Prime Minister Modi and President Trump at “Howdy Modi” rally in Houston, 22 September 2019
[This article was originally posted to the Three Way Fight blog on July 9, 2023.]
by Matthew N. Lyons
Even mainstream media noted the disconnect when Joe Biden lavishly welcomed Narendra Modi to Washington after claiming the defense of democracy was a cornerstone of his presidency. The prime minister of India heads an authoritarian (and arguably fascist) political party firmly rooted in Islamophobia and mass murder. Amnesty International called out Modi’s government for overseeing a “rapid deterioration of human rights protections…including increasing violence against religious minorities, shrinking civil society space, and the criminalization of dissent.” So when Biden celebrated the U.S.-India relationship as “more dynamic than at any time in history” and his administration announced multibillion-dollar deals to build semiconductors and high-tech weaponry in India, it was a lot more about geopolitics and fear of China than anything to do with democracy.
But Modi’s Hindu nationalist movement doesn’t just run India; it’s also a growing force in the United States, and in the years ahead its U.S. branch could help reshape not just the political landscape but even the U.S. racial order. Indian Americans are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the United States, increasingly visible politically, whose members include Vice President Kamala Harris and two of the current Republican presidential contenders (Vivek Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley). Within the Indian American community, Hindu nationalism’s bid for dominance is sharply contested by liberal and radical South Asians.
There are a lot of good critiques and exposes of the Hindu nationalist movement both in India and beyond. A recent discussion that I find particularly helpful is Maia Ramnath’s essay “The Other Aryan Supremacy: Fighting Hindu Fascism in the South Asian Diaspora,” in the 2022 collection ¡No Pasaran! Antifascist Dispatches from a World in Crisis, edited by Shane Burley. Ramnath’s analysis stands out to me for several reasons: (1) she provides a good overview of Hindu nationalist politics and ideology, with an emphasis on the movement’s organizing in the United States; (2) she highlights the need for antifascists of all backgrounds to become familiar with Hindu nationalism, and for non-South Asians to join in solidarity with the many South Asian organizations that are actively combating this supremacist movement; and (3) she offers insights beyond anything I’ve seen elsewhere into the complicated relationship between Hindu nationalism and U.S. racial politics. In this essay I will use “The Other Aryan Supremacy” as a particular reference point, together with a February 2023 interview with the author on Final Straw Radio, “Maia Ramnath on Resisting Hindutva.” (All page number references below are to “The Other Aryan Supremacy.”)
Overview of Hindutva
Hindu nationalism is a right-wing authoritarian movement that seeks to impose Hindu political and cultural dominance on India. Hindu nationalists have perpetrated some of the most horrific political violence of recent decades, including lynchings, torture, gang rape, and mass killings of Muslims, as well as periodic violence and persecution against Dalits and Christians. Hindu nationalism’s predominant form, also known as Hindutva (“Hinduness”), centers on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Organization, or RSS), an all-male cadre organization that promotes a paramilitary ethos and sets the ideological direction for the movement as a whole. Surrounding the RSS is an extensive network known as the Sangh Parivar (Sangh family), which includes dozens of organizations with tens of millions of active members. There are organizations for workers, students, farmers, women, youth, and business professionals, as well as groups focused on education, religion, media, social services, and so on. Over the past seventy years, Hindu nationalism has moved from marginality to become the dominant political force in India and, arguably, the largest right-wing movement in the world.
“Hindu nationalists have perpetrated some of the most horrific political violence of recent decades, including lynchings, torture, gang rape, and mass killings of Muslims as well as periodic violence and persecution against Dalits and Christians.”
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Sangh Parivar’s political wing, has headed India’s national government since 2014 and received 229 million votes (37%) in the most recent (2019) parliamentary elections. Prime Minister Modi has been an active RSS member throughout his adult life. Modi was chief minister of the Gujarat state government from 2001 to 2014 and is widely considered to be complicit in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, when Hindu nationalist gangs armed, “in some cases, with printouts from government computer databases listing the names and addresses of Muslims and Muslim-owned businesses…embarked on a rampage of looting, arson, rape, torture, and murder that left thousands dead and many more thousands homeless.” In response several countries, including the United States, instituted travel bans against Modi. (The U.S. rescinded its ban in 2014 when Modi became prime minister.) Since the BJP-led national government took power, both vigilantes and police have intensified anti-Muslim violence and persecution. The government has also passed a new citizenship law that discriminates against Muslims, stripped the Muslim-majority Kashmir region of its formal autonomy, and increased colonialist repression of Kashmiris.
Hindutva is at least closely related to fascism, although the exact relationship is a matter of definitions. As many critics have emphasized, the early Sangh Parivar drew both inspiration and ideas from European fascism, and many Hindu nationalists today still admire Nazism. Although cautioning that many Indians consider it “intellectual colonialism” to apply a Western political label to this distinctly South Asian ideology and movement, Ramnath argues that recognizing Hindutva as a form of fascism helps illuminate “international connections, convergences, and parallels” (255-256).
To help clarify both the extent and limits of those parallels, I’ll compare Hindu nationalism with four defining elements of fascist politics that I proposed in a talk about the U.S. far right a few years ago. First, like fascism, Hindu nationalism involves a totalizing effort to transform society, in that it seeks to reshape all societal spheres along authoritarian corporatist lines. This transformation is based on a myth of “palingenetic ultranationalism” (which historian Roger Griffin considers fascism’s core feature)—the idea that the nation’s organic, transcendent unity is under deadly attack and must be reborn by purging alien threats—in particular, Muslim “invaders.” Second, Hindu nationalists have set out to achieve their goals through an independent, organized mass mobilization—not just controlling people, but energizing and activating them through an extensive, autonomous network that includes a large paramilitary wing. Third, Hindutva shares fascism’s contradictory relationship with the established order: on the one hand, it promotes intensified oppression and violence based on religion, caste, gender, and class and speaks to those (notably upper-caste Hindus) who feel threatened by oppressed groups rising up, but it also uses populist appeals to the resentments of those who feel excluded or beaten down by political, cultural, or economic elites.
Yet Hindu nationalism differs from fascism’s fourth defining element that I proposed for a U.S. context: rejection of the existing liberal democratic political system. The Hindu nationalists of India’s BJP have not done this, at least not overtly. In this respect, the BJP can be compared with the “post-fascist” Brothers of Italy party of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. As a related point, current-day U.S. fascists are consistently at odds with the capitalist ruling class, whether or not they want to call capitalism as a system into question, but India’s Sangh Parivar has forged a cordial working relationship with economic elites both domestically and internationally. Rather than treat these differences as definitive, I see them as highlighting fascism’s varied nature and capacity to adapt to different circumstances in different ways.
India’s Hindutva-led governments have pursued close ties with U.S. administrations both Republican and Democratic. Donald Trump of course admired Prime Minister Modi’s Islamophobia and authoritarian leadership, but it was Barack Obama who ended the Bush administration’s visa ban on Modi by inviting him to visit the White House and who, in one commentator’s words, “chose to rehabilitate [Modi’s] image on the world stage.” Following this shift, the Obama administration designated India as a “Major Defense Partner,” giving the nuclear-armed state exceptional access to U.S. military technologies. These overtures reportedly reflected both Obama’s interest in using India as a strategic lever against China and his hopes to expand opportunities in India for U.S. businesses.
Hindu nationalists have also developed a strong relationship with the State of Israel and with right-wing Zionism, fueled partly by a shared hatred of “radical Islam” and partly by Hindu nationalists’ admiration for the Zionist project. Israeli settler colonialism over Palestinians has provided lessons for BJP policy in Kashmir, and Zionism’s false claim that criticism of Israel equals antisemitism has offered a blueprint for the false claim that criticism of Hindutva equals “Hinduphobia.”
|Members of the RSS, Hindu nationalist cadre organization, marching in Bhopal, 23 October 2016
Hindutva organizing in the United States
Hindutva is not only the dominant political force in India, but has also built extensive, powerful networks within the global Indian diaspora, including the large ethnic Indian communities in the United States, Britain, Canada, and elsewhere. The RSS’s U.S. counterpart, the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), has 222 chapters in 32 states, according to a 2022 report by South Asia Citizens Web, which details a wide range of activities by Sangh-affiliated organizations in the United States—a network that Vijay Prashad has dubbed “Yankee Hindutva.” For example, the Hindu American Political Action Committee funds electoral candidates; groups such as the Hindu American Foundation and the Uberoi Foundation undertake efforts to influence public schooling and university education; while the India Relief and Development Fund, Sewa International, and other ostensibly charitable organizations funnel millions of dollars toward Hindu nationalist projects in India. Many of these groups conceal their political beliefs and affiliations. In addition, Hindu nationalists in the U.S. often use public smear campaigns and lawsuits to pressure and intimidate opponents.
Many of these activities center on efforts to shape public discourse around India, Indians, and Hinduism. Maia Ramnath comments that Hindu nationalists intervening in the U.S. educational system are “not just advocating for India’s inclusion in the curriculum; they’re trying to take control of how India is represented in the West, claiming sole authority for a brahminist, Aryan supremacist narrative—as if those representations and narratives were not heavily contested within India and South Asian diasporic communities” (247). Hindu nationalist groups such as the Hindu American Foundation have also been at the forefront of opposition to initiatives banning caste discrimination, including a Seattle ordinance passed in February 2023 and a bill currently before the California state legislature.
“Many Hindu nationalist groups in the U.S. conceal their political beliefs and affiliations. In addition, these groups often use public smear campaigns and lawsuits to pressure and intimidate opponents.”
Hindu nationalists have taken a growing interest in U.S. electoral politics. In recent years, Hindutva’s leading congressional ally was Tulsi Gabbard, who served in the House of Representatives from 2013 to 2021 as its first Hindu (but not Indian American) member, and who ran briefly in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. Although she backed Bernie Sanders for president in 2016, Gabbard is no leftist, and her hostility to “radical Islam” and affinity for dictators like Hafez al-Assad have won praise from alt-rightists and MAGA commentators such as Tucker Carlson. But Ramnath notes that Gabbard is exceptional in that Hindu nationalists usually support Republicans (233). Chicago-based industrialist and avid Modi supporter Shalabh Kumar was a leading contributor to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Kumar also founded the Republican Hindu Coalition, which later offered to raise $25 billion to fund Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall. An article by Anu Mandavilli and Raja Swamy highlights the contradictions underlying the RHC’s approach:
“In February 2018, the RHC organised a rally in Washington DC in support of Trump’s immigration policies…. Invoking Trump’s promise of a ‘merit-based’ immigration system, participants in the rally asked for quicker processing of green cards for the ‘skilled’ and the ‘best and brightest’ applicants (evidently referring to applicants such as themselves)…. [The RHC’s] rhetoric derives from a model minority discourse that claims that hard-working immigrants and good capitalist subjects such as themselves ought to be exempted from anti-immigrant policies on account of ‘merit.’ Tellingly, this posture is also wholly consistent with the politics of class- and caste-privileged Indian immigrants who oppose affirmative action/reservations on the grounds of merit in India.”
Mandavilli and Swamy add that, despite the RHC’s hopes, the Trump administration made it harder even for privileged, “skilled” immigrants to get visas. They note that “the RHC is unable to acknowledge, let alone address Trump’s repeated and openly expressed racist contempt for immigrants and minorities, the broader legitimisation of white supremacist ideology, or the long history of racist violence against immigrants in the US.”
White nationalism and Hindutva
Despite their ideological affinities with Nazism, as far as I can tell Hindu nationalists in the U.S. have focused their political attentions on the MAGA movement and the Republican Party, not any formations to the right of the GOP. For their part, white nationalists have devoted little attention to Hindutva, but when they do comment on it, it’s usually with respect and admiration. Donald Thoresen wrote in 2015 on the alt-right website Counter-Currents that white nationalists could
“take some small comfort in the knowledge that we are not alone in our fight against Leftist cultural hegemony and that there are groups of people on the other side of the world who are actually making some very real progress in this long, uphill battle. …the specific concerns of Hindu nationalists are not our concerns, but they are sufficiently analogous to warrant study.”
“Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is implementing common-sense citizenship laws to protect India’s national identity. Much like China, India is consolidating itself as an empire with a solid ethno-religious core. Its laws provide a model for how a nationalist American government could undo at least some of the damage from decades of out-of-control immigration.”
DeAnna’s article expressed the disappointment felt by many alt-rightists with Trump’s opportunism and failure to implement even harsher immigration policies: “Unfortunately, rather than taking inspiration from PM Modi’s laws, President Trump and his advisers apparently just see an opportunity to win the Indian-American vote.”
If white nationalists draw inspiration from Hindu nationalists, the reverse is also true. The alt-right’s effective use of online harassment and intimidation against political enemies (most notably during the 2016 presidential campaign) may have helped embolden Hindu nationalist campaigns in recent years against North American scholars studying Hinduism and South Asian history, which have included disinformation, smears and personal attacks, threats of death and sexual violence, and stalking.
Going much further, within India itself the Western alt-right has inspired a whole subculture along Hindutva’s rightward edge. Calling themselves “trads” (short for traditionalists), an informal online network of young people has coalesced around the use of ironic memes, violent supremacism and misogyny, and terms and symbols adapted from the alt-right.
“Trad ‘humour’ is deliberately provocative, and designed to ‘trigger’ marginalised communities with shockingly violent ‘humour.’ They include memes depicting the beheading of Muslims, caricatures of Muslims being mowed under their cars, Dalit ‘cockroaches’ being gassed, Muslims being murdered inside concentration camps, or rape victims (Muslims/ Dalits) being urinated upon by a saffronised Pepe the Frog.”
Trad posts often depict sexual violence against Muslim women, and in both 2021 and 2022, trads organized mock online auctions in which scores of prominent Muslim women were offered for sale. But Hindu women who don’t submit to male authority are often targeted as well, with trads declaring that girls should be married young and not educated, and that feminists should be killed. All this is comparable to alt-right online misogyny in the United States, but in India the threats arguably carry additional weight, because organized Hindu nationalist gangs really have carried out gruesome sexual violence against many women within the past quarter century.
Much as alt-rightists took aim at the “cuckservatives” of the Republican establishment, India’s trads express scathing contempt for the BJP, RSS, and other mainstream Hindu nationalists, who they call “raitas,” for being too moderate in their pursuit of Hindu supremacy. As Hindutva grows and becomes more established in the United States, it may be a matter of time before some of its supporters start emulating India’s version of the alt-right, further fueling the movement’s violent, supremacist, and misogynist tendencies.
Hindutva and the U.S. racial order
In recent decades, the U.S. right has broadened its racial base through significant multi-ethnic organizing, as seen in relatively small groups such as the Proud Boys as well as enormous ones such as the New Apostolic Reformation movement. The growth of Yankee Hindutva contributes to this trend but also pushes past it into new territory. Formations such as the Proud Boys and NAR have brought people of color into predominantly white, predominantly Eurocentric contexts. But U.S. Hindu nationalism is not only rooted in a community of color and an Asia-based ideology; it also represents a branch of an organized network that is older, larger, and more successful than almost anything else on the U.S. right. It’s unlikely that this rising force will be content to be junior partners in a movement dedicated to “Western chauvinism” or the equivalent.
“Yankee Hindutva involves an implicit bid not just for model minority status, but for membership in the United States’ racially privileged group.”
Hindutva’s engagement with race in the United States isn’t just a question of how it relates to specific racist policies or political movements, but also how it relates to the structures and dynamics of U.S. racial oppression as an overall system. That engagement involves an encounter between two complex realities: (1) conflict and hierarchy within India and the Indian diaspora along lines of religion, caste, class, and political beliefs; and (2) the ambiguous, contested role of South Asians relative to the United States’ white-black binary.
On one side, Hindu nationalism identifies Hindus not just as practitioners of a religion but as a superior ethnic group, who collectively are entitled to cultural and political dominance over others, especially Muslims. Reinforcing this ideology, as Ramnath notes,
“Hindutva has its base of overseas support in the most affluent segment of the South Asian diaspora—those most likely to align themselves politically with the elite, which in the US means claiming adjacency to white status, unlike those less-advantaged members of the diaspora who are more likely to align themselves in solidarity with other racialized immigrant and minority groups” (231).
On the other side, in the United States Hindutva encounters a system that defines people of Indian descent, whether Hindu or not, as a racially subordinate group subjected to racist discrimination and violence, but also as a “model minority”—i.e., as a group supposedly more capable and successful than other communities of color. In Sarang Narasimhaiah’s words, “the American state has constructed Asian Americans, including South Asians, as a model minority precisely to pit them against other racially marginalized populations, above all else Black people.” Hindu nationalism intensifies this dynamic, as Narasimhaiah notes:
“By encouraging its followers to consolidate their political, economic, and cultural supremacy by any means necessary…Hindutva multiplies the unjust spoils promised by model minority discourse to diasporic South Asians. In doing so, it deepens South Asian American complicity in Black oppression and racialized class warfare against other oppressed peoples in the USA.”
Ramnath takes this a step further, arguing that Yankee Hindutva involves an implicit bid not just for model minority status, but for membership in the United States’ racially privileged group, or as she puts it, “adjacency to white status.” Here Ramnath points to the historical reality that the model minority construct isn’t fixed —in the same way that the whole made up, biologically arbitrary system of race categories isn’t fixed. Like many other immigrant groups in the United States, South Asians’ racial status has been a subject of uncertainty, conflict, and change.
U.S. legal history reflects this. In 1790, naturalized U.S. citizenship was limited to “free white persons”; in 1870, during Reconstruction, it was extended also to people of African descent. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, federal courts heard a series of cases adjudicating the racial status of other ethnic groups. In 1920, Indian immigrant Bhagat Singh Thind petitioned for citizenship, arguing that (a) Indians were classified as “Caucasians” under standard anthropological nomenclature, (b) “Caucasians” were by definition “white,” and (c) as an Indian he was therefore white. Although four lower courts had previously ruled that Indians were white, and although the U.S. racial order was supposedly based on objective, scientific reality, the Supreme Court ruled in 1923 against Thind, declaring that the definition of whiteness was not a matter of science but of “common understanding, by unscientific men.” As a result of this ruling, the federal government stripped many Indian Americans of their citizenship. (Ramnath cites the Thind case in “The Other Aryan Supremacy,” page 235, but I’m relying here on the fuller account in White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race by Ian F. Haney López, Chapter 4.)
But the U.S. racial order has never been static, and there’s no reason to think that South Asians’ non-white status is immutable. In 1923, many southern and eastern Europeans were widely considered racially inferior and subjected to systematic discrimination and exclusion, but that changed within a few decades, as these groups were integrated into the white racial category. Something similar could happen in the 21st century to a number of Asian and Latinx groups, and Hindutva makes “Hindu Americans” prime candidates for such a shift. Hindu nationalism, Ramnath argues, bolsters elitist attitudes that drive wedges “not only between South Asians and other Black and brown minority groups, but within the South Asian diaspora—between those most likely identified as Indian, Hindu, savarna, middle class, white collar, educated, affluent, and those who are most likely lower caste, working class, minority, Muslim, or Dalit.” This elitism embodies a grievance against the U.S. racial order, but it’s a “resentment at being misclassified as nonelite,” not an objection to racist categories themselves (232).
“New immigrant groups can try to gain admittance into the charmed circle of whiteness but, to do that, they have to prove their eligibility through certain benchmarks of economic success, educational attainment, and cultural assimilation: one of the ways to demonstrate assimilation is to perform the requisite racism against designated groups and embrace the structures of white supremacy” ( 232).
Ramnath elaborates this point further in her Final Straw interview:
“Two of the things today that you need to do to get admission into the dominant group, into the in-group, you have to perform anti-Blackness, and you have to perform Islamophobia…. For Indian immigrants who subscribe to Hindutva…and who want to be considered superior, not inferior,…it’s really easy for them to mesh into U.S. right-wing movements and US racial politics. They are already very Islamophobic, so that’s not even a stretch for them…. Anti-Blackness fits in very well with their attitude to caste. It’s very compatible with the ways they think in terms of the caste structure inside India.”
The idea of fascists (or their close cousins) pushing to make the U.S. racial elite more inclusive might seem self-contradictory, but there’s a historical precedent. In the 1930s U.S., many non-Protestant Christians faced systematic discrimination, racist immigration laws barred most southern and eastern Europeans, and the Ku Klux Klan hated Catholics almost as much as it hated Black people. Yet the largest and most dynamic branch of the fascist movement, led by Roman Catholic priest Charles Coughlin, rejected Protestant supremacy and welcomed white Christians of all denominations (while vilifying Jews). Coughlin actually started doing radio broadcasts, which became his chief propaganda vehicle, in defiance of a Klan cross-burning on his lawn. Like the elitism Ramnath describes among relatively privileged South Asians, Coughlin’s movement expressed, not an objection to racism itself, but a “resentment at being misclassified as nonelite.” (Chip Berlet and I discuss Coughlin’s movement and its context in our 2000 book Right-Wing Populism in America, Chapter 7.)
To be clear, Hindu nationalists aren’t openly calling for greater racial privilege. Like most of their MAGA allies, Hindu nationalists in the U.S. disavow explicit racism, and race categories no longer carry the same legal imprimatur as they did when Bhagat Singh Thind petitioned the government to be recognized as white. In any case, it’s too early to say whether some fraction of Indian Americans will see their racial status rise, but several factors make the possibility easier to envision, including Hindu nationalism’s growing organization and influence, the Indian American community’s dramatic growth and relatively high overall economic status, and the fact that white people as currently defined are projected to become a minority of the U.S. population within a couple of decades. If this racial shift does happen, it also remains to be seen to what extent European American rightists will accept it and to what extent it will fuel tensions and conflicts with racial traditionalists and hardliners.
Challenges for antifascists
The rise of Hindu nationalism in the United States poses several challenges for radical antifascists. For non-South Asians such as myself, there’s a need to act in solidarity with the South Asians who have born the brunt of exposing and combating Hindutva, and who, as Sarang Narasimhaiah writes, “could use some backup.” That solidarity, Narasimhaiah continues, requires educating ourselves about the politics and communities involved, “sensitivity when interacting with diasporic South Asian youth who buy into Hindutva,” and “rigorous dialogue” with those already on the front lines of this struggle. Ramnath’s Final Straw interview cites several organizations that are fighting Hindu nationalism in the U.S., such as South Asia Scholar Activist Collective, South Asia Solidarity Initiative, Equality Labs (a Dalit feminist civil rights organization), and several others.
“For non-South Asian antifascists, there’s a need to act in solidarity with the South Asians who have born the brunt of exposing and combating Hindutva.”
More broadly and for all of us, there’s a need to foreground the interconnectedness of struggles. Narasimhaiah calls for “a joint undertaking that confronts Hindu nationalism as a transnational project inextricably connected with American capitalism, white supremacy, settler colonialism, and imperialism.” Similarly, Ramnath calls for uniting the struggles against fascism and colonialism, caste and white supremacy, and emphasizes that it’s important to confront “colonial structures and racial supremacist logics wherever they appear, and whoever carries them out” (255).
Elaborating on that last point, there’s a need for many of us to rethink old assumptions about what fascism looks like, what faces it wears, and who it serves. Otherwise, as has been pointed out more than once, we’ll be fighting 21st century battles with 1930s weapons.
1. President Donald J. Trump holds hands with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India as they take a surprise walk together Sunday, September 22, 2019, around the NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.