At a gathering a couple of years ago in the Maharashtra hill station of Panchgani organised by Professor Rajmohan Gandhi, I was challenged by an angry young man: “Keep your Hinduism in your house. Why do you need to bring it into the streets?”

The young man could have been a conservative Hindu offended by my articulation of a progresive Hindu identity that opposes both caste and Hindutva. Or he could have been a secular Indian who felt that my identifying publicly as Hindu was an assertion of caste and majoritarian privilege. I and my colleagues have experienced both types of pushback simply for identifying as Hindu.

My response was: I am a practicing Hindu. I love Sita and Rama. But “Jai Shri Ram” has become a murder chant. I would much rather keep my faith in my house, in my heart. But because others have brought an aberration of my faith to the streets, I have no choice but to meet them in the streets. The only alternative would be to renounce my Hindu identity. And then the murderers will have won.

At an interfaith gathering in Madurai, this time organised by late Swami Agnivesh, the participants were arguing whether Hinduism really exists, and whether it is a religion. In my frustration I said, “While we argue about whether Hinduism exists or not, the country we love is being turned into a Hindu rashtra.”

A monolithic Hinduism

I speak in this academic conference [The Dismantling Global Hindutva conference that was held from September 10-September 12] with humility but also with urgency, bringing an activist perspective from the field, and also acknowledge that I have all the privileges of being an upper-caste born Hindu. My organisations Sadhana and Hindus for Human Rights are committed to working with universities, professors and students who are committed to freedom of thought and speech. Indeed, over 400 scholars and academics readily signed a statement of solidarity with us when the Hindu American Foundation filed a SLAPP [strategic lawsuit against public participation] lawsuit against us and our allies to try and silence us for speaking out against Hindutva.

In our advocacy, we state clearly that Hindutva ideology is not the same as the Hinduism that we aspire to, but we cannot deny that proponents of Hindutva are doing so as Hindus, in the name of a monolithic Hinduism. As Shana Sippy put it, not all Hinduism is Hindutva, but Hindutva is clearly one manifestation of Hinduism. It is also important to remember, though, that the founders of Hindutva were not men of religion, but atheists and political ideologues. But today, adherents of Hindutva do their work in Hindu spaces, and this is the oxygen of Hindutva.

We are not trying to reclaim some glorious pre-Hindutva version of Hinduism. As previous speakers have pointed out, it is undeniable that Hindutva is influenced by the long histories of casteism and patriarchy in Hindu traditions as well as 20th-century European fascism.

We are trying to envision, articulate, and actually create a new vision for Hindu identity, one that can be lived now. As my guru Dr Anantanand Rambachan says, “The meaning of being Hindu must not continue to require the demeaning of another human being.”

We recognise this is an audacious experiment, especially given Dr BR Ambedkar’s powerful critiques of Hinduism, but we believe it is worth undertaking.

And we are determined not to make the same mistakes of the Hindu reformers who invited Ambedkar to speak at their conference and then retracted the invitation after reading the speech that became Annihilation of Caste.

As Ambedkar himself said in 1936 in his speech, “[Hindus] must give a new doctrinal basis to your Religion – a basis that will be in consonance with Liberty, Equality and Fraternity; in short, with Democracy.”

It is tragic that, barring a few exceptions, not a single Hindu religious leader or scholar has seriously, deeply engaged with Ambedkar’s challenge. But today, in order to defeat Hindutva, we must also take up Ambedkar’s challenge. We cannot prioritise defeating Hindutva over annihilating caste – we must do both.

I have been asked by anti-caste activists how a religion that creates and perpetuates caste can be a foundation for justice.

I am deeply troubled by caste and also the gender injustice in my religion and community.

But I have also been empowered and liberated by a religious tradition which has taught me that we are all one; that God is in every one of us, and in every part of the universe. And most important of all, we each must do our dharma with all our heart without paying mind to success and failure.The Rig Veda tells us to let noble thoughts come from all directions. In other words we should remain open to views and beliefs different to our own. These simple tenets have served me throughout my life. Brahmachariji Sharan, the Hindu chaplain of Georgetown University, once defined his own Hinduism thus: “Question everyone, and follow no one blindly.”

As Ambedkar himself hinted in a sentence of Annihilation of Caste and in a chapter of Riddles in Hinduism, Hindu traditions most certainly have the resources to be a solid foundation for justice.

We now have two US-based progressive and anti-caste Hindu organisations.

One is Sadhana, focused on social justice in the United States.

Sadhana has a network of progressive priests who perform weddings, pujas and rituals where caste is not mentioned, where there is gender equality and the honouring of the earth.

In our satsangh with Desi Rainbow Parents & Allies, an organisation for parents and families of LGBTQ+ children, the queer and trans community members present said that this was the first time they had felt whole in a Hindu space.

The other is Hindus for Human Rights, whom I am representing here today. Hindus for Hindus Rights adds an anti-caste, anti-Hindutva Hindu voice to all the urgent advocacy for human rights and religious freedom in India; and also in the Indian diaspora. Our religious identity has given us legitimacy to be part of the interfaith forums and faith-based advocacy platforms that have, until now, been monopolised by Hindutva-aligned organisations.

Both organisations are the only Hindu organisations who participated in interfaith protests at the US-Mexico border during Trump’s presidency; or are members of Rev William Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign.

Both organisations are committed to being allies to Dalit rights organisations and struggles. Whether it is the CISCO case where a Dalit employee and the state of California have sued the company for caste-based discrimination, or the BAPS temple in New Jersey, which reportedly hired 200 Indian labourers, mostly Dalit, confiscated their passports and paid them a dollar an hour, we are trying to do all we can to support and amplify the struggle. We step forward and are public when asked; and we also step back and play a supporting role.

When I stood outside a stadium in Houston protesting the Howdy Modi event in September 2019, I felt honoured to stand with my friends in Indian American Muslim Council, but I also felt heartbroken that I didn’t meet a single other Hindu at the protest. The streams of Hindus filing into the stadium could have been my own relatives dressed up for a wedding. Those that caught my eye glared at me with nothing short of hatred.

But in that moment, as sad as I was, I realised that this was where I needed to be. To call myself a Hindu necessitates that I stand up against all injustice everywhere, particularly injustice perpetrated by Hindus. I see the Gita as a call to action, and this is my action, to stand as a Hindu against hatred and violence.

It is an extraordinary achievement that this conference bravely stayed the course despite the vicious trolling. It has been highly personal for all of us in Hindus for Human Rights who have been fighting this battle with our own community.

We understand that the centuries-old atrocity of caste has rendered our religious traditions irredeemable in the eyes of many who have faced the brutal brunt of them. We do not argue with them or try and convince them otherwise. But we are fiercely committed to the work of reforming our traditions, and will just keep showing up to do the work.

Perhaps we will persuade some Hindus who are influenced by Hindutva to join us on a more compassionate path against caste and Hindutva; and I hope our justice movements will find a place for them. Our liberation is bound up with each other. We all rise or fall together.

Sunita Viswanath is the co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights. This is the text of the speech she delivered at the Dismantling Global Hindutva conference that was held from September 10-September 12.