I will never forget that cold and rainy day in New York in March 2011. I was part of an inter-faith vigil to support the creation of a Muslim cultural centre at lower Manhattan, close to Ground Zero of the September 11, 2001, attack. Just as I began to lament the absence of Hindus at the vigil (as is often the case), I heard a beautiful Hindu prayer over a megaphone. But to my horror, I realised the prayer was being sung by a saffron-clad man on the other side of the police line, who was protesting because he believed that to build a Muslim centre and mosque close to Ground Zero was to dishonour the hundreds that died at the hands of Muslim terrorists on 9/11.
Until then, my Hinduism had been private and my activism public. But on that day, I vowed to never again allow someone to use Hinduism to preach hatred in my presence without countering them saying: “Not in my name.”
But even as I write this piece, I come across news of yet another lynching in India – this time of a 15-year-old Muslim boy died after he and his brothers were allegedly attacked by a group of 10-12 Hindu men on a train.
This is not the Hinduism I recognise, or accept.
In 2011, a few of us created the group Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, headquartered in New York, because we could no longer bear that there was no politically progressive Hindu voice in the face of a growing and rampantly Islamophobic and casteist Hindu nationalist movement. Sadhana’s founders and members are Hindus who were raised to believe that the heart of our religion is pluralistic. We were taught to embrace the teachings of oneness of all (ekatva), compassion and nonviolence to all beings and all the universe (ahimsa). We have worked hard over the years – writing, speaking, marching, organising events and holding Hinduism classes for children that are grounded in the teachings of social justice at the heart of Hindu texts – and have been recognised for our efforts.
In the years since we began, our numbers have grown, but not nearly enough.
What has, meanwhile, grown in monstrous proportions in this period is the movement of Hindu nationalists.
Amid the growing incidents of lynching, in recent weeks we have come across several articles by writers and intellectuals in India asking the same question in various ways: Where are the progressive Hindus?
In the Wire, Harsh Mander asked: “Where are India’s Dissenting Hindus?”
In the Hindustan Times, Ramchandra Guha wrote:
“Hindu liberalism, once so vigorous and on the ascendant, is increasingly besieged, as the leadership of the community passes into the hands of bigots and reactionaries. Having (to quote Gandhi) once lived in a house whose windows were kept open to let the breeze from outside come in freely, having once (to invoke Tagore) gloried in the illumination of a lamp lit anywhere in the world, Hindu leaders are now turning inwards, looking backwards.
And large sections of the community are following their lead. Thus ever larger numbers of Hindus ‘seem to have locked their sensibilities with a huge padlock and have thrown the key away’. Besides, ‘it has become difficult to open that lock. If you choose to break it open you are considered an enemy of Hinduism and an anti-Hindu person’.”
Ananya Vajpeyi, in a piece for Scroll.in, spoke of the erosion of public empathy and warned, “Vaishnav jan to tene kahiye je peed paraai jaane re. Soon there will be no one of that description left in the majoritarian Hindu Rashtra.”
Also on Scroll.in, Samar Halarnkar wrote in the context of the response to recent lynchings: “But this is not just about the conservative Hindu Right. What is not in evidence among most Hindus is condemnation, sympathy for those lynched or public expressions of unity with minorities.”
Speaking up as a Hindu
In my experience, everyone speaking up for human rights in India, even if their name sounds Hindu, is loath to identify as one. And anyone identifying publicly as a Hindu, almost without exception, supports the idea of Hindutva.
I have reached out to numerous progressive Hindu-born Indian thinkers and activists, including some of those quoted above, asking if they would identify as a Hindu when they critique and condemn Hindutva. They either explain politely that they are not religious, or say that they are avowed secularists and to speak up as a Hindu in India would alienate minority communities, cause non-Hindu allies to mistrust them, and compromise their commitment to secularism.
Generally, Indian Leftists and progressives react to the notion of a progressive Hindu movement with respectful scepticism. I am sometimes told that Hinduism and Hindus are irredeemable because our scriptures are casteist and elitist at their core.
The result is that practicing Hindus who are against the violent Islamophobia of the Hindu right feel alienated from and unwelcome in the human rights movements in India. Keeping this massive group out strikes me as a strategic, ethical and practical blunder, if the desired goal is justice for all.
The response that many practicing Hindus have to the deep suspicion of Hinduism and Hindus on the part of Leftists and progressives is an understandably defensive one: all Leftists and progressives are accused of being anti-Hindu or Hindu-phobic. The anger that ought to be directed at Hindu nationalists ends up being directed at Leftists and progressives. Any critique of Hindutva is seen as a critique of Hinduism itself and of all Hindus.
Asking “Where are the progressive or dissenting Hindus?” and bemoaning the rise of violent Hindutva is no longer enough. It is imperative we work together to open the eyes of practicing Hindus. Many may be quietly living their lives, praying rather than protesting – perhaps too afraid, too apathetic, or just too worn out to rise up against Hindutva. I believe many are grieving the deaths of those lynched at the hands of Hindus, but just feel powerless. We need to include them, mobilise them, inspire them to take a stand.
When progressive Jews (both practicing religious Jews and those who aren’t religious) advocate for Palestinian rights and an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, they do so as Jews who refuse to cede the public voice of Judaism to right-wing Islamophobic Jews who are committing human rights atrocities.
I call on every Hindu Indian who cares about justice, whether they are religious or not, to speak up as Hindu, and refuse to cede Hinduism and the Hindu public voice to those who want to make India a Hindu Rashtra.
Sunita Viswanath is a co-founder and board member at Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus.