In April, Indian student Karan Kataria alleged that the London School of Economics and Political Science in the United Kingdom had disbarred him from students’ union election because of his identity – putting a spotlight on how Hindutva identity politics is increasingly playing out overseas and influencing the Indian diaspora.
Hindutva organisations, influential diaspora members and social media have played a role in pushing Hindutva beyond India’s borders, which also raises concerns of potential social disharmony in their host countries, experts say.
Kataria alleged that his disqualification was the result of a smear campaign launched against him because he is of “Indian and Hindu identity”. “I am a staunch follower of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, but so is Prime Minister Narendra Modi,” Kataria told The Indian Express. “Why target me for being a Hindu nationalist?”
He alleged that the refusal of the London School of Economics Students’ Union to act on Indian students’ complaints of being “bullied and targeted” over their nationality and “Hindu identities” on polling day was evidence of its “Hinduphobia”.
In response, the students’ union said it was investigating the allegations, but suggested that Kataria was disqualified for breaching election rules that require candidates to maintain a two-metre distance from voters. The union added that it would constitute an external review.
Uncharacteristically, the Indian High Commission in London said it had “noted Karan’s concerns”. Even more unusually, Manohar Lal Khattar, the chief minister of Haryana, from where Kataria hails, also wrote to the London School of Economics, asking it to “protect [Kataria] from discrimination on account of his beliefs or race”.
This was not the first Hindutva controversy at a foreign university. In March 2021, Rashmi Samant, a student from India, had alleged that she had been forced to resign as the president-elect of the Oxford University Students’ Union because of her Hindu faith. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s youth wing promptly backed Samant. India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had said he would raise the matter with the UK.
However, the Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality, an Oxford students’ union initiative, had suggested that Samant had been asked to resign because of her purported antisemitic and racist social media posts, not because of her identity. The university’s Hindu Society had also rejected Samant’s allegations of identity-based discrimination.
Replicating Indian politics abroad
Beyond academia, Hindutva identity politics has also played out in the Indian diaspora in recent years.
In August and September, tensions erupted between Hindus and Muslims in Leicester, United Kingdom after an India-Pakistan cricket match. At one point, a Hindu group reportedly walked through the city’s streets chanting “Jai Shri Ram”, a religious phrase that has been adopted by Hindutva groups as a political slogan. Muslim groups reportedly responded with protests and, in one instance, allegedly tore down a saffron flag from outside a Hindu religious centre.
The Leicester communal unrest points to a deeper political divide in the UK. In recent years, British-Indian Hindus and Muslims have reportedly split on party lines. British-Indian Hindus have reportedly moved right towards the Conservative Party and the Muslims have largely remained with the progressive Labour party. The Overseas Friends of BJP, a powerful diaspora group, has also extended its support to the Conservatives.
Similarly, in the US, Indian-American Hindus are increasingly gravitating towards the Republican Party while Muslims remain with the Democrats. Commentators such as Seema Sirohi suggest that this division on religious lines is influenced by Hindutva politics playing out in India. In March, the Republicans even sponsored a resolution in Georgia condemning Hinduphobia.
There have been similar communal fissures between Indian Hindus and Sikhs. In March, the Haryanvi Hindu community had organised a “pro-Bharat” car rally in Brisbane, Australia, purportedly in response to “Khalistani propaganda”. This followed clashes between Hindus and Sikhs over the alleged vandalism of a Hindu temple and a so-called Khalistan referendum in Australia.
There have also been allegations about Hindu temples being vandalised in Canada, where there have been similar tensions between the two diaspora groups. In November, the Hindu diaspora had heckled a town’s mayor for allowing a so-called Khalistani referendum and asked him to remove purportedly anti-Hindu banners. The World Sikh Organization of Canada and the National Council of Canadian Muslims have alleged that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Overseas Friends of the BJP and affiliate groups are advancing a Hindutva agenda in Canada.
It is not only India’s communal politics, but also caste politics that is playing out overseas. A month after the US city of Seattle passed Indian-American Kshama Sawant’s resolution outlawing caste discrimination, a Hindu advocacy group on April 5 protested introduction of a similar bill in California. They appealed to lawmakers not to presume that Hindus are guilty of caste discrimination or single them out.
However, other members of the Indian diaspora such as Raju Rajagopal, co-founder of advocacy group Hindus for Human Rights, suggest that protestors are citing “Hinduphobia” to avoid criticism of caste discrimination. “Only those who act out their caste biases in the workplace or in schools and colleges should be afraid of [the bill],” Rajagopal suggests.
‘Hindutva politics has gone global’
These developments can be attributed to the role played by Hindutva organisations in host countries, experts suggest. “Hindutva politics has gone global precisely because the Indian Hindu diaspora has worked to mainstream Hindu nationalism abroad and protect the BJP regime and Narendra Modi from international sanction,” argued Somdeep Sen, associate professor of global and development studies at Denmark’s Roskilde University.
Audrey Truschke, a historian at Rutgers University in the US, said that the Sangh began establishing Hindu nationalist groups overseas in the 1940s. “...Many such diaspora organisations have been part of the social fabric of their respective nations – generally working for far-right goals – for decades,” she said.
The proliferation of Hindutva beyond India has been hastened by the attention the BJP has given to the Hindu diaspora, said Sen. “Modi and Hindu nationalist figurations have invested significantly in building and solidifying ties with the Hindu diaspora community, making them feel invested – as stakeholders – in India’s future at the global stage,” he told Scroll.
For example, the BJP has harnessed Modi’s personality to deepen ties with the diaspora by organising Indian community events in places such as the United Kingdom and the United States. While the BJP maintains that these are volunteer-organised events and neither its overseas wing nor the government plays any role in these outreach events, officials linked to the party have reportedly been involved.
“For this reason, the diaspora has been a vociferous cheerleader of ‘brand’ India abroad,” said Sen.
He noted that while newer migrants do contribute to promoting Hindutva, older diaspora members have had greater impact. “It is their economic and socio-political clout that has helped in establishing the global appeal of Hindutva,” he added.
In addition, social media has played an important role in mainstreaming Hindutva politics overseas. “People are now much more aware of what others are doing and saying – and can very easily react online, which helps provoke real life protest,” said Paul Marshall, senior fellow at Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. “[The] internet amplifies more extreme voices.”
In fact, the UK police suggested that social media played a “huge role” in fuelling the Leicester unrest.
In a similar vein, Rajagopal argues that the Modi government’s supposed control over mainstream narrative is a factor. “What’s different from the past is that [the diaspora is] now hearing only what the Modi government wants them to hear,” Rajagopal told Scroll.
A matter of concern
This growing Hindutva influence in the diaspora is a matter of concern for their host nations, experts caution.
Sen suggests that Hindutva, a “divisive force” within India, could have a similar impact outisde India if it is left unchecked. “As we saw with the events in Leicester, the violence that is fundamental to Hindutva is bound to spill over abroad,” he said. “We have now seen hateful, Islamophobic discourse being spouted by Hindu nationalists in the diaspora. There have also been attacks on Muslim and Sikh communities in Australia, United States and Canada.”
This may threaten local values. “Hindutva is a violent, hateful ideology that preaches against diversity,” Truschke said. “It is dangerous for any society and is diametrically opposed to core American values of equality and religious freedom.”
However, Marshall suggests that the US’ concerns about Hindutva’s surge there remain muted because it needs strong strategic ties with India. “The US overriding concern is for India to be an ally against China, so any criticism of Hindutva will be mild and private,” Marshall said.
Despite this, Hindutva is still a minority position within the Hindu diaspora, experts such as Marshall said. In fact, there is also pushback to it. “Amongst the diaspora itself, there is worry that [Hindus] will be identified with the radicals and stigmatised,” Marshall told Scroll.
Truschke suggests that Hindutva groups overseas are also finding it difficult to conceal alleged increase in Hindutva-linked violence in India. “Many Hindu nationalist groups are…facing pushback from within the diaspora as many South Asians vociferously object to the undercutting of democracy under BJP rule,” she added.