India is the world’s largest democracy and its Constitution enshrines secularism, but leaders in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) espouse an ideology called Hindutva, loosely “Hinduness”, often called “Hindu nationalism”. The Party is linked to groups such as the paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Bajrang Dal, and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, often collectively referred to as the Sangh Parivar. The RSS can be among the first groups to offer help after natural disasters, but its militants can also show extreme intolerance, including violence against religious minorities, and maligning writers and artists. Many senior officials in the Indian government, including current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are or have been RSS associates.
There have been Hindutva attacks on Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs. The most horrific instance was the 2002 killing of some two thousand Muslims in Gujarat after Muslim mobs were accused of having set fire to a train carrying Hindu nationalists, killing 58 people. Attacks against Christians are widespread and escalating.
Hindutva ideology can be distinguished from Hinduism itself. It demands neither a theocratic state nor Hinduism as a state ‘religion’. It is national-cultural project, rather than ‘religious’ in the strictly doctrinal sense used in the West, and self-identifies as the soul of India itself. Sangh Parivar militants maintain that religious minorities, including Muslims and secularists, could support Hindutva—and therefore if they do not, they are betraying the nation.
The mainstreaming of Hindutva politics, especially since the BJP returned to power in 2014 under Prime Minister Modi, has led to a widespread narrative that Hindus in India are in danger from Muslims as a result of population changes, interfaith marriage, and illegal Muslim immigration. This has led to discriminatory laws on citizenship and marriage.
The potential impact of Hindutva does not necessarily end at India’s borders. Some Hindu nationalists believe that an accurate map of India should include Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and have campaigned to rewrite Indian textbooks to reflect this. If this sentiment grows and results in a future expansionist foreign policy, India will be more likely to clash again with Pakistan and other neighbors, including China.
The Spread of Hindutva
In recent years, there have been attempts to mobilize Indian émigrés, perhaps the largest diaspora in the world, in support of Hindutva goals. Because of British imperial history, many efforts are in the English-speaking world. Overseas Indians cannot vote but can retain strong connections with India and often wield much influence. As with other diasporas, most of these connections are simply retained links with the mother country and family. But the rise in the BJP’s global support, often through social media, has coincided with a rise of radical groups.
In 2019, EU DisinfoLab, an organization that tracks disinformation campaigns, reported the existence of a large network of fake local news sites set up to spread pro-Modi, Hindutva, and anti-Pakistan misinformation. 265 of these sites in some sixty-five countries were registered to just one entity, the Delhi-based Srivastava Group.
Overseas funding for the BJP is opaque but appears substantial. The Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP) claims forty-six branches worldwide, significant political clout, and substantial funds. (Indians are the wealthiest ethnic group in the United States and Merrill Lynch categorises more than 200,000 Indian-Americans as millionaires). In 2020, OFBJP was required to register in the U.S. as a foreign agent. The Indian charity Sewa International appears be a wealthy affiliate of the RSS: the UK Charity Commission has investigated its classification of £2 million as “earthquake relief”. Laws introduced in 2017 by then Minister of Finance and Corporate Affairs, Arun Jaitley, designated donations from “foreign entities” as “unknown sources”. 50% of the BJP’s 2019 campaign coffer was from such “unknown sources”. In 2018, the World Bank reported that $80bn was remitted to India from its diaspora—but this would be mostly non-political contributions.1
Apart from funding, Hindu-related groups were active in the 2016 presidential elections in the U.S., especially with the Republican Hindu Coalition. Of course, Hindu groups are as free as Christian, Jewish, Muslim or any other groups to politically promote their views and interests, and much of this is simply interest-group politics. But there are signs of darker currents.
In August 2022, the Indian Business Association came under fire for bringing bulldozers, featured with the faces of Modi and Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu monk and BJP official who serves as the chief minister of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, to two India Day parades in New Jersey. Bulldozers have become a symbol of anti-Muslim activity in India as they have been used to demolish Muslim activists’ homes held to be illegal structures. Hindutva activists have celebrated Adityanath as “bulldozer baba” for these demolitions.
Some groups have been accused of trying to undermine academic freedom on university campuses by targeting scholars whose work on India differs from that purveyed by Hindutva writers. In September 2021, organizers of an American academic conference on Hindutva received rape and death threats.
After March 2021, when Audrey Truschke, a professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University in New Jersey, began researching Indian nationalism, she received many verbal attacks. She had received hate mail before, but the severity of this new abuse was unprecedented. She and her family were threatened and, after several credible threats, venues that hosted her hired armed security.
In the U.K., in the lead-up to the 2016 London mayoral elections, Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith sent what appeared to be anti-Muslim campaign literature to Hindus to undercut his Muslim Labour Party opponent Sadiq Khan. In the 2019 general election, British Hindus received many WhatsApp messages, which included videos by Hindu anti-Muslim activists. There were reports that Hindu nationalist groups actively campaigned for Conservative candidates, perhaps because Labour’s then-leader, Jeremy Corbyn, had criticized the Modi government’s 2019 crackdown in Indian-administered Kashmir. Many of these groups are reported to be linked to the BJP and thus their actions would be attempts to influence an overseas election.
In 2022, there was sporadic intercommunal violence. In May, a Muslim teenager in Leicester had to be hospitalized after an attack by a Hindu crowd. Things came to a head in August. After India’s win against Pakistan in a cricket match, a Hindu group walked through the streets in Muslim areas chanting “Death to Pakistan” before attacking a Sikh man. Similar events took place after a later cricket match between the two countries that India lost. In response, groups of Muslim men have also held protests—in one instance, pulling down a flag from outside a Hindu religious center.
On 17 September 2022, some young Hindu men attacked Muslims as they marched through Leicester’s streets while screaming “Jai Sri Ram,” which has become a war cry for some Hindu nationalists. Of course, in the U.K., violence after soccer games is neither new nor rare. But violence after cricket games, as distinct from celebrations, is new, especially riots that have pronounced national, ethnic, and religious elements. This is a dangerous development.
In Canada, in December 2021, anti-Sikh slogans and a Hindu swastika were painted as graffiti on a Sikh school. As in the United States, Canadian academics have been harassed and faced death and rape threats from diaspora Hindutva supporters for criticizing the Modi government. In June 2022, Ron Banerjee, a Canadian Hindu nationalist openly called for the genocide of Muslims and Sikhs. “It is awesome what Modi is doing”, he said in a YouTube interview. “I support the killing of Muslims and Sikhs in the Republic of India because they deserve to die.”
In Australia, Vishal Sood was arrested for a series of attacks on Sikhs, and when he was convicted of the assaults, he was also deported since his visa had expired. When he returned to India, he received a hero’s welcome.
In Australia, as in other countries, there have been attempts to silence academics critical of Hindutva. These have included steps by Indian authorities in Australia to silence critics both of Modi and Hindu nationalist policies. Thirteen academic fellows resigned from the Australia-India Institute at the University of Melbourne stating that there had been interference from the Indian High Commission in the Institute’s work, including attempts to censoring research that might present an “unflattering” image of India.
In New Zealand, when Mohan Dutta, a professor at Massey University and himself a Hindu, expressed his fears over the rise of Hindu nationalism in the country, his concerns were derided by the New Zealand Hindu Council. He suffered a torrent of abuse from Hindutva extremists, including being told, “If you were in India, you would be burnt.” Dutta approached the police about this but was told there was little they could do since the worst abuse actually originated in India itself.
So far, Hindutva’s overseas influence is limited. It is usually manifest in seeking political influence in diaspora countries and support, financial and otherwise, for Hindutva activities in India itself. However, there are increasing threats to academics and others critical of the Sangh Parivar agenda. Finally, in the last two years, there have been incidents of violence. The situation is likely to worsen.