View from abroad | The spread of Western anti-Hinduism
Just as Western anti-Semites are offended by the success of Israel, Western anti-Hinduists are offended by the success of India
Why does the West hate India? Hate is a strong word, and to be fair, many Americans, Europeans, and Australians love India. Even more of them know nothing about India. But whatever individual Westerners may think of India, “the West” is thoroughly anti-Indian, and that institutional hatred is getting stronger by the hour.
Indians will be very familiar with this from their school textbooks, which are full of stories about the anti-Indianism of the colonial era. To be more accurate, British (as well as French and Portuguese) colonisation was specifically anti-Hindu, a tendency that ultimately led to the violence of Partition.
For the first half century of modern India’s Independence, Western anti-Hinduism was relatively muted. But lately it has broken out in places like Leicester, Toronto, and New Jersey. In all three places, the root cause is the same: an informal alliance between global Islamists and Western elites. Groups linked to Islamist extremism have convinced anti-Hindu Westerners to support their aggression toward Indians and India.
Many Indians see the hand of Pakistan (or even China) behind this unholy alliance. This is to misunderstand the arrow of influence. Western elites are not being duped by Islamist militants into hating India. Western elites are using Islamist militants as the shock troops for their own anti-Hinduism.
We’ve seen this all play out before. Western elites have long harboured a small but vocal anti-Semitic minority among their ranks. After the horrors of the Holocaust, overt anti-Semitism became unacceptable in the West. This forced anti-Semitic elites to change their rhetoric. Instead of spouting anti-Semitic slurs, they switched to anti-Zionist and anti-Israel language. They found ready political allies for their opposition to Israel in the Arab world and Iran.
Today, on university campuses throughout the English-speaking world, you will find anti-Zionist, anti-Israel protests being organised by a strange alliance of Western secularists and militant Islamists. People who disagree vehemently on progressive social issues like women’s rights and gay marriage work side by side to vilify Israel and prevent Israelis from speaking on campus. Together, they have organised the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign targeting Israel.
And now they have a new target: India. As with Israel, the Islamists target India mainly for political reasons. They have been targeting Indian nationalism for more than a century, and they are not necessarily anti-Hindu. They have political goals, and they are prepared to fight to achieve them. The recently-banned Popular Front of India (PFI) is representative of this kind of anti-India militancy. It is not anti-Hindu per se; its anti-Hinduism is driven by its political goals, not by irrational personal prejudice.
The motives of Western anti-Hindu intellectuals are very different, but the respectability they provide is crucial for the success of anti-India movements. For example, the overtly political 2021 Dismantling Global Hindutva conference was co-sponsored by dozens of university research institutes. The conference organisers obtained statements of support from 40 professional associations and “60+ community organisations”. It was in no sense a normal academic conference. It was an organised anti-Hindu jamboree.
The main information sheet published by the conference organisers emphasised that “calling out Hindutva is not anti-Hindu”. The parallel with the anti-Semitic trope that “calling out Zionism is not anti-Jewish” is crystal clear. The tactics are the same because the institutions — and many of the individuals — are the same. The Western elite anti-Semitic template has been adopted by anti-Hinduists, who (just like anti-Semites) mobilise institutional endorsements to bring the mainstream news media onto their side.
Hindu civil society organisations have rightly called out the Dismantling Global Hindutva conference and the anti-Hindu sentiments that motivated it. These organisations have, however, missed the trick on anti-Hinduism. They have instead attached the label “Hinduphobia” to these slurs, on the model of Islamophobia. But anti-Hinduism is not a phobia. Many people really are afraid of Muslims; they are not afraid of Hindus.
Anti-Hindu Western intellectuals do not fear the rise of India; they resent it. Just as Western anti-Semites are offended by the success of Israel, Western anti-Hinduists are offended by the success of India. They can’t accept the idea of a strong and independent Hindu-majority country. They would much rather keep India weak and poor, just as their ancestors did centuries ago.
Thus the goals of Western anti-Hinduists align not only with those of anti-India Islamists, but also with those of many Indian intellectuals. This isn’t because the Indian intellectuals are themselves anti-Hindu or anti-India. It’s because the kind of India that anti-Hinduists want — secular, socialist, and subaltern — is the same kind of India that many Indian intellectuals miss. It’s hard to resist the prestige of a human rights residency or a Harvard fellowship, and they might very well think that their enemy’s enemy is their friend.
They should think again. The anti-Hindu movement wants to turn India into a pariah state on the Israeli model, and all Indians will be caught up in the catastrophe.
Intellectuals on all sides of Indian politics should recognise their common peril — and their common patriotism. While it may be emotionally satisfying to call each other names, Indian intellectuals should recognise that they have more in common with each other than any of them have in common with Western anti-Hinduists.
If Indian intellectuals have any doubt about the looming challenge of a BDS campaign against India, they should talk to their Israeli colleagues, religious and secular. Above all, they should learn from Israelis not to blame Muslims for their own divisions.
India’s Muslims aren’t the problem. If Indian intellectuals fall prey to Western anti-Hinduism, the only people they can blame are themselves.
The author is an associate professor at the University of Sydney and the author of the recent study of India’s democracy rankings, ‘Indian Democracy at 75: Who Are the Barbarians at the Gate?’ He earned his MS (mathematical sciences) and PhD (sociology) from the Johns Hopkins University. His 2018 book ‘The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts’ was named among the ‘Best on Politics’ by the Wall Street Journal. Views expressed are personal.
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