Overview:

Taking mass violent action against another group requires an easy way to delineate "us" from "them". Hindu customs and symbols are currently weaponized this way in India.

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Where I live, Navidad and Semana Santa are significant religious affairs, times when the hustle and bustle of city life eases for a month and a week respectively: to observe Catholic customs, to be with family, or simply to travel to nearby towns and farms. One side effect, though, is the impact of reduced foot traffic for those who rely on begging to eat. The elderly and visibly disabled. The mothers and fathers out with their children. The Indigenous women in traditional garb. The gaunt young men, old beyond their years. Some are internally displaced Colombians. Some, Venezuelan. Some simply come from families that have always been on the wrong side of the poverty line, in a country with a 48-percent informal economy. As I have no holidays to celebrate, I make a point to visit with any folks still out on the streets during these periods of lesser traffic. And yes, I bring food, but also just a friendly face and the dignity of being human together.

I’ve been thinking about these folks, and ever so many other underserved human beings all across the Americas, while writing this series on Hindu extremists in India. Why? Because when it comes to Hinduism itself, there are three elements you can expect most Westerners to know off the top of their heads: that Hinduism is polytheistic, that Hinduism teaches reincarnation and karma, and that Hinduism is the religion with castes. This is also why we’re only just now getting to the specific religious markers weaponized in India’s current fascist moment. We in the West still too often speak of massive faith groups in hazy, ill-informed terms.

In Parts 1 and 3, I emphasized the importance of not playing into strongman myths by fixating too much on individual actors. So too is it dangerous to turn “religion” into an entity with a life of its own, the way many adherents of extremist causes would like us to do. This doesn’t mean that the differences within and between Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism, and atheism don’t matter when talking about rising nationalist violence along ethno-religious lines in India. Of course they do.

But how we talk about those differences can also defuse their power.

So. Let’s begin by owning up to the fact that, in most societies, there are ways in which we create untouchable and inferior classes of human being. If some faith traditions go one further, in codifying those differences through castes or the notion of an infidel, these are potent stepping stones to more extreme forms of dehumanization. But the Anglo-Western world, and the broader realm of Christian-dominant society, is also a very fine glass house when it comes to advocating for equality. The right reproving words will carry far better, from within, than any loosely thrown rocks.

Hinduism, Islam, and the land

Hinduism has some 1.2 billion adherents, culturally if not by active practice, and over one billion reside in India, where they make up 78 percent of its 1.4 billion citizens. There are only two other countries, Nepal and Mauritius, where Hindu is the dominant faith. Islam, in its many formations, is the tradition of 1.8 billion, and its three largest national demographics can be found in Indonesia, Pakistan, and India. Pakistan, which borders India along the northwest (to handwave over a huge and traumatic history around said border), is expected to house the world’s largest Muslim population by 2030. At least 195 million Muslims live in India, where they are a majority population in the northern-most state of Jammu and Kashmir (flush against Pakistan), and prominent along the northeast states of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, and Bihar.

When the regional map is presented in such broad demographic terms, the nationalist intensity of Hindutva extremists gains coherence. India is the central homeland of the Hindu faith. Why shouldn’t it be secured from the encroachment of people whose faiths have other homelands? But this kind of reasoning obscures a very important fact: that Hinduism is polyethnic and ideologically diverse, and Islam is, too.

The myth of religious uniformity

To get around this fact, Hindu extremists have been fixating on a few simplistic touchstones to codify the vague presence of “Hindu” and “not-Hindu” in public life. One of the most notable is livestock. While many Hindus are vegetarians for reasons of faith, the cow in general is a sacred animal in the religion. Conversely, while Islam calls for a specific way of killing all food-animals, it regards the pig as unclean.

These are not abstract preferences. The industries built around food consumption have infrastructure and distribution networks. And in India, members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have used the rhetoric of “cow protection” to stoke locals to vigilante action against anyone involved in the cattle trade and beef consumption. These attacks of course strike Muslims, along with indigenous communities and Dalit (untouchables, under Hindu caste) working in these fields.

“Victory to Lord Rama!” (Jai Shri Ram!) shout vigilantes on these campaigns, and also in relation to BJP successes in parliament. But their attacks on Dalit have broader religious consequences, too, because many in this low caste have converted to Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity in the hopes of escaping discrimination. (Not always successfully, unfortunately. Even within Christian communities, historical caste continues to inform placement in local churches. Buddhist Dalits, however, seem to fare better.) When reports emerge of horrific Hindu violence against Christians, it’s important to remember that this violence is given sanction through anti-conversion laws meant to keep Hindu numbers up in the country. Ethno-nationalism first.

(The situation for Dalit Sikhs, and Sikhs in general, is a little different. Sikhism in India is a strongly rural movement, and offers a significantly more inclusive approach to spirituality and agrarian labor. The BJP, in trying to spin Sikh farmers as terrorists, is both drawing on a long, fraught history of Hindu-Sikh tensions in India, and also trying to control a significant part of India’s food basket. Ethno-religious violence is powerfully intersectional—and we haven’t even gotten into the assassination of prominent secular Indians by Hindu extremists, either!)

Visual coding for religious devotion

Hindu extremists also rely on the color saffron, a color in the Hindu faith aligned with holiness and ascetic living, to do a lot of heavy lifting for broadstrokes religious unification. To wear clothes and otherwise sport materials in this color is to code for Hinduism without needing to get into the nitty-gritty of specific subgroups. Hinduism, after all, is both the religion of Mahatma Gandhi and Nathuram Godse, the man who killed him for his inclusive approach to Muslims in India.

But who needs that kind of complexity when trying to use religion to justify the elimination of other peoples?

And yet, the very alignment of sacrifice with saffron also hints at some of Hinduism’s significant divisions. On a cosmological level, the Hindu faith teaches that there is one supreme truth, Brahman, who cannot be known directly, even though a piece of him resides in all beings, as our “atman” or soul. For this reason, most Hindu communities focus their devotion on gods who represents aspects of this central deity. One is Shiva, the destroyer, and the heart of Shaivism. Another is Vishnu, the preserver, and Vaishnavism honors his ten incarnations, including Rama and Krishna. Shaktism, a goddess sect, worships different behavioral aspects like Kali and Parvati. Smartism celebrates the equality of all three aspects, and two more.

So how does a religion with so much express variation built into its structures, and a faith that gives us the famously inclusive phrase vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the world is one family), become so utterly hostile to other members of this greater unity?

Far too many of us are more interested in pinning horrific actions on the other side, so that we can wash our own groups’ hands of any complicity.

The age-old appropriation of iconography

Just as Hitler and Nazi symbols play an important role in today’s Indian fascism, so too has a broad gesturing at Hinduism been leveraged for in-group solidarity. And nowhere is this more apparent, perhaps, than in the radical Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) paramilitary organization, a nationalist volunteer movement literally identified by the Bhagwa Dhwaj: a saffron flag.

This extremist group, banned at times by British and Indian governments, was a formative part of PM Narendra Modi’s education and transition into the BJP. But for all its external affectations of Hinduism, spiritual complexity invariably comes second to how Hindu history can be used to instill militaristic values. For this reason, core activities involve daily shakhas, all-male training exercises that any local can drop in on, and which pairs physical activity and weapons training with patriotic singing, discourse, and prayer around Hinduism’s historical touchstones and heroes.

(Women are not permitted in the RSS. There is another organization, Rashtra Sevika Samiti, that women can join instead, which focuses on community care and domestic leadership. However, the surging absence of literally tens of millions of Indian women from political participation attests to another key fascist tentpole in action here.)

As with many early KKK movements, civic participation through more constructive volunteering and emergency aid operations (for Hindus, not Muslims) has also been crucial to RSS success: a key component in building community sanction and loyalty. And the RSS has also been sharply critical of extreme caste divisions, as an impediment to true Hindu unification, which helps gather the poor to its causes.

But the RSS also openly serves to support nationalist political parties like the BJP, and this complex relationship essentially creates a shadow-monopoly on force in contemporary Indian society. The RSS, and organizations like it, can mobilize without strict state oversight, and with very few repercussions for whatever violence their actions incur—but also, in clear response to dogwhistling from politicians in office.

Religious cover for deeper struggle

This is, of course, an old phenomenon. Third Reich Germany, for instance, was home to a “Positive Christianity”, which blended Nazi ideology with Christianity to motivate military and civilian populations. Germany was already a strongly religious state, and although the Catholic church was originally suspicious of the Third Reich, bishops dropped their ban on Catholics joining the Nazi party after Hitler’s framing of Christianity as the “foundation” of German values in a 1933 speech. In ensuing years, some Protestants and Catholics paid dearly for their resistance to Nazism’s rise. Most, though, went along with the new social order. (Active resisters, in Western history, are always far fewer than all our war-mythologizing would have us believe.)

But it bears noting that Hitler didn’t need to go very far in openly endorsing religion to benefit from citizens happy to do the work of blending religious symbolism with notions of militaristic and nationalist destiny. This is what so many of our treatments of violent history overlook. Far too many of us are more interested in pinning horrific actions on the other side, so that we can wash our own groups’ hands of any complicity. And yet, it’s precisely because of such reductive approaches to these most brutal human histories that we keep falling prey to the same underlying issues.

In India today, the idea of Hindu nationalist destiny is leveraged by extremists to gain and sustain political power. Far from being the singular project of Prime Minister Modi and the BJP, this current fascist moment has been a long time in the making. It was forged, initially, by India’s brutal outcomes under British rule, and strongly informed by the ease of positioning Muslims and other religious minorities as scapegoats impeding the creation of a better world. Fascistic rhetoric and histories elsewhere in the world have provided inspiration and a wealth of easily adopted symbolism. An emboldened volunteer military, working in lockstep with a dominant nationalist party, manifests many key elements of contemporary fascist ideology. Ethnic cleansing of the Muslim minority is now an active proposition.

What happens next? Optimism is not on the table. It’s so very difficult to rein in a nationalist cause once it’s reached this point. But while it is the height of Western arrogance to suggest solutions to an active crisis impacting billions of human beings we rarely discuss, we can do more than nothing. We can educate ourselves not only on the existence of this problem, as these four articles have set out to do, but also to the broader ideological threads that also impact issues far closer to home.

Vasudhaiva kutumbakam, as some of the best Hindu thought teaches us.

The world is one family.

And even when we cannot fix all the problems affecting our many distant cousins, it still falls upon us to seek improvements wherever we can in our shared home.

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.