Published by Truthdig.com on February 26, 2016
An Indian student demands the resignation of India’s education minister as she is detained by police during a protest over the suicide last month of Ph.D. candidate Rohith Vemula in New Delhi. (Altaf Qadri / AP)
Indian democracy is in such grave danger from right-wing religious fundamentalism and nationalism that it is even affecting the United States.
The world’s largest democracy, India is in the throes of a deep internal battle to preserve its democratic values. The country has for years struggled to tackle caste-based oppression, poverty and communal violence. But now, under the leadership of a virulently right-wing government, Hindu supremacy, nationalism and the resulting crackdown on dissent are blowing over onto all aspects of society. They are even affecting U.S. politics, with wealthy Hindu fundamentalists in India seeking to support Republican bigotry here.
Ever since the election of Narendra Modi as prime minister, a heavy pall over free speech akin to American McCarthyism has spread across college campuses and other civil society institutions. Modi’s Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sees itself as preserving upper-caste Hindu supremacist values in a multicultural, multireligious and multicaste society. The party and its cohorts have equated nationalism with Hinduism, and in doing so have cracked down cruelly on academics, artists, activists and more. Critics of the BJP warned in 2014 when Modi was elected that the party would usher India into a dangerous new era. It appears this prediction has come true, even though Modi’s Western allies seem not to have noticed.
The latest series of events can be traced to the high-profile suicide of a promising young Ph.D. student named Rohith Vemula in the state of Hyderabad last month. Vemula was a member of the historically oppressed Dalit castes. He was accused of having “anti-national” political sentiments and was among a group of scholars suspended from Hyderabad Central University last year. In his suicide note, the young Dalit wrote, “My birth is my fatal accident.” His death led to a deep questioning of how free India’s academics and activists are.
Just weeks later, another student-related controversy emerged, that time at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), one of the country’s most esteemed academic institutions. Student members of activist groups there were caught on film chanting slogans deemed “anti-Indian” and were roughed up and arrested. The students were marking the anniversary of the 2013 execution of Mohammed Afzal Guru, who was convicted of charges related to a 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament over the Kashmir conflict.
So enthusiastic were the witch hunters of these so-called “anti-nationals” that a group of lawyers was found to have brutalized one of the arrested students inside a courthouse. A news outlet lured one of the lawyers, Vikram Singh Chauhan, into admitting on tape that he beat up the JNU student union president, Kanhaiya Kumar, so badly that the young man “wet his pants.” The lawyer and his co-conspirators forced Kumar to chant a nationalist slogan, “Long Live Mother India,” to stave off more blows. The assault lasted three hours. Another lawyer, Yashpal Singh, boasted that if he was arrested for participating in the attack, he would “go to the same jail and visit Kanhaiya [Kumar]’s cell, and beat him up.” Singh indeed was arrested, on Tuesday.
The fact that lawyers, whose job it is to know and understand the rights of all, are among the perpetrators of this crackdown is shocking. According to one report, “Hundreds of lawyers had marched in New Delhi on Friday [Feb. 19], demanding action against certain JNU students whom they dubbed ‘anti-national.’ Led by Chauhan and Singh, the protesting lawyers raised slogans like ‘Do not spare traitors’ and ‘Vande Mataram.’ ”
Another JNU student, among the half-dozen who have been branded as traitors, is Umar Khalid, who by virtue of his Muslim name has been forced to declare “I’m not a terrorist.” Protesters waving Indian flags have reportedly been demonstrating outside JNU and calling for Khalid’s arrest.
Even sectors of the Indian media are involved in the whipping up of nationalist frenzy. Khalid indicted news coverage for his plight, saying, “[t]he media, all this while, presented a lot of things about me.” A media watchdog group, Hoot, accused a leading network, Zee News, of having “fuelled state action against JNU students” and said that “Zee TV’s programs amounted to incitement against the students of JNU.” In the lead-up to Kumar’s arrest, Zee repeatedly aired a video clip showing students chanting, among other things, “Long live Pakistan”—considered the most offensive of slogans.
So disgusted was one Zee News reporter over his employer’s role in fomenting anger against the students that he publicly resigned in protest. Vishwa Deepak asserted in his resignation letter, “After May 2014, when Narendra Modi has become the PM, almost every newsroom of the country has been communalized. … Why is it that all news is written by adding a ‘Modi angle’? Stories are written keeping in mind how it will benefit the agenda of the Modi government. … It feels like we are the spokespersons of the government.”
Another victim of this broad crackdown on dissent is the Indian writer best known to American audiences, Arundhati Roy. Roy published an article last May sympathizing with a Delhi University professor, G.N. Saibaba, who was arrested for speaking out against a government “cleanup” operation of Maoist insurgents in central India. A court held her in contempt simply for expressing her views in print, and Roy now faces the possibility of prison time.
Those accused of being anti-national such as Kumar, Khalid and even Roy are facing a British-era charge of sedition, designed to root out resistance to the former colonial power. A high-profile former justice of the Supreme Court of India, N. Santosh Hegde, justified the legal targeting of students and academics by saying,“I believe in sedition law. I am a patriot. Any patriot cannot go on abusing the country. There are certain parameters.”
At the same time the government is accusing academics of sedition, the Modi administration is facing a serious backlash from upper-caste Hindus who voted for the BJP in the hope of increasing their power and privilege. Saying they are suffering just as much poverty and unemployment as lower-caste Indians, groups like the Jats in Haryana violently revolted to demand access to a quota system reserved for Dalits and other so-called “scheduled caste” communities in various northern Indian cities. So far, dozens have died as police and the Indian army have struggled to rein in the protests.
This Indian struggle to define who is truly Indian and even Hindu has spilled over to the United States. A U.S.-based nonprofit group called the Dharma Civilization Foundation (DCF) recently offered the University of California at Irvine a $3 million endowment for academic positions to study Hinduism. A petition signed by hundreds urged UC Irvine to reject the funds, claiming, “The DCF is part of a right-wing Hindu group of organizations that has been known to undermine Indian pluralism through an agenda that seeks to redefine true ‘Indianness’ in terms of a historically-fabricated continuity in ‘Indic’ religions (a list of religions that excludes the sub-continent’s traditions of Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism), and a privileging of upper-caste, ‘Vedic’ Hindu identity.” To its credit, the university seems to be moving away from accepting the funds, but the DCF has already successfully infiltrated the University of Southern California and Claremont Lincoln University with similar endowed chairs.
Another similarly named U.S.-based nonprofit, the Center for the Study of Dharma and Civilization, says on its website that Hindu nationalists should “[a]nnihilate the immediate existential threat from the Communist terrorists, Islamic Jihadists and Christian missionaries who have enslaved your country.” The group’s manifesto adds without irony in written English, “Make spoken Sanskrit the sole recognized language of your nation.”
If this sentiment sounds eerily familiar to Americans, it is because the growing trend of upper-caste Hindu nationalism is a parallel to right-wing nationalism in the U.S., exemplified by the increasing popularity of Donald Trump. Large portions of Trump’s supporters in South Carolina were recently found to harbor xenophobic and nationalist views such as wanting to immediately deport all undocumented immigrants and bar the entry of Muslims to the U.S.
It should come as no surprise, then, that a group calling itself Indian Americans for Trump 2016 announced itself as a political action committee to support the demagogue’s candidacy. Group President A.D. Amar claimed, “I have never seen Indians so united behind a candidate.” A Facebook page called Hindus for Trump, posting the news about the PAC, features a bizarre-looking logo of Trump sitting in a red-white-and-blue-rendered lotus position with the Hindu “om” symbol.
Another group, the Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC), has poured millions of dollars into the effort to elect GOP politicians. The group’s founder, Shalabh Kumar, reportedly “is close to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, [and] has relationships in the Republican Party dating back to the Reagan administration.” The RHC, formed in November, sees itself as “modeled after the highly successful Republican Jewish Coalition.” Members describe themselves as “Hindu Americans,” eschewing identifications based on national origin such as Indian-American.
When Modi visited the U.S. in September, President Obama called him a “good friend” and boasted of how “[w]e’ve elevated our ties. We’ve committed ourselves to a new partnership between our two countries.” Modi responded, “This meeting and my engagement in the U.S. demonstrate the extraordinary depth and diversity of our relationship.”
Western governments, including the U.S., touting their friendship with Modi risk condoning the dangerous trend of caste- and religion-based Hindu supremacy originating in India and spreading across Indian and even U.S. campuses and to political parties.