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Thursday, June 1, 2023

A Letter to Worried Hindu American College Students

Winter 2020

Dear Hindu American students and organizations,

How wonderful that Hindu student organizations are on U.S. college campuses. When I was an undergrad in the mid-nineties, they weren’t as prevalent. I wonder how that might have changed my journey, if a sangha could have helped me develop a more nuanced, critical Hindu lens earlier on in life, a lens that the academy still doesn’t offer.

My name is Indu and I am a Hindu American scholar-activist-mom. I’ve spent nearly twenty years in the field of education and I am currently working on my doctorate at Teachers College. My research focuses on the transnational knowledge of second-generation Indian American teachers in NYC. I also teach critical multicultural social studies methods to pre-service teachers as a part of TC’s inclusive education program; the program is dedicated to anti-racist, inclusive pedagogy, acknowledging that teaching is a political act. I graduated from the program right after 9/11. In other words, I spend a lot of time thinking about, writing about, learning, teaching, and researching from anti-racist, anti-colonial theoretical lenses and other critical theories, like transnational literacy.

Recently, I have found myself thinking, reading, researching, and writing about being a progressive Hindu Americanthe impact of colonialism on perceptions of Hindu Dharma, and the 2019 Indian elections. Despite being a “liberal Hindu American” — and one who is committed to naming and disrupting inequity through my work — my viewpoints are not ones espoused by many others who might identify similarly.

I believe that some of this discrepancy can be attributed to media bias, particularly through popular progressive media outlets like The New York Times, NPR, The Guardian, Democracy Now, and The Washington Post. I grew up reading The Times and I agree with their analyses much of the time; but there was a point when some cognitive dissonance began to whisper in my ear about their reporting on Hindu Dharma and Bharat and I could no longer ignore it.

The same goes with NPR. In September, I started a petition regarding NPR’s biased reportage which was signed by over 8,000 people. I followed this with an analysis of the commenters, to gauge if the people who believe NPR is biased are right-wing Hindutva extremists. (Spoiler alert: no.) NPR responded to the petition saying they would review their staff and articles. They still haven’t gotten back to us or taken down any articles that were written by two of its India-based producers who have tweeted brazenly Hinduphobic messages (one has since resigned). This is in stark contrast to how swiftly and decisively they’ve handled bigotry against other communities from their staff.

We saw the impact of this repeated media bias during the House Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing on Human Rights in South Asia. The one-sided media narrative was amplified inside the halls of our government, completely erasing the ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley, silencing the history of how the region went from being Hindu majority to Muslim majority.

In other words, it is not simply that there is one “side” that is committed to justice and the other that is ensconced in feverish religious nationalism when it comes to representing modern day Bharat. This is an incredibly reductionist binary that has purchase only because of false equivalencies that are made with the current state of US politics. These false equivalencies — through ad nauseum repetition — form the foundation that pre-determine how Bharat is read, erasing a much more nuanced story and often overwriting the important one. A prime example of this is the Citizenship Amendment Act, which I wrote about here.

It is disheartening to see over and over again that Hindu Dharma itself is reduced to a problem under Western(ized) eyes. According to this perspective, Hindus must perform a very particular wokeness script or they are deemed Islamophobic. This happens to me — I was recently accused of being a paid RSS stooge because I have a dissenting viewpoint. (Which is laughable. I don’t even know where to begin with that.) As a critical, progressive scholar and citizen, it’s hard for me to understand how this is not indoctrination.

In fact, at the Tom Lantos Human Rights’ Committee Hearing on Jammu and Kashmir, an Indian American professor advised members of the US Congress that all Hindu organizations in the US might have RSS-ties. McCarthyism for Hindus. While I don’t happen to have any formal ties with any Hindu organizations, it’s not because I am suspicious of them. I find this mindset to be deeply worrisome. It should worry everyone, including non-Hindus.

I am writing to you because I am sensitive to the pressure you may be facing on campus as Hindus in the current socio-political climate. My own children are headed to college in a few years, and I am keenly aware of how some academic institutions in the United States endorse anti-Hindu scholarship as critical and radical, excluding any dissenting, indigenous perspectives.

Recently, Countercurrents.org published an article entitled “Hindu Must Show Their Solidarity to Muslims By Converting to Islam” (they have since edited the title to one about “Hindu privilege”). It’s important to note that this platform also features articles by Vijay Prashad, widely considered an authority on Indian American identity. The platform, Prashad, and other “critical scholars” unilaterally portray Hindus and Hindu Dharma in one very specific way, with no real room for counter narratives. Yet, somehow, this dominant narrative succeeds in portraying itself as the critical, uniquely ethical, marginalized one even as it actively silences anyone else. I have experienced the impact of this in my own doctoral journey.

As a result of all of these factors, it has become alarmingly normalized in recent years that, as Hindu Americans, we are often expected to answer to Bharatiya politics. More disturbingly, it is a particular interpretation of Bharatiya politics and Hindu Dharma that is taken as the entire truth. The Hindu Students Council at my own alma mater just made a public statement decrying Modi and the rise of Hindu nationalism. In recent weeks, Hindu student organizations are organizing events to “Stand with Jamia”, including images of an activist who has publicly lauded the actions of historical figures who slaughtered Hindus and destroyed our sacred spaces, as I describe in my CAA article. None of this information is in the Western press.

And then there’s the ‘Holi Against Hindutva’ campaign, which I find to be deeply troubling. This campaign perpetuates the virulent notion that Hindu Dharma itself is deeply entwined with a perceived threat of rampant Hindu nationalism. So entwined that even a joyful celebration must be disrupted by a selective, non-inclusive form of critical discourse about Hindu Dharma and Hindutva. In doing so, it reaffirms the dangerously prevalent idea that every Hindu practice and space — even ones dedicated to celebration — must be premised with the recognition that Hindu Dharma itself is suspicious, is the source of the problem.

As this idea catches hold, through campaigns like this one, Hindu students will feel increasingly compelled to virtue signal that they aren’t “the bad kind of Hindu”. This only reinforces deeply anti-Hindu and anti-Hindu Dharma stereotypes. This trend has powerful, divisive implications on the psyche of Hindus at an individual and collective level and also teaches others to be suspicious of Hindus and Hindu Dharma unless they perform a very particular wokeness script.

I have said a lot. I don’t imagine this is the first time you are reading counter narratives on contemporary Bharat. And, obviously, I don’t expect you to change your mind after reading this letter or that you have the time to read the linked articles. (Although I hope you do!). I do offer that you might at least consider the following:

It may be difficult to accept that mainstream progressive media is biased. You might be certain that you are hearing the truth. But remember that stereotypes and propaganda are often a small portion of the truth presented as the entire truth.

Please take a moment to examine what gets reported and what doesn’t. Investigate the voices that are being amplified repeatedly in the mainstream press, and ask which ones are silenced. There seems to be only one “right” way to be a woke Hindu — one that is premised on “Hindus are the white people of India” and a slew of debunked colonial-era theories. This has caught hold across colleges in the US — unfortunately as a part of a broader social justice movement- and it’s no coincidence.

Anti-Hindu theories emerged from the Western academy. Moreover, there is rampant abuse of Hindu symbols, iconography, and concepts within Bharatiya political movements that purport to represent freedom of religion and secularism. Something is off about the discourse and we need to be able to talk about it without being categorized as Islamophobic or Hindu fundamentalist. There has to be room for authentic dissent, for counter narratives, and for critical reflexivity, or it’s simply indoctrination under the guise of progressiveness.

If you feel like you need time and space to investigate, process, and understand, it is also okay to respond to folks with one or more of the following statements:

  • Equating Kashmir with Israel/Palestine is ahistorical.
  • There is a lot of misinformation and partial information being spread about Hindu Dharma and Bharat in the Western press. I am not an expert and I would like to investigate this myself.
  • “Hindus are the white people of India” was a divide-and-conquer colonial strategy.
  • The Aryan invasion theory has been debunked multiple times.
  • While all Bharatiya people have indigenous genetic roots, Hindu Dharma and other dharma traditions are knowledge traditions that are indigenous to Bharat. Abrahamic traditions are not and exist in Bharat for one of two reasons: (1) refugees seeking asylum in Bharat and (2) colonization and predatory conversion.
  • Left and right mean different things in Bharat. The Bharatiya left is expressly anti-Hindu and I have the right to articulate that without being labeled a Hindu nationalist.
  • By calling themselves secular, the Bharatiya left engages a mind trick akin to pro-lifers. Just like pro-choice isn’t “anti-life”, critics of those secularists aren’t against religious plurality.
  • Hindus are a demographic majority in India but they don’t have systemic privilege.
  • The CAA does not impact the citizenship of any Bharatiya, including Muslims. The Assam NRC did not target Muslims. (In fact, Hindu refugees from Bangladesh were more disenfranchised by it.) The CAA does not impact existing pathways to citizenship for Muslim immigrants. The National NRC has not been designed yet. The NPR is a 10-year census.

I had the opportunity to talk about misperceptions of Hindu Dharma and of Bharatiya politics recently on the Beliefs podcast of Religion News Service. It was a fascinating conversation. If you have 27 minutes, it might be worth a listen. And, of course, if any of you would like to talk, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I am always open to generative discourse. I believe in holding brave, respectful spaces where critical ideas can be shared, and listening is deep all around.

Thank you for your time,

Indu Viswanathan

(This article was published on medium.com on February 1, 2020.)

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