hearing on Jammu and Kashmir that the dangers of contemporary American progressivism sank even deeper into my gut, and I felt acutely party-less, unrepresented, and knowingly silenced in the name of human rights.
Let me be clear, because as a Hindu American caught in the insufferable binary of American socio-political posturing, I apparently need to say this. I will never support Donald Trump, I will never vote for him, and I will never endorse him. I believe he spewed forth from the most heinous mechanisms of white supremacist patriarchal capitalist entitlement and violence that exist in this nation. I don’t agree with him and I don’t trust him, even when he says seemingly positive things about India or Prime Minister Modi or Hindus. I have been a card-carrying member of the Democratic party for twenty-six years now. It is, by no means, a perfect party. I am well aware of the issues. But it has never even crossed my mind to “vote Republican”, or to support any public servant who speaks or works against what I perceive to be the highest ideals of any government. This includes: honoring the Earth and all its creatures, protecting the most vulnerable people, standing up against bigotry of any kind, valuing pluralism and dissent, and enacting innovative policies that directly address the harm and inequity caused by the very institutions meant to sustain and nurture our society and planet. I left finance and became a public school teacher early on in my career because of these very ideals — because I felt I needed to live them in order to be in my integrity. And I will continue to be a Democrat because I still maintain hope that this party is where these ideals — often overlapping with the goals of social justice — are most possible.
One of the weakest and most violent edges of the party is its foreign policy, and this is where I’ve long felt immense turmoil and disenchantment. As a transnational American, I am keenly aware of how the narcissism of the world’s wealthiest nation is dangerous and oppressive.
But members of the Democratic party — both those in office and those running for office — at all levels — are making it clear that there is no room for counternarratives about Hinduism and modern day India. Alarmingly, that same social justice narrative about Hindus is taking deep root in the United States, through our democratic channels of government, and often led by people who look like me.
I am a liberal Hindu American committed to social justice and the Democratic party is breaking my heart.
I have written at length about how academia and media (of all kinds) have hijacked the narrative and the progressive public imagination about what constitutes Hindus and Hinduism in present day India. Campuses are particularly invested in the narrative. Audrey Truschke, an openly Hinduphobic scholar at Rutgers University, has received unilateral support for her “bold scholarship” (again, the language of bravery in the face of Hinduism), even as she tweets grotesque accusations about Hindu deities, makes bad-faith connections between Hindus and Nazis, erases the genocide of Hindus at the hands of a ruthless Mughal invaders, and aligns herself with known anti-Hindu organizations.
Meanwhile, at Princeton University, Professor Gyan Prakash brazenly demonstrates an ignorance and odium towards Hindus that is unconscionable and unpalatable, particularly given his current role as the acting head of South Asian Studies
Who is writing the script about Hindus and Hinduism in the West? Who is allowed to determine what social justice means in the face of histories that have been wiped from textbooks — both here and in India — in the name of progress(ivism)? Whose voices are intentionally excluded?
It is not a simple task to disrupt this phenomenon. It’s not easy to effectively communicate perspectives that contradict or critique what my peers and even some family members feel so fiercely is wrong with India and “Hindutva” today. Let me be clear — I am not talking about the intentions of folks who disagree with me. In fact, I think, in most cases, we have shared intentions. We come from the same commitments — to justice, to amplifying marginalized voices, to critical thinking, to anti-oppressive actions and policies. That’s what makes this whole thing so tricky.
It’s not easy to articulate counternarratives that contradict the Hindu nationalist story, as this story is positioned by nearly every progressive voice as “the right critical analysis” and “the truth as told by brave individuals”. The only problem is that these brave individuals are a part of the dominant narrative in the U.S., where their testimonies about rampant Hinduphobia are eagerly heard and amplified, contradicting the premise of bravery. And from where I sit, these “brave” folks are presenting stunningly lopsided, agenda-driven narratives that may echo progressive concerns in the domestic U.S. context (giving them teeth). But they have little integrity and resonance regarding the Indian one. These same stories — stripped of context, full histories, nuance, and local criticality — have been repeated until they become lodged as facts in the public psyche, simply through familiarity.
Narratives are powerful, they have truth in them. My intention is not at all to suggest that there is some superior objective knowing that lies solely outside the domain of narrative-based knowing. But narratives have limitations, just like any other form of data. For instance, narratives are not generalizable.
I am not exaggerating when I say that the direction the Democratic party is headed in is dangerous vis-a-vis Hindus. Thirty years ago, it would have been the conservative (i.e. Christian) party that rhetorically diminutized and exotified Hindus in ways that would have been denounced as intolerant and bigoted by the progressive left. Today, the rhetoric is that the Democratic party has no tolerance for the Hindu that does not dance to a singular narrative about Hindu nationalism. This narrative is so deeply enmeshed with the vernacular of social justice that any Hindu who speaks out against it is readily accused of standing against social justice itself. In other words, there is only one way to read present day India through a social justice lens, according to the dominating narrative. You’re either aligned with that or you’re against social justice. You either agree that India is plagued by rampant Hindutva or you’re Islamophobic. You either agree that the current Indian administration is a fascist regime or you simply don’t accept or know the facts or you are a collaborator, yourself. The binary is killing discourse.
Thursday’s hearing is the second one in the span of two months that placed the U.S. Congressional conversation about Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh within a larger, predetermined conclusion about Hindu nationalism that is based on curated fact-telling, contradictions, fear-mongering, and outright lies. If October’s hearing was irresponsible and biased, this one was outright dangerous.
The one bright spot was Sunanda Vashisth’s vulnerable, powerful testimony, which I recommend you watch here. This is the first time, to my knowledge, that the U.S. government officially and publicly heard details of the Kashmiri Pandit history of ethnic cleansing from Kashmir. This is not about justification or revenge towards Kashmiri Muslims. It is about centering and engaging relevant parts of the story that have been silenced, sometimes under the guise of justice.
There is a lot to unpack about Thursday’s hearing, including many of the same disturbing mechanisms present in the first hearing, which I’ve already deconstructed at length. I am not going to replicate that analytical process here, as I suspect it would not yield substantively different themes. (Note: this analysis focuses on the second panel.) Instead, I will:
- Offer counter evidence to a dozen specious claims made during the hearing. (Certainly, there were more than a dozen, but exhaustive fact-checking is for a different article.)
- Describe four maneuvers made during the hearing that I offer are counter to the commitments of social justice.
I use “specious” intentionally, because these claims are perfect examples of “evidence” that is deceptively attractive in substantiating the notion that rampant Hindu nationalism has been unleashed and is endangering the well-being and liberty of “minority” groups in India. In some cases, the claim is directly stated, and in others, it is either implied or easily concluded.
Note: Sources listed at the end of the article.
As misleading and disingenuous as those specious claims are, they’re not really new in the contemporary conversation about Kashmir and Hindu nationalism at large. We’ve heard those same talking points repeatedly in the news, on social media, and during “Kashmir teach-ins” that have flooded universities (excluding Kashmiri Pandits). What struck me were five overt moves made by both panelists and members of Congress, four red flags that I suggest should concern anyone who is committed to justice and the truth.
Gaslighting and derision of Hindu survivors of ethnic cleansing in Kashmir. Sunanda Vashisth fiercely represented the traumatic stories of Kashmiri Pandits, including that of her own family, knowing that she was speaking against a narrative that has already decided who the “real” victims in Kashmir are (e.g. Muslims). She knew she would be surrounded by other “witnesses” (including Sethi, who has no personal or professional knowledge of Kashmir) who would dismiss or minimize her story. Indeed, after sharing, other witnesses consistently referred to her as “not everyone” when they spoke for what everyone else in the room believes. Towards the end of the session, Yousra Fazili narrowly avoided a revealing gaffe. In expressing gratitude to the committee, she thanked them for including two Kashmiris (herself and Udai) on the panel…and then, realizing her error, quickly corrected herself and said three. Vashisth — a survivor of ethnic cleansing — was constantly othered in a hostile space that was performatively framed by the premise of human rights. These “beliefs” were often framed as morally righteous. Additionally, John Sifton made a point of correcting Vashisth’s assertion that her people’s story had not been heard, pointing out that the UN — technically — had written several reports. However, Vashisth’s point was clearly not about buried administrative reports. She wanted to know why Kashmiri Pandits had never had the benefit of Congressional hearings that centered human rights violations on them. She wanted to know why her people’s narratives — and the documented evidence that sustains them — is diminished as whataboutery and “bringing up the past” in conversations about modern day “Muslim-majority” Kashmir. She wanted to know why over the course of two consecutive Congressional hearings that concerned human rights violations in Kashmir, she was the only witness (across over a dozen) who represented her people’s story.
Selective critical analysis. Although the title of the hearing was “Jammu and Kashmir in Context”, the conversation focused solely on legitimizing fear about the “Hindu nationalist” government, while panelists and committee members actively blocked or minimized Pakistan’s role in the region. This was irresponsible and dangerous. When Representative Smith brought up the role China might play in helping the situation in Kashmir, many people in the room laughed, given China’s human rights record. These are the same people who argued that Pakistan — a country that some people in the room admitted needed to take strong measures to address its own internal issues of human rights (which were only spoken about in vague terms) — should not be included in a conversation about Jammu and Kashmir, even though a part of Kashmir is controlled by Pakistan.
Haley Duschinski suggested (1:36:15) that India’s failure to meet global human rights standards should weigh heavily in considering its bid to become a member of the UN Security Council. This is an exercise in selective criticality that is reprehensible. Below are two charts depicting Freedom House’s 2019 ratings of political rights and civil liberties in each of the member nations. (For context, I’ve added India’s 2019 rating to both charts. Links to individual country reports are available here.) As you can see, Duschinski’s suggestion is obnoxious and superfluous, and an excellent example of how far these actors are willing to take this lopsided conversation in the name of justice.
Invoking social justice themes to sustain false, bad faith parallels.
Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee conflates black voting rights with the abrogation of 370, when, in fact, the abrogation gives voting rights back to marginalized members who had otherwise been disenfranchised. It is not just her technical error that is troubling, here. The Congresswoman invokes the skin she lives in [1:40:49], summoning the very real history of white supremacy, which has long been conflated with the factless spectre of “Hindu supremacy” in a disturbingly ahistorical and twisted comparison. Congresswoman Lee goes on to invoke a social justice argument of not blaming a group of people for the actions of a few in quieting any discussion of Pakistan during the hearing. That would be the case if people (in this case, Vashisth) were blaming ordinary Pakistani citizens. She was not. No one is. However, a valid critique is being made of the Pakistani state (i.e. the government) and its collusion with known terrorists. For a member of Congress to warn a victim of Islamic terrorism that was sanctioned by the Pakistani state not to discuss Pakistan because stereotyping about Pakistani people is unjust — especially when that same Congresswoman started the Pakistani caucus — lacks integrity and is cruel and manipulative. It is a performance of social justice value signaling that is devoid of justice. (Also note that this consideration is never given to Hindus. In fact, the exact opposite is happening — the narrative of dangerous religious politicism is being attributed to all Hindu people.)
Characterizing Hindu counternarratives as Hindutva. Arjun Sethi equates the California textbook debate with Hindu nationalism [1:10:32]. If one is not informed about the details of that debate, it is easy to infer — based on the broader narrative of dangerous Hindu nationalism — that the debate centered around a Hindutva agenda. And if one is informed about the details of the controversy, then one is familiar with the arguments posited by South Asian studies scholars. This includes the noxious claim that the Hindu American children who came forward and testified about why they didn’t want their ancestral civilization to be recast as a region (South Asia) and how they were being bullied because of how Hinduism was misrepresented in textbooks were actually just puppets of their Hindutva parents. What Sethi is offering is that dissent that emerges from Hindu people — even Hindu children — is the same as dangerous Hindu nationalism. In other words, “nothing about me without me” is not applicable to particular groups of Hindu Americans. People speaking up for their own ideas about their ancestral land — not just at a nation-state level but a civilizational one — is dangerous. Sethi went as far as to suggest that the U.S. Congress ought to investigate Hindu nationalism, RSS, and their influence in the U.S. This is tantamount to a witch hunt or McCarthyism, particularly given Sethi’s prior mischaracterization of the California textbook debate.
This is the danger of getting swept away in a feels-good-to-be-angry social justice narrative that decontextualizes and oversimplifies the civilizational struggle of a post-colonial nation within a global paradigm that defines progress as Western.
I can’t name a single Democratic government official who is holding space authentically and openly for counternarratives and nuance — regarding both Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh and imaginings of Hindutva. (To be clear, nobody is really talking about Jammu and Ladakh, and the Kashmir conversation is really about a specific region.) The one exception is Tulsi Gabbard, who is assaulted with Hinduphobia by the popular progressive press on a regular basis. In other words, it seems like it is now a value of the Democratic party to be wary of outspoken, organized Hindus and to squash or obscure any dissent or counter-narrative about the dominant story being told about India and Hindus.
As soon as social justice is about indoctrination, as soon as it squashes dissent and inclusion, it ceases to be just, it ceases to uphold its commitments. It becomes a script, a brand, Social Justice™. This is the first thing I posit in my critical multicultural social studies methods class to pre-service elementary school teachers. The basic premise of the class is that teaching is a political act, and that nothing is neutral. Knowledge is not neutral, social justice is not neutral and its epistemes are not universal. Learning to teach as an activist is not about learning the right thing to teach, but learning how to ask why things are this way alongside your students and always wondering what is not being said. As an American citizen, as an engaged member of society, as someone who is committed to being a conscientious member of a settler-colonial nation that has built its “greatness” on oppressing people within and outside our borders, as someone who very much wants to see this current administration ousted…if voting is both my civic responsibility and my last line of defense, what am I to do when my party stands righteously against my own people under the guise of justice, but for so many other people and ideas that I support? I struggle with how and why a community that is so reflexive and thoughtful in its critical analysis of so many issues can deviate so egregiously and brazenly from its commitments when it comes to this. It breaks my heart to know that Hindu voices are being silenced and Hindu words are being twisted so righteously. Am I supposed to fall on my sword? Is that what a representative government means? Do I answer to them? Isn’t that what colonial governance was?
What I can do is to keep on speaking up about what I see, stay nimble and reflexive, stay connected to my dharma, and speak my truth boldly and without apology, like the indomitable Sunanda Vashisth. Speaking up when the mainstream press, academia, members of the U.S. government, and progressive pop-activism have manufactured a reality that relies on casting our voices as suspicious is genuine bravery.
The author is grateful to Parth Parihar for his help in taking notes while we watched the hearing together, and for double-checking the credibility of and supplementing the linked resources throughout this article.
Sources for the Specious Claims Chart:
(2) Source for the requirement: Note that it is very clear about the order. India will withdraw its troops once the UN is satisfied that Pakistan has withdrawn its Pathani tribesman from Gilgit-POK. (See A.1 and A.2)
(16) India as “Lynchistan”: A Rear-View Analysis. (It’s interesting to note that when I shared this article with a South Asian American scholar, they noted that the author — an Economics PhD candidate at Princeton University — was “part of a religious identified faction in his bio.” The author was the president of Hindu Student Council. Despite being an emergent scholar in the very field from which he wrote, this implies that his “religious-identified faction” made his transparent and thorough analysis suspect, even though dissent and conflict are a core value of the academy.)