Swami Vigyanand, an IIT grad, who had called on Hindutva’s foot-soldiers to carry a trishul and defend Hinduism is organising the Chicago event.
The 2018 World Hindu Congress takes place in Chicago this week from 7-9 September. Many Americans might consider this to be an event of religious pluralism and civic engagement. They would be wrong.
The chief organiser of the event, Swami Vigyanand—an IIT Kharagpur graduate—calls on Hindutva’s foot-soldiers to carry the trishul (a three-pronged spear) as a way to send a message about the need to weaponise and defend Hinduism. This three-day convention proposes to serve as a “platform to address critical issues impacting Hindus worldwide, including human rights, discrimination, and cultural assaults”.
The irony is staggering.
We live in a United States where White supremacists—embodying a growing far-Right movement—are attempting to uproot the very foundations of democracy, citizenship, and the Constitution. Similar forces are at play in India today, where Hindu supremacists have resuscitated a powerful Hindu far-Right over the past three decades.
The US Right-wing draws its energy from resentment against the most marginalised populations of race, class, and religion—African Americans in inner cities, Latinx migrants who work in the fields and households, and Muslim communities from anywhere. And Hindu supremacists are fueled by a contempt for those oppressed through caste, religion and ethnicity, and target Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, Christians who are at the core of the resistance against Hindu supremacy.
By recasting India’s origin story as that of an exclusively Hindu nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the BJP, RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal have stoked and promoted religious conflict.
Their American satellites—the Vishwa Hindu Parishad America, the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), the Dharma Civilization Foundation (DCF) and the Hindu American Foundation (HAF)— organise, participate, and support the World Hindu Congress.
The event in the US is taking place while Dalits and Muslims have been lynched, raped, and burnt alive for entering temples, practicing their faith, or buying beef in India—and have been publicly lauded for it by members of these groups.
Speakers at the World Hindu Congress include RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and ideologue Rajiv Malhotra. Mohan Rao Bhagwat had issued an eerie warning earlier that he could raise a militia in three days, had assured gau rakshaks (cow vigilantes) that they need not heed the Indian Supreme Court, telling women they should stay home and be housewives, and claiming that rape happens only in cities, not in rural India, because of Western culture’s corrupting influence.
Rajiv Malhotra is a US-resident Hindutva ideologue who continuously disparages American congressional institutions like the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, claiming that it exists to protect “the freedom of Christian evangelists to convert internationally”. More recently, he urged his followers to direct disaster relief only to Hindus in the flood-devastated state of Kerala.
In this context, the World Hindu Congress is not an innocuous gathering of the faithful. Its organisers, speakers, and participants are part of a larger constellation of groups and individuals who wish to build a Hindu nation, by any means necessary. Though cloaking themselves in anticolonial rhetoric, their inglorious history includes absenting themselves from the South Asian freedom struggle against British colonialism, and the assassination of Gandhi. They fear that scriptural Hinduism is under threat from modernity, and are rattled by the demand for justice from Dalits, Muslims and women.
Most Indians argue that Hindus, often at the receiving end of bigotry and ignorance in the diaspora, would do better if they embrace diversity and avoid re-creating hierarchies of race and religion.
Revulsion at White supremacy has been widespread around the world. But Hindu supremacy is less well-known and harder to understand for the non-expert. It is particularly alarming to find gatherings like the World Hindu Congress being promoted as a cultural space. From a well-meaning multicultural perspective, it appears as a faith-based meeting, rather than as a deeply strategic, partisan political effort to enable Right-wing resurgence and entrenchment.
Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, initially honoured to be invited, withdrew from the World Hindu Congress “when it became apparent that the event was going to be a partisan political event”. South Asian American groups have hailed this as a victory for progressives, and called for other US politicians to follow suit and condemn the violence being done in the name of religion.
We urgently need fearless conversations and translations across these two contexts of White and Hindu supremacy that are led by progressive and plural voices. Cornel West recently emphasised “the parallels between the struggles of Black Americans and those of South Asians on the lowest rungs of the caste system”. Angela Davis traces the “inter-connection between the lives of African Americans in the US and the Dalits in India”.
If India reinstates the most oppressive, reactionary, misogynistic, and elitist parts of its complex history, it will be a loss for the world. The subcontinent’s complex histories include emancipatory, egalitarian, rational and progressive elements worth retrieving and nurturing. Hindutva forces would like to homogenise, masculinise, and militarise this complicated, diverse nation.
Progressive communities across the United States and India share similar hopes for the future. An India transformed by the voices of Dalits and the poor can be a nation that values its people in all their varied identities. A progressive Indian vision, variously articulated by social activists, is worth supporting. Their vision is a multi-ethnic nation that has always drawn from the best in the world, not one that retreats into an insular notion of authenticity. Their vision is an anti-hierarchical society, not one ordered by caste and race prejudice. Their vision is a secular, diverse society which respects atheism as well as cultural and religious expression, science and experimentation, labour rights, and the needs of the underprivileged.
Elected representatives in the US who distance themselves from White supremacists must not support the World Hindu Congress either.
Rohit Chopra is Associate Professor of Communication at Santa Clara University, and author of the forthcoming book titled Hindu Nationalism and New Media. He is the founder of @IndiaExplained Twitter account and co-founder of the IndiaExplained podcast.
Maia Ramnath is the author of the book titled Decolonizing Anarchism: An Antiauthoritarian History of India’s Liberation Struggle (2012). She is an organiser with the South Asia Solidarity Initiative and adjunct professor of history at Fordham University.