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February 27, 2016

India’s Right-Wing Hindu Supremacy Rises threatening Indian Democracy

By Sonali Kolhatkar

Indian democracy is in such grave danger from right-wing religious fundamentalism
and nationalism that it is even affecting the United States.

The world’s largest democracy, India is in the throes of a deep internal battle to
preserve its democratic values. The country has for years struggled to tackle caste-
based oppression, poverty and communal violence. But now, under the leadership of
a virulently right-wing government, Hindu supremacy, nationalism and the resulting
crackdown on dissent are blowing over onto all aspects of society. They are even
affecting U.S. politics, with wealthy Hindu fundamentalists in India seeking to support
Republican bigotry here.

Ever since the election of Narendra Modi as prime minister, a heavy pall over free
speech akin to American McCarthyism has spread across college campuses and
other civil society institutions. Modi’s Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party
(BJP) sees itself as preserving upper-caste Hindu supremacist values in a
multicultural, multireligious and multicaste society. The party and its cohorts have
equated nationalism with Hinduism, and in doing so have cracked down cruelly on
academics, artists, activists and more. Critics of the BJP warned in 2014 when Modi
was elected that the party would usher India into a dangerous new era. It appears this
prediction has come true, even though Modi’s Western allies seem not to have

The latest series of events can be traced to the high-profile suicide of a promising
young Ph.D. student named Rohith Vemula in the state of Hyderabad last month.
Vemula was a member of the historically oppressed Dalit castes. He was accused of
having “anti-national” political sentiments and was among a group of scholars
suspended from Hyderabad Central University last year. In his suicide note, the young
Dalit wrote, “My birth is my fatal accident.” His death led to a deep questioning of how
free India’s academics and activists are.

Just weeks later, another student-related controversy emerged, that time at
Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), one of the country’s most esteemed academic
institutions. Student members of activist groups there were caught on film chanting
slogans deemed “anti-Indian” and were roughed up and arrested. The students were
marking the anniversary of the 2013 execution of Mohammed Afzal Guru, who was
convicted of charges related to a 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament over
the Kashmir conflict.

So enthusiastic were the witch hunters of these so-called “anti-nationals” that a group
of lawyers was found to have brutalized one of the arrested students inside a
courthouse. A news outlet lured one of the lawyers, Vikram Singh Chauhan, into
admitting on tape that he beat up the JNU student union president, Kanhaiya Kumar,
so badly that the young man “wet his pants.” The lawyer and his co-conspirators
forced Kumar to chant a nationalist slogan, “Long Live Mother India,” to stave off
more blows. The assault lasted three hours. Another lawyer, Yashpal Singh, boasted
that if he was arrested for participating in the attack, he would “go to the same jail and
visit Kanhaiya [Kumar]’s cell, and beat him up.” Singh indeed was arrested, on

The fact that lawyers, whose job it is to know and understand the rights of all, are
among the perpetrators of this crackdown is shocking. According to one report,
“Hundreds of lawyers had marched in New Delhi on Friday [Feb. 19], demanding
action against certain JNU students whom they dubbed ‘anti-national.’ Led by
Chauhan and Singh, the protesting lawyers raised slogans like ‘Do not spare traitors’
and ‘Vande Mataram.’ ”

Another JNU student, among the half-dozen who have been branded as traitors, is
Umar Khalid, who by virtue of his Muslim name has been forced to declare “I’m not a
terrorist.” Protesters waving Indian flags have reportedly been demonstrating outside
JNU and calling for Khalid’s arrest.

Even sectors of the Indian media are involved in the whipping up of nationalist frenzy.
Khalid indicted news coverage for his plight, saying, “[t]he media, all this while,
presented a lot of things about me.” A media watchdog group, Hoot, accused a
leading network, Zee News, of having “fuelled state action against JNU students” and
said that “Zee TV’s programs amounted to incitement against the students of JNU.” In
the lead-up to Kumar’s arrest, Zee repeatedly aired a video clip showing students
chanting, among other things, “Long live Pakistan”—considered the most offensive of

So disgusted was one Zee News reporter over his employer’s role in fomenting anger
against the students that he publicly resigned in protest. Vishwa Deepak asserted in
his resignation letter, “After May 2014, when Narendra Modi has become the PM,
almost every newsroom of the country has been communalized. ... Why is it that all
news is written by adding a ‘Modi angle’? Stories are written keeping in mind how it will
benefit the agenda of the Modi government. ... It feels like we are the spokespersons
of the government.”

Another victim of this broad crackdown on dissent is the Indian writer best known to
American audiences, Arundhati Roy. Roy published an article last May sympathizing
with a Delhi University professor, G.N. Saibaba, who was arrested for speaking out
against a government “cleanup” operation of Maoist insurgents in central India. A
court held her in contempt simply for expressing her views in print, and Roy now faces
the possibility of prison time.

Those accused of being anti-national such as Kumar, Khalid and even Roy are facing
a British-era charge of sedition, designed to root out resistance to the former colonial
power. A high-profile former justice of the Supreme Court of India, N. Santosh Hegde,
justified the legal targeting of students and academics by saying,“I believe in sedition
law. I am a patriot. Any patriot cannot go on abusing the country. There are certain

At the same time the government is accusing academics of sedition, the Modi
administration is facing a serious backlash from upper-caste Hindus who voted for the
BJP in the hope of increasing their power and privilege. Saying they are suffering just
as much poverty and unemployment as lower-caste Indians, groups like the Jats in
Haryana violently revolted to demand access to a quota system reserved for Dalits
and other so-called “scheduled caste” communities in various northern Indian cities.
So far, dozens have died as police and the Indian army have struggled to rein in the

This Indian struggle to define who is truly Indian and even Hindu has spilled over to
the United States. A U.S.-based nonprofit group called the Dharma Civilization
Foundation (DCF) recently offered the University of California at Irvine a $3 million
endowment for academic positions to study Hinduism. A petition signed by hundreds
urged UC Irvine to reject the funds, claiming, “The DCF is part of a right-wing Hindu
group of organizations that has been known to undermine Indian pluralism through an
agenda that seeks to redefine true ‘Indianness’ in terms of a historically-fabricated
continuity in ‘Indic’ religions (a list of religions that excludes the sub-continent’s
traditions of Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism), and a privileging of upper-caste,
‘Vedic’ Hindu identity.” To its credit, the university seems to be moving away from
accepting the funds, but the DCF has already successfully infiltrated the University of
Southern California and Claremont Lincoln University with similar endowed chairs.

Another similarly named U.S.-based nonprofit, the Center for the Study of Dharma
and Civilization, says on its website that Hindu nationalists should “[a]nnihilate the
immediate existential threat from the Communist terrorists, Islamic Jihadists and
Christian missionaries who have enslaved your country.” The group’s manifesto adds
without irony in written English, “Make spoken Sanskrit the sole recognized language
of your nation.”

If this sentiment sounds eerily familiar to Americans, it is because the growing trend of
upper-caste Hindu nationalism is a parallel to right-wing nationalism in the U.S.,
exemplified by the increasing popularity of Donald Trump. Large portions of Trump’s
supporters in South Carolina were recently found to harbor xenophobic and
nationalist views such as wanting to immediately deport all undocumented immigrants
and bar the entry of Muslims to the U.S.

It should come as no surprise, then, that a group calling itself Indian Americans for
Trump 2016 announced itself as a political action committee to support the
demagogue’s candidacy. Group President A.D. Amar claimed, “I have never seen
Indians so united behind a candidate.” A Facebook page called Hindus for Trump,
posting the news about the PAC, features a bizarre-looking logo of Trump sitting in a
red-white-and-blue-rendered lotus position with the Hindu “om” symbol.

Another group, the Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC), has poured millions of dollars
into the effort to elect GOP politicians. The group’s founder, Shalabh Kumar,
reportedly “is close to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, [and] has relationships in
the Republican Party dating back to the Reagan administration.” The RHC, formed in
November, sees itself as “modeled after the highly successful Republican Jewish
Coalition.” Members describe themselves as “Hindu Americans,” eschewing
identifications based on national origin such as Indian-American.

When Modi visited the U.S. in September, President Obama called him a “good friend”
and boasted of how “[w]e’ve elevated our ties. We’ve committed ourselves to a new
partnership between our two countries.” Modi responded, “This meeting and my
engagement in the U.S. demonstrate the extraordinary depth and diversity of our

Western governments, including the U.S., touting their friendship with Modi risk
condoning the dangerous trend of caste- and religion-based Hindu supremacy
originating in India and spreading across Indian and even U.S. campuses and to
political parties.