The burning anger in the United States over issues of race, class and police brutality have revealed several conundrums about the place of Indian-origin people in general and Hindus in particular in the landscape of identity politics here. US-born students and activists of Indian origin who have traditionally identified as Desi, South Asian, or Brown (and are often very critical of Prime Minister Modi and “Hindu Nationalism”) have come out strongly in support of Black Lives Matter and other anti-racist movements. Others who identify as Hindus or Hindu Americans have responded though in a fragmented manner that reveals some complex questions in the community about privilege, race, and religion.
While some American Hindu organisations have expressed their condolences and condemnation of George Floyd’s brutal death, the everyday reactions from the community seem to be more concerned about the rioting and law and order situation than that of anti-black police brutality, reflecting a growing trend of Hindu Americans moving away from the Democratic party and its perceived priorities towards President Trump.
There are also comparisons being made in both the South Asian-identifying and the Hindu-identifying parts of the community of the current riots in the US with the anti-CAA protests and subsequent Hindu-Muslim riots in New Delhi earlier this year. One side tends to view the situation between Hindus and Muslims in India as similar to that between Whites and Blacks in the US, consistent with dominant views in academia which equate “Hindu Nationalism” with “White Nationalism,” while the other side largely seems to view the world through a popular social media defined right-left lens, with the left being cast as the cause of violence and unrest in both countries, often in collusion with Islamist interests.
However, while the South Asian position seems fairly stable in its equation of White privilege and Hindu privilege in the US and in India respectively, the understanding of politics within those identifying as Hindu seems increasingly complicated and divided between American Hindus who lean towards more progressive, transnational positions and those who equate Hindu identity and interests with a less aesthetic or spiritual and more nationalistic or self-labelled “RW” (right-wing) position.
This divide also seems to reflect changing trends in Indian American participation in US politics, with self-identified “RW” or “Nationalist” Hindus tending to be ardent supporters of President Donald Trump and more progressive Hindus rooting for Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (who is a member of the Democratic Party and was a former running mate of the progressive Senator Bernie Sanders but is still sometimes viciously criticised by some members of the South Asianist Left).
Congresswoman Gabbard (who is not of Indian descent but is a Hindu), initially enjoyed a great deal of support not only from progressive Hindus but also from the more nationalist or right-wing Hindus, until she disappointed them by withdrawing from a highly touted global “Hindu unity” event in Chicago two years ago (she indicated that she was withdrawing since the event was turning out to be less of a Hindu spiritual or cultural event and more of a platform for one political party in India, a “partisanship” concern, to use the American political catchphrase).
While Gabbard and her supporters, including supporters who are neither Hindus nor of Indian descent, often take positions against multiple forms of racism and religious bigotry, condemning Islamophobia, Anti-Semitism and Hinduphobia, the right-identifying Hindu community seems more invested in denying the existence of any form of discrimination or oppression except Hinduphobia (which explains their current petulance about condemning anti-black racism while continuing to accuse “leftists” of Hinduphobia against them).
This is not unlike the obdurate manner in which the South Asian academic-activist community often denies the validity of the idea of Hinduphobia and dismisses it as a Hindu Nationalist invention–even though it has been documented by the progressive British-based organisation Hindu Human Rights (HHR) to have been in use for over one hundred years. The earliest known use of the term “Hinduphobia” is in fact from a British newspaper in 1883, long before it got picked up by the modern “Hindu right-wing nationalists” on the internet and elsewhere!
At the heart of many of these tensions are not only broader political questions about the changing meanings of “left” and “right” but also questions about how race and religion impact issues of privilege and powerlessness. The anti-racist movement in the US has largely sidestepped this question, leading to distorted claims about the relationship between colonising and colonised religions, particularly in relation to Hinduism.
While the colour line is often the obvious marker of difference and subjugation for “Brown” Indians in America (one might recall in the light of George Floyd’s death the incident of brutality by an Alabama policeman against an Indian grandfather a few years ago that left him paralysed), the absence of a progressive discourse and movement to talk about the overlaps between racism and religious bigotry has led to a very complex and divided situation in the Indian American community.
Given this situation, it is not surprising perhaps that much of the community has divided itself into a simplistic, reductive and inaccurate right-versus-left polarisation. But the presence of a small but dedicated movement among progressives from outside this divide such as Tulsi Gabbard’s supporters suggests that a better form of identity politics might yet emerge from the presently much beleaguered American Dream.