CHICAGO — Small protests disrupted th is year’s World Hindu Congress held in Chicago. Protesters charged that several speakers have links to fascists and have promoted violence against Muslims in India. According to the protesters, World Hindu Congress attendees choked, kicked, and spat on them. Several Indian-American elected officials dropped out of participation. Chicago police arrested two protesters and one counter-protester.
About 2,500 people from 60 countries attended the World Hindu Congress from September 7 to 9. Organizers of the event described it as a “global platform for Hindus to connect, share ideas, inspire one another, and impact the common good.” Protesters objected to speakers from Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The head of RSS, Mohan Bhagwat, was a speaker at the Congress.
VHPA, RSS, and the ruling party in India, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have promoted Hinduism as an ethno-national identity. They call this ethno-national identity, Hindutva.
The charges of fascism aimed at Hindutva echo the charges aimed at the white supremacist-based practice of Odinism.
Parallels and differences exist between Hindutva and this form of Odinism. The German and Italian senses of national identity arose from their campaigns for national unification in the 19th Century. Fascism emerged in both countries after the trauma of WWI.
In contrast, Hindutva emerged out of India’s independence struggle. Two competing tendencies arose in that movement. Those tendencies have since become the two dominant political parties in India. The Indian National Congress (INC) advocated for a center-left, secular state. Mahatma Gandhi was active in the INC, which eventually became The Congress party of Nehru and Indira Gandhi (no relation).By contrast, RSS promoted an ethno-national Hindu India, based on Hindutva. The BJP emerged out of that tendency.
A former member of RSS, Naturam Godse, assassinated Gandhi in 1948. Godse felt Gandhi had made too many concessions to Muslims. No evidence has linked RSS to Gandhi’s assassination.
The movement for independence ended with the carnage of the 1947 partition into the modern states of India and Pakistan. Hindus and Muslims committed atrocities in that ethnic cleansing. Estimates of those killed range from several hundred thousand to two million. Members of each group had to flee to “their side” of the partition line. An estimated 14 million had to flee their homes.
The violence of the partition blended into the 70 plus years of intermittent war between India and Pakistan. Besides the conflict between the two countries, significant inter-communal violence occurs within them as well.
During World War II, some RSS leaders admired Fascism and Nazism. Madhav Golwalkar, the second Supreme Leader of RSS, wanted to apply Nazi principles in India. He said “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.”
After WWII ended, proponents of Hindutva distanced themselves from fascism.RSS currently claims to have only an interest in nation building and providing social services. The party bases its sense of “nation building” on Hindu culture and India as a Hindu nation.
The spiritual and religious landscape of India, however, varies greatly. It contains the second largest Muslim population of any country in the world. In its federal system, India has one Sikh majority state, one Muslim majority state, two Buddhist majority states, and three Christian majority states.
Bhagwat, current head of RSS, has advocated for a Hindu centric India. Bhagwat has said “The RSS has always felt that the Indian polity should become Hindu-centric like the European or American polity is Christian-centric.” According to Bhagwat, Muslims have a place within the Hindu-centric nation. It is not clear, if that place is one of equality.
Hindutva differs from white supremacist Odinism in its rejection of “blood and soil” ideology. The website of a Hindutva group in the US states that they accept people of non-Indian origin under the concept of Dharma. “The parishad [council] welcomes and respects people of non-Indian origin who consider themselves Hindus ” under Dharma. In contrast, white supremacist Odinism bars people not of European descent from any participation in Odinism.
The current global wave of right wing populism emphasizes rights for the majority and ethno-national identities. Hindutva may be its form in India.