Ties between India and America grow ever stronger, buttressed by a shared Islamophobia and the unchecked growth of Hindutva ideologies in the U.S.
By Madhuri Sastry
In the second and final 2020 Presidential debate, Trump took flak for his friendship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and has been repeatedly lambasted for his associations with—and praise of—Putin. There is, however, one notable exception from the list of persona non grata: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
It’s worth remembering that Modi, in fact, used to be a Public Enemy, banned from the U.S. in the early aughts because of his role in the 2002 Gujarat genocide. The State Department denied Modi a visa under a law that holds foreign officials responsible for “severe violations of religious freedom.” These days, the ties between India and America grow ever stronger, buttressed by a shared Islamophobia and the unchecked growth of Hindutva ideologies in the U.S. With a U.S. Muslim Ban and sharp increases in hate crimes against Muslim-Americans on the one hand, and settler-colonialism in Kashmir, a pogrom in Delhi, and a law that attempts to strip Muslims of their citizenship on the other. It is clear that the U.S.’ alleged stance against fascism, imperialism and religious bigotry is non-existent.
Public memory is a sieve, and Hindutva operators in the U.S. and India have capitalized on this to whitewash the blacklist. Hindutva (literally meaning “Hinduness” and coined by RSS ideologue V.D. Savarkar) is the right-wing political ideology espoused by the Indian ruling party BJP. Hindutva is a form of religious nationalism, meaning that it links territory, religion, and citizenship. The goal of Hindutva philosophy is to equate Indianness with Hinduism.
The backstory of how Hindutva was whitewashed is a study in tenaciously manipulating Hindutva soft power to launder Modi’s image in Washington and establish a fetishized image of a nonviolent and exoticized India, the World’s Largest Democracy. This has led, most insidiously, to the tacit acceptance of India as Hindu, which has been sold with tremendous success as an inherently nonviolent religion. This, in turn, means that India must also be inherently nonviolent in this myth.
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Fascism doesn’t mushroom overnight. It requires a cultural ecosystem—a primordial soup, if you will—that enables these ideologies to flourish. This culture is soft power, which is then weaponized in order to create or actualize a political movement: fascism.
In the case of India, Hindutva soft power in the West is honed through yoga, Bollywood and T.V. shows, and even curricula. In California, for example, the Hindu American Foundation along with the RSS-backed Hindu Education Foundation have, for decades, “sought to temper or erase the curriculum’s mentions of the caste system, arguing that their virulence reflects unfairly on Hinduism.”
In 2005, these Hindu groups flatly denied that there was a social stratification of class. Similar caste erasure efforts took place once again in 2016. For Americans, the result is an inability to square a few aspects of the reality of India—a settler colonial, violently casteist and Islamophobic country with policies that seek to turn it into a land for Hindus only, where journalists and poets and dissenters are murdered, Muslims and Dalits lynched—with this fetishized image. Pop culture softens, and then politics takes over.
Take yoga, for example. A typical American yoga studio is thoroughly exclusionary, an activity the white, rich, thin woman performs in $88 pants with “Namaste in Bed” emblazoned across the ass. She holds her down dog in a studio where “wellness smells” of Nag champa incense waft in swirling silver streams, whitewashed walls adorned with pictures of many-limbed goddesses as far as the third eye can see, to the inexplicable soundtrack of other white people singing “Hari Om” and Sanskrit bhajans to Hindu gods. During her savasana, she is transported in her mind to the banks of the Ganges, thinking of this “ancient” practice as she joins her palms for a final namaste at the end of class. Other than the blatant co-opting of Sanskrit culture by white people (a story for another time), the ubiquity of these fetishized Hindu symbols and objects of worship have the effect of equating Hinduism with Indianism writ large.
While Yoga undeniably has Hindu roots, The Hindu American Foundation (the HAF), recognizing the immense power in yoga, launched the “Take Back Yoga: Bringing to Light Yoga’s Hindu Roots” campaign in response to a 2008 altercation with Yoga Journal. The HAF took umbrage with Yoga Journal’s characterization of Gita and the Upanishads as “ancient Indian” and “yogic” but never “Hindu.” Yoga Journal responded that they avoided using the word “Hindu” because it carried “too much baggage.” Incensed (like a lit Nag champa, if you will), the HAF advocated for the acknowledgement that yoga is Hindu in a widely-distributed essay. This sparked a masterful P.R. campaign. First, HAF seized credibility by claiming to speak for all Hindus. Second, they couched their anger in the language of decolonization and cultural appropriation, which was enormously effective in appealing to white liberal guilt, and placating Indians fed up with the “Namaslay”-ing of their culture. A flurry of press followed and yoga was more deeply ensconced in Hinduism than ever before.
And then came Modi the Yogi. In 2014, speaking at the United Nations while recommending “International Yoga Day,” Modi said: “Yoga is an invaluable gift of India’s ancient tradition.” (emphasis mine) The use of the word “India” is not accidental. It is the final seal on the equation of Hinduism with Indianism. iYoga is Hindu. Hindu is India.
Apparently, Eisenhower cautioned that in propaganda, “the hand of the government must be carefully concealed.” And yet, as for Bollywood, the government appears boldly, smiling from ear to ear in selfies, first with Shahrukh Khan and Amir Khan, and subsequently with Ranveer Singh, Ranbir Kapoor, Alia Bhatt—all of whom have huge followings in the West. There’s even one with Karan Johar, a director of Indian romance films like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai that are beloved by the Indian diaspora. Canadian-Indian star, Akshay Kumar and the “feminist” Kanagana Ranaut are open shills for the Hindutva ideology. Most recently, Ranaut pilloried an advertisement by the Indian jewelry brand Tanishq depicting a Muslim woman throwing her pregnant Hindu daughter-in-law a Hindu baby shower ritual for promoting “love-jihad” and “sexism.” She tweeted, “As Hindus, we must be absolutely conscious of what these creative terrorists are injecting into our subconscious.” Here, America has embraced fascist-supporter extraordinaire Priyanka Chopra-Jonas with open arms, her sympathies be damned. Her platform has now grown to include Penguin Random House, with whom she is slated to release a memoir in January next year.
Examining Indian and diasporic pop culture is essential because it is where our identities are created and reflected. T.V. shows like Indian Matchmaking, Never Have I Ever and Family Karma (I am sure literally everyone from this show flew to Houston for front-row seats to Howdy Modi) promote an upper-caste, Hindu-centric picture of who Indians are. American stars like Mindy Kaling have also produced bland, one-sided depictions of Hinduism. In her essay, “Kind of Hindu (Nothing like I imagined)” Kaling writes about what her faith means to her, evaluating the question on the birth of her daughter, Kit. The essay begins: “Sometimes when I meet people who have seen The Office, they assume that, like Kelly Kapoor, I am only involved in my Indian heritage to the degree that it is fun and convenient. This assumption is pretty much correct.”
Points for self-awareness, I guess, but ultimately, it’s the cherry-picking of the “fun and convenient” aspects of Hinduism that contributes to the erasure of the violence perpetrated in its name. Even if a nonviolent religion exists on paper, when it becomes the basis of a political ideology of a State, it can become oppressive. Consider what happened in Myanmar, as an example. People expressed similar shock when they learned that Buddhist nationalists had perpetrated a genocide against the Rohingya Muslims. Buddhism means peace, right? It is our inability to recognize this, and our constant whitewashing of whatever aspects of our religion and identity we don’t consider “fun and convenient” that creates conditions of misinformation that enable fascist ideologies to thrive. This is not the first time it has happened either.
Despite having several dire reasons to disengage with India—or at the very least, to censure Modi—American officials have kept tight-lipped. Senator Harris herself has offered no rebuke of Modi whatsoever, picking, once again, only the “fun and convenient” aspects of her own Hindu heritage to publicly acknowledge. This year, the Presidential election has seen the rise of “Brown-pandering” (appealing to the Indian diaspora for their votes, as they are being seen as a sizable voting bloc). But the absence of widespread critique of Indian-American politicians like Raja Krishnamoorti for sharing a stage with Modi and Trump, or of the Hindu American Foundation, not only leads to Hindutva philosophies entering the mainstream, but also betrays the U.S’ own hypocritical positions on Islamophobia and global imperialism.
This isn’t just a Trump problem. Sonal Shah—former national coordinator of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (the BJP-affiliated World Hindu Organization and a key player in the battle for building a Hindu temple on the site of a razed mosque in Ayodhya)—appears on an “AAPIs for Biden and South Asians for Biden” flyer, along with Raja Krishnamoorti. Amit Jani, Biden’s former AAPI national vote director is a Modi supporter. It’s clear that—despite the presence of Senator Harris on the ticket—no matter who wins (we’ve already suffered the Trump-Modi bromance), American Hindutva will continue to flourish with the blessing of whoever is in power. What pop culture will soften, both Democratic and Republic administrations will help harden into political ideology.
Madhuri Sastry is a writer and Marketing Director at Guernica. She holds two Masters’ Degrees in Law from New York University and The London School of Economics. Her political writing, personal essays, and cultural criticisms have appeared in several publications including Slate, Bitch, Catapult and NY Mag’s Grubstreet. She is an amateur – but dedicated – home cook. She lives with her partner, a corgi-mix, and about twenty plants in a concrete jungle.
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