Hinduphobia-denial, gas-lighting, and swastika-shaming must end – Vamsee Juluri

India External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Ambassador of India to the UN T.S. Tirumurti

Prof. Vamsee JuluriThe whole world seems to know what India represents and seeks it, whether it is Yoga, Ayurveda, or a deeper cultural memory system erased almost everywhere else. Only we Indians seem to be confused about the role we have to play. The stark truth is that no one is visiting India or even looking to India for “secularism.” – Prof. Vamsee Juluri

It is commendable that Ambassador T.S. Tirumurti has once again given voice to a widely felt if silenced truth that global human rights discourses avoid recognising the history (and continuing presence) of anti-Hindu, anti-Buddhist, anti-Sikh and anti-indigenous religious hatreds by state and “non-state” actors.

The attacks on Sikhs in Afghanistan, the desecration of Hindu temples in South Asia generally, and the calls for death being issued by Islamist elements against people who challenge their sense of entitlement to the unilateral mockery of other religions, to name but a few recent examples, remind us all too well of the urgency of his statements. In a global, religiously diverse world, where religious persecution, propaganda, and genocide still exist, it is ludicrous that apologists for the biggest religious majoritarianism pick on the few surviving indigenous, ancestral religious traditions and peoples using their propaganda power.

Whether it’s Washington think tank bogey about the alleged persecution of Christians by Hindus in India, or the recent orchestra-level chorus sung by a dozen countries against one country having a debate (if sometimes an unfortunately unprofessional, unscholarly, and ugly one) about reclaiming indigenous religious sites, we are reminded once again that the biggest axis of privilege in this supposed privilege and social justice obsessed liberal world is being ignored. If in a country twenty percent of people are forever in danger from the other eighty percent (even if those eighty percent don’t have an expansionist, intolerant religious ideology to begin with), what should we say about a world order in which less than five percent of the world’s 200 odd countries that have their own ancestral religions still alive (India, Israel, Nepal, Bhutan, and a few others) are treated to the spectacle of countries that belong to a 95 percent world-majority (Christian and/or Muslim) complain constantly that their religion is somehow being victimised in those half-a-dozen countries?

I am sure Ambassador Tirumurti knows these realities all too well, and once again, I am glad he spoke up for an important, long-silenced, long-oppressed and still-threatened minority group in the world. But the concerns I still have on this issue have to do with the particular manner in which we (Indians, generally speaking), have been approaching a serious, existential global problem so far. We have an MEA that is speaking up after decades of solemn silence, but we do not see, quite frankly, changes in international discourses happening after the two days of newspaper headlines and TV talk-show excitement in India wears off. While I cannot claim expertise on the inner workings of the UN or other international bodies, I would like to urge the Indian diplomatic community (and its friends from other “religiophobia”-facing countries), to:

One, revisit the history of propaganda in, about, and from the UN (as described, for example, in Mark D. Alleyne’s book Global Lies: Propaganda, the UN and World Order) to set the stage for a better and more representative global conversation.

And, two, host a major conference in partnership with universities, media houses, NGOs, and concerned transnational organisations with the specific goal of formulating and adopting a global declaration on fighting religiophobic hate speech and terrorism.

Defining Religiophobic Hate Speech

A clear set of policies defining and operationalising what can be considered religiophobic hate speech in journalism, education, and civil society discourses is important if we are to move beyond words to concrete changes. It is true that there are double standards around “Abrahamic” and “Non-Abrahamic” religions in terms of the discourse on hate speech today, as the Ambassador noted. However, we must look at our own lack of action here before we can push for change.

The “Abrahamic” religions have a tremendous investment already made in their concepts and definitions of hate against them. “Islamophobia” may be mocked when used to deflect valid criticism, but it is a persuasive concept that enjoys moral validity in the eyes of millions of students and citizens in the United States who have grown up seeing their Muslim, Arab, and other friends profiled or harassed. Schools, colleges, workplaces define it and validate it as a human rights concern. Christian institutions and countries of course have a much longer history of studying and challenging their “persecution”. Once again, the inappropriate use of those charges is contested (for example, would anyone believe that the missionary who tried to invade the Sentinelese Island people was a persecuted minority?), but there are contexts, such as the treatment of Christians in some Islamic majority countries, that are fair perhaps. And as for the concept of “anti-semitism,” even if it applies to an “Abrahamic religion,” no one can deny the historical validity of the phenomenon, the pain, and the right of Jewish people to fight against it (which they have, once again, by also investing in careful scholarly, legal, and creative work).

To state it simply, the Abrahamic religions have instituted definitions to protect them everywhere, while the non-Abrahamic religions have, quite frankly not done so on a global scale at least. That is understandable considering that most non-Abrahamic religions were victims of colonisation and even extermination, and perhaps don’t have the “privilege” or the will to do so, but I believe that needs to change now (one limitation, I think, which we see often in India’s positions, is in the idea that somehow we all avoid asserting our human rights globally by retreating into a mutual national sovereignty argument; India’s US consulates for example, declined to comment on the California history textbooks debate in 2016 when the very name of “India” was being replaced with “South Asia” on the suggestion of Area Studies ideologues). This sort of “you can call us what you want in your country, you just don’t tell us what to do in ours” may work at some levels, but given the nature of transnational jobs, flows, lives, work and cultural exchanges today (not to mention propaganda), India’s diplomats need to get beyond the “national sovereignty” to a “global ground rules” framework.

Hakenkreuz cartouche of Lambach Benedictine Abbey, Austria.

Swastika vs. Hakenkreuz: A Case Study

Let’s take one issue, for example, since it has been in the news. A few days ago, the San Francisco newspapers reported that a controversy over a swastika (here, it was a Buddhist “swastika,” not the hateful, racist “hakenkreuz”) symbol led to a major emotional trauma at a summer camp culminating in its cancellation. The symbol was present in the architecture of an old mansion where the camps were held, and not even something that was suddenly inscribed by a hate group to terrorise minority groups.

Reports say that the owners of the mansion displayed it over a hundred years ago when they saw it (as did most people) as an Asian religious symbol (Buddhist to be precise), before Nazism even existed. Yet, the presence of the symbol led to a complaint by staff, a further complaint that the management had failed to act quickly enough to remove it, resignations, and finally cancellation of the camp activities, as well as abject apologies (read them directly here).

Let us see what happens if this is seen solely as a “domestic issue” compared to one seen through an understanding, global, anti-religiophobic lens.

Western countries including the United States and Australia have been actively trying to pass new laws banning swastikas as hate symbols because of their fears about (their own) right-wing nationalist elements. These countries also have numerous non-Abrahamic religious and ethnic minorities who are facing a very sly sort of persecution by vested interests for their own, innocent, independent, and far more ancient practices of swastika or manji display. Hindu, Buddhist, Native American, and Jewish groups, most commendably of all, have all worked together to bring precision and nuance to these coarse legislation attempts. They have asked for something reasonable and clear; that the word “swastika” not be used to describe the Nazi hate symbol, simply because Hitler never even called it that (I have asked my own university in the past to honour this distinction to help change the discourse).

The problem is that these are all small, incremental, and often inconsequential changes, sought for by individuals or by small community groups at local levels. Whole societies continue to believe that “swastika” is the name for the Nazi symbol, and are also being made to believe by nefarious forces now that Hinduism is somehow connected with Nazism too. That deception too, is an element of “religiophobia” against “non-Abrahamics” as the Ambassador might call it. The question is, how do we change these things? What chance does India’s UN mission have in getting, say, the term “Hinduphobia” treated as seriously as “anti-semitism” in today’s world when there is massive gas-lighting of the concept and of anti-Hindu violence by leading universities, media houses, and human rights organisations?

Once again, we find a massive asymmetry in approach and investment. Hindu community groups and individuals try to get their concerns heard in local contexts here and there while virtually every major university in America gets behind professors who publish documents baldly lying that “Hinduphobia” is a recent Hindu Right invention when everyone of us can see that the origins of the term go back to British anti-colonial usage in the 1860s. “Hinduphobia” is older than “Islamophobia,” and was used reasonably well by objective non-Hindus at that. Yet, there exists no law anywhere to protect Hindus from Hinduphobic hate speech or even violence. Same goes for Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, and many other indigenous, polytheistic, or “Pagan” people to this day. When a Netflix comedian joked about Hitler’s genocide against Roma people for example, there was hardly a murmur in world human rights circles, and it was only Jewish and a few Indian commentators who spoke out.

How would these problems ever get addressed if the few countries that still have indigenous religious majorities avoid stepping up to the global conversation? Why should small community groups be left to fight massive lobbies alone? Why can’t the governments of India, Japan, and other countries that have “global minority” religions treat it as a global human rights concern more directly? Why can’t, for example, India and Japan (as swastika/manji cultures) just outlaw the use of these words for the hate symbol?

A New Vision, a New San Francisco Conference

“Religiophobia” faced by non-Muslims and non-Christians is a far more central issue to world history, and even the present, than our global institutions have admitted. From the end of colonialism to the present, the UN and other institutions have quietly preserved the hegemony of the imperialist religions (see Sita Ram Goel’s Hindu-Christian Encounters for more on the role of colonial missionary lobbying over the UN declaration of human rights in the 1940s). By speaking out against this hypocrisy, India has a chance to lead the victims of such imperialism, and to start what might be a Non-Aligned Movement 2.0. But it is important to not restrict the conversation to the mere symbols or limits of the old national sovereignty arguments but to approach it as a truly global, cosmopolitan, universal human (and ecological) issue.

To make this happen, I urge Minister of External Affairs Dr. S. Jaishankar, Ambassador Tirumurti, and all concerned to host a UN reform conference in San Francisco in the coming year. San Francisco, after all, was where the UN journey began. And it is here that a UN post-Abrahamic-hegemony “reformation” can perhaps begin too!

Like the Bandung Conference, the San Francisco conference called for by India in the name of the world minority religions and traditions, including, most importantly, Native American leaders, would be an apt moment to make “Azadi ki Amrit Mahotsav” a global rather than solely local event.

Between the various consulates and universities here (including my own), I think we could work together to not only gather as the world’s oldest cultural survivors, but also come away with concrete, expert-defined policy guidelines on religiophobia and religious inclusivity for media, colleges, and other institutions where issues like the swastika vs. hakenkreuz one can be operationalized clearly.

The whole world seems to know what India represents and seeks it, whether it is Yoga, Ayurveda, or a deeper [spiritual and] cultural memory system erased almost everywhere else. Only we Indians seem to be confused about the role we have to play. The stark truth is that no one is visiting India or even looking to India for “secularism.”

Everyone knows us, except us.

In an age of global propaganda, hate and violence, we have to step up to the role expected of us.

Let’s give the world what it wants and needs. Let’s have a UN beyond religiophobia conference in San Francisco and call Amma, the Dalai Lama, Sadhguru, and everyone who deserves to be heard now that the ideologues and imperialists have had their turn running, and ruining the world. – Firstpost, 22 July 2022

› Professor Vamsee Juluri teaches media studies a the University of San Francisco. He has authored several books, including Rearming Hinduism: Nature, Hinduphobia and the Return of Indian Intelligence  (Westland, 2015).

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, and Pope Francis hug on the occasion of their private audience at the Vatican, Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021.

%d bloggers like this: