Religious polarization in India is seeping into US diaspora

In Edison, New Jersey, a bulldozer, which has become a symbol of the oppression of India’s Muslim minorities, rolled down the street during an Independence Day parade.

At an event in Anaheim, California, there was an outcry between holidaymakers and those protesting violence against Muslims in India.

Indian Americans with diverse religious backgrounds have coexisted peacefully for many decades. But these recent events in the US – and last month’s violent confrontation between some Hindus and Muslims in Leicester, England, have raised concerns that political and religious polarization in India is spreading among migrant communities.

Varun Soni, dean of religious life at the University of Southern California (USC), said Hindu nationalism had divided the Indian diaspora, just as Donald Trump’s presidency polarized the US. It has about 2,000 students from India, the highest in the country.

Soni has yet to see these tensions surface on campus. But he said USC suffered a setback for being one of more than 50 US universities that co-sponsored an online conference called “Dismantling Global Hindutva.” Hinduism is distinct from Hinduism, an ancient religion practised by approximately 1 billion people worldwide that emphasizes the unity and divine nature of all creation.

Soni said it is essential that universities remain places where “we can talk about issues that are civilly based on facts,” but, as USC’s chief pastor, Soni has concerns about how polarization on Hindu nationalism will affect the spiritual health of students.

“If someone is being attacked, ridiculed or scapegoated for their identity because they are Hindu or Muslim, I worry most about their well-being – not about who is right or Wrong,” he said.

Anantananda Rambachan, a retired college religion professor and a practising Hindu born in Trinidad and Tobago to a family of Indian origin, said his opposition to Hindu nationalism and association with groups against the ideology led to a gathering at a temple in Minnesota. Some have given rise to complaints that they have taught religion classes.

He said his opposition to Hindu nationalism sometimes resulted in accusations of being “anti-Hindu” or “anti-India”, which he denies.

On the other hand, many Hindu Americans feel discredited and targeted for their views, said Samir Kalra, managing director of the Hindu American Foundation in Washington, DC.

“The space for Hindus to express themselves freely is shrinking,” he said, adding that one can be said to be Hindu nationalist even when agreeing to Indian government policies unrelated to religion.

Pushpita Prasad, the Alliance of Hindus of North America spokesperson, said her group is counselling young Hindu Americans who have lost friends because they “refuse to take sides on these battles emanating from India.”

Houston-based Hindu activist Rajiv Verma said tensions between Hindus and Muslims in the West are not a reflection of events in India but stemmed from a deliberate attempt by “religious and ideological groups waging war against Hindus”.

Rasheed Ahmed, co-founder and executive director of the Washington DC-based Indian American Muslim Council, said he was “saddened to see even educated Hindu Americans not taking Hindu nationalism seriously.” He believes that Hindu Americans should “make a fundamental decision about how India and Hinduism should be viewed in America and around the world.” “Whoever abducted Hinduism, they decide to take it back.”

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