Vinod Mubayi

Dear Brother Zahid, distinguished guests, old comrades and friends:

I feel very honored and privileged to be invited to attend and address this gathering this evening. Insaf Bulletin, that now has a record of 21 years of uninterrupted monthly publication was started in April 2002 by our much loved departed comrade Prof Daya Varma in April 2002. I joined him as co-editor two months later. After Daya’s passing in 2015, Raza Mir joined me as co-editor and along with Feroz Mehdi our circulation manager in Montreal have been integral to keeping the Bulletin going.

I first came to Vancouver in 1976 when we held the first annual convention of the Indian Peoples Association of North America, IPANA, a group formed in Montreal a year earlier. The focus of that convention was our strong opposition to the Emergency imposed by then Indian PM Indira Gandhi. Ironically, we are meeting today almost half a century later in the midst of a more serious undeclared Emergency imposed by the increasingly dictatorial rule of the current PM Narendra Modi.

Sweden’s influential V-Dem Institute has dubbed India under Modi as an “electoral autocracy.” How long the word electoral stays in that definition may be a matter of conjecture but there is hardly any doubt about autocracy. As any reader of the mainstream liberal media in the West like the New York Times or the Washington Post or the U.K.’s Economist magazine will attest, India under Modi resembles Turkey under Erdogan, Hungary under Orban and other populist dictators whose rule is bent on stifling dissent, oppressing religious or ethnic minorities, and destroying constitutional democratic norms in practice while, at the same time, establishing a highly autocratic personality cult of the Leader based on the same principle of Ein Volk, Ein Fuhrer of the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler.

Modi’s cult is obvious to any visitor to India; his picture is on giant hoardings around cities, on bus stops and other public places, even ration cards, and covid vaccine certificates as if these are all a personal gift from the Leader, in fact, on a recent plane trip from Delhi to Mumbai, I found his picture staring at me from the back of the seat in front!

The foundation of Modi’s rule is based on the philosophy and practice of the century-old cadre-based organization RSS or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh loosely translated as National Volunteer Corps modeled as publicly admitted by the RSS founders on the fascist corps of Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy.

Modi was an RSS pracharak or preacher for much of his adult life until entering politics with the blessings of the RSS leader. BJP may be considered as the political arm of the RSS just as the Bajrang Dal is its violent hoodlum arm, the ABVP its student arm, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad its proselytizing arm and so on where all these various organizations are collectively known as the Sangh Parivar or family. The core philosophy of the Sangh is summarily known as Hindutva and its goal is to establish a Hindu Rashtra (nation) in India. Hindutva may be described as the weaponization of the Hindu religious identity for explicitly political ends that rejects the secular democratic state proclaimed by the liberal Indian Constitution after India’s independence from British colonial rule 75 years ago.

In this context, it is also useful to recall that a Hindutva fanatic, Godse, assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948 leading to a 2-year ban on the RSS, and this hateful and dastardly act is now openly celebrated by some RSS and BJP leaders like Pragya Thakur who have been elected to India’s Parliament.

And that brings me to the subject of my talk today, the attempted infiltration of Hindutva rhetoric, ideas, and the personality cult of Modi as a Vishwa Guru (World Guru) into the North American US and Canada social and political scene. It must be emphasized that Hindutva has little in common with the extremely diverse and pluralistic practices of Hinduism itself.

The aggressive promotion of a monolithic Hinduism by the RSS and its political offshoot the BJP that has characterized Indian society over the last few decades and its intensification in several areas by the Modi regime is now sought to be promoted internationally and particularly in North America with its large and influential Indian diaspora. The promotion takes the form of the one nation, one religion, one language and one leader philosophy that both denies and undermines India’s pluralistic and diverse society. Of course, within India itself the promotion of this monolithic Hinduism is accompanied by multiple forms of exclusion and discrimination as well as physical violence including murder of religious minorities, Muslims and Christians, and Dalits. All of this is well documented as is the fact that Modi’s regime and other BJP governments in states like UP and MP have weaponized the use of state institutions, like the police and investigative agencies, the tax authorities, the election commission, and the subordinate judiciary for partisan political ends.

The passage of a law banning caste discrimination by the Seattle City Council a month ago on Feb 24 by a 6-1 margin was spearheaded by the India-born socialist member of the Council Kshama Sawant. It was followed less than 2 weeks later by a Toronto, Canada, district school board (TDSB) motion that passed by a 16-5 margin to make caste a protected category like race, gender and sexuality. The TDSB motion was sponsored, inter alia, by Dalit feminist school board trustee Yalini Rajakulasingam.

Caste discrimination in the US appears to be most evident in California which is home to the IT industry that employs a large number of software engineers of Indian origin. In June 2020, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a federal lawsuit against Cisco Systems, Inc., which has mostly South Asian workers, because two managers of upper caste Indian origin themselves harassed, discriminated against, and retaliated against an engineer of Dalit origin. In January 2022, California State University (CSU) became the first university system in the U.S. to add caste to its anti-discrimination policy, and, a month later, the workers union of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, demanded the addition of caste as a category in the company’s anti-discrimination policy and also issued a statement supporting the lawsuit against Cisco.

Now a state senator in California, the largest state in the US, whose district encompasses parts of Silicon Valley where several allegations of caste discrimination have been made, has introduced a bill to add caste as a protected category in the anti-discrimination statutes of the state. Caste discrimination has also been outlawed by a number of leading universities in the US such as Harvard University.

These attempts to recognize and ban discrimination based on caste have been and continue to be strongly opposed by right-wing Hindutva organizations like the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) in the US and their counterparts in Canada. The Coalition of Hindus in North America (COHNA) was reported to have called caste a “racist, colonial trope” and described it as bigotry against the South Asian community. The virulence of this response suggests that these initial attempts to highlight caste discrimination have hit a nerve in sections of the Indian diaspora eliciting a defensive reaction as caste identity and the age-old practice of discrimination against the lowest strata, the Dalits, is the socio-cultural Achilles heel of the Indian, especially upper caste Hindu, diaspora.

Prof. Chinnaiah Jangam, Associate Professor of History at Carleton University in Canada, and a Dalit of Indian origin himself wrote about the TDSB anti-caste measure that “Anyone familiar with caste stigma and the violence endured by caste-oppressed Dalits and other minorities should have welcomed this move as a progressive step. But Indian-origin privileged caste Hindus in Canada organized a protest demonstration in front of the TDSB office. In the name of the Canadian Organization for Hindu Heritage Education, they launched a coordinated campaign against Rajakulasingam and other trustees who supported the motion. The protestors had the support of the Hindu American Foundation and other rightwing organizations in North America.”

Discrimination and oppression based on caste are an age-old phenomenon in South Asia, most pronounced amongst the caste-ridden Hindu communities in India, although they are practiced to some extent in other religious groups as well. The Indian Constitution adopted after independence banned the worst features of the caste system and also instituted a policy of affirmative action for the most oppressed members, the Dalits. As with any widespread social practice, the success of these ameliorative measures is spotty depending on the attitude of the local government machinery to enforcement of laws banning caste oppression.

A recent interesting and informative book by the Kannada writer Devanuri Mahadeva published in 2022 “elucidates how the Modi government’s warpath to erase pluralism and tolerance in India can be traced back to RSS’s founding principles, inspired heavily by fascism in Hitler’s and Mussolini’s Europe” and it emphasizes that “The RSS – Modi and several members of his cabinet have been longtime members – was founded in 1925, and relies almost entirely on the four varnas, India’s infamous caste system, to define its vision for a Hindu state.”

Elaborating on the connection with fascist Germany Prof Chinnaiah Jangam insightfully indicates: “one can see an invisible connection between caste and white supremacy that produced the Aryan race supremacy of Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany and the Italian fascism of Benito Mussolini…In this context, privileged caste Hindus who have emerged as India’s cultural ambassadors and faces of the Indian diaspora are normalizing a Hindu supremacist ideology…Ironically, they use the language of multiculturalism, decolonization, religious fear and anything that helps their agenda of holding on to their privileges…Even after moving out of their native lands and settling in liberal countries like Canada, where there is no necessity for caste to survive, they feel their existence is under threat if someone talks about caste oppression. They not only deny the existence of caste but use all weapons at their disposal to discredit those who raise the matter.”

Thus, the Atlanta chapter of COHNA, one of the most vocal opponents of anti-caste discrimination legislations and policies across the country which organized the first-ever Hindu Advocacy Day held on March 22 at the Georgia State Capitol, prevailed on Republican legislators from the Georgia Assembly to pass a resolution on March 27 condemning “Hinduphobia and anti-Hindu bigotry”. COHNA has argued that these policies are Hinduphobic, in that they specifically target the Hindu community and their beliefs. However, unlike the Seattle legislation which added the category of caste in the city’s anti-discrimination laws, this resolution does no such thing and has no practical effect as it does not have any “teeth” or legal penalties attached. It simply puts forward the stance of the Republican party members of the Georgia Assembly to the public.

One may ask: is there widespread Hinduphobia in the US? According to the US Department of Justice’s 2021 Hate Crime Statistics report, there were 7,074 single-bias incidents involving 8,753 victims. Of this, 64.8 per cent were motivated by “race, ethnicity or ancestry” according to the DOJ report. Further, 1005 or 13.3 per cent of such crimes were on the basis of religion. Religious communities most targeted were: Jews (accounting for 31.9 per cent of all religious hate crimes), Sikhs (21.3 per cent, a very large number in relation to their small share of the population), Muslims (9.5 per cent), and Catholics (6.1 per cent). In comparison, anti-Hindu incidents specifically were less than1 per cent, just 10 out of 1,005, ranking 34 out of 35 communities listed. In other words, actual Hinduphobic incidents are negligible, in contrast to the propaganda being pushed forward by upper caste Hindu organizations in the US diaspora.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims and the World Sikh Organization (WSO) have recently published a report on the Hindutva influence in Canada by organizations like the RSS. The authors of the report point out that the RSS has been spreading its ideologies all over the world including countries like Canada “through organizations that engage in humanitarian, community, education and political work.” They cautioned the authorities to be aware of the growth of Hindu nationalism not only in India but in Canada as well.

In conclusion, I would like to end by stating that highlighting the regressive features of caste discrimination and fashioning laws against it similar to laws outlawing discrimination based on race, gender, and sexuality should help to raise awareness of the issue among the Indian diaspora a well as the broader public in North America. By the same token, it should also help to blunt and diminish the appeal and spread of Hindutva ideology as caste is an integral part of its worldview.

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my views with you.

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