In early September 2018, I spent four days in the Chicago, Illinois region in order to protest the World Hindu Congress (WHC). Here’s why.
On September 6, I participated in a panel at the University of Chicago which formed to “Stop Hindu Fascism.” On September 7, I was honored to be invited to join a delegation which visited U.S. Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi’s office to register protest against his participation in the Congress. From September 8th to 9th, I joined hundreds of South Asians in protests outside the conference.
On the final day, speaking at the protest, I said, “I am here to day to raise my voice in resistance against the World Hindu Congress 2018 in Chicago. I am not here today to oppose Hinduism. I am not anti-Hindu. I love Hindus, and I am here today because I love Hindus.” I explained that the WHC was organized by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and featured as its keynote the Supreme Leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The previous day, as I spoke, I described the RSS as “the neck that turns the head” of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
If the WHC were merely a benign religious event, I would not have spent even a passing moment thinking about it, let alone protesting it.
However, to quote Representative Tulsi Gabbard — the first Hindu elected to U.S. Congress — it was a “partisan Indian political event.” Neither was the WHC merely a benign political event. It was, rather, a platform for modern India’s most extreme sociopolitical figures and organizations to propagate their supremacist ideology, Hindutva, which is a form of religious nationalism.
It has been said that, as a citizen of a country, one should never accept the premise of “my nation, right or wrong.” Such an attitude has been compared to saying, “my mother, drunk or sober.” In other words, unconditional support for every action of a loved one is disastrous. Consider, for instance, whether loyal and patriotic German citizens, during the rise of Hitler, should have embraced an attitude of “my nation can do no wrong.”
It has also been said that dissent is the highest form of patriotism. True patriots love their country so much that they’re willing to raise their voices — even when it’s unpopular or dangerous — when their country goes the wrong direction. A related concept is the proverb, “The wounds of a friend are more trustworthy than kisses of an enemy.” In other words, true friends offer insight, help us to recognize blind spots in our lives, and give good guidance about where we may be making mistakes.
On that note, the Republic of India is considered to be a good friend and close ally of the United States of America. If India and America are truly friends, then the responsibility of America — of its government as well as of its citizens — is to talk with India about human rights. Not trade. Not military joint exercises. Human rights. And, because of the position of influence held by the RSS and the VHP within the BJP regime, it is necessary to speak about both of them when one speaks about human rights.
So, speaking as a friend of India, I want to discuss how the WHC in Chicago brought to the surface some of the most troubling, persistent, and unresolved issues in modern Indian sociopolitics. Notably, the organizers of and keynote speakers at the WHC are closely linked to India’s ruling BJP, its supremacist ideology, and past and present atrocities committed under the banner of that ideology.
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (or VHP) organized the conference. Keynote speakers included Mohan Bhagwat and Dattatreya Hosabale of the RSS. The U.S. Government, in its CIA World Factbook, listed both entities as “political pressure groups,” specifically labeling the VHP as a “militant religious organization” and the RSS as a “nationalist organization.”
The VHP and RSS are the two most prominent groups belonging to the religious nationalist “Sangh Parivar” (Family of Organizations). According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), “Sangh Parivar entities aggressively press for governmental policies to promote a Hindu nationalist agenda, and adhere in varying degrees to an ideology of Hindutva, which holds non-Hindus as foreign to India.” Amnesty International corroborates this assessment, reporting, “Hindutva is the political ideology of an exclusively Hindu nation. This ideology has been advanced with increasing vigour… by organizations of the Sangh Parivar.”
Furthermore, the founder of WHC, Swami Vigyananand, has blatantly endorsed the goal of making India “an exclusively Hindu nation,” declaring, “We shall set up in Bharat a Hindu State, which will be our nation-state.”
To understand the call for a Hindu State and the underlying ideology of Hindutva, how it is connected to the RSS, VHP, and BJP, and the consequences it has had for the people of South Asia, we need to return to the beginning.
Hindutva: Savarkar and Golwalkar
The term “Hindutva” was coined in 1923 by V.D. Savarkar, who developed the concept into a formal ideology. The ideology was institutionalized in 1925 with the founding of the RSS. The second, longest-serving, and most influential “Sarsanghchalak” (Supreme Leader) of the RSS was M.S. Golwalkar — the RSS refers to him as “Guruji” (respected teacher). Pictures of both men are routinely displayed on stage at Sangh Parivar events.
What did these two men teach?
The core of V.D. Savarkar’s ideology was that the Indian subcontinent is, always has been, and must remain a nation of Hindus — and that the Republic of India should, consequently, be a “Hindu State.”
“We Hindus must have a country of our own,” wrote Savarkar. “Truly Hindus are and cannot but be the mainstay of our Indian State.” He insisted that anyone living in India is, de facto, a Hindu — that is, that being Indian meant being Hindu. He wrote, “If you call it an Indian Nation it is merely an English synonym for the Hindu nation to us Hindus, Hindusthan and India mean one and the same thing. We are Indians because we are Hindus and vice versa.” Additionally, he identified being Hindu as the essence of true patriotism. Speaking of Hindus, he stated, “Indian Patriotism to them was but a synonym of Hindu Patriotism.”
Moreover, Savarkar argued that non-Hindus have no place in the country, writing: “India must be a Hindu land, reserved for the Hindus.” Making no apologies for the communalism of his ideology, he instead embraced and celebrated it, declaring, “We are communalists par excellence and glory in being the most devoted Hindu communalists which to us means being the truest and the most equitable Indian Nationalists!” In his goal to achieve an homogenous, monocultural, and communal polity, he declared, “Our politics henceforth will be purely Hindu politics fashioned and tested in Hindu terms only, in such wise as will help the consolidation, freedom, and life-growth of our Hindu Nation.”
He insisted, therefore, that Hindus should vote only for Hindus, but definitely not for the “race traitor” sort of Hindu. As he wrote, “Make it quite clear that you as Hindus are not going to vote for any such seasonal Hindu but only for a Hindu who is born, and bred, and means to continue to be true to his Hindu race.” This was, as he freely admitted, religious nationalism. He urged citizens to “vote only for a confirmed and merited Hindu Nationalist.” It was, he argued, every Hindu’s “easy duty for his race” to “vote for a Hindu Nationalist.” To do otherwise, he warned, was “to commit a cultural and political and racial suicide.”
Because he openly endorsed communalism, religious nationalism, and establishment of a Hindu nation for Hindu people, Savarkar believed any other communities which call for equal rights within the same territory are a threat to his concept of independent India. Thus, as Savarkar put pen to paper, he took aim, first and foremost, against the Indian subcontinent’s largest religious minority.
“The Mohammedans are likely to prove dangerous to our Hindu Nation,” he wrote. He argued they are incapable of being loyal or patriotic citizens, saying, “The Moslems remained Moslems first, Moslems last, and Indians never.” Suggesting that neither Muslims nor Christians can be integrated into Indian society because “their love is divided,” he asserted, “They must, to a man, set their Holy-land above their Fatherland in their love and allegiance.” Both communities are foreigners, he argued, writing, “Their names and their outlook smack of foreign origin.”
Focusing on Muslims, Savarkar offered recommendations for how the so-called “Hindu Race” ought to treat the Muslim population. “So far as the Moslem minority is concerned, I have already dealt with it at length,” he wrote. “In short, we must watch it in all its actions with the greatest distrust possible.”
Proposing a “final solution” for the alleged “Muslim problem,” he contrasted them with Germany’s Jewish community, arguing, “The Indian Muslims are on the whole more inclined to identify themselves and their interest with Muslims outside India than Hindus who live next door, like the Jews in Germany.” Finally, having built up Islam in India as a sinister threat, he warned, “If we Hindus in India grow stronger, in time these Muslims… will have to play the part of German-Jews.”
Savarkar’s ideology of Hindutva didn’t just bear a passing resemblance to the supremacist Aryanism propagated by the Nazis. Identifying India as an “Aryan nation,” he drew direct parallels between his proposed Hindu nation and the Nazi regime. In March 1939, days before the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia and months before they sparked the Second World War by invading Poland, Savarkar praised Hitler’s embrace of Aryanism, declaring,
“Germany’s solemn idea of the revival of the Aryan culture, the glorification of the Swastika, her patronage of Vedic learning, and the ardent championship of the tradition of Indo-Germanic civilization are welcomed by the religious and sensible Hindus of India with a jubilant hope…. I think that Germany’s crusade against the enemies of Aryan culture will bring all the Aryan nations of the world to their senses and awaken the Indian Hindus for the restoration of their lost glory.”
That is Savarkar, who coined the term “Hindutva” in 1923. Perhaps nothing would have come of it if he had been merely a random blowhard. Many people in many generations have written and propagated virulent doctrines of supremacy. It doesn’t always take root. In this case, however, the ideology of Hindutva was institutionalized in the form of the RSS, which flourished and expanded into a group that, today, virtually controls the government of India.
The RSS was founded in 1925 as a uniformed, paramilitary group. It grew throughout the 1930s with direct inspiration from the youth organizations of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany — the blackshirts and brownshirts, respectively. It adopted its own distinctive uniform: white shirt and khaki shorts (later replaced by brown trousers). It adopted a similar fascist salute. Today, it has an estimated 6 million members, including the Prime Minister of India.
M.S. Golwalkar, who served as Supreme Leader of the RSS from 1940 to 1973, also co-founded the VHP in 1964. His two books refined Hindutva and provided an ideological basis for its institutionalization.
In 2006, the RSS officially disowned Golwalkar’s first book — We or Our Nationhood Defined — but affirmed that his second book — Bunch of Thoughts — is central to RSS ideology. Indian attorney A.G. Noorani suggests that disowning the first book was merely an attempt at obfuscation, arguing, “So brutally candid is We or Our Nationhood Defined that a desperate attempt was made by the RSS to distance itself from it.” Because both of these books complement each other and actually reflect virtually identical ideology, I have interwoven quotations from them in illustrating what he thought, taught, and practiced.
Like Savarkar, Golwalkar claimed that the only true members of the Indian nation are those who belong to “the Hindu Race with its Hindu Religion, Hindu Culture, and Hindu Language.” He insisted, “We are all born as Hindus.” No one but Hindus hold a birthright to India, he said, stating, “Only the Hindu has been living here as the child of this soil.” He believed that non-Hindus are “foreign” to India and must be subsumed by the “Hindu race,” declaring,
“The foreign races in Hindustan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, i.e., of the Hindu nation and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment — not even citizen’s rights. There is, at least should be, no other course for them to adopt.”
Speaking about Muslims, he said that keeping Islamic names was a sign of having “mentally merged themselves with the aggressors.” Thus, he claimed that converting to Islam might even make a person a traitor to the nation. “It is not merely a case of change of faith, but a change even in national identity,” he wrote. “What else is it, if not treason, to join the camp of the enemy leaving their mother-nation in the lurch?” Converting from Hinduism to any other faith was “dangerous to the security of the nation and the country” because, he argued, “Conversion of Hindus into other religions is nothing but making them succumb to divided loyalty in place of having undivided and absolute loyalty to the nation.”
Specifically identifying both Christians and Muslims as members of the so-called “foreign races,” he stated, “Muslims and Christians here should give up their present foreign mental complexion and merge in the common stream of our national life.” Describing communities of Indian Christians and Muslims as victims of “foreign domination,” he said, “It is our duty to call these our forlorn brothers, suffering under religious slavery for centuries, back to their ancestral home.” Nor should one stop at having “achieved unity of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and all others on the political and economic plane” but rather “fuse them all in the Hindu way of life.”
Moreover, he favorably compared the racial goals of the RSS to those of the Nazis, writing, “The ancient Race spirit, which prompted the Germanic tribes to over-run the whole of Europe, has re-risen in modern Germany…. Even so with us: our Race spirit has once again roused itself.” He claimed that “the Semitic concept of religion bred intolerance” and said “the first Semitic religion was Judaism — an intolerant faith.” Praising the Nazi policy towards the Jews, he wrote,
“To keep up the purity of the race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic races — the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by.”
Comparing ancient Germany to Nazi Germany, he used it as an illustration for how every nation is supposedly bound, from eon to eon, by the “common aspirations” of a single race. It is, therefore, necessary to welcome the awakening of “Race Consciousness.” Because of this, he believed, each race “must tread the road into which its past traditional way has led it” — doing otherwise would rip apart the fabric of society and endanger its life.
His ultimate goal was the end of separate identities, differences, individualities, distinctions, and variances. Perceiving diversities as inimical to a healthy nation, he instead advocated the uniformity of all society. His method for achieving this was to “mould” men into a disciplined collective “wherein each one feels that he has a higher duty to the nation and that his personal and family wants can wait.”
He considered concerns about the nature of government — democratic or not — as irrelevant. “We did not bother much about the external form of the government but concentrated upon the moulding of man as the chief guiding factor in all our systems,” he said. National health was not obtained by instituting peaceful, democratic systems but rather incorporating every individual with the nation into a uniform entity. An entity for preserving “ideal Hindu Manhood.” Detailing his vision required “untiring, silent endeavor” over a great many years, he proclaimed,
“The ultimate vision of our work, which has been the living inspiration for all our organizational efforts, is a perfectly organized state of our society wherein each individual has been moulded into a model of ideal Hindu manhood and made into a living limb of the corporate personality of society.”
The Fruit of Hindutva: Reports by International Bodies
So what is the fruit produced by the Hindutva tree? From the seeds sown by Savarkar, what harvest has been reaped? After Golwalkar’s pivotal leadership of the RSS and founding of the VHP, did these outfits whither or flourish? Having introduce the ideological basis, what is the present status? Where has the Hindutva worldview guided India?
Over the past 20 years, various governmental and non-governmental organizations have repeatedly warned that Sangh Parivar entities perpetrate acts of violence against India’s religious minorities. Much could be added about various terrorist acts which are linked to Sangh groups. Similarly, a great deal could be said about legislation passed to implement the Hindutva agenda. Even more could be said about routine, daily acts of violence. Instead, let’s focus for the moment only on the reports by objective, third-party governmental and non-governmental bodies.
In 1997, the United Nations reported on “the existence of Hindu extremism, encountered in varying degrees within ultra-nationalist political parties or parties attracted by ultra-nationalism (RSS, VHP and BJP).” Furthermore, the UN warned that “mention must… be made of the activities of the extremist Hindu parties, which are attempting to undermine the communal and religious harmony which exists in India by the political exploitation of religion.”
In 1999, Amnesty International reported, “Violence against religious minorities, mainly Christians, is escalating throughout India…. Attacks have been carried out directly by, or in connivance with, right-wing Hindu groups with links to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, including the VHP.” Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch reported, “Organizations most responsible for violence against Christians are the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bajrang Dal, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.”
Furthermore, in 1999, Human Rights Watch described the VHP’s involvement in violence against Muslims and their religious sites:
“The most publicized of the VHP’s activities was its campaign to build a temple to the Hindu god Ram at the site of the Babri Masjid, a mosque in the city of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh…. On December 6, 1992, the mosque was demolished by members of the VHP, the Bajrang Dal, and RSS-trained cadres. The police did not intervene. The incident sparked violence around the country in which thousands were killed.”
In 2002, Muslims in Gujarat suffered a pogrom which was allegedly state-sponsored — an allegation affirmed by VHP and BJP members who participated in the violence. The U.S. State Department reported, “Mobs in Gujarat… incited and organized by members of the Sangh Parivar, destroyed Muslim businesses and raped Muslim women. The violence resulted in an estimated 2,000 deaths, a majority of them Muslims.”
Corroborating that report, the the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) explained, “International human rights groups have named the VHP, RSS, BJP, and Bajrang Dal as perpetrators of the violence in Gujarat, as well as other acts of violence against non-Hindus.”
Among those international human rights groups were Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Amnesty reported, “Sangh Parivar members, including BJP, VHP, and Bajrang Dal members were named [by victims and eyewitnesses] as instigators or participants of attacks on the Muslim minority.” Human Rights Watch reported, “The groups most directly responsible for violence against Muslims in Gujarat include the VHP, the Bajrang Dal, the ruling BJP, and the umbrella organization RSS.”
In 2005, the U.S. State Department described the RSS and VHP as “extremist” groups, stating, “Members of the BJP, the RSS, and other affiliated organizations (collectively known as the Sangh Parivar) have been implicated in incidents of violence and discrimination against Christians and Muslims.”
In 2007, U.S. Ambassador to India David Mulford warned that the Indian government cannot control “fundamentalist organizations such as the RSS and the VHP” and noted that “the traditional muscle power of the BJP has always been the RSS.” Also in 2007, Human Rights Watch warned, “Right-wing Hindu organizations such as the VHP and the Bajrang Dal have been promoting anti-Christian propaganda in Orissa [Odisha].”
In 2008, Christians in Odisha suffered a pogrom which — as in the case of Gujarat — was allegedly state-sponsored (or at least involved organization by elected officials). The USCIRF reported,
“At least 40 individuals were killed, although some Christian groups report more; thousands of church properties and homes were destroyed; at least 20,000 fled their homes to government-run relief camps; and approximately 40,000 were driven into hiding in jungles, the majority of whom were Christian…. In March 2009, the BJP nominated one of the main individuals accused in the anti-Christian violence for an assembly seat in the general elections. Despite remaining imprisoned for the duration of the elections, he won the seat. Also in March 2009, Orissa’s ruling party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), ended its 11-year coalition with the BJP, a decision fueled in part by the BJD’s repudiation of the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda, and the alleged support of some state BJP officials for the VHP, the Sangh Parivar entity implicated in riots.”
Also in 2008, Amnesty reported on “renewed attacks by supporters of Hindu nationalist organizations, including VHP and Bajrang Dal, against the Christian minorities and their places of worship in Kandhamal district in Orissa.”
In 2014, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was elected as Prime Minister of India. Speaking in 2013, Modi declared, “My identity is of a Hindutvawadi.” In 2015, Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh — who is in charge of all internal security for the country — declared, “I want to clarify to everyone that I am an RSS swayamsevak [member] and the Prime Minister is also an RSS swayamsevak [member].” In 2016, The Hindustan Times reported that “more than a third of the 66 members in the council of ministers… had an RSS background.”
In 2017, BJP President Amit Shah attended a “crucial coordination meeting with various Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh outfits” before working with Modi to expand the council of ministers. In May 2018, reported scroll.in, “Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, including party President Amit Shah, and six cabinet ministers met the leadership of the RSS… to discuss government programmes and policies.” In June 2018, reported The Asian Age, “Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a crucial meeting with the RSS and BJP brass, which also included BJP president Amit Shah and senior Cabinet ministers, to discuss key electoral issues.”
Meanwhile, the VHP and RSS continue to be implicated in violence against India’s minorities.
In 2018, for instance, Human Rights Watch reported: “An affiliate organization of the BJP, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, announced plans to recruit 5,000 ‘religious soldiers’ to ‘control cow smuggling and love jihad.’ So-called love jihad, according to Hindu groups, is a conspiracy among Muslim men to marry Hindu women and convert them to Islam.” Summarizing the general situation, also in 2018, the USCIRF reported:
“Conditions for religious minorities have deteriorated over the last decade due to a multifaceted campaign by Hindu nationalist groups like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh… and Vishwa Hindu Parishad to alienate non-Hindus or lower-caste Hindus. The victims of this campaign include Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists… as well as Dalit[s] …. These groups face challenges ranging from acts of violence or intimidation, to the loss of political power, to increasing feelings of disenfranchisement and ‘otherness.’”
With the BJP in power, and the RSS and its affiliates extending ideological influence while their foot-soldiers perpetrate acts of violence, the future looks bleak for Indian minorities.
After Charlottesville violence in Virginia seized the attention of the nation, many Americans were compelled to recognize that there are still deeply troubling issues with which we have not fully grappled. However, although the organizers were emboldened, resistance against them and their ideology of white nationalism put them on notice that ideologies of supremacy and actions targeting minorities will not be tolerated. In the USA, the right thing to do is and always will be to stand up and speak out against the KKK.
The RSS is India’s version of the KKK — except instead of hoods they wear khakis (now brown pants), and instead of operating in secret they openly parade through villages, towns, and cities in columns. The agenda of Hindu supremacy is practically indistinguishable from white nationalism. The only real difference is that Hindutva preaches that Hindus instead of Whites should be at the top of the tower. Unfortunately, the RSS has gained far more ground in India than the KKK has in the United States. The KKK is a fringe, generally despised organization while the RSS is the neck that turns the head of India’s BJP regime.
The World Hindu Congress was not a gathering to promote Hinduism but rather a conclave of the Sangh Parivar. It served as an attempt to internationalize Hindutva.
The main speakers at the World Hindu Congress openly endorsed the ideology of Hindutva. Various other speakers were embroiled in controversy. One called critics of the RSS “cockroaches,” employing genocidal rhetoric which was used in Rwanda to stage a genocide. The founder, Swami Viygananand, called for issuing of trishuls — a weapon used against Muslims in Gujarat and Christians in Odisha.
Posters at the event spoke about the ideology. One VHP poster featured Golwalkar’s picture. Another poster created by a VHP Executive Board Member warned that, because “normative theological and cultural practices are breaking down,” there are “emerging threats for Hindus” which are, foremost, “the Islamic takeover” and “the Christian takeover.” Membership booths invited people to enroll in the VHP as well as the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), which is the international wing of the RSS.
Participating in the VHP-organized conference and speaking alongside RSS leaders — or alongside the leaders of the HSS — qualifies as aiding and abetting systemic violations of humanitarian values of inclusion, diversity, and tolerance. It is an endorsement of Savarkar and Golwalkar’s ideology of supremacism. It is certainly anti-American, as it encourages violations of the foundational American values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. More importantly, it is anti-human.
Pieter Friedrich is a South Asian Affairs Analyst who resides in California. He is the co-author of Captivating the Simple-Hearted: A Struggle for Human Dignity in the Indian Subcontinent.