Reality of Hinduphobia must be established to challenge otherisation and persecution of Hindus in academic, media discourse
The classic meta trap being laid out here is that not only are Hindus being denied the agency to protest the vilification of their faith, but any effort to call out Hinduphobia becomes conspiratorial and can’t be taken seriously
At a recent virtual conference organised by the Delhi-based Global Counter-Terrorism Centre (GCTC), India’s ambassador to the United Nations TS Tirumurti called out the bias inherent in global counter-terror strategy that fails to recognise Hinduphobia as a valid form of persecution like Islamophobia or anti-Christian sentiment, leading to discrimination against Hindus.
The 7th review of ‘Global Counter Terrorism Strategy’ passed by the UN in June 2021 mentions phobias against Abrahamic religions such as Islam, Christianity and Judaism but Hinduism doesn’t find mention. “The emergence of contemporary forms of religiophobia, especially anti-Hindu, anti-Buddhist and anti-Sikh phobias is a matter of serious concern and needs attention of the UN and all member states to address this threat,” said the Indian envoy in his keynote address, according to a report in The Hindu.
Though Tirumurti clarified that he wasn’t speaking in his capacity as Chair of the Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) at the US Security Council with India assuming the office this month, India’s intervention to flag the systemic injustice and denial of persecution against Hindus on a global stage is important because it captures the difficulty faced by Hindus in creating conditions that are sensitive to their concerns. If the very existence of Hinduphobia is denied, then it becomes easy for Hindus to be otherised, hated and even targeted while the tools to highlight and challenge the oppression remain beyond their reach.
Hinduism has its own set of core tenets, doctrines and scriptures and it has emerged out of doctrinal rigidity through waves of reforms over centuries. Unlike the Abrahamic faiths, however, it is a decentralised religion that takes a liberal approach to the practice of faith, allowing practitioners to define the religion more by “tradition, rituals, practices and ways of doing things.”
This makes Hinduism epistemologically different from Abrahamic religions such as Islam or Christianity that relies on a sacred text, a messenger and codified laws demanding total faith and unquestioned loyalty. The contract between god and followers in Abrahamic faiths is fundamentally different from Hinduism where god is also a shared divinity allowing Hindus to worship nature or even the divinity within us, and caring for god is no different than caring for one’s own. The contract is that of love, not fear of retribution.
Consider a recent incident where a priest in Agra went running to a hospital where he broke down and pleaded with doctors to bandage the arm of a Krishna idol that had accidentally cracked while the priest was giving his ‘laddu-gopal’ (a childhood avatar of the deity) a shower.
Unlike the Abrahamic traditions, the ancient Hindu scriptures as well as Indic knowledge traditions followed and developed over thousands of years encourage plurality of opinions, disputations, scepticism and even self-doubt in search for the truth. The capacity for reasoning and questioning the core tenets of the faith is hardwired into Hinduism. Failure to understand these philosophies and traditions or interpreting the various panths, schools of thought and philosophies that define Hinduism through an Abrahamic lens creates otherisation, that in turn leads to Hinduphobia. Relatedly, the misrepresentation of Hinduism’s tenets through rhetoric that “reduces the entirety of Sanatana Dharma to a rigid, oppressive, and regressive tradition,” is Hinduphobia, as Hindu Students Council, the pan-Hindu youth organisation in US points out.
This caricature creates pejorative stereotypes about Hinduism that are repeatedly enforced in discursive contexts that dominate western academia, as well as in pop culture and mass media. Prejudice against Hindus, Hinduism and Hindutva is manifest in the tyrannical certitudes of modern progressive ideology. And any academic challenge that contests these canonical hypotheses is summarily de-platformed. These actions also constitute Hinduphobia.
For instance, civil rights lawyer and executive director of Hindu American Foundation Suhag Shukla points out the anomaly in the way Biblical verses or Islamic texts — that have been “decontextualised and distorted to justify slavery, crusades, and genocides” or used to justify terrorism — are seen, as opposed to the gaze towards caste discrimination in Hinduism. She writes, “the Frameworks on these religions do not require children to learn about those heinous crimes as intrinsic to the faith of the perpetrators. But the Framework do require that the ugly reality of caste-based discrimination in India is presented not just as a social problem, but as an evil intrinsic to Hinduism.”
Shukla was referring to the discriminatory attitude in the student curricula in California, this is a universal truth. This discrimination and normalisation of bias is rampant in mass media. When it comes to Islam, for instance, the media shows heightened sensitivities during reporting and interpretation of events, but that respect is denied to Hindus who are subjected to sweeping generalisations and vilification.
Let’s take a recent case to make this point. During the Texas terrorism incident, the perpetrator, a British Muslim named Malik Faisal Akram, took four Jews rabbis hostage at gunpoint in a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, demanding the release of a convicted Pakistani terrorist, Aafia Siddiqui, serving a 86-year-old jail term in the US for assaulting with a gun and attempting to kill US officers and employees in 2008.
As author Bari Weiss points out in her newsletter, what seemed to “matter most to media pundits and politicians is not the Jews themselves, but the identities of their attackers.”
Wajahat Ali, a prominent American commentator, for instance, put out a tweet stating that “you’re about to hear some ugly & vicious Islamophobia & anti-Muslim bigotry this weekend from elected officials, commentators and even mainstream media. Hope I’m wrong. People will use it to divide Jewish and Muslim communities for their political agenda. Don’t fall for it.”
And this statement was made while the Jewish victims were still being held hostage, even before the FBI could kill the perpetrator and free the hostages.
The moment the identity of the attacker was known to the authorities, a certain censorship and deflection of realities kicked in. The FBI initially denied (and later retracted) that the hostage-standoff was related to hatred of Jews, even though the hostage-taker had been clearly antagonistic in his utterances and the terrorist he was attempting to free is a known anti-Semitist.
US-based news agency Associated Press described Siddiqui, a convicted terrorist, as a “Pakistani neuroscientist”, Reuters called the attacker a “gunman who had disrupted a religious service” in its report and even the police and FBI initially said “they were aware of the suspect’s identity, but were not releasing his name.”
The coverage brought charges of ignoring antisemitism and media’s tiptoeing around the incident due to the identity of the attacker, who happened to be a Muslim. Eve Barlow, a prominent Jewish voice, writes in Grazia, “the BBC, Guardian and Telegraph all reported the situation with quotation marks around the word ‘hostage’, because apparently it wasn’t obvious enough that this was a hostage situation.
Associated Press wrote: ‘Hostages apparently taken at Texas synagogue’. The news did not make the front page of The New York Times the next day. It didn’t receive nearly as much coverage on rolling televised news as such events warrant.”
The reaction of commentators and media is a reflection of the weaponisation of the term ‘Islamophobia’ in academia and media discourse that acts as a battering ram to stifle even legitimate debates over political Islam and Islamist violence, handing Muslims a permanent victimhood narrative. From a tool to fight against unjustified fear of or hatred against Muslims, Islamophobia is now a bludgeon to smash all discourse, regardless the merit of the criticism. American lawmakers are now even institutionalising the term and making it into a legislative tool.
The situation with Hindus is its exact opposite because the very existence of Hinduphobia as a phenomenon is denied despite overwhelming evidence. Consider, for instance, these headlines which appeared recently in western media and contrast them with the coverage of the incident described above. On a recent hate speech case in India where a Hindu organisation leader and participants uttered inflammatory speeches (the leader, Yati Narsinghanand, has now been arrested), CNN asked: “India's Hindu extremists are calling for genocide against Muslims. Why is little being done to stop them?” and The Economist bellowed “Hindu bigots are openly urging Indians to murder Muslims” with suitable imagery to press home its point.
The standardisation of Hindu hatred, reinforcement of Nazi stereotypes and imposing a Eurocentric construction on Hinduism in academia is now commonplace. The recently held conference, ‘Dismantling Global Hindutva,’ besides showing how Hindu hatred has been normalised in western academia (especially in some ‘South Asian studies’ departments) had as one of its defining images one poster of RSS figures being uprooted with a crowbar.
For an academia obsessed with ‘microaggression’, the use of this genocidal imagery in its poster is deliberate and amply demonstrates the agenda of dehumanising Hindus that leads to enabling of violence against people of a faith.
The conference itself, that had as its stated agenda of “dismantling Hindutva” (the essence of Hinduism), degenerated into open hatred against Hindus. Some speakers, in fact, refused to make any distinction between the two and hence it became an academic exercise in ‘dismantling’ Hindus. The classic meta trap being laid out here is that not only are Hindus being denied the agency to protest the vilification of their faith, but any effort to call out Hinduphobia becomes conspiratorial and can’t be taken seriously. And those who still try to do so, are called political agents.
It is the same mindset that forces Rutgers University in US to disregard the concerns of its Hindu students who accused professor Audrey Truschke of “racist demonisation of the Hindu faith” and portrayal of Hindus “as inherently violent and morally corrupt.”
While Rutgers took recourse to the high principle of “academic freedom” and refused to take any action against Truschke — who is known for her attempt towards whitewashing Aurangzeb’s genocidal atrocities against Hindus — evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, professor Steven Greer or professor Klaus Kinzler, who teaches German language in a French university, weren’t so lucky.
Professor Kinzler, married to a Muslim, is now under police protection in France for refusing to “include the term Islamophobia in the title of a seminar.”
British professor Greer’s lectures were “canceled following a vicious, militant campaign” by University of Bristol’s ‘Islamic Society’ who branded him “Islamophobic”. According to reports, while Greer has been cleared of any charges of bigotry after a five-month investigation, his module was still pulled out from syllabus. The professor claimed he had to flee the family home amid fears for his safety following the campaign against him. And a radio station in Berkeley, California, “canceled” best-selling author Dawkins’s speech for “abusive speech against Islam”, an allegation he denied.
The ultra-sensitivities imposed by ‘Islamophobia’ caused the largest school board in Canada to “cancel” a book club event by Nadia Murad, a Nobel laureate who survived being kidnapped by ISIS and was plunged into sexual slavery as a teen, over fears that her book may foster “Islamophobia”.
What we are seeing here is a distortion of the discourse whereby only one religious group has monopoly over victimhood and taking offense whereas Hindus not only face denial of persecution, they are also “disproportionately painted as violent”.
This enables a condition where known Hinduphobes such as prime minister of Pakistan Imran Khan, whose country is a graveyard for minorities where Hindus, Sikhs and Ahmadiyyas are subjected to “targeted violence, mass murders, extrajudicial killings, abduction and rapes” where Hindus accept Islam to stay alive, lecture India on pluralism and religious tolerance.
The discourse against Hindus is so pervasive, dissolution of Hindu concerns so commonplace that it has become internalised even in Indian media discourse.
A comparison may be made in the way US president Joe Biden, a practicing Roman Catholic, is described in western media and prime minister Narendra Modi, a practicing Hindu, is depicted in Indian media.
Biden wears his faith on sleeve, and though that has got him in recent trouble over his political position on abortion, his religiosity hasn’t invited criticism in the “liberal media”. The New York Times calls Biden “perhaps the most religiously observant commander in chief in half a century, (who) regularly attends Mass and speaks of how his Catholic faith grounds his life and his policies.”
BBC describes how “each weekend that he is in town, Biden goes to Mass in Washington. A motorcade takes him on Saturday evenings or Sunday mornings to Holy Trinity. He makes the sign of the cross at public events, and his Catholicism is woven into his speeches and policies.”
NPR says “when Joe Biden seeks to inspire or comfort, he turns to his faith. He speeches are woven with references to God, biblical language or the pope” while Voice of America reports that “Biden places his catholic faith front and center.”
Now consider the consternation in Indian media over Prime Minister Modi’s active participation in renovation of Kashi, a sacred city for Hindus, or his obeisance to Lord Shiva as a practicing Hindu at Kashi Vishwanath Dham.
Academician Pratap Bhanu Mehta tells The Wire, “in Kashi Vishwanath, the prime minister in a sense is projected as a combination of Shankaracharya and Shivaji. I mean, the entire liturgy is structured around him. This is not just a recasting of Indian democracy, but it is a kind of recasting of the religion and religious forms of Hinduism in a very radical way. You can just pick any attribute and it is very hard to contest the impression that, you know, India has become more communal and authoritarian.”
And Modi’s offering of puja is “normalisation of Indian state’s shift towards majoritarianism”, as one commentator recently put it.
The hypocrisy evident here may not be deliberate but a result of the systemic injustice towards Hindus. It also creates the ground for bigotry of soft expectations. For instance, ‘Surya Namaskar’, a form of Yoga that celebrates the energy of the sun, becomes a “Hindu symbol” being imposed on Muslim students when included in a government order, and former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah compares the order to asking non-Muslim students to celebrate Eid.
The order noticeably doesn’t ask Muslim students to celebrate Makar Sankranti (a harvest festival celebrated by Hindus) but that is lost in the larger context.
This is also a negation of India’s cultural motifs and practices that are religion-agnostic but the hardwiring of Hinduphobia in dominant discourse prevents us from raising these issues. Hindus are faced with twin problems. Not only must their dharmic path include standing up for Hindus and calling out the bigotry of Hinduphobia, they must also create better narratives instead of relying on external exemplars.
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