Modi’s Hindu nationalism fuels tension in the Indian diaspora | ET REALITY


Lecture halls at Canadian and American universities have become battlegrounds for critics and advocates of Hindu nationalism, peppered with threats of violence and even death. Sikh and Hindu temples in Canada and Australia have been defaced with slogans reminiscent of India’s eternal divisions. Parades in two North American cities have featured displays celebrating episodes of brutal sectarian violence in India.

The Canadian government’s stunning allegation that Indian government agents were behind the professional murder of a Canadian Sikh separatist in Vancouver has focused attention on rising tensions within the vast Indian diaspora, reflecting divisions in India that have been fueled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s brand. of Hindu nationalism.

Modi’s Hindu-first policies and his growing intolerance of scrutiny have spread to Indian communities around the world, intensifying historical divisions between Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and different castes. They have demonstrated in town halls, school meetings, cultural celebrations and academic circles.

“Before 2014, when Modi came to power, you didn’t see these kinds of divisions in the Indian diaspora in Canada, at all,” he said. Chinnaiah Jangamassociate professor of history at Carleton University in Ottawa and expert on caste-based discrimination.

Stephen Brown, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims“What you’ve seen is a contagion effect,” he said.

Modi and his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, came to power in 2014, espousing a Hindu nationalist agenda called Hindutva that critics say has fueled growing violence and discrimination against India’s religious minorities, around 20 percent of the population.

The Modi government has adopted laws and policies that discriminate against religious minorities, as some of its supporters have carried out murders and acts of violence against them, often with impunity. But criticism from Western nations seeking closer economic ties with India and a geopolitical counterweight to China has been muted.

Fears that tensions in India are spilling over into diaspora communities have resulted in increased scrutiny of the BJP’s activities abroad; the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, India’s main far-right Hindu nationalist organization; and even Indian diplomats.

Under Modi, the RSS has become increasingly active abroad, in countries with large Indian diasporas, said Dhirendra K. Jha, an Indian author who has followed the organization for decades. The BJP is considered the political wing of the RSS, which helped launch the political career of Modi, who is still a member.

In Canada, two long-standing associations linked to the RSS, the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (Hindu Self Reliance Association) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), are mobilizing support for Modi and his Hindu policies through educational, cultural and social activities, according to experts and a recent report report published by the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the World Sikh Organization of Canada.

Officials from the two organizations did not respond to interview requests.

Malavika Kasturi, a historian at the University of Toronto and an expert on Hindu nationalism, said the two groups and others “hiding under a variety of different fronts” form a network that supports Modi’s Hindu agenda in Canada.

“What they do have is a common agenda of repressing all dissent,” Kasturi said. “That is why any criticism of Hindutva is called Hinduphobia. “Any criticism of Mr. Modi is called Hinduphobia.”

Modi has tapped into a “deep-rooted psychology” among members of the diaspora who “want to regain lost pride in the rise of a great civilization that has been harmed” by colonization, said Meera Nanda, an Indian historian who researches the impact of the Hindutva in America.

But Ragini Sharma, president of the Toronto-based Canadian Hindu Heritage Education Organization, said critics were using Modi’s political agenda to portray Hinduism as intolerant.

His organization opposed the Toronto District School Board’s recent decision to recognize that caste-based discrimination exists in its schools, saying it would “demonize” the Hindu community. He is pressing the Canadian government to recognize Hinduphobia, a term used by Hindu activists in recent years.

“There is this specter of Hindu nationalism that is being applied to innocent people,” Sharma said.

Hardeep Singh Nijjar – the Canadian Sikh leader whose assassination is now at the center of a diplomatic clash between Canada and India – advocated the creation of Khalistan, a separate homeland for Sikhs carved out of the state of Punjab.

After becoming the head of British Columbia’s largest Sikh temple in 2019, Nijjar criticized Modi’s Hindu policies as an attempt to “convert all of India into believers in Hinduism,” said Gurkeerat Singh, a close aide to La del Mr. Nijjar.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada has said that “agents” of the Indian government shot and killed Nijjar in June, basing his accusations on intelligence collected by Canada and shared by the United States. India has denied any involvement in the killing of Nijjar, whom it called a terrorist in 2020.

The killing has alarmed academics who say they have been attacked by extremist Hindu supporters of Modi since he became India’s leader.

Jangam, an associate professor at Carleton University who has researched caste-based discrimination and violence in India, said he has faced death threats from Hindu extremists in Canada.

He has been accused of giving a bad image to India and Hinduism, Jangam said, adding that he was Canada’s first tenured academic from the Dalit community, once known as the untouchables.

“No one had ever cared about the so-called Hindu identity” in Canada before, Jangam said of the years before Modi’s rise to power. “It’s a shock to me how people have gone from being ordinary people to Hindu fundamentalists.”

A talk he gave on caste discrimination in Toronto in 2019 was interrupted by upper-caste Hindu interlocutors who told him to return to India, Jangam said.

One of the organizations that opposed the talk was the Indo-Canadian Harmony Forum, saying he lacked balance. The group’s president, Praveen Verma, said Modi had elevated India’s global standing.

“India has appeared on the world stage and I think the Indian community is proud of that,” said Verma, a career diplomat who served as India’s ambassador to Yemen and Guatemala before retiring in Ontario.

Harassment of certain academics has had a negative effect on research in India, he said Harjeet Grewalexpert in Asian religions from the University of Calgary.

Academics avoid sensitive topics, he said. “We see less and less attention to religion and society in India in American, Canadian and British universities.”

Divisions within the Indian diaspora have expressed themselves in other ways. Descendants of the historically oppressed Dalit community have led a campaign to ban caste discrimination, pitting them against upper-caste Hindus in toronto, seattle and California. Tensions and violence among Indian immigrants have fractured communities that were once heralded as models of integration, such as Leicester, England.

The Toronto suburb of Brampton has become the epicenter of many of the tensions in the diaspora. Hindu temples have been vandalized with slogans defending Khalistan. TO float reenacting the assassination of Indira Gandhi appeared in a Sikh parade.

When Brampton announced during the pandemic that mosques would be allowed to play the call to prayer on loudspeakers during Ramadan, a man identified as a member of the Hindu group Swayamsevak Sangh by the Canadian Anti-Hate Network asked on social media whether that would lead to “separate lanes for camel and goat riders” or women being covered “head to toe in tents.” The man was later fired of a nearby school board of which he had been president.

In Brampton, the Indian government has also been accused of directly interfering to defend Modi’s policies or India’s image in ways that have deepened divisions.

In 2017, Indian diplomats at the consulate general in Toronto pressured organizers of an annual cultural festival to cancel a pavilion dedicated to Punjab, the only Indian state where Sikhs are in the majority, or incorporate it into the Indian pavilion, according to employees of the City of Brampton. At the time.

“The organizers told us how they were receiving phone calls and how the Indian consulate was harassing them to close this pavilion,” said Jaskaran Sandhu, an adviser to the mayor at the time.

The mayor wrote to Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s foreign minister at the time, that “this type of unwarranted interference by Indian officials in a local cultural festival is shocking,” according to a copy of the letter obtained by The New York Times. .

Mrs. Freeland said media that “interference in internal affairs by foreign representatives in Canada is inappropriate.”

The Indian consulate in Toronto and the embassy in Ottawa did not respond to requests for comment.

The Foreign Friends of the BJP, the international arm of Modi’s party, have established a growing presence abroad to push their agenda and are registered as foreign agents in the United States.

In Canada, which does not have a registry of foreign agents, the Foreign Friends of the BJP of Canada was established in 2014 and change his name to the Canada India Global Forum in 2018.

Dr. Shivendra Dwivedi, an anesthesiologist who has been the group’s president since 2019, said its focus is trade and that, unlike its affiliates in the United States and Europe, it had no ties to Modi’s party.

Dr. Dwivedi said the attacks on academics were led by “fringe elements” and there was “no place for that in Canada.”

Still, he added, moves to have caste-based discrimination officially recognized were part of “a movement to defame the country” just as India has gained international prominence.

“When I was a kid in Quebec, I was probably the only brown kid in my class,” said Dr. Dwivedi, 64. “And people were literally saying, ‘Hey, you know what? Aren’t you lucky to come to Canada? At least you’re not starving like in India.’”

Today, the balance between Canada and India has changed, Dr. Dwivedi said.

“Thirty years ago, the Indian economy needed Canada,” he said. “Now it is a 180 degree turn. Canada needs India. India is the rising economic and military power, not Canada. We need them. “They don’t need us.”

Sameer Yasir contributed reporting from New Delhi, and Yan Zhuang from Sydney.

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