Tulsi Gabbard, Narendra Modi, and the Question of Hinduphobia and “Hindu Nationalism” (or, “Hinduphobia” and Hindu Nationalism)
Before we discuss the two political figures at the center of this discussion, I would like to draw your attention to the different uses of the quotation marks in my title, and what that implies.
a) “Hindu Nationalism” and Hinduphobia?
b) Hindu Nationalism and “Hinduphobia”?
Let me start with the second one, for that has academic purchase, and a comfortable career going for it. It implies that Hindu Nationalism is a given. That it is a real, concrete, objectively observed and verifiable phenomenon. That it is something similar to White Nationalism or White Supremacism. Or even the KKK.
The term has been in extensive use in media and academia for several years now. It is often used to describe Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his party, the BJP, and the “mother-like” volunteer organization of both, the RSS. Of late, it has also come to be used, often to imply guilt by association, in relation to Hawaii Congresswoman and possible Democratic Presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard.
This usage requires the placing of “Hinduphobia” within quote marks because, unlike terms like Islamophobia, Homophobia, Anti-Semitism, Racism, Sexism, and other forms of historic, cultural and structural forms of exclusion and violence, Hinduphobia is not quite accepted as such in the institutions that assume authority over certifying oppression today: academia, media, and governmental and non-governmental organizations and authorities. It is seldom used in these privileged institutions, or at best simply ironically quote-marked away (air quotes or typing quotes) to imply that this term has no objective standing, no real value, no reality of Hindu demonization, oppression, colonization, and pain, simply put, to back it up.
And when someone who has felt it, in her life, and continues to feel it every step of the way in her campaign to represent a part of America that believes in her message, used that term to describe the hate and lies thrown at her, all of its truth, her truth, are instantly denied.
The First Rule of the Hinduphobia Club
The first rule of the Hinduphobia Club is… you don’t talk about Hinduphobia. The second rule… you know. (My thanks to Arjun of Hindu Human Rights U.K. for this brilliant comparison)
Look at some of the tweets below in response to Tulsi’s tweets soon after she uttered the word Hinduphobia:
I have seen reactions like these for several years now in response to my writings and my growing conviction that at least in my field of study, which is the media, there is evidence of bias, dishonesty, and good old fashioned racism at the rotten core directed at the people who still swear by the old gods and goddesses despite five centuries of European-Christian colonization and a few more of Islamic imperialism, despite being called, at sword-point and at gun-point, “Kafir” and “Heathen.” Dirty and Swine. Hindoo and Now [ ….]. That blank space has a story. Current academic dogma dictates that Hindus ought not call themselves Hindus. That only Hindu Nationalists insist on that name. That you can talk about being victims of racism only if you call yourself “South Asian” but the moment you say “Hindu,” you turn oppressor instead. Strange. But it’s academia.
The most common things I hear when I talk about Hinduphobia is not too different from the reactions to Tulsi’s use of the word. When I wrote a piece on Yoga and denial for On Faith a few years ago, someone commented that they have never seen any such denial where they live. To this day, the impression is “but Hindus have no problems” (this was said to me by a billionaire Hindu entrepreneur and business leader at a literature festival). Or that everyone is doing Yoga, or Gwen Stefani wears a bindi, or some other celeb put an Om tattoo on their buttocks, so …. What Hinduphobia?
Yoga Inc. isn’t Yoga-Ind.
Let’s get this one out of the way. People playing dress up, or bend down, isn’t quite admiration for your source if the relationship lacks reciprocity, economic, or even cultural. In other words, does the culture you “borrow” from to get some muscles and money prosper in any way? Or does your borrowing help make civic understanding and empathy for this culture more widespread in yours? Or are you just denying how this culture, the people in this culture, see themselves and the world, in all that you do?
So, just to clarify: lots of “Namaste Bitches” and billions of dollars going around within the first world while actively denying, denigrating, or mocking the bodies, minds and lives of the people you got it from does not mean there is no Hinduphobia. It’s just another face of it.
Hindu Nationalism Outside the Quotes: Fact or Normalization?
Now, that other phrase, Hindu Nationalism. Narendra Modi is called that. Tulsi Gabbard is now called an enabler of that. This term does not require intellectual work to go into convincing others of its validity. That persuasive work has already been done. In academia, in media, perhaps in schools, even. In a cruelly globalized world, where a New Zealand and a Sri Lanka race against each other (not the countries, but the ideologies and forces behind each of these tragedies I mean) in a macabre duet of blood and hell, there is not much work really that needs to go into proposing, circulating, and normalizing the notion of a Hindu dimension to this phenomenon. I often see Hindus, Indians, South Asians, lean forward first and nod authoritatively when asked by well-meaning non-South Asians if there is a “Hindu fundamentalism” thing going on with Hindus similar to the Jihad and Crusade thing with Muslims and Christians. Most recently, I saw that happen with the New York Times analysis after the Sri Lanka bombing which began with a long paragraph on Hindus and Modi. I showed that in a group and asked: so was it the Hindu Nationalists who did this? The brown face in the group nodded.
Propaganda is powerful. It engulfs even the best of us.…
Yesterday, in her interview with Glenn Greenwald, Tulsi, the most intelligent and principled person I can think of in politics today (and certainly the most intelligent and principled Hindu politician I can think of), nodded to the normalized, un-quote-marked, evocation of “Hindu Nationalism” too.
Greenwald quoted, interestingly enough, the same New York Times article (images above) that slyly decided to “analyze” what in truth was the rich Jihadi bomb blasts against Christians in Sri Lanka on Easter Day into some sort of pan-Asian phenomenon of generic intolerance starting with Hindus and Modi. He led into this point with an accurate summary of how the academic-media-military-industrial- and even some of the progressive anti-military-industrial crowd thinks of Tulsi and her “ties” to “Hindu Nationalists” (I think I will continue to use the quote marks because I dissent against the normalized use of these words). You criticized Wahabism, the argument went, but why not “Hindu Nationalism” (“exclusionary ideologies” to use his exact words)?
I do not know if Tulsi believes that equivalence is true or she knows better (I am sure it’s the latter), but in any case, she did not get into the finer points there. She said what some of her supporters have been saying (and her supporters of course, have spotted the obvious hypocricies in the media scare over this point too — no one tarnishes other U.S. leaders for meeting Modi, as if it’s a crime, but only the Hindu American candidate). She said her meeting was part of a general outreach to India given growing US-India ties. She said she met other politicians too.
Then, Glen asked a very lucid question about where Tulsi stood in relation to foreign “oppressive leaders.” Did she believe in the Obama style of engaging with them even though one did not quite like them? Or the Trump style of actually admiring them? To his credit, he even acknowledged that there were perhaps more positions than this and she belonged to none of them.
Tulsi’s response, in my view, was slightly disappointing, but maybe not surprising. Or, the only surprise to me was that this was the first slightly disappointing thing she has said at least as far as I have been following her in this campaign. She has stood up for Hindus when no one in public office ever did, calling out CNN’s bigotry (“as if touring a zoo” is how she rightly described Reza Aslan’s attitude), speaking up for Hindu children facing lies and smears in their history textbooks, and she stood up for Hindus (and America too) most of all when she named Hinduphobia as a form of bigotry on national television.
Yet, caught in this uncomfortable, yet now so common predicament of dealing the with albatross of the “Hindu Nationalists” that land on the word “Hindu” inevitably, she retreated. She did not pause to question the characterization of the “oppressive leader” here at all. Then, Greenwald asked the question for which the albatross stifled the sharpest truth-sayer of our time: “Do you believe the government of India persecutes Muslims and other minorities?”
As a friend of India, as a friend of Indians in America, and as a friend of Truth against the whole Military-Militainment-Mendacity Machine, this was the moment I had hoped Tulsi would utter the words that the world needed to hear after months of relentless propaganda about the Indian elections in the US media. But the word “No” was not what she said, nor even a more qualified “No, but…”
What she did say is not morally questionable, that she disagrees with things that are happening in the ruling party in India. But what exactly are these things? Are there specific policies or events she had in mind which merit such a strong characterization of Modi as a persecutor of Muslims and minorities? Or, is it what American readers are being told by the New York Times and Netflix and NPR? Or Time and The Economist, with their classic Regime-Change-Playbook demonization imagery?
So is Tulsi asking her supporters to believe these virtuoso demonization performances from the same war machine regime change media that has systemically silenced her (and I doubt someone smart as her is doing that?)
Or, is she saying that even if this is not true, the rest of the stories are true; that hordes of Hindus with red markings on their brows and cow-idols raised up on their shoulders Charlton Heston movie-style are going around India forcing non-Hindus to become vegetarians or die?
I know that there have been real acts of violence in India, and I apologize for the sharpness of that image and that question. But I have to ask us, Tulsi, Tulsi’s supporters, and critics most of all, is all of this that you have read about violence in Modi’s India true?
The question is not about whether these incidents occurred. That is not in question. What we have to ask ourselves is simply whether these words and images we see filtered through to us by big media are the only events that we should look at in order to recognize what is happening in India. Or are they things that the media have not told you about, the same way they are simply not telling American voters about this phenomenon called Tulsi Gabbard?
US Media Coverage of Indian Elections
Here are the headlines from NPR and New York Times reports on the Indian elections from April (this includes all the articles in that period except those on the logistics of elections and administrative issues):
Nearly 27 Years After Hindu Mob Destroyed a Mosque, the Scars in India Remain Deep
India is Changing Some Cities’ Names, and Muslims Fear Their Heritage is Being Erased
Hindu Nationalism, The Growing Trend in India
The Remarkable Comeback of Rahul Gandhi
Modi’s Campaign of Fear and Prejudice
Under Modi, A Hindu Nationalist Surge has Further Divided India
-The New York Times
It might be fair to say that there isn’t much like another point of view being presented in these forums. Forget about which one you might agree with, but just the fact that the New York Times has not published anything close to a questioning of the Modi as Hindu Nationalist and source of prejudice assumption. Anyone who is questioning why Tulsi is hushed up by media should also wonder if the same isn’t happening to their coverage of Indian politics.
This is not to advocate for blind support for Prime Minister Modi and his party. I am too weary and wary about going there, honestly. Yet, as critical consumers of media should we not ask ourselves on what basis this portrayal of Modi as a danger is happening? Was there really an outbreak of violent persecution under his watch since 2014?
The Source of the Hindu Violence Rising Narrative
Look at the following examples of US media coverage of mob violence by Hindus against Muslims and other minorities in India.
Look closely now, and notice one thing here. Both of these seemingly multiple stories (and there have been many stories about this) are actually based on just one source, and just one study. Here’s the close-up of the source from Netflix:
And what did this organization “IndiaSpend” study to make its claims about growing Hindu violence? Reports in newspapers, and not just newspapers, but English-language newspapers. India has one billion people, most of whom speak languages other than English. The English-language world of the upper and urban middle classes is a tiny island. And the English-language media with its focus on shopping and Bollywood and Page 3 parties barely even looks at the 99% beyond. In thousands of local and regional language dailies, we find records of what is happening in India’s villages, far from the attention of the metropolitan newspapers.
Swati Goel Sharma, a data journalist, has investigated the claims made in this study with field visits to scenes of the actual violence between Hindus and Muslims supposedly over cows. What she has found presents a far more complex picture than the simplistic, Bad Hindu Bad Cow narrative being conjured up in this incredibly omniscient-sounding India Spend report. Muslim crimes against Hindus were simply ignored, or not counted as hate crimes. Conversely, Hindu crimes against Muslims for non-religious reasons were counted as hate-crimes.
Here is a sample from her critique below. A far more complex picture, involving perpetrators and victims from different communities, and not always about cows or religion, emerges. Yet, we find many events ignored (the red column) in the report on which much media stories are based.
The truth is that the violence over cows in India has a far more relevant economic dimension rather than the propaganda that has been conjured up over it. Cows are stolen regularly, and smuggled off to slaughterhouses to sustain that dubious record India now has in this Green New Deal Hoping age of being the world’s biggest exporter of beef. Animal rights workers and Hindu priests hoping to defend cows from cattle smugglers have been attacked and even killed. In a small temple in a village in Uttar Pradesh, two Hindu priests were tied to their cots and stabbed to death (one of them had his tongue ripped out), for having called the police to protect their cattle from theft. Sometimes, the cow “worshippers” are not the law breakers at all.
Hinduphobia vs. A New Hope for a War-Free America
The bigger issue though as far as American supporters of Tulsi Gabbard are concerned is very simple. You do need to pay attention to Hinduphobia because that is perhaps the strongest thing standing at this moment between the future of your country (and a more peaceful war-free world) and more wars, corporate greed, and media deceptions. For that you do have to figure out what Hindus have been facing when they see themselves in Western media (and increasingly in Indian media too as it becomes foreign-owned and elite-driven), and see that Hinduphobia is no different from anti-semitism, racism, and in the United States, outright xenophobia.
In the early 1900s, the small number of Indian immigrants in the US were targeted by the xenophobes of the time, and like the “Yellow Peril,” there were hateful campaigns against Hindus, Sikhs and South Asian Muslims.
And despite the occasional sympathy for the “Hindu wise man” like Gandhi and the Indian freedom movement, the full might of media and the colonial propaganda machine is what we (Indians, South Asians, Hindus) have been downwind of for a century now. In 1927, one book created the template for virtually every Hinduphobic trope and image you have seen in news media, movies and pop culture for a century now: Katherine Mayo’s Mother India.
A notorious anti-immigration advocate, Mayo colluded with the colonial British government and travelled to India to write a sensational, lurid, and yet cunningly persuasive eugenicist argument for the elimination of Hinduism. She scared American readers about how easily disease could come from India, and then painted vivid images of filth, smell, and death amidst ugly and scary Hindu idols (an old missionary trope, now elevated into pseudo health journalism). She spoke of the genetic rot that afflicted Hindus and made them inferior to Muslims and Protestant Whites. And of course, she called for the continuation of British colonialism to protect the “untouchable” castes from the Brahmins (another missionary trope which new research from Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee suggests we need to re-examine: much of the discourse on caste in India is premised on, believe it or not, nineteenth century European Protestant beliefs about Jews and Catholics projected onto their stories of India, “caricatures of Rabbis in brown chalk,” orientalism at its worst; that’s why you see Indian history the way it is in your school books: the Brahmins are Catholics and the Buddha is Martin Luther).
Mother India was not a marginal view. The historian Andrew Rotter points out that surveys decades later showed Hollywood producers, politicians, journalists all pointing to this book as the source of their ideas about India. Two decades later, the genre got revived in pop culture with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (remember Mula Ram’s manifesto about his cult killing Christians, Muslims and Jews? Sound a bit like today’s media coverage of Modi perhaps?) The new millennium got off to a great start then with Slumdog Millionaire, which erases all signs of Hinduism in India (go look again, no temple spires, no gods on the walls, nothing), except for mobs and killers and child-blinders who all somehow got Hindu gods implicated in their evil crimes.
Thanks to Tulsi’s outspoken naming of Hinduphobia for what it is (and don’t forget all those false gods and devils posters that came at her in Hawaaii), the quote marks are nearly off now. As far as “Hindu Nationalism,” is concerned, there is a need to study the academic-media world’s normalization of that term carefully too. While Modi and Tulsi are quite different in many ways, they are both caught up in the same web of words and deceptions projected by essentially status quo powers in both countries. Curiously, since Modi cannot be hit on corruption, nor Tulsi on incompetence or lack of integrity, their opponents seem to have settled on milking the toxic centuries-old gas cloud of Hinduphobia in the media to get at them.
Tulsi has at least started the conversation by naming the prejudice in the room. Modi has mostly failed to do so, preferring to perform as a “Hindu while campaigning” and “constitutional secular nationalist while governing” (which to his critics should actually be at least half a good thing). He has denied the label “Hindu Nationalist” and instead called himself a “Hindu AND Nationalist,” perhaps hoping that people will not see a problem in the word “nationalist” as long as it is not diluted by privileging one group of citizens over another.
Yet, like many members of the small-town, non-Anglophone, lower caste Hindu world he and the RSS come from, he has perhaps failed to understand the world of postmodern identity politics and name-games the first world and the urban elites of India live in. He and his followers call themselves “Nationalists” because really in a third world country born out of Gandhian anti-colonial nationalism, why should there be a problem with nationalism, except for those that his supporters have now of course labelled “anti-nationals.” Some of his followers of course also call themselves Hindu Nationalists and “RW” (Right Wing) copying the internet loudmouths of the West, though most of what Modi has done in government would make him a social liberal rather than an ethno-right-winger (incidentally, most of the “Hindu Nationalist” claims made by media fail to offer any policies as evidence — the prohibition on cow slaughter, for example, is a policy that has already existed in India for decades before Modi even came to power).
“Hindu Nationalism”: The Need for a Sober, Non-Hinduphobic Critique
None of this is surprising to scholars who have actually studied the RSS and “Hindu Nationalism” in depth. There are several books on the subject. Some of them like those Koenraad Elst’s book Decolonizing the Hindu Mind exposes the selective ways in which a misleading depiction of what in any other context might have been seen as indigenous anti-colonial social movement, came to be normalized in academia as a fascist, supremacist, religious fundamentalist, phenomenon. While the struggle against Hinduphobia goes far beyond organizations like the RSS, the fact that Hinduphobic media and academic discourses frequently reduce debates on Hindu decolonization to one political formation, and one characterization of that formation, has made the picture far more confusing than it really is.
It is not too difficult for an open-minded person, particularly of a progressive, anti-colonial disposition, to think through the ways in which Hinduphobia and Hindu Nationalism have been set up in mainstream media and orthodox academia.
Just start by breaking up the words in Hindu Nationalism. Does “Hindu” seem like a bad word in itself? Probably not (except in the Ivory Tower perhaps). And “Nationalism” ? It depends, doesn’t it.
Think of “Black Nationalism.” Good thing or bad thing?
Think of “White Nationalism.” Good thing or bad thing?
The answer to this depends essentially on whether a “nationalism” is that of a privileged, dominant group feeling threatened by a minority or the other way around. We do not see Black Nationalism, or those who celebrate a Queer Nation, or Brown Nation, as oppressive or bad. We see these as genuine progressive aspirations from a people who have been downtrodden for centuries by stronger forces and groups. Now think of “Hindu Nationalism” again. Think of a Hindu. Is she or he Black or White? Is “Hindu” typically an identity borne by a person of color or a privileged racial group?
Why then is “Hindu Nationalism” often presented as the Indian equivalent of White Nationalism? Is it just the fact that Hindus are a majority in India, and do not behave the way White Americans today are morally expected to behave in relation to African Americans (I mention this because many apologists for Hinduphobia wonder aloud about when Hindus will be like Whites and apologize to Muslims for their African-American-like minorityhood, and serious journals like Foreign Policy and others have argued that there is much in common between the condition of Muslims in India and African Americans)? The obvious but increasingly marginalized context here of course is that African American did not rule over White America ever while Muslim rulers like the Mughals ruled over much of India for several centuries.There is a history to Hindu-Muslim relations quite different from Black and White relations in the U.S. So the attempt to present Hindus as an ahistorical privileged group this sort of trope seems highly contrived and driven by propaganda rather than academic integrity (also read my review essay, Hinduism and its Culture Wars, where I first laid out what was wrong with the normative assumptions of the seemingly secular position on India today).
Another common trope about “Hindu Nationalism” as an exclusionary project is the charge that Modi and the RSS follow a book called Bunch of Thoughts written by an earlier leader of the RSS which asserted that India should be Hindu-first and that Hitler was a role model for national restoration. You might have seen Hasan Minhaj’s funny take on this (‘Man, Carol left me, let me pen a bunch of thoughts on Medium…’). What Minhaj, and dozens of news articles that quote this supposed Modi-Hitler link book never mention, is the simple fact that this book was written more than half a century ago, and was long since superceded by another, much more inclusive manifesto named Integral Humanism, in 1965. As Koenraad Elst points out, it’s much harder to demonize a group that swears by “Humanism” than one that seems to have some Hitler-admiration angle, however dated and tangential.
And the “Hindu Nationalism — Hitler” allegation unfortunately hasn’t even stopped with merely criticizing political or social volunteer groups like the BJP or RSS as Minhaj gently did. There is a pervasive Hinduphobic discourse among academics and activists about how even the spiritual, cultural, philosophical world of Hinduism is akin to Nazism. Hindu gods and goddesses who represent beauty and wisdom and love to us are defaced and insulted routinely by activists who seek to demonize them, much as the old colonizers did five centuries ago to indigenous religions and peoples all over the world.
In one especially notorious incident, a famous critic of Prime Minister Modi tweeted a morphed picture showing the Hindu Goddess Kali in the midst of an Islamist extremist execution.
The point maybe that there is some generic “religious extremism” problem in the world. But then do you make that point by appropriating a very mainstream and motherly goddess figure that does not even belong to the situation you are commenting on? Is it not a deliberate attempt to create a false equivalence between two very different worlds? (The Indian media too has been practicing this sort of dishonesty, frequently using graphic and demonized images of Hindu religious figures in crime stories where one can easily see from the report that the culprits were NOT Hindus).
And the loosest end in the “Hindu Nationalism” discourse is something Hindus have been calling out now regularly in the media — the demonization of something quite ordinarily Hindu as somehow the “extreme” or “nationalist” abomination. The Sari, in this case:
Conclusion: Anti-Hinduphobia for American Progressives
As a student of media, I believe that Hinduphobia is a valid, legitimate phenomenon that must be objectively understood, named, and resisted. It will take a lot of work to do this, not only because there are bigger political economic interests that are invested in maintaining it in order to delegitimize a brilliant challenger, but also because there is a lot of baggage that comes in inevitably from across national borders given the globalized world we live in.
It seems increasingly clear that there is a lot of work that has to be caught up on in challenging the colonial-era relics of hate that still infest the representation of Hinduism today, whether it is “just” Hinduism, or the even more tricky subject of “Hindu Nationalism.” It will take understanding the complexities of Indian history and politics, and those of the troubling role of religious bigotry in dominant discourses in addition to the more obvious issue of racism (just recall the irony of Tulsi being criticized for not talking about “women of color” on that note —Because Hinduphobia has defined Hindu as White, that is all!)
For starters, if you are puzzled by the complete breakdown in normal expectations about privilege and accountability around grounds of gender, race, and religion in American public discourse as far as Tulsi is concerned, you should understand one historical fact: the conversation on Hindu identity in America (and in India) today is probably where the dominant view on gender, race, and sexuality was in the 1950s. The churn you see, sometimes good, and sometimes bad, is that of a people throwing off a yoke of falsehood and oppression that has become incredibly more powerful suddenly with all the tools of mass media and propaganda at its disposal. With all the doctors and engineers (and unfortunate occasionally boastful qualities) of the Hindu American community, the truth about where Hindu identity stands in the post civil rights discourse never really got sorted out till now. Hindus are not White, and have not had that privilege, in any context you see. We can and should have our own conversations about privilege where it is appropriate, on lines of class, caste or gender, within, sure; but this must be done accurately, and not in the way that has been done by several opponents of Tulsi Gabbard who have perpetuated, often under the guise of their collaborationist-brown identifications, the craziest lie of our time that a certain Brown is not Colored because it is.. Hindu?
Hinduphobia is crazy.
If there is one thing I have come to admire about Tulsi beyond all her achievements and progressive positions, it is the fact that she is a truth teller. I hope that she and her followers will take this truth telling to the next level, and help shame Hinduphobia out of existence.