When the United States Supreme Court recently outlawed affirmative action in college admissions, among those celebrating the moment were sections of the Hindu right in America.
The Hindu Policy Research and Advocacy Collective (HinduPACT), for instance, was quick to tweet: “#RacialQuotas in ed. adversely impacted #IndianAmerican students. We welcome #AffirmativeAction ruling by the #SCOTUS”. HinduPACT is an advocacy group established by the US branch of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHPA) – an organisation known for its role in the rise of Hindu militancy in India.
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But why does a group associated with the Hindu nationalist philosophy of Hindutva care about affirmative action in the US?
In part, it is a reminder of an ever-growing camaraderie between US conservatives and diaspora Hindu nationalists. But equally, it is an indication of a dangerous blurring of lines between politics at home and abroad – and an effort to shut down criticism of historical and current discrimination against people from religious minorities and lower castes, in India as well as in the US.
For it is that discrimination that affirmative action sought to tackle before the Supreme Court struck it down.
A united politics
Though Indian Americans – like most immigrant communities – continue to largely support the Democratic Party, segments of the Indian diaspora have been rallying support for Republicans. That trend has gained steam in recent years.
The Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC), launched in 2015 by Chicago-based businessman Shalabh Kumar to build a bridge between Hindu Americans and the Republican Party, expectedly advocates for smaller, limited government and lower taxes. It believes the government should discourage single parenting and abortions and that combating radical Islam should be central to US foreign policy.
Kumar personally endorsed former President Donald Trump’s stance on restrictive immigration as well as his plans to build a wall along the US-Mexico border.
Conservative talking points are also easy to spot on the websites of groups like HinduPACT, Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, Hinduvesha, American Hindus Against Defamation (AHAD) and the VHPA. These are usually accompanied by criticism of American liberals.
All of this served as the backdrop for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bromance with Trump, broadcast to the world through two mega rallies they held together – one in Houston, Texas in 2019, and the other in Ahmedabad, India in 2020.
At a time when many US lawmakers, especially in the Democratic Party, were raising concerns about the Indian government’s overnight revocation of Kashmir’s constitutionally-guaranteed semi-autonomous status, Trump and his administration remained steadfast in their support for Modi.
The myth of ‘merit’
Nowhere does this conservative confluence show up as clearly as it does in education. The parallels between the opposition to affirmative action from Hindutva groups like HinduPACT and the sentiment against caste-based education quotas in India among many upper-caste Hindus are striking.
In both cases, this is positioned as a battle for so-called merit – pandering to casteist and racist tropes to suggest that beneficiaries of affirmative action or quotas are less deserving of college seats. Ignored, again in both instances, are the centuries of systemic injustice and discrimination against people of colour, especially African Americans, in the US and against people from lower castes in India, which makes any notion of a level playing field meaningless.
In India, those who argue against caste-based affirmative action seem to have borrowed from the right-wing notion of “reverse racism”, often heard in the US, when they argue that any reservations and quotas for lower castes lead to “reverse discrimination” or “reverse casteism” against deserving students.
Yet, they rarely notice or acknowledge the rampant caste-based discrimination as well as everyday harassment and stigmatisation faced by lower-caste students in institutions of higher education, leading some like PhD scholar and Dalit activist Rohith Chakravarthi Vemula to take their own life. In his parting letter, he wrote: “My birth is my fatal accident.”
In the US, this plays out in the use by Hindutva groups of the Indian-American community’s “model minority” image to argue that it doesn’t need or want the support that other ethnic and racial minorities need.
In this, they conveniently conflate Hindu Americans and Indian Americans. The RHC touts the fact that Indian Americans have the “highest median household income” of all ethnic groups, are least dependent on government support and have among the highest levels of education.
In an infographic on the “Trajectory of Hindus in America”, HinduPACT relays a similar message, adding that, “Indians skipped the ‘ghetto stage’ common to most immigrant stories”.
Yet, following the Supreme Court ruling, a Pew survey revealed that most Indian Americans considered affirmative action to be a good thing. Hindutva groups have clearly failed, so far, to convince them otherwise.
In many ways, though, US politics is the real target these groups are looking to influence and the aim is to protect the interests of Hindu nationalists in India.
Diaspora Hindu nationalists have in recent years tried to argue that Hindus are the victims of widespread and systemic discrimination, religious hatred, stigma, defamation and genocidal violence. The VHPA’s “Hinduvesha” initiative accuses major universities of cultivating “an ecosystem of scholars, funders, and journals to perpetuate Hinduphobic scholarship”.
Hindutva groups go so far as to compare the discrimination Hindus allegedly face globally with the stigmatisation and persecution faced by Jews in Europe before the Holocaust.
On its website, HinduPACT argues that criticising Hinduism for caste-based discrimination is also evidence of Hinduphobia. Hindutva groups have opposed bills to ban caste discrimination in California and the Seattle City Council, calling them Hinduphobic and alleging that the legislation would increase risks of bullying and violence faced by Indian Americans in schools and workplaces.
And after the St Paul City Council passed a resolution in 2020 that was critical of the Modi government’s citizenship law amendments which discriminate against Muslim asylum seekers, the VHPA issued a statement saying that “the real purpose of this resolution is to create hatred for Hindus and people of Indian origin residing in Minneapolis – St. Paul area”.
In effect, any criticism of the Modi government’s policies in India is deemed Hinduphobic in the US by these groups.
A dangerous future?
The effects of this campaign by Hindutva groups – against lawmakers, academics and everyday citizens opposed to them – are visible.
In 2019, after an article revealed the growing influence of Hindu majoritarian politics in the US, Ro Khanna, a Democratic congressman from Silicon Valley, tweeted: “It’s the duty of every American politician of Hindu faith to stand for pluralism, reject Hindutva, and speak for equal rights for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians”.
Attacks on him were immediate and incessant. Four years later, Khanna appears to have mellowed. In fact, in the lead-up to Modi’s visit to the US earlier this year, he authored a “bipartisan letter calling for Modi to address a joint seating of Congress”. He justified his decision to do so by insisting that “the way to make progress on human rights is to engage with the Indian PM”.
Amid pressure from Hindutva activists, the language of the California caste discrimination bill was also amended. Instead of caste being a separate category under the state’s non-discrimination law as was originally intended, it was now defined as a “protected class under the larger umbrella of ‘ancestry'”.
Anti-bill activists celebrated this diluted version as a victory, though the bill’s proponents insist the substance of the legislation remains unchanged.
These are signs of a dangerous incursion of Hindu nationalism in American politics.
Back in India, this ideology has violently divided a nation and battered its democracy. Now it’s aligning itself against social justice – whether on affirmative action or caste-based discrimination – in the US, while trying to bully critics of the Indian government into silence.
This is no longer just India’s problem. It’s America’s too.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.