The Grim Lesson India Offers the US
Right-wing violence is on the rise in the world’s two largest democracies.
Are you worried about the rising political power of violent white nationalists in America? Well, you’ve got plenty of company, including U.S. national security and counterterrorism officials. And we’re worried, too—worried enough, in fact, to feel that it’s time to take a look at the experience of India, where Hindu supremacist dogma has increasingly been enforced through violent means. While there are striking parallels between both countries, India appears to have ventured further down the road of far-right violence. Its experience could potentially offer Americans some valuable, if grim, lessons.
As a start, let’s look at two recent incidents, one in India and the other in the United States.
Laws passed in most Indian states against the killing of cattle have served as a common pretext for the violent enforcement of Hindu beliefs. Recently, for example, three men were arrested on charges of abducting and murdering Junaid and Nasir, two Muslim men transporting cattle through the northern state of Haryana. They first beat Junaid to death, then strangled Nasir. Both bodies were incinerated in a car left at the side of the road. That attack was linked to paramilitary gangs known as gao rakshaks (cow protectors) who, in these last years, have been on a rampage of violence in northern India, though similar horrors have recently been recorded further south in Maharashtra, home to India’s largest city, Mumbai.
In the United States, too, violent hatred is both on the rise and being all too perversely celebrated on the right. Within three days of being charged with involuntary manslaughter, Daniel Penny, the U.S. Marine veteran who made national news by choking to death Jordan Neely, a homeless, mentally ill Black man on a New York City subway car, raised a whopping $2.7 million from the Christian crowdfunding site GiveSendGo. Charged with manslaughter, he’s already been dubbed a “subway Superman” by Florida Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz, while his fellow Floridian, Governor Ron DeSantis, tweeted that to “stop the Left’s pro-criminal agenda” we all must “stand with Good Samaritans like Daniel Penny.”
Sadly enough, those episodes, occurring half a globe apart, are just two data points in surges of violent extremism sweeping both India and the United States. That trend first took off in India in 2014 with the election victory of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), making him prime minister. In the United States, it hit big time with the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president. But such mayhem—and the broad approval of political violence by Hindu supremacists there and white supremacists here—has only grown in the years since.
Those incidents also illustrate one crucial difference between far-right violence in India and the United States. Whereas the surge of Hindu-supremacist violence has become a nationally organized collective effort, most American white-supremacist violence is still being committed by individuals acting alone.
In the U.S., we’ve experienced a growing outbreak of hate shootings in which the victims simply find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time (and all too often of the wrong color), even as a longer-term trend of mass killings committed by racially motivated and ever better armed “lone wolves” rises. Notably, among those solo actors, Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot and killed two Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020, and a host of others have reaped lavish praise from leading Trumpublican politicians, including that MAGA kingpin The Donald himself. (He, in fact, invited Rittenhouse to Mar-a-Lago in 2021.) And 2023 is already on track to set a record for mass shootings, while hate crimes in general rose to more than 200 per week in 2021, the last year for which the FBI has complete data. The vast majority of those crimes were committed by unaffiliated individuals.
In India, by contrast, hate violence is often highly organized. The cattle vigilantes recently arrested in Haryana, for example, were affiliated with Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of Vishnu Hindu Parishad (the World Hindu Council), which, in turn, is an offshoot of a vast Hindu nationalist paramilitary organization, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
The RSS movement was launched in 1925 with one mission: to make India (then still a British colony) a Hindu Rashtra—that is, a “Hindu Nation.” Its approach was inspired by the fascist movements of a century ago in Italy and Germany. Today, it has a membership of five to six million and holds daily meetings in more than 36,000 different locations across India. Worse yet, the ruling BJP party, with Modi at its head, is an offshoot of RSS.
In 2002, Modi was the chief minister of the state of Gujarat when horrific communal violence took almost 2,000 lives, mostly Muslim, in a political and social earthquake that helped kick off the current wave of Hindu nationalism. In 2014, on the strength of the Hindu nationalist bona fides he’d earned 12 years earlier, he became prime minister and soon all hell broke loose.
Cows and Bulls**t
In a majority of India’s states today, cow slaughter is designated a crime and put in the same category with rape, murder, or sedition. As Harsh Mander, who has organized against communal and religiously inspired violence, explains in his bookPartitions of the Heart, “The campaign today that claims to defend [the cow] has nothing to do with love of any kind.” It is instead “another highly emotive symbol to beat down India’s minorities into submission and fear.”
Laws against cattle slaughter and beef consumption lay largely dormant until 2014. Now, they are being enforced ever more violently by Hindu supremacist vigilantes. Those laws, in fact, have provided a much-needed pretext for extreme violence. As Tej Parikh noted recently in the Asia-Pacific magazine The Diplomat, “Two Muslim women were raped in Mewat [in Haryana state] in early September , after their attackers had accused them of eating beef.” And to put those acts in the context of this moment, he added that “the maximum sentence for a convicted rapist in Haryana is three years less than for a cow slaughtering offense.”
As Mander has pointed out, such beef bans are a tool for subjugating Muslims, Dalits (formerly referred to pejoratively as “untouchables”), Christians, and Adivasis (Indigenous peoples) to Hindu rule. Strange as it may sound, an American analogy could be the criminalization of abortion. In one country, cattle, in the other, human fetuses are being used as right-wing implements to oppress, socially control, and reassert supremacy over significant sections of our respective populations.
In one country, cattle, in the other, human fetuses are being used as right-wing implements to oppress, socially control, and reassert supremacy over significant sections of our respective populations.
As in the U.S., violence against women is rampant in India and perpetrators are often treated with remarkable leniency. Consider Sandip, Ramu, Lavkush, and Ravi, four upper-caste Hindus who, in 2020, tortured, gang-raped, and killed a 19-year-old Dalit girl in the middle of a pearl millet field in the state of Uttar Pradesh. This March, a court found Sandip alone guilty—and only of “culpable homicide not amounting to murder.” The other three men were acquitted.
In the Hindu supremacist context, the phrase ghar wapsi (which literally means “homecoming”) refers to forcibly converting people from Islam or Christianity to Hinduism. In a recent typical case, a BJP politician, the state secretary of Chhattisgarh in northeastern India, home to many low-caste Hindus and tribal peoples, coerced more than 1,100 Christians into undergoing a ghar wapsiceremony.
Hindu supremacists regularly use confinement and violence to secure such conversions. For instance, two women have filed a complaint against priests at a yoga center in the state of Kerala where they were held captive in an effort to do so. “I was forced to do work as housemaid including cleaning and preparing dishes for 65 inmates,” one of them swore in her affidavit. A priest, she wrote, “threatened that they would kill Isaac [her Muslim husband] if I went back to him.” The other woman told the court, “People at the [yoga] center asked me to leave [her Muslim husband] Hameed. When I resisted, they slapped my face, kicked my lower abdomen, and stuffed cloth in my mouth to prevent me from screaming.”
Hindu nationalists are also raising alarms over “love jihad,” a false conspiracy theory that claims Muslim men are out to charm Hindu women into wedlock, conversion, and the production of Muslim babies. A recently released propaganda film, The Kerala Story, purports to show how 32,000 women from that state were converted to Islam and recruited by Islamic State terrorists. No matter that none of that ever happened, “love jihad” rhetoric, including the portrayal of Muslim men as “deceitful, sexual monsters,” is being embraced even by white supremacists in the United States, according to Zeinab Farokhi, a professor at Toronto University.
East Meets West, West Meets Caste
Washington and New Delhi recently announced that Prime Minister Modi will be making a state visit to the U.S. in June. During that visit, notes the Indian outlet The Wire, “Modi is likely to visit New York for Yoga Day on June 21.”
Indeed, he will, for that annual yoga event was Modi’s brainchild. In 2014, he proposed that an International Day of Yoga be celebrated at the summer solstice and the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution to that effect. An avid yoga practitioner, Modi then wrote, “Yoga embodies unity of mind and body, thought and action… a holistic approach [that] is valuable to our health and well-being.” These days, maybe Modi should take a little more time for yoga, which might allow him to gain a more holistic understanding of the hate and cruelty now rippling through Indian society. (Substitute Donald Trump for Modi doing yoga, if you want a little grim humor right now.)
Today, there are an estimated 4.3 million South Asian-Americans living in the U.S., including people from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. A report released by a caste-abolitionist group, Equality Labs, entitled “Caste in the United States,” found that even in America, “many South Asians who identify as being from the ‘lower’ castes… tend to hide their caste,” because they fear that “they and their families could be rejected from South Asian cultural and religious spaces, lose professional and social networks, or even face bullying, abuse, and violence.”
Too many upper-caste Indians and white Americans think of themselves as the only ones worthy of enjoying the spoils of the Earth.
Recently, however, a few rays of light have pierced the political gloom. In February, Seattle became the first city in the U.S. to prohibit caste discrimination and (joke, joke) yoga had nothing to do with it. The ban passed because of the hard work and solidarity of local activists, along with socialist Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant who proposed it. Then, on May 11, casteism was banished from an entire state, the nation’s largest, when the California senate passed a bill to that effect.
To add another positive note, the very next day, Modi’s BJP was trounced by the Congress Party in elections to the legislative assembly of Karnataka, a crucial state in Indian politics. When the BJP won it five years ago, it was considered a key step in that party’s rise to national dominance. Now, those of us in favor of genuine democracy and not right-wing terror in both countries can only hope that the Karnataka defeat is a harbinger of BJP’s decline (just as we hope that neither Donald Trump nor Ron DeSantis can take the White House in 2024).
But even small victories don’t come without pushback from Hindu-nationalist expatriates and RSS/BJP “intellectuals” in India, as is true with Trumpists in America. Unsurprisingly enough, they condemned the new caste measures in the U.S., declaring them “Hinduphobic” (just as white right-wingers here chant “All Lives Matter” in the context of police violence and to mock the Black Lives Matter movement). But, asks the political theorist Kancha Ilailah Shepherd, “How can the practice of caste discrimination… be tackled without local laws or institutional rules?”
Too many upper-caste Indians and white Americans think of themselves as the only ones worthy of enjoying the spoils of the Earth. They want it all and are ready to get it by exploiting, not to say violating, non-upper-caste bodies in India and non-white ones in the U.S., along with cows and fetuses, using religion as a tool in both cases. The bodies of Dalits, Muslims, Christians, the people of occupied Kashmir, liberals, journalists, historians, climate and human rights activists, educators, Blacks, Indigenous people, women, LGBTQ people—all of them are fodder for the violent right-wing in both countries.
In the sludge of such destructive exceptionalism, there can be felt a sense of uncertainty, a potential for both of our societies to break down completely. Sadly, yoga and vegetarianism do not encapsulate life in India; upper-caste exceptionalism does. Similarly, “peace and love,” not to speak of democracy, hardly define life in America anymore for a growing set of Trumpublicans. For them, white exceptionalism does and, worse yet, these days it goes all too well armed with that best-selling weapon of this moment, the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.
Honestly, there needs to be a deeper discussion of all of this before it’s too late.