Brace Yourselves for a ‘Hinduphobia’ Moral Panic

We’ve seen this play out before.

by Ash Sarkar

18 November 2022

Activists of Hindu nationalist group Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) shout slogans during a protest against the killing of seven Hindu pilgrims in a gunbattle that erupted in Kashmir on Monday, in New Delhi, India, July 12, 2017. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
Hindu nationalism is being exported globally. In the UK, ‘Hinduphobia’ is one way the ideology is gaining traction. Adnan Abidi/Reuters

We live in an era of particularly messy racial politics. From the competing over oppression with claims of “no other minority” to litigation over terms like ‘BAME’ and ‘PoC’, mainstream anti-racist discourses are often more concerned with irreducible differences between groups than building coalitions between racialised people. It’s every community out for themselves, with solidarity looked at with something like suspicion.

At the heart of this fractious competition for visibility, recognition and bandwidth comes an opportunity for the nationalist right to turn minorities against one another by nurturing a sense of grievance. Already, a new demographic is falling prey to this tired pattern – and the left need to be ready to confront it head on. Brace yourself for the ‘Hinduphobia’ moral panic. 

This autumn, tensions in Leicester – a city with a sizeable Indian Hindu population, as well as a Pakistani Muslim one – flared into widespread disorder. On 17 September, around 300 Hindu youths marched into an area of the city home to a large Muslim community, chanting “Jai Shri Ram”, a religious slogan which has been repurposed in recent years as a battle cry during outbreaks of communal violence. In retaliation, a group of 200 Muslim youths descended on a Hindu neighbourhood in Leicester, and a video of a flag being ripped down from a temple went viral, drawing condemnation from politicians and religious groups in India. But what’s striking about this isn’t just that sectarian conflict is playing out on British streets – it’s the response of Hindu community organisations. 

The Vishva Hindu Parishad, a Hindu nationalist (or “Hindutva”) organisation founded by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), swiftly penned a letter to then-prime minister Liz Truss blaming the disorder on “Islamic extremists and hoodlums”. Hindu groups in Leicester have said they’ll be boycotting an independent review led by Dr Chris Allen into the unrest, arguing that his background in studying Islamophobia makes him biased. Protests were organised by Hindu groups outside The Guardian and the BBC’s offices, alleging a pattern of anti-Hindu and anti-India bias in their coverage. The fact that protesters singled out articles which reported attacks on religious minorities in India by Hindu nationalists as evidence of this bias was telling: the charge of ‘Hinduphobia’ is intimately connected with the defence of Hindutva. 

It’s tedious even writing this, but having been accused of being an “Islamist” who “hates Hindus” for my criticisms of Hindtva, it’s frustrating to have my own heritage denied. My surname should be a little clue to having some direct experience of Muslim-Hindu coexistence. I’m the product of an interfaith marriage, and while I followed in my mother’s footsteps of being both a wonky Muslim and devoted follower of Tottenham Hotspur, my sister takes after my father in supporting Manchester United and identifying as Hindu.

For my niece’s mukhe bhaat (the Hindu rice-feeding ceremony), I was given the task of administering her first spoonful of basmati; in a few years she’ll get Eidi money just like we did as kids (not adjusted for inflation). Contrary to the beliefs of some particularly aggressive Hindutva accounts on Twitter, I’m proud to be part of a family where mixed relationships and religious diversity are the norm. 

Hindus in the UK, and across the Global North, are subject to cultural insensitivity, discrimination, profiling by the authorities and racist violence. In Bangladesh and Pakistan, where the sectarian massacres which followed Partition are still in living memory, Hindu minorities have been victims of targeted violence, false accusations of “blasphemy”, and have undoubtedly been denied even what legal protections exist on the statute books. 

But Hinduphobia, as a form of racism supposedly separate and distinct from anti-Asian racism, doesn’t exist. As Amrit Wilson writes: “Racism […] requires a contemporary or historical structure that generates and perpetuates it. No such structure exists in the case of Hinduphobia. Unlike antisemitism, Islamophobia or anti-black racism, it has no historical or material basis.” 

Instead, accusations of ‘Hinduphobia’ are part of a strategy of advancing the cause of Hindu nationalism, and weakening bonds of solidarity between Britain’s ethnic minorities. We have all the ingredients necessary to produce a political moral panic based on allegations of Hinduphobia: rising nationalism abroad, changing class status here, and the image of Muslims as the ‘bad’ minority.

Exporting Hinduvta.

The world’s largest democracy is governed by a party that explicitly believes in Hindu supremacy, but strategically cultivates a climate of misinformation and paranoia to scare India’s Hindu majority into thinking that they are being culturally and demographically threatened by its Muslim minority. Extremist Hindu nationalists and the BJP have pushed the “love jihad” conspiracy theory, which alleges that Muslim men are hoodwinking or forcing Hindu women into marriage for the purposes of religious conversion so that Islam may rule over India.

Despite the Indian Supreme Court having rejected the notion of “love jihad”, numerous Indian states have introduced legislation which makes it much harder for interfaith couples to get married, and has led to the arrest of over 200 Muslims between November 2020 and August 2021. Narendra Modi’s government has introduced legislation which discriminates against Muslim asylum seekers, and proposes a National Register of Citizens which many fear could be used to strip Indian Muslims of their citizenship.

Diaspora communities aren’t responsible for the actions of countries where they happen to have cultural, familial, or ethnic ties. Nor is it fair to assume that someone necessarily approves of a particular regime, movement or worldview simply because they share some aspect of their heritage. That is a racist position: it doesn’t treat people as individuals, and assumes people from minority backgrounds lack the critical and political agency to shape their own beliefs. But it’s also important not to take this too far, and deny any connection between diaspora communities and foreign politics.

The Hindu nationalists of India put a lot of time, effort and money into mainstreaming Hindutva overseas. Swami Ramdev – a billionaire yogi with over nine million subscribers on YouTube – has utilised the international popularity of yoga to build support for the BJP’s project of Hindu nationalism. This year Sadhvi Rithambara – whose speeches helped incite the mob destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992, and who has a long history of hateful and inflammatory speech against India’s Muslim and Christian minorities – was invited by Hindu groups in the US to perform religious services, and planned a tour of temples in the UK in September until withdrawing due to “ill health”. Modi’s own visits to the UK have resulted in a rock star reception. Hindutva is not a project confined to India – its advocates want the Hindu diaspora abroad to connect their cultural, ethnic and religious identity to an explicitly and nationalist political project.

Indeed, Hindu nationalists have long been proud to model themselves on the rhetoric and strategies employed by Israel, and are keen to present India as a homeland and a haven for Hindus. Alpesh Shah, a hedge fund manager and pro-Modi columnist, wrote in 2014: “The people of Israel provide protection for Jews wherever they are in the world, of whichever nationality. We shall extend no lesser protection to Hindus.” 

Just as organisations such as the Board of Deputies and the Anti-Defamation League conflate Jewish identity with Israeli state policy (and by extension, antisemitism with criticism of that state policy), there are concerted attempts to portray anti-Hindutva sentiments as expressions of ‘Hinduphobia’.

This was the playbook followed in 2019 after Modi’s government unilaterally revoked Muslim-majority Kashmir’s autonomous status, placed seven million Kashmiris under military curfew, and 10,000 people in “preventative detention”. When a motion was passed at the 2019 Labour party conference recognising the state’s autonomy and calling for human rights monitors to be allowed in the region, the party was accused of being “anti-India” and “anti-Hindu”. Under new leadership, the party’s top brass has rushed to appease Hindu nationalists and row back their stance on Kashmir.

Accusations of Hinduphobia are almost always accompanied by complaints of Muslim appeasement. The furore over Kashmir was drenched in Islamophobic fearmongering: during the 2019 general election, Hindu voters were targeted by WhatsApp messages which included videos of rightwing rent-a-gobs Anne-Marie Waters and Katie Hopkins, who claimed “Islam is taking over this country”.

After the communal unrest in Leicester this year, the white supremacist far right tried to capitalise on tensions between Hindus and Muslims in the city. Tommy Robinson attempted to flatter Hindus, casting them as the ‘good’ immigrants: “We have all grown up with Hindus. We know who they are, we know how peaceful they are,” he said in a self-shot video. Robinson alleged that provocateurs were “the Pakistani Muslims travelling from different cities to attack Indian Hindus, to terrorise them in their homes and to target their women”, and offered support from far-right football fans to protect Hindus from an “onslaught from Pakistani Muslims”.

Far-right rhetoric about British Muslims appears to have influenced Hindutva messaging in India. One former BJP MP cited the Rotherham abuse scandal as evidence that “love jihad” is a universal feature of Muslim community presence. “Now we have confirmation from the UK as well that ‘love’ is a ruse to trap ‘kafir’ girls to either sexually exploit or convert them to Islam or both”, he claimed. “Most of such inter-religious alliances are sans any love and are just a part of ‘jihad’.”

A moral panic in the making.

There’s no evidence that Robinson or anyone else in the white supremacist far right has succeeded in recruiting significant numbers of Hindus to their cause (most British Asians, no matter what religion they are, aren’t likely to trust a former EDL leader on matters of race). But this backdrop of nationalism and Islamophobic scaremongering presents a particular problem for Labour, as increasing numbers of British Indian voters cast their ballots for the Conservatives

The reason for this political trend has little to do with Hindutva. The fact is that the economic status of many British Indians resembles a typical Tory voter: in terms of home ownership, household wealth and education, it makes sense that there’s a movement of British Indian voters from the left to the right. Although Kashmir and Leicester might be useful wedge issues for helping carve off Hindu voters from Labour, they’re not the underlying cause. 

But just as Labour’s position on Palestine under Ed Miliband and the accusations of antisemitism under Jeremy Corbyn became the sole explanations for why Labour’s vote share amongst British Jews declined over a period of decades, the geopolitics of Hindutva and allegations of Hinduphobia risk becoming the dominant account of why some ethnic minority communities switch their vote to the Conservatives. 

Unlike class analysis, claiming the left has abandoned its anti-racist principles serves as a useful disciplining narrative. Indeed, shortly after the Leicester unrest, Brendan O’Neill published an article arguing that “Britain’s woke elites have given a green light to anti-Hindu bigotry.”

So what do we do about it? Frankly, I’ve got no idea. But we can at least start by recognising that the identitarianism of irreducible difference has been able to masquerade as anti-racism for too long. What we’ve ended up with is a discourse which incentivises racialised people to view ourselves as being in competition with one another, where the visibility of suffering and the recognition of victimhood is a political end in itself. And this means that supremacist and nationalist ideologies can drape themselves in the moral authority of anti-racism, despite being deeply invested in the oppression or marginalisation of other minority groups. There is only one known cure for bad identity politics: coalition-building.

Ash Sarkar is a contributing editor at Novara Media.

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