Massey research paper on Hindutva leads to trolling, persecution and threats

Richa Sharma was doing research on religious extremism in Aotearoa when she got a call from her mother. Her aunties and uncles, close family friends who have known her since she was born, were convinced she was a terrorist.

For a few months last year, Richa Sharma did not go out after dark, always making sure she had safe ways to get around for work and meetings.

The 18-year-old was interning at Care, a Massey University research centre that was copping online abuse for publishing a white paper about the far-right nationalist ideology known as Hindutva and its creeping presence in Aotearoa.

There were calls for centre director Professor Mohan Dutta to be sacked, even burned alive. Police said the trolls were overseas, but an Auckland-based Indian news site published a piece calling Dutta a “left-leaning bigot under the garb of an academician”, and part of “a gang of some smelly rats”.

The Hindu Council and Hindu Youth New Zealand chimed in with nearly identical statements, condemning the paper for “accusatory and unsubstantiated assertions” that made the Hindu community look bad. Hindu Youth said it was “outright Hindu hatred”.

Most of the vitriol was directed at Dutta but his team, some of them South Asian and female, were not spared. Their profiles were public on the Care website and social media pages.

“We had to watch our steps carefully,” said Sharma, now 19. “I really didn’t feel safe. We had a police file open.”

Shortly after, an auntie and uncle reached out to Sharma’s mother back home in Palmerston North. They were not related by blood but it was custom in the community to address close family friends as auntie and uncle.

Over tea, Sharma’s mother was told her daughter worked for an anti-Hindu outfit and was urged to intervene. Auntie and uncle were convinced Sharma was a “left-wing, radical terrorist”.

Another auntie sent text messages condemning the white paper, including a petition against Massey University to take it down.

It was confusing, then painful.

“I’d known them since I was born. All of them had babysat me at some point, so it was weird to have them turn around and call me a terrorist,” Sharma said.

“Seeing what I thought was once my community, the place I belong, be so quick to disown me as soon as something doesn’t align with their world view – I didn’t expect people to be capable of doing that.”

Coming out transgender had already given her a sense of alienation – some aunties and uncles still refer to her as a boy – so this was another blow.

“It’s hard – one week they’re serving you food, you’re part of the family, the next week people see you as anti-national radical,” she said.”National in this case being India, against the nation.”

In October, Sharma was named along with Dutta and others in a bogus “anti-Hindu” network map on Twitter claiming they were endangering Hindu lives and, most alarming of all, working for the Pakistan intelligence agency.

“It’s flat out wrong,” Sharma told the Herald. “You hear a lot about conspiracy theories, but being implicated in one is a whole different experience.”

She knew the people behind the graphic would have trolled through her social media pages and employment history. What else did they know, and what would they do? She was terrified.

'Hinduism on steroids'

Hindutva means the Hindu way in Sanskrit, but today it has become a fraught reference to the political ideology of the Hindu Right in India, led by the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The movement and its supporters have gained ground since BJP swept to power with the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 and his subsequent re-election in 2019.

It’s been called “Hinduism on steroids”, its relation to Hinduism compared to that between Islam and Islamic fundamentalism.

Critics like Dutta are at pains to stress that Hinduism is not Hindutva – in fact, Hindutva extremism is the biggest threat to Hinduism, he says. Hindutva claims India as a Hindu state, a claim used to rationalise violence or at least antagonism against religious minorities in India, especially Muslims and Christians. Hindutva is against the idea of a secular India, scholars say, and its roots are deeply Islamophobic.

Hindu Youth NZ president Murali Krishna Magesan disagrees. He says Dutta is attacking an entire community in the name of calling out a political ideology. “Call political and extremist ideologies what they are” but leave Hindus out of it, he says.

The quarrel may seem foreign and esoteric, but Dutta says New Zealand’s 2019 mosque attacks shows there is no room for complacency when it comes to any form of extremism.
More importantly, he says, the public backlash against his white paper suggests Hindutva forces are alive and well in Aotearoa.

The 2018 Census estimates there are 121,644 Hindus in New Zealand, one of the country’s fastest-growing faith groups. Indians number 239,193.

Hindus come from all over the world, from Kenya to Malaysia and Fiji. Many are born in New Zealand to first, second or third-generation migrant parents. The same goes for people who identify as Indian. Many are Hindu but not all – there are sizeable groups of Indian Muslims, Christians and so on.

For New Zealand’s diverse ethnic Indian and Hindu communities, Indian politics and ideologies are unimportant and irrelevant, Magesan says. They understand Hindutva to mean the Hindu way, and Dutta’s critique of it hurts.

'Where's the hate coming from?'

Balamohan Shingade was also named in the “anti-Hindu” network map.

Like his colleague Sharma, the 30-year-old CARE researcher and classical Indian musician also felt scared and threatened even though the link to the secret service was “totally bonkers”.

But the controversy would bring his Hindu family closer together and give them a better understanding of who they are as Indians in New Zealand.

“The demonising of dissenters, like Mohan-da, is an age-old strategy of Hindu chauvinism,” he wrote on his Facebook page when the backlash was in full swing, using a term of respect for Dutta meaning “big brother”.

It was a public denouncement of Hindutva that made Shingade’s parents fear for his safety.

They were a temple-going family and part of a close-knit Hindu community. Over dinner, they talked about the online attacks on Dutta and its local reverberations.

A public quarrel like this was a first for the Hindu community, a hardworking, peace-loving model minority in New Zealand. Both sides accused the other of hate, but where is it coming from?

“What was alarming for us is that someone like Dutta, who is Hindu, offering an internal critique, would get so much hate,” he said.

“It demonstrated what my parents were talking about when they said, ‘Be careful’. It became very clear that they had an understanding of the dangers of speaking out against Hindutva.”

Growing up Hindu in Auckland, Shingade says he has seen how Hindutva narratives are embedded in the community’s cultural programmes and activities.

These narratives discriminated against indigenous peoples and gender-diverse communities, and marginalised Muslims and Christians, who were seen as threats, he said. “It didn’t sit well with me because here I was, understanding the struggles of Maori as indigenous peoples.”

“There is an indigenous person, a Dalit or a dissenter in the corner of every Hindu story who is demonised or depicted in other vulgar ways,” he had written on that first Facebook post.

Talking to his India-born parents, Shingade saw that first-generation migrants who faced hardship and racism in Aotearoa had found unity and community at the temple, solidifying their identities around religion.

For them, the critique of Hindutva, even as the illegitimate child of Hinduism, could be seen as an attack on the religion that has long been a pillar of safety.

“Anyone who knows a Hindu or knows Hinduism will tell you that it is a timeless tradition rooted in Oneness of existence, selfless service (sewa), non-violence (ahimsa), pluralism and Dharma,” says Magesan, of Hindu Youth.

“Just as there are extremist views held by all communities … because of the sheer number of Hindus who live in New Zealand, statistically, there may be individuals. However similar to other communities, extremists (if any) do not represent the voice of the wider community,” he said.

Liberal vs conservative

The furore around Hindutva is a case of a split community, said Sharma.

It’s a contest of ideas, and on one side are religious conservatives who see the white paper as an unprovoked attack on Hinduism. On the other are liberal young Kiwi Indians like Sharma and Shingade, many (but not all) born and raised in secular New Zealand, free from the battle to hold on to their culture and the need to rely on – or bear with – Hindutva narratives to know they belong.

Sharma says her work with Dutta and other progressive Indians has helped her find her space in the Indian diaspora.

“It’s not all uncles and aunties being transphobic. There’s actually a lot of good there, learning the history of activism and social justice in India, all the amazing minds working towards that now and in history. It really connected me to my culture in a way I hadn’t experienced before.”

They believe a small number of Hindutva-aligned people in prominent places are defining what it means to be Hindu in New Zealand.

“If you don’t subscribe to the Hindutva version you’re seen as not belonging to the community … as white-washed,” says Shingade.

It is scary to speak up, and Shingade receives private messages “all the time” thanking him for doing it.

Not everyone can. He says he is lucky to have the support of his family to have found a clear and critical voice as an Indian New Zealander.

“The danger is if you don’t find your voice, other people will find it for you.”

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