The Dismantling Global Hindutva conference, or the DGH, held between 10-12 September, apparently started out as a small group of academics planning a modest gathering to explore the dangers of Hindutva ideology. But it soon attracted the attention of so many academics that it mushroomed into an international event with over 70 co-sponsors from over 50 universities. This was unprecedented.
The momentum of the conference also drew the ire of Hindutva groups in the US, who went to great lengths to scuttle the event, using their reach and money power, resulting in over a million letters to university presidents and provosts, calls for intervention by the Indian government, incessant trolling and intimidation of co-sponsors and speakers, and even death threats.
According to The Guardian, “Meena Kandasamy, a speaker, had pictures of her children posted online with captions such as ‘ur son will face a painful death’ as well as casteist slurs.” Here is a similar threat received by the organisers via email:
The scale and viciousness of the threats directed at the US academia was also unprecedented.
Despite the blitzkrieg, not a single department or university withdrew their support. On the contrary, it propelled more institutions and individuals to sign on. Many felt that the tactics of Hindu nationalists themselves spoke of the urgent need for such a conference.
By the time the conference ended, over 1,100 academics and scholars from across the world had signed a statement of solidarity. This was testament to how seriously they view the existential threat that Hindutva poses to Indian democracy and indeed to the whole world.
For scholars of South Asia, who have often been targeted for their work, this conference must have come as bit of a relief — to know that they are not alone in the trenches fighting against intimidation and bodily threats.
Such a show of unity among academics worldwide to push back on Hindutva was another important achievement of the conference.
Some of the excellent research data shared at the conference made me wish that we had more timely access to such information to help in our human rights work. Nonetheless, the nature of exchanges at the DGH filled me with hope that this might just be the beginning of widespread and sustained academic interest in the study of Hindutva. The insights and deep thought of academics can only bolster our efforts as activists to communicate the facts about Hindutva to a wider audience.
These were some of the significant achievements of the DGH conference, which should serve us well for the epic battle ahead to reclaim India’s soul.
In true Hindutva fashion, Hindu nationalists are now spreading all manners of misinformation about the conference, sometimes using selective video clips taken from unauthorised recordings.
To no one’s surprise, most of the quotes Hindu nationalists are using come from just one or two panelists. But not a word from them on what most of the panelists spoke about — the existential threat that Hindutva poses to India’s minorities and to Indian democracy.
‘We told you so,’ was a common refrain in some of the exchanges by the Hindu nationalists designed to convince their followers that the conference was indeed about ‘dismantling’ Hinduism.
As in any academic conference, of course, there were genuine differences of opinion on certain issues. That is what academic freedom is all about. But the fact of the matter is that many panelists clearly made distinction between the political ideology of Hindutva and Hinduism at large.
There was also much ado about the word ‘dismantling.’ We at Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR) have always been clear that what need to be ‘dismantled’ urgently are atrocities against the minorities and the centuries-old caste system, which have no place in Indian society today.
The panel on ‘Hinduism and Hindutva’ got a lot of attention. The most discussed question was whether or not Hindutva is part of Hinduism.
Three alternate propositions were examined, as set up by Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna:
The first proposition was, ‘Hindutva is completely independent and apart from Hinduism’: As some of the panelists pointed out, this lets Hindus and Hinduism completely off the hook for all the violence and divisiveness that Hindutva has caused in their names, including the bane of casteism that Hindutva only pays lip service to.
The second proposition was, ‘Hinduism IS Hindutva’: This is highly problematic in that it seeks to co-opt all Hindus into the vigilante Hindutva, like in Gujarat. This position also leaves progressive Hindus no space to continue their work as Hindus. HfHR co-founder Sunita elaborated on why this is a troubling proposition: “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.”
The third proposition was, ‘Hindutva is located in Hinduism, but not all Hinduism can be located in Hindutva.’ Two panelists at the DGH conference, Shana Sippy and Sailaja Krishnamurti, summed this up succinctly:
“As scholars of religion, we see how Hinduism is deeply intertwined with Hindutva. At the Dismantling Global Hindutva conference, we have repeatedly heard that “Hindutva is not Hinduism”. We assert that although not all Hinduism is Hindutva, Hindutva is in fact Hinduism.”
Truth be told, the richness of this panel is already making some of us pause and reconsider the words and phrases we use to describe Hindutva’s relationship with Hinduism.
However, contrary to what is being spun in Hindutva circles, there was no disagreement about what Hindutva represents today in real terms. As HfHR has said before, there is no need for a text book definition because Hindutva defines itself by its violent words and acts on the streets of India. What is new today is that a similar violent streak of Hindutva is now being openly displayed in the US.
Silence of Hindutva
To me, what was truly remarkable in the intense post-conference reaction from Hindu nationalists was their complete silence on discussions about the anti-minority policies and atrocities by their allies in India: mob lynchings, dictating what one may eat and whom one may marry, weaponising the citizenship laws to disenfranchise Muslims, incarcerating political opponents on trumped up charges, one-sided freedom of expression and press freedom, and so on.
At the end of the day, their complete lack of empathy for the thousands of precious lives lost and families destroyed by their ideology vindicated the goal of the DGH conference.
The fact that Hindu nationalists in India were heavily invested in derailing the conference was evident from some of the reactions at the highest levels of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
For example, Ram Madhav, Member of the National Executive of the RSS official, tweeted:
He got it wrong on several counts:
To begin with, the “thunder” was not the result of the conference organisers, but rather the negative hype by its opponents, including the RSS and its affiliates in the US. In fact, their attacks may have resulted in a large spurt in registrations (over 10,000).
A significant number of those registrants may have been the opponents of DGH, who were encouraged to sign in and bear witness to what some of them had characterised as a call for genocide of Hindus.
In my mind though, the fact that hundreds, if not thousands of believers in Hindutva were intently listening to a conference elaborating on the nature of Hindutva was a truly noteworthy achievement of the event.
Some of the mails and social media posts attest to the fact that DGH may have made some Hindus sit up and take notice, e.g., Krishna Kumar, who tweeted:
The conference was a success if we go by the numbers shared by the organisers: more than 30,000 views and counting. The direct viewership averaged over 4,000, with nearly 70 per cent likes — remarkable numbers for a three-day conference.
The narrative that the conference was a ‘non-event’ was the shared feeling of Hindutva nationalists, who must have been disappointed that the gathering provided no smoking gun to support their outlandish claims leading up to the conference. But as I have explained, the conference accomplished much more than what was originally expected.
Let me end by quoting Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, a popular Hindu spiritual leader, who has vocally supported some of the Narendra Modi government’s policies, including the new citizenship laws.
“We don’t have to worry about someone trying to dismantle the Hindu way of life. If we strengthen it and make it attractive to people, eliminating distinctions of caste and creed…”
Who can disagree with his proposition that caste should be eliminated?
Unfortunately, Hindu nationalists in the US are so busy distancing caste from Hinduism that they are unlikely to do anything constructive to end casteism. Instead, they are condemning those who would like to make caste discrimination illegal in the US.
The spiritual guru said: “Dismantling Hindutva is not happening in some university in United States…dismantling Hindutva is happening in our villages, in our towns because we have discriminated against our own people. It’s time that these barriers are broken.” Finally, some recognition of the ground realities by a Hindu leader about a topic that many speakers at the DGH conference were passionately talking about.
I say, right on Sadhguru, let noble thoughts on ending caste discrimination come from all directions.
Raju Rajagopal is co-founder, Hindus for Human Rights @Hindus4HR. Views are personal.