Sukhmeet Grewal: The Sikh Australian Fight Against Hindutva Is Unlike Anywhere Else

It comes as no surprise that Hindu nationalists are emboldened to act the way they do in Australia considering their intertwined relationships in Australian government and society

Sukhmeet Grewal
March 29, 2021 | 6 min. read

The ongoing Farmers’ Protest has unified and reinvigorated the Punjabi diaspora in new ways. Punjabi communities across the globe are showing support to the farmers sangarsh (struggle) through rallies, protests, and sit-ins. The unique unity of Punjabi people worldwide at this moment cannot be understated.

However, unlike other countries, where opposition to the farmers’ movements comes from smaller minorities of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters on the fringes of the Indian diaspora, the same cannot be said for Australia. 

Over the past few weeks, tensions have flared between Australia’s Punjabi/Sikh community and the far-right Hindu nationalist community, as each finds itself on opposing sides of the Farmers’ Protest.

Hindu nationalists supporting the BJP deem any attack on the Modi government’s laws an attack on India itself and have violently retaliated to any protests in solidarity with Indian farmers, an act they perceive as ‘anti-national’. 

The rising tensions became catalysts for two attacks on the Sikh community in Sydney. Firstly, An Indian flag (tiranga) rally was organised by Hindu nationalists that planned to drive past Sydney’s Parklea Gurdwara to incite and antagonise the sangat (congregation). 

Then, there was the incident in Sydney’s Harris Park, in which four Sikh men were attacked and their car set upon with weapons, causing thousands of dollars in damages. Thankfully, the two men escaped without major injury.  David Shoebridge, an MP from New South Wales and social justice activist, continuously raised the issue of Hindu far-right extremism in Sydney at a Budgets Estimate meeting. 

“The assailants identified the reason they were smashing was because of the occupants being from the Sikh community, and it came from a far-right extremist political position,” he said. “...[Sometimes] being the champion of harmony in the community involves naming and calling out extremist elements that are tearing down that harmony in the community,...General platitudes may not be the best response if the violence and the aggression is coming from a known source.”

The question arises: Why do Hindu Nationalists feel emboldened to attack and target the Sikh population in Australia?

The Sikh community in Australia is newer than in other countries. 

Let’s compare Australia’s Sikh community with Canada’s. Both countries were formed within 40 years of one another, are commonwealth nations, are culturally similar, and are widely considered as ‘hubs’ for the Punjabi diaspora worldwide. As such, whereas Sikh immigration into Canada began over 100 years ago, the vast majority of Sikh immigrants in Australia arrived in the 1980s during the height of the Sikh Genocide. Furthermore, Canada’s more than 465,000 Sikhs comprise over 1.4% of the total population while in Australia, the Sikh population of just over 125,000 is a mere .54% of the population.

Perhaps the most significant factor is the relative power difference between the Hindu nationalist and Sikh communities. 

The Sikh community faces the immediate challenge of establishing its own identity within the overarching Indian diaspora where high-caste Hindus fight to make their identity the only valid one. Sikhs face the challenge of educating a country about who they are. That it is called a Gurdwara not a “Sikh Temple”, that Sikhi cannot just be whittled down to mean those who wear turbans and distribute free food. Rather, it is a  religion and people that once ruled one of the most prosperous regions in the world,  a religion with a deep history of fighting for equality and against injustice.

Hindu nationalists face no such challenge. 

In fact, their views are taught in over 80 New South Wales public schools. The issue is not that Hinduism is being taught - education on religious traditions is important in a diverse community - but rather it is important to note who is providing the curriculum for what is being taught.

Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), a right-wing Hindu organisation, was founded by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1964 as a means of mobilising the Hindu community in India and across the globe. VHP is the authorised source for providing scripture in NSW public schools, a deed they have received up to $100,000 in funding for.

The RSS and the VHP, are both organisations consumed with the pursuit of Hindu supremacy and nationalism, often referred to as Hindutva, at the misfortune of minorities. In fact, their methods involve the vilification and violent oppression of ethnic and religious minorities for the pursuit of a completely Hindu nation

As these organisations are given free rein to force their ideas of Hindu supremacy among the vulnerable and minority populations around them, India’s supposed secularity must also be called into question. The propagation of these ideals, in a similar fashion to the colonisers and imperialist regimes of past and present, only furthers India’s shift to an autocratic nation.

How a militant religious organisation, like the VHP, which was founded by the architects of Hindutva, the RSS, is able to find its way into government schools is staggering. 

Perhaps even more unbelievable is the fact that currently, the Australian branch of the RSS, the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), is registered as a not-for-profit within Australia and often runs children’s/youth camps similar to those run by the RSS back in India. The very same camps that promote and indoctrinate their attendees in the ideals of Hindu supremacy, an ideology that was the primary motive behind the 2002 Gujarat Riots.

It is astounding, therefore, how an organisation that aligns itself with the violent rhetoric pushed by the RSS, as evidenced by a link to the RSS page on the HSS website, is allowed to operate in Australia. 

Hindu Nationalists have also utilised social media to further their hateful ideology. Deepak Joshi, also of The Humanism Project,  identified how Facebook and Whatsapp groups have been hijacked by “extreme pro-BJP elements”  and turned into “hate factories” that aim to spread their message of division.

It comes as no surprise then that Hindu nationalists are emboldened to act the way they do in Australia considering their intertwined relationships in Australian government and society. 

Unfortunately, governments within Australia, whether they be state or federal, liberal or labour, are unlikely to push back on this growing Hindu nationalism on its shores due to the intimate trade/economic relationship that exists with India. 

So intricate is this relationship is that the attacks in Harris Park have not been recognised as the hate crimes they are, rather it is simply seen as boiling tensions between two communities. 

Federally, India remains the Australian Liberal government’s strongest ally in the Asia region, and an ongoing trade war with China means such a relationship is now more important than ever. 

On a state level, the Victorian labour government’s “India Strategy” relies heavily on a prosperous long-term relationship. And with over AU$500 million on the table in exports, the Victorian government is unlikely to disrupt this relationship.

Hindu nationalism in Australia has gone unchecked and will likely continue to go unchecked as governments remain fearful of upsetting what is their strongest ally in Asia. Such a situation means the Australian governments are unlikely to comment or take any official stance on the ongoing Farmers’ Protests and the numerous human rights violations the Indian BJP government continues to commit.

Although individual MPs, like Shoebridge, make their voices heard, it will invariably fall on deaf Australian ears. In fact, Shoebridge’s comments led to a letter put out by the Hindu Council of Australia, with over 60 Hindu organisations from across Australia signing on,  calling out what they believed to be ‘Hindu-phobia’. 

“All such attacks on members of the Australian Hindu community are propagating Hindu-phobia and creating a damaging perception of our community. We refute these fake narratives,” it says. 

If MP’s correctly identifying and calling out far-right extremist groups for violence is considered ‘Hindu-phobic’, then it is clear that any significant steps toward disentangling Hindu Nationaist groups from Australian society will be a long and arduous process.

It is of the utmost importance that the powerbrokers in society are questioned on how this violent rhetoric has found its way onto our shores. How is it that the violence perpetrated by Hindu Nationalists in India is being mirrored here in Australia? How is it that the government, let alone banning or restricting hateful organisations like the RSS and its affiliates, has allowed them to enter our public schools?  

The Australian Punjabi/Sikh community needs to ask these questions. And where answers fail, steps need to be taken toward genuine unity, solidarity, and organizing, so that the diaspora may be able to successfully counter the hateful rhetoric of Hindu Nationalists that have infiltrated Australian Society.

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Sukhmeet Grewal hails from Melbourne, Australia, and is currently studying to obtain his Masters in Culture and the Creative Industries. He is also the co-founder of “We Sikh Justice”, a Sikh youth collective based in Melbourne focused on education, advocacy, and sewa. You can find him on Twitter at @Sukhmeet_Grewal.


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