How a coalition of diaspora Indians in America aims to counter the Hindutva narrative

The Reclaiming India alliance of community and advocacy groups seeks to ensure that ‘saffron supremacist voices’ don’t get to speak for the entire NRI fraternity.

ByAnna Priyadarshini
How a coalition of diaspora Indians in America aims to counter the Hindutva narrative

On August 5, 2020, the streets of New York echoed with the chants of “BJP has to go” and “Azadi”. Indian Americans had gathered there to protest the Ram Mandir billboard in Times Square. Organised by the South Asian Solidarity Initiative, or SASI, the protest saw several South Asian diaspora groups in the United States “join hands against the Hindutva ideology”, which had driven the agitation to demolish the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and erect a temple to Ram in its place.

The groups which took part in the Times Square protest included Students Against Hindutva Ideology, or SAHI; Hindus For Human Rights, or HfHR; Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus; and the Indian American Muslim Council, or IAMC. They have since formed, together with similar groups such as the Global Indian Progressive Alliance, or GIPA, and the India Civil Watch International, or ICWI, a “multi-faceted alliance to counter the assault by Hindutva on the secular democracy of India”.

The alliance is called Reclaiming India and its first initiative is the Reclaiming India@73 Conference, scheduled for October 3 and 4. The coalition is supported by several groups from India and abroad such as the Dalit Solidarity Forum, Voices Against Fascism in India, and Coalition Against Fascism in India.

Its mission? “We are reclaiming India from the anti-intellectualism that we have now, from populism, from the majoritarian shift in political India that we have seen particularly since 2014,” explained Manish Madan, the founder of GIPA and one of the conference’s primary organisers. “And then we reclaim it to where it belonged and where it should go forward as a democratic, plural, and as a progressive country.”

Currently, Madan noted, the “saffron supremacist voices” are taken to speak for the entire fraternity of NRIs. “These existing NRI voices don’t speak for all and progressive left voices don't agree with them. They do not speak for many of us.” The alliance and the conference were intended to rectify this situation, he added.

While the IAMC and the ICWI are decades-old organisations, GIPA, HfHR and SAHI were formed only about a year ago. The IAMC is an advocacy group “committed to safeguarding India’s pluralist and tolerant ethos” while the ICWI is described as an organisation “committed to upholding the democratic rights of all peoples in India”. SAHI is an inter-university, inter-faith, progressive student coalition focused on changing behaviors in the South Asian diaspora; GIPA is a grassroots organisation that aims to bring together people of Indian origin to contribute to progressive causes; HfHR is an advocacy group that speaks from a Hindu perspective and is committed to the ideals of multi-religious pluralism in the US, India, and beyond. Many of these organisations find their roots in last year’s protests back in India against the new citizenship law, which they see as discriminating against the Muslim minority.

Sunita Viswanath, the co-founder of HfHR, described the coming together of these diaspora voices as “very natural”. “We have worked very closely throughout this year. So it's a very natural alliance,” she explained. “In Washington DC, we have advocated on Capitol Hill, to the State Department and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, and we did anti-CAA protests together. We were at the ‘Howdy Modi’ event together, protesting of course. And, most recently, we collaborated to protest the Times Square billboards.”

HfHR was formed after Narendra Modi was reelected India’s prime minister last year and some Indian Americans felt it was necessary to have “a Hindu platform to address human rights violations in India and take on Hindutva”. “So we created Hindus for Human Rights,” Viswanath said.

Rya Jetha of SAHI explained that they joined the Reclaiming India coalition to broaden the scope of their grassroots work. “SAHI has been working at a micro-level on college campuses across the US to change behaviours in the diaspora through educational approaches. This conference does it on a larger scale,” she said. “Money from wealthy Indian Americans sent back to India keeps the machinery of discrimination going. SAHI is working toward a massive generational shift in the US, which can only be achieved through awareness and engagement with India.”

As a diaspora alliance, Madan said, they stood for democracy and pluralism. “If 80 percent of India’s population comprises the Hindus, it does not imply that India is a Hindu country. We are not a theocracy that our politics is shaped solely by religion. So, that was the whole aim of launching Reclaiming India.”

He clarified that the coalition was against divisive policies such as the citizenship law. “We have to think of a broader coalition effort, where we have an umbrella organisation of different ideologies, political belief systems, political-religious belief systems, where we come together with a common goal and which brings us together in terms of reclaiming India,” he added.

The alliance believed in “not staying quiet as the country hurtles towards becoming a Hindu theocracy where non-Hindus are not equal citizens with equal rights”, Reclaiming India said in an email announcing the launch of the coalition.

And through its upcoming conference, the email added, the alliance intended “to bring together frontline visionaries and brave activists in India and their allies and counterparts in the United States” for a “forward-thinking, global dialogue on Reclaiming the Indian secular democracy”.

Asked about its funding, Viswanath said the conference was “a labor of love” and “any costs are minimal and being borne by our coalition leaders”.

Viswanath noted that the coalition was a microcosm of the Indian diaspora. “We really feel that we need a big tent coalition. We need the Muslims, the Hindus, people from each caste, the Dalits, the leftists, and all Indian minorities,” she said. “Only such a coalition can really be robust and take up the cause of social justice right now.”

Viswanath said she and her colleagues were concerned about the safety of activists, dissenters, protesters, lawyers and journalists in India. “One activist in India, facing the prospect of arrest simply for openly dissenting, recently said to coalition members, ‘The fight in India is being aggressively suppressed by the ruling establishment. It is important that activists abroad speak up when we cannot.’"

“Hindu nationalism is increasingly entrenched in the diaspora communities, and it is imperative we speak up against it,” she added. “Over the coming year, we hope to grow our alliance and strategically plan our second conference. We also plan to increase global awareness of the issue of political prisoners in India.”

To this end, the alliance also aims to reach out to pro-democracy groups across the United States, Europe, Australia, and India.

The ultimate goal of the conference, Jetha said, was to “announce a united, diverse, and progressive alliance working to secure a future for India that is truly secular and democratic”.

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