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Oppose The Indian Hindu Nationalist Rhetoric Of “Hinduphobia”
"Proponents of 'Hinduphobia' in the diaspora claim to be victims of those who speak out against the violence of the Indian state, Hindutva ideology, and casteism."
Walia, Venkatesh, Lal, Ahmad, Ramana, Murthy
September 27, 2023 | 6 min. read | Opinion
On September 18, Prime Minister Trudeau revealed there is “credible evidence” of India’s involvement in the killing of Canadian Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada. Since then, several news reports have confirmed India’s hand in this assassination, including a Washington Post report detailing evidence of a coordinated attack. For their part, Indian state officials, including opposition members from the Congress Party, which was responsible for the 1984 Sikh Genocide in India, have denied the allegations while doubling down on their dehumanizing smear campaign of “Sikh and Khalistani terrorism.”
This is part of a dangerous trend of Indian interference and surveillance in Canada underway for decades, but that is escalating under India’s current ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The BJP subscribes to a Hindu supremacist or Hindutva ideology, which is a right-wing Hindu Nationalist ideology promoting an exclusionary vision of India as a Hindu Rashtra (homeland). Prime Minister Modi is a life-long member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Singh (RSS), a sprawling Hindutva network whose primary goal is to establish a Hindu Rashtra inspired partly by Nazism and Italy’s fascists.
A recent report titled “The RSS Network in Canada” by the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and the World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO) details how the Hindutva movement has managed to make significant inroads in Canada. One of the aims of these Hindutva networks in Canada is to shut down justifiable criticism of Indian state policies and Hindutva forces. For example, Hindutva networks have targeted over a dozen academics in Canada with death threats for organising conferences on Hindu Nationalism. Dalit and caste-oppressed advocates in Canada have similarly faced death threats and harassment.
Legislating “Hinduphobia” in Canadian law
As one step in this process, supporters of Hindutva in Canada are seeking to introduce and legislate “Hinduphobia” in Canada’s human rights laws. There is currently an active petition e-4507 “to recognize Hinduphobia as a term in the glossary of terms in the Human Rights Code to describe anti-Hindu prejudice and discrimination.”
If successful, this petition will embolden Hindu nationalists by fending off criticism of India’s government and its genocide against Muslims, violence against minority communities, the colonial occupation of Kashmir, and caste violence.
While appropriating the language of anti-racism, “Hinduphobia” relies on a shallow understanding of multiculturalism to present a “false notion that Hindus have faced systematic oppression throughout history and in present times.”
The discourse of perpetual victimhood of Hindus has been an essential pillar of Hindutva ideology for the past century, used to cast Christians and particularly Muslims as “foreign invaders” deserving of second-class citizenship, ethnic cleansing, and genocide.
The “Hinduphobia” campaign also uses Hindu supremacist appropriation of Indigeneity and the erasure of casteism to perpetuate myths of an undivided Hindu India.
This rhetoric has been exported to the diaspora as a weapon against movements challenging Hindu supremacy. Proponents of “Hinduphobia” in the diaspora claim to be victims of those who speak out against the violence of the Indian state, Hindutva ideology, and casteism.
Caste is a hierarchical and dehumanizing social system across countries and religions in South Asia rooted in Hindu law and brahminical practices. This abhorrent and violent system is based on inherited status and maintained through marriage, labour practices, and social norms. An extensive report in the US by Equality Labs and an unprecedented ruling by the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal in Canada detail how caste discrimination operates in the diaspora.
Advocacy against casteism is a thorn for Hindutva groups and the Indian government as it unmasks and challenges the core brahminical precepts in Hindu supremacy. In the UK, the rise in discourse on “Hinduphobia” is directly linked to advocacy to add caste to the UK Equality legislation.
Similarly, in Canada and the US, “Hinduphobia” has reared its head most virulently in response to mounting public condemnation of caste. Thanks to the efforts of Dalit and caste oppressed activists in North America, the city of Brampton in Ontario, city of Burnaby in British Columbia, Toronto District School Board, city of Seattle in Washington, and California legislature all voted to recognize caste as a category of discrimination.
Earlier in September, the South Asian Dalit and Adivasi Network wrote a detailed letter to all MPs across Canada urging them to reject any attempts to recognize “Hinduphobia,” which has already been used “to persecute, hound, delegitimise and silence the fight against casteism and the oppression of minorities in India.” The letter further explains that such a move “will have a disastrous impact on the safety of religious minorities, caste-oppressed communities and human rights defenders in Canada, India and beyond.”
“Hinduphobia” is a dog whistle to delegitimize human rights advocacy
Fifty bullets were fired at Hardeep Singh Nijjar in front of a Gurudwara, a Sikh place of worship. At a juncture when all people, especially of Indian origin, should be condemning the Indian government, Canadian MP Chandra Arya promptly raised claims of “painful” “Hinduphobia” to divert attention and engage in a politics of fear-mongering. In the same breath, Arya smeared the legitimate outrage of Sikhs as a “celebration of terrorism” while staying silent on actual Indian state violence. It is telling that for Arya, Indians who allegedly might be targeted for the actions of the Indian state could only be Hindus. Through such divisive discourse, he also ignores the thousands of Indian nationals of all backgrounds studying and working in Canada with precarious immigration status whose vulnerabilities are amplified, like those in the Naujawan Support Network. And just last year, Arya raised the saffron flag associated with Hindutva on Parliament Hill for Hindu Heritage Month.
People of Indian origin in North America do face racist and xenophobic abuse that must be condemned. However, this discrimination is often based on racialization as immigrants, not based on religious beliefs.
Where it is based on religious beliefs, South Asians who are Muslim or Sikh are most likely to face discrimination. More Muslims have been killed in targeted hate attacks in Canada than any other G-7 country in the past five years because of pervasive, state-backed, and socially-sanctioned global Islamophobia.
“Hinduphobia” is a reverse-racism-type narrative, deployed to delegitimise the fight against casteism and the oppression of persecuted communities in/by the Indian state by falsely framing India and Hindutva as the victims. This serves to vilify human rights advocates, while creating confusion amongst the broader public about being labeled as “Hinduphobic” if they speak out for human rights. This dog-whistle campaign does not serve racial justice, it actually weakens it by maintaining Hindu Nationalism and caste supremacy.
For example, when the NCCM and WSO report was published, the Canadian branch of the RSS dismissed it by declaring it was “intended to provoke anti-Hindu sentiments and further give rise to growing Hinduphobia in Canada.”
Human rights protections and anti-discrimination laws are meant to eliminate systemic power imbalances. But the narrative of “Hinduphobia” does the opposite; it grants even more power to those with power and maintains oppression. It is part of a hegemonic and supremacist power play — a smoke screen that must be lifted. Indian nationalists, as well as caste and Hindu supremacists, falsely portray themselves as victims of “Hinduphobia” to distract attention from and outcry about the horrific atrocities against Dalits and caste-oppressed people, Adivasis, Muslims, Kashmiris, Sikhs, and Christians.
It is evident that India’s far-right Hindu nationalist government can go as far as committing transnational assassination to suppress dissent. Political leaders in Canada have vowed to stand up to the Indian government in their investigation into the murder of Nijjar. If they are truly concerned about justice and accountability, our political leaders must also staunchly stand against the chilling effect of “Hinduphobia.”
Harsha Walia is a Punjabi Sikh author on migrant justice and anti-racism, and works in an organization to end gender-based violence in BC.
Vasanthi Venkatesh is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Law, University of Windsor and a member of Justice for Migrant Workers.
Anita Lal is co-founder of Poetic Justice Foundation in the South Asian community. Her recent work focuses on creating space for anti-caste and Dalit narratives, like hers, inspired by Dr. Ambedkar’s words: Educate. Agitate. Organize.
Fahad Ahmad is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminology, Toronto Metropolitan University.
M. V. Ramana is Professor and Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia.
Srinivas Murthy is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Medicine, University of British Columbia.
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