Religious polarization in India is seeping into the American diaspora

In Edison, New Jersey, a bulldozer, which has become a symbol of the oppression of India’s Muslim minority, rolled down the street during the country’s Independence Day parade. At the event in Anaheim, California, shouting broke out between people celebrating the holiday and those who showed up to protest violence against Muslims in India.

Indian Americans from different faiths have been peacefully coexisting in the state for several decades. But these recent events in the US – and violent clashes between some Hindus and Muslims last month in Leicester, England – have heightened concerns that sharp political and religious polarization in India is seeping into diaspora communities.

In India, Hindu nationalism has surged under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, which came to power in 2014 and won a landslide election in 2019. The ruling party has faced fierce criticism for rising attacks on Muslims in recent years, from the Muslim community and other religious minorities, as well as some Hindus who say Modi’s silence is emboldening right-wing groups and threatening national unity.

Hindu nationalism has divided the Indian diaspora just as Donald Trump’s presidency has polarized the US, said Varun Soni, dean of religious life at the University of Southern California. It has about 2,000 students from India, among the largest in the country.

Soni has yet to see these tensions emerge on campus. But he said USC received feedback because it was one of more than 50 American universities that co-sponsored an online conference called “Breaking Global Hindutva.”

The 2021 event aimed to spread awareness of Hindutva, Sanskrit for the essence of Hinduism, a political ideology that claims India is a predominantly Hindu nation plus some minority faiths with roots in the country such as Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism. Critics say it excludes other minority religious groups such as Muslims and Christians. Hindutva is distinct from Hinduism, an ancient religion practiced by about a billion people worldwide that emphasizes the unity and divine nature of all creation.

Soni said it’s important for universities to remain places where “we can talk about issues that are grounded in facts in a civil way,” but, as USC’s chief chaplain, Soni worries about how polarization toward Hindu nationalism will affect the spiritual health of students.

“If someone is attacked for their identity, ridiculed or scapegoated because they are Hindu or Muslim, I am most concerned about their welfare – not who is right or wrong,” he said.

Anantanand Rambachan, a retired religious education professor and practicing Hindu who was born in Trinidad and Tobago to a family of Indian origin, said his opposition to Hindu nationalism and his association with anti-ideology groups drew complaints from some at the Minnesota temple where he taught religious education classes. He said opposing Hindu nationalism sometimes led to accusations of being “anti-Hindu” or “anti-Indian”, labels he rejected.

On the other hand, many Hindu Americans feel vilified and targeted for their views, said Samir Kalra, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation in Washington, DC.

“The space for free expression is shrinking for Hindus,” he said, adding that even agreeing with the Indian government’s non-religious policies could result in the branding of Hindu nationalists.

Pushpita Prasad, a spokeswoman for the Coalition of Hindus of North America, said her group counsels young Hindu Americans who have lost friends because they refuse “to take sides in these battles that originate in India.”

“If they don’t take a side or have an opinion, it’s automatically assumed they’re Hindu nationalists,” she said. “Their country of origin and their religion are against them.”

Both organizations opposed the Dismantling Global Hindutva conference, criticizing it as “Hinduphobic” and not representing diverse perspectives. Supporters of the conference say they reject equating calling out Hindutva with being anti-Hindu.

Some Hindu Americans like 25-year-old Sravya Tadepalli believe it is their duty to speak out. Tadepalli, a Massachusetts resident who is a member of the Hindu Human Rights Committee, said her activism against Hindu nationalism is based on her faith.

“If that is the basic tenet of Hinduism, that God is in everyone, that everyone is divine, then I think we have a moral obligation as Hindus to speak up for the equality of all human beings,” she said. “If a human being is treated less or as if their rights have been violated, then it is our duty to work to make that right.”

Tadepalli said her organization is also working to correct misinformation on social media that travels across continents fueling hatred and polarization.

Tensions in India peaked in June after police in the city of Udaipur arrested two Muslims accused of slitting the throat of a Hindu tailor and posted the video on social media. The slain man, 48-year-old Kanhaiya Lal, allegedly shared an online post in support of a ruling party official who had been suspended for insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

Hindu nationalist groups have attacked minority groups, especially Muslims, over issues related to everything from food or the wearing of headscarves to interfaith marriages. Muslim homes have also been demolished with heavy machinery in some states, in what critics call a growing pattern of “bulldozing justice.”

Because of such reports, Muslim Americans fear for the safety of family members in India. Shakeel Syed, executive director of the South Asian Network, a social justice organization based in Artesia, California, said he hears from his sisters regularly and feels “just a pervasive fear, not knowing what tomorrow will be like.”

Syed grew up in the Indian city of Hyderabad in the 1960s and 1970s in a “more pluralistic, inclusive culture”.

“My Hindu friends would come to our Eid celebrations and we would go to their Diwali celebrations,” he said. “When my family went on summer vacation, we would leave the house keys with our Hindu neighbors, and they would do the same when they had to leave town.”

Syed believes that violence against Muslims is now commonplace in India. He heard from girls from his family who are thinking of taking off their hijab or headscarves out of fear.

In the US, he sees his Hindu friends reluctant to engage in public dialogue for fear of retribution.

“The conversation is still happening, but it’s happening in pockets behind closed doors with like-minded people,” he said. “It certainly doesn’t happen between people who have opposing views.”

Rajiv Varma, a Hindu activist based in Houston, has a diametrically opposed view. Tensions between Hindus and Muslims in the West, he said, were not a reflection of events in India, but rather stemmed from a deliberate attempt by “religious and ideological groups waging war against Hindus.”

Varma believes that India is a “Hindu country” and that the term “Hindu nationalism” only refers to love for one’s country and religion. He sees India as a country ravaged by invaders and colonists, and the Hindus as a religious group that does not want to be converted or colonized.

“We have the right to reclaim our civilization,” he said.

Rasheed Ahmed, co-founder and executive director of the Washington-based Indian American Muslim Council, said he was saddened “to see that even educated Hindu Americans do not take Hindu nationalism seriously.” He believes that Hindu Americans must make a “fundamental decision about how India and Hinduism should be seen in the US and around the world.”

“The decision whether to take Hinduism back from the one who took it away is theirs.”

Minnesota resident Zafar Siddiqui hopes to “reverse some of this mistrust, polarization” and build understanding through education, personal connections and interfaith gatherings. Siddiqui, a Muslim, helped bring together a group of Minnesotans of Indian descent — including Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and atheists — who meet for monthly potlucks.

“When people sit down, say, at lunch or dinner or over coffee, and have a direct dialogue, instead of listening to all these leaders and spreading all this hate, it changes a lot of things,” Siddiqui said.

But during a recent gathering, some argued over a draft proposal to at some point seek dialogue with people who hold different views. Those who disagreed explained that they did not support contacting Hindu nationalists and that they feared harassment.

Siddiqui said that for now, future plans include focusing on education and interfaith events that will highlight the different traditions and religions of India.

“Just staying silent is not an option,” Siddiqui said. “We needed a platform to bring together people who believe in the peaceful coexistence of all communities.”


Giovanna Dell’Orto in Minneapolis contributed to this report.


Associated Press religion reporting is supported through AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

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