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Articles

Article: Modi’s Hindu nationalism stokes tension in Indian diaspora

Norimitsu Onishi and Vjosa Isai

Lecture halls at Canadian and US universities have become battlegrounds for critics and defenders of Hindu nationalism, punctuated by threats of violence and even death. Parades in two North American cities have featured displays celebrating episodes of brutal sectarian violence in India.

The Canadian government’s startling accusation that Indian government agents were behind the professional-style killing of a Canadian Sikh separatist in Vancouver, British Columbia, has focused attention on the growing tensions within the vast Indian diaspora, reflecting divisions in India that have been fueled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s brand of Hindu nationalism.

Modi’s Hindu-first policies and increasing intolerance of scrutiny have spilled over into Indian communities worldwide, intensifying historical divisions among Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and different castes. They have played out in city councils, school boards, cultural celebrations and academic circles.

“Before 2014, when Modi came to power, you didn’t see these kinds of divisions in the Indian diaspora in Canada — not at all,” said Chinnaiah Jangam, an associate professor of history at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, and an expert on caste-based discrimination.

Stephen Brown, the CEO of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said, “What you’ve seen is a contagion effect.”

Modi and his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, came to power in 2014, espousing a Hindu nationalist agenda called Hindutva that critics say has fueled rising violence and discrimination against India’s religious minorities, about 20% of the population.

Modi’s government has adopted laws and policies discriminating against religious minorities as some of his supporters have carried out killings and acts of violence against them, often with impunity. But criticism from Western nations seeking closer economic ties with India and a geopolitical counterweight to China has been muted.

Fears that tensions in India are spreading to diaspora communities have translated into greater scrutiny over the overseas activities of the BJP; the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, India’s leading far-right, Hindu nationalist organization; and even Indian diplomats.

Under Modi, the RSS has become increasingly active overseas in countries with large Indian diasporas, said Dhirendra Jha, an Indian author who has followed the organization for decades. The BJP is considered the political wing of the RSS, which helped kick off the political career of Modi, who is still a member.

In Canada, two long-established, RSS-linked associations — the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (Hindu Self-Reliance Association) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) — are mobilizing support for Modi and his Hindu-first policies through educational, cultural and social activities, according to experts as well as a recent report published by the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the World Sikh Organization of Canada.

Officials at the two organizations did not respond to requests for interviews.

Malavika Kasturi, a historian at the University of Toronto and an expert on Hindu nationalism, said that the two groups and others that “hide under a variety of different fronts” form a network backing Modi’s Hindu-first agenda in Canada.

“What they do have is a common agenda, which is to crack down on all dissent,” Kasturi said. “So any critique of Hindutva is called Hinduphobia. Any critique of Mr. Modi is called Hinduphobia.”

Modi has tapped into a “very deep-seated psychology” among members of the diaspora who “want to recover a lost pride in the rise of a great civilization that has been wronged” through colonization, said Meera Nanda, an Indian historian researching the impact of Hindutva in the United States.

But Ragini Sharma, president of the Toronto-based Canadian Organization for Hindu Heritage Education, said critics were using Modi’s political agenda to portray Hinduism as intolerant.

Her organization opposed the Toronto District School Board’s recent decision to recognize that caste-based discrimination exists in its schools, saying it would “demonize” the Hindu community. It is lobbying the Canadian government to recognize Hinduphobia, a term used by Hindu activists in recent years.

“There is this bogey of Hindu nationalism that is being applied to innocent people,” Sharma said.

Hardeep Singh Nijjar — the Canadian Sikh leader whose killing now lies at the center of a diplomatic clash between Canada and India — championed the creation of Khalistan, a separate homeland for Sikhs carved out of the state of Punjab.

Ragini Sharma, president of the Toronto-based Canadian Organization for Hindu Heritage Education, in Toronto, on Friday. The killing of a Canadian Sikh leader, carried out by what Canada described as Indian government agents, occurred amid widening divisions in the diaspora.

Ragini Sharma, president of the Toronto-based Canadian Organization for Hindu Heritage Education, in Toronto, on Friday. The killing of a Canadian Sikh leader, carried out by what Canada described as Indian government agents, occurred amid widening divisions in the diaspora. | IAN WILLMS / THE

NEW YORK TIMES

After becoming the leader of the most important Sikh temple in British Columbia in 2019, Nijjar criticized Modi’s Hindu-first policies as an attempt to “convert all of India into believers of Hinduism,” said Gurkeerat Singh, a close associate of Nijjar’s.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada has said that Indian government “agents” gunned down Nijjar in June, basing his accusations on intelligence gathered by Canada and shared by the United States. India has denied any involvement in the killing of Nijjar, whom it labeled a terrorist in 2020.

The killing has alarmed academics who say they have been targeted by Hindu extremist supporters of Modi since he became India’s leader.

Jangam, the associate professor at Carleton University, who has researched caste-based discrimination and violence in India, said he has faced death threats from Hindu extremists in Canada.

He has been accused of giving India and Hinduism a bad image, Jangam said, adding that he was the first tenured academic in Canada from the Dalit community, once known as the untouchables.

“No one ever bothered about so-called Hindu identity before” in Canada, Jangam said of the years before Modi’s rise to power. “It’s a shock for me how people have transitioned from being normal, ordinary people into Hindu fundamentalists.”

A talk he gave on caste discrimination in Toronto in 2019 was disrupted by upper-caste Hindu hecklers who told him to go back to India, Jangam said.

One of the organizations opposing the talk was the Indo-Canadian Harmony Forum, saying it lacked balance. The group’s chair, Praveen Verma, said Modi had elevated India’s global standing.

“India has come on the world stage, and I feel the Indian community is proud about that,” said Verma, a career diplomat who served as India’s ambassador to Yemen and Guatemala before retiring in Ontario.

Harassment of certain scholars has had a negative effect on scholarship on India, said Harjeet Grewal, an expert on Asian religions at the University of Calgary.

Academics avoid sensitive topics, he said. “We see less and less focus on religion and society in India in American, Canadian and U.K. universities.”

Divisions within the Indian diaspora have expressed themselves in other ways. Descendants of the historically oppressed Dalit community have led a push to ban caste discrimination, pitting them against upper-caste Hindus in Toronto, Seattle and California. Tensions and violence among Indian immigrants has ruptured communities once heralded as models of integration, like Leicester, England.

The Toronto suburb of Brampton has become an epicenter of many of the tensions in the diaspora. Hindu temples have been vandalized with slogans championing Khalistan. A float re-creating the assassination of Indira Gandhi appeared in a Sikh parade.

When Brampton announced during the pandemic that mosques would be allowed to play the call to prayer on loudspeakers during Ramadan, a man identified as a member of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh by the Canadian Anti-Hate Network asked on social media whether that would lead to “separate lanes for camels and goat riders” or women covering “themselves from head to toe in tents.” The man was subsequently fired from a nearby school council where he had been the chair.

In Brampton, the Indian government has also been accused of directly interfering to defend Modi’s policies or India’s image in ways that have deepened divisions.

In 2017, Indian diplomats from the consulate general in Toronto pressed organizers of an annual cultural festival to cancel a pavilion devoted to Punjab, the only Indian state where Sikhs are a majority, or to fold it into the India pavilion, according to Brampton city staffers at the time.

“The organizers shared with us how they were getting phone calls and they were being harassed by the Indian consulate to shut this pavilion down,” said Jaskaran Sandhu, an adviser to the mayor at the time.

The mayor wrote to Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s foreign minister at the time, that “this type of unwarranted interference by Indian officials in a local cultural festival is shocking,” according to a copy of the letter obtained by The New York Times.

Freeland told the news media that “interference in domestic affairs by foreign representatives in Canada is inappropriate.”

The Indian consulate in Toronto and embassy in Ottawa did not respond to requests for comment.

The Overseas Friends of the BJP, the international arm of Modi’s party, has established a growing presence abroad to push its agenda and is registered as a foreign agent in the United States.

In Canada, which does not have a foreign agent registry, the Overseas Friends of the BJP of Canada was established in 2014 and changed its name to the Canada India Global Forum in 2018.

Dr. Shivendra Dwivedi, an anesthesiologist who has been the group’s president since 2019, said its focus is trade and that, unlike affiliates in the United States and Europe, it did not have ties to Modi’s party.

Dwivedi, 64, said attacks on academics were led by “fringe elements” and that “there was no place for that in Canada.”

Still, he added, moves to have caste-based discrimination officially recognized were part of “a movement to malign the country” just as India has gained international prominence.

“When I was growing up in Quebec, I was probably the only brown kid in my class,” said Dwivedi. “And people would literally say, ‘Hey, you know what? Aren’t you lucky to come to Canada? At least you’re not starving like they are in India.’”

Today, the balance between Canada and India has shifted, Dwivedi said.

“Thirty years ago, the Indian economy needed Canada,” he said. “Now it’s a 180-degrees opposite. Canada needs India. India is the growing economic and military power, not Canada. We need them. They don’t need us.”

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