There is a great deal of confusion in what is often called the Hindu (or “Indic” or “Nationalist” or “RW”) online space about the state of its relative strength in relation to that of their opponents. Some people believe that these entrenched Hinduphobes (“Left Liberals,” or “Leftists”) generally have been cut down to size by the “new, confident Hindu” in India and the diaspora led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. These people also explain that the increasingly bizarre pronouncements of the Hinduphobes in elite publications like the Guardian, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and The Hindu, reveal their loss of importance.
On the other hand, there are also people in the same online space who believe that the Hinduphobic forces or elements in mainstream media and institutions are actually not getting weaker, nor are they acting out from a position of helpless frustration. These are people who believe that anti-Hindu positions in the public sphere, especially on a global scale, have become far more pronounced, toxic, and dangerous since 2014, given the inability of Hindus as a community or Hindutva leaders as a political class to offer anything like real resistance or change to the entrenched Hinduphobia in important institutions of media and education. This is the case in India, and even more so perhaps in the global context.
In this brief article, I hope to sort out some of this confusion by sharing some hard facts on the state of Hinduphobia and Hindu Advocacy in the context of the American Hindu community’s decades-long struggles especially with academia. That American media, universities, and even K-12 school classrooms are factories of Hinduphobic discourse is well-known to a section of the Hindu community in America, and to Hindus in India. Controversies about weird (to put it mildly) Indology professors and colonial-era world history textbooks are well known in our community.
Since the late 1990s, Hindu American thought-leaders, content providers, internet influencers, and advocates have led several battles, mostly through the democratic, egalitarian channels of social media against these mighty institutions. Hindu “advocacy” groups continue to proliferate and flourish. Hindu American advocates seem chuffed, on the whole. They claim anywhere from 5-25 million Hindus in America (counting not just official Hindus but also Yoga Americans and vegetarians). They count on Indian-origin politicians winning elections (even if some of them “turn” after riding to office on their support). They also counted till recently on Donald Trump being Modiji’s friend, and the two stadium events they held together. Armed with many such metrics, and of course their own admirable personal success and that of their kids in spelling bees and Ivy Leagues, it has become easy to believe that the bastions of Hinduphobia in America are quivering before the confident, successful Hindu American advocacy effort.
I share below some objective indicators that might help us assess this situation more clearly. I focus on the word “Hinduphobia” because while there are debates among Hindus whether this word is accurate or not, I do not know of any other word in greater use among Hindus to describe historic hatred, bias or prejudice against Hinduism and Hindus.
I am aware of some of the criticisms and commentary of this term. People outside the Hindu/Indic/RW space of course don’t believe that Hinduphobia is real at all and argue that it’s a “Hindu Nationalist/BJP/RSS” conspiracy theory. There are also people within the RW/Indic/Hindu space who believe that the phenomena invoked by the word are real (there is real hatred against Hindus from various religious and political groups), but don’t like the word “Hinduphobia.” They insist that “phobia” implies people are scared of us and that’s not true. They argue that we shouldn’t use a word that sounds like a copy of “Islamophobia.” Of course, there are also many principled secular-RW sort of voices in this space who believe that the label Hinduphobia should be rejected because we shouldn’t be getting into “oppression Olympics,” or “playing victim” and such.
Having noted these positions and claims, let’s look at the facts. Here are two tables with some basic indicators that give us an idea of how much play “Hinduphobia” has in comparison to other terms that institutions today define, advance, and enforce as markers of “systemic oppression.
Despite all the noise-making on the internet and the rise of many blogs and portals, it would seem that the term “Hinduphobia” does not have the kind of popular resonance anywhere close to other concepts of systemic oppression (whether you agree with the merits of each of these claims or not).
Table 1 indicates that terms like Racism, Sexism, Islamophobia and even relatively recent terms like Transphobia have a lot more currency in terms of general usage. But I suppose all the Twitter trends and blogs do count for something.
Table 2 is a more important metric to consider. Academia in America, particularly the social science and humanities, have a far more influential role over the lives of people in the country (and the world) than many Indians, accustomed to thinking of non-STEM fields as “soft” subjects or irrelevant to the country’s progress, ever recognize.
It was in American social science departments that the science or pseudo-science was produced in order to drive policies affecting the lives of millions of people for good or for bad; whether IQ Tests for immigrants that led to major immigration bans in the early 20th century on racial-eugenics grounds, gender and sexuality laws and policies, or even more recently, the growing presence of anti-Caste statements and policies in universities and companies exclusively targeting Hindus. It is therefore important to note that “Hinduphobia” has very little currency in scholarly literature, unlike even fairly recent terms like Islamophobia and Homophobia. It should also be noted that even this number may be an exaggeration since sometimes the term shows up in scholarly work as a term that is being denied, not accepted.
It may be safe to conclude that whatever illusions internet warriors might be harboring about their influence on the world beyond their hand-held phone screens, the world of American higher education has found it quite comfortable to persist with its racist Hinduphobic beliefs and theories. And naturally, with no change at all in academia, it’s unlikely that Hindus are going to find protection from Hinduphobia in other major institutions that govern their lives. Despite moments of strong community mobilization like the California textbook hearings in 2016/17 for example, there has been no improvement at all in the conditions in mainstream institutions. It is no surprise that Hindus are heading towards facing intrusive and British-colonial-criminal-caste discourse style deprival of their rights as Hindus in America.
Hindu Americans are of course not entirely oblivious to the routine insults and lies they suffer every day from mainstream institutions. In the past few years, there have been many new initiatives announced. Hindu “advocacy” groups abound on Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Zoom, and some of them even have physical offices and staff. Much like Hindu organizations fighting for similar concerns in India, they seem to focus on networking with or promoting politicians. They also claim credit sometimes for some small gains here and there, often by assuming negotiating rights on behalf of aggrieved Hindus and declaring matters closed prematurely. This credit-claiming also gets awkward sometimes since independent Hindus acting on their own initiative find themselves drowned out by bigger publicity machines (within the community at least). All this is still perhaps understandable.
The bigger concern though is the negligible impact of these groups on bringing about anything resembling legitimacy and currency, let alone urgency, in the matter of fighting Hinduphobia in the mainstream conversation in America. Apart from the small rise in sympathy in a tiny group of independent (progressive and conservative) Americans inspired by Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard who has boldly used the term Hinduphobia multiple times in public, there is no drive anywhere to make Hinduphobia the concern of every American the way Anti-Semitism, Homophobia, Islamophobia and many other issues have been made a concern by the groups who care about their survival.
Ironically, the only effort that has been made along anything like public engagement in the mainstream has been by the children of Hindu immigrants under the label of South Asian solidarity. These student activists position themselves under the anti-Islamophobia BIPOC label, simultaneously denying that Hinduphobia exists and that it’s a fantasy of their upper-caste privileged Hindu parents, while also seeking vainly to smash the racism they face and can plainly see not only by self-righteous white racists but also by some of their own brown comrades. Their situation calls for a different analysis.
Why then is Hindu advocacy nowhere to be seen or heard in the American mainstream, in the institutions where it should matter? Here is one fundamental operational, or even existential, flaw in the whole project. Every “systemic oppression” concept has been advanced in America through a combination of courageous, in-your-face street activism, and careful, labor and cost-intensive, scholarly research (in the social sciences mainly) by professionals supported, respected, and listened to by their communities.
The image below illustrates how every concept that now enjoys the legitimacy of millions of hits in scholarly databases (and actual policies and laws) and everyday conversations has had a history of solid research backing it up, plus the muscle and throat power of street activism to make it matter to everyone at large.
Islamophobia, Homophobia, Sexism, Racism, and all these other terms matter today because they have been made to matter (it’s worth noting that the “RW” in America which the Indian RW admires has never fully rejected the basic currency of some of these terms; even President Trump never said “there’s no such thing racism” but only positioned himself as the better anti-racist than the Democrats in the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln). And it’s been made to matter not only by conspiratorial billionaires seeking to hijack these movements and control the world but by ordinary people, millions of them, fighting for the validity and urgency of these terms, in classrooms, and in the streets.
Hindus, on the other hand, have turned their snobbery, inaction and cowardice on this front into a virtue to boast about. The snobbery plays out hardest against teachers, professors, and scholars in fields that are not considered respectable in the community like STEM and MBA. And even among those Hindus concerned about Hinduphobia, their focus has been mostly on the field of religious studies rather than understanding that the problem isn’t just how Hinduism is taught in that field, but how Hindus are scapegoated in virtually every discourse in every other field too.
It’s not just the “Studies” fields normalizing Hinduphobia by setting up Hindus as White Supremacists (or even worse) but even fields like management and marketing (and I am told that is the case in Indian management conferences too). And the greatest denial of Hinduphobia these days comes not just from fringe “jhola” social science and arts people, but from the entrenched, privileged STEMBA elites of Silicon Valley and other hi-tech corners of the world.
That’s the cost of not having a Hindu voice, or an anti-Hinduphobia body of work in the social sciences. And that cost is showing up in the lives of Hindus everywhere. If you can’t even go vegan or vegetarian if you happen to have a “Hindu-sounding name” while everyone else is applauded for saving the planet by Greta for the same reason, you know you are being cornered by absurdities. And you should know by now you are really failing if it’s such ridiculous lies that are getting legs to dance around you and pretty soon walk all over you.
It is ultimately for every Hindu family to figure out what is happening in terms of both the reality of rapidly advancing Hinduphobic propaganda and dehumanization, and also the reality of the highly illusory, ineffective, and narcissistic nature of the so-called Hindu Advocacy bandwagon.
As a dissenting member of a key institution in the production of Hinduphobic discourses (higher education), and a researcher of yet another one (media), all I can say is that I feel that the community’s peddling of suicidal delusions as “Advocacy” is a far bigger problem than the worst elements of these Hinduphobic institutions. The “enemy,” as activists like the HHR group maintain, gets away with ever increasing Hinduphobia because it knows the Hindus who claim to be fighting on behalf of the community and even fund-raise from it are clueless.
Hinduphobia may not lack resources and has a long history of privilege, but its illegitimacy and mendacity are so glaringly obvious in this age when anti-colonialism and anti-racism are considered the most important principles for the young to live by and live for, and anti-Hinduphobia work fits those two concepts perfectly well. There’s only so long that the American grassroots Left (which is quite disgusted with the elitist hypocrisy and war-mongering of the “Liberal” talking Democrats and their South Asianist fans anyway) will wait before it realizes that it does not add up at all for supposed anti-racist White elites in Hollywood and Manhattan to be attacking indigenous POC Hindus the way they do now. It will fall, for sure. But only with the right action.
It will fall, but only if we admit to the biggest problem in our community which is the sheer lack of education, and humility about this lacking. We boast so much about our degrees and high median income in America, and of course, our traditions and Goddess Saraswati. And yet, it is only disdain for education (and educators, since there’s so few of us in the non-STEMBA fields in college or in the K-12 level), that has led to this sadly unmoored community floating rudderless from MacMansion to Costco to kids’ Ivy League drop off without a drop of paurusham (valour) or vivekam (wisdom) apparently to fight the battle in real life where it matters.
I conclude with a brief conceptual guide to clarify the path ahead in terms of thinking about Hinduphobia (or Anti-Hinduism, or whatever one might want to call it) in a more scholarly, social-scientific manner. The problem is not just that Hinduphobia suffers from poor play on the internet because there’s no Soros to drive a Hindu agenda or something. The problem is also that most internet-exclusive Hindu warriors throw the term about loosely without an understanding of the more careful ways in which the handful of professional scholars in the academia today are using it in their writing.
One of the many disservices done to the task of anti-Hinduphobia is the absence of even basic research in the matter of the history and career of this word. Internet fanboy lore commonly believes the word was revealed to a modern-day rishi after great penance on the threshold of Y2K apocalypse or something fairly recent at the very least.
This is a ludicrous claim and one that is easily verified by a Google search. The cultural studies researcher Sarah Gates has written that the term “Hinduphobia” has been in use since at least 1883. This is a very important finding. Unfortunately, with all the petty scuffling on “our side” for credit and echo-chamber caste-status, even the basic homework has been neglected, much to the advantage of those institutionally mendacious armies of Hindupobia.
To conclude, it is important to note that “Hinduphobia” is not an invention of the “Hindu Nationalist” BJP or “Yankee Hindutva” leaders as alleged by most academic experts on “South Asia.” It is in fact, as Gates writes, a “modern term for a far more ancient practice.” It was used in 1883, then in 1914, and later in the Constituent Assembly, and even by Sardar Patel. With that sort of pedigree in anti-colonialism, we should be infusing the idea with a lot more energy, discipline, and purity of intent, most of all.
Anti-Hinduphobia work needs to get on top of it, quickly, before we are saddled with the ignominious label of being the generation of Hindu parents that did what hundreds of our ancestors never did, which is to lose.
Sarah Gates aka Malini’s article is published at the Hindu Human Rights site and can be accessed here: https://www.hinduhumanrights.info/use-of-the-term-hinduphobia-1914-1997/
This article is based on a part of my recent lecture “Hinduphobia: A Media Studies Perspective” for Sangam Talks. The link to the lecture will be provided once the video is uploaded.
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