In recent years, Dalit and anti-caste activists in North America have spearheaded successful campaigns to make caste a recognized and legally protected category alongside race, religion, sexuality, age, ancestry, and ability. In 2019, Brandeis University was the first North American institution of higher education to add caste to its non-discrimination policy, and since then many others have followed suit—Colby College, Colorado College, Scripps College, University of California Davis, and, most notably, the California State University system. The California Democratic Party and corporations such as Apple have also added caste to their non-discrimination policies. A number of Hindu advocacy organizations, such as the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) and the Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA), have aggressively pushed back against policy initiatives and lawsuits involving caste-based discrimination. CoHNA, for example, describes the resolution to make caste a protected category by the California State University system as a form of “hidden bigotry” that discriminates against Hindus and Indian Americans (see CoHNA website; see also HAF Letter to California State University system). These organizations claim that efforts to make caste a protected category are racist because caste is a social issue only among a single ethnoracial group: South Asians. Hindu groups have also criticized Dalit and other South Asian progressive organizations for their efforts to increase awareness about caste and champion anti-caste discrimination policies. Ironically, despite the fact that Hinduism is not mentioned in the policies linked above, Hindu advocacy organizations argue that these efforts harm Hindus and should be read as intrinsically “racist” and “Hinduphobic.”
Our contribution to this forum on the relationship between Hindu nationalism and the global far right examines how Hindu supremacy permeates North American Hindu contexts in profound and far-reaching ways. Just as far-right ideologies, such as those associated with white nationalist groups, are popularized and normalized through quotidian and systemic forms of white supremacy—exemplified by the victimization discourses of ‘white fragility’—so too far-right Hindu nationalist agendas seep into the everyday discourses of North American Hinduism through what we call ‘Hindu fragility.’ By examining contemporary debates around caste in the United States, we illustrate how Hindu fragility—an expression of Hindu supremacist logics—is weaponized and performed by North American Hindus, mimicking white supremacy culture and propagating everyday Hindu nationalism.
In order to understand the pervasiveness of Hindu nationalism, we shift focus away from overtly Hindutva organizations in North America, such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America and the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, to organizations that often deny any overt political affiliation while still promoting supremacist agendas. As we have argued elsewhere, Hindu supremacy is manifest in the discursive regimes that co-constitute Hinduism and the Indian nation, differentiate Hindus from other groups (i.e., Muslims and Christians), and perpetuate systems of caste-based oppression. In North America, Hindu supremacy involves the perpetuation of the myth that Hindus are a ‘model minority’ who are victims, not perpetrators, of discrimination. For example, the investment of Hindu advocacy organizations in promoting a public image of ‘good’ Hindus is inextricably linked to their desire to foster global political alliances between a ‘secular’ America and a ‘good, democratic, Hindu’ India who share common enemies. In this way, Hindu supremacy as manifest in North America undergirds and bolsters Hindu nationalism globally.
The quotidian logics of Hindu supremacy were on display in April 2022, when a group of dominant caste Google employees successfully lobbied the company to cancel a talk by Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a Dalit American leader and director of the Ambedkarite organization Equality Labs. Soundararajan was accused of being “anti-Hindu” and “Hinduphobic.” Tanuja Gupta, then senior manager at Google News, along with other members of management, received emails of protest from some Hindu employees “with inflammatory language about how they felt harmed and how they felt their lives were at risk by the discussion of caste equity.” While the inflammatory emails Gupta received in response to the planned presentation may seem extreme and hyperbolic, they are reflective of a broader and ongoing trend that we call Hindu fragility, a Hindu supremacist narrative which animates many Hindu communities and organizations in the North America diaspora. The discourse of Hindu fragility involves mimicry: many North American Hindu groups have modeled their rhetoric and strategies on supremacist logics, particularly those employed by North American white Christian conservatives.
The concept of Hindu fragility evokes the notion of ‘white fragility,’ which has been used to describe the resistance that white people exhibit when being pushed to confront their own racism. Ajay Parasram has suggested that white fragility also “insulates structural white supremacy in contemporary ways that fuel resurgent far-Right nationalism.” We use the term Hindu fragility to name the opposition expressed by dominant caste Hindus when faced with criticism about their own prejudices—casteism, racism, and Islamophobia—as well as to describe how fragility discourse is weaponized by Hindu groups. Hindu fragility then refers to how caste-privileged Hindus leverage ideas about their collective precarity and vulnerability, making it seem that any criticism of Hinduism or India harms Hindus and enacts violence against the community. Both white fragility and Hindu fragility entangle the defense of identity with defense of the nation. Although we do not wish to conflate the complex histories of race and caste, conservative white Christians and dominant caste Hindus alike understand their identities as inextricably linked to the imagined pasts of ‘glorious’ nations and assume defensive postures when their revisionist narratives are challenged. Hindu fragility as it manifests in North America operates in distinctive ways across different generations of migration.
Leveraging the stereotype of the ‘model minority,’ North American Hindu advocacy organizations capitalize on the seemingly progressive politics of diversity and inclusion in order to assert their place in civic discourse. The narrative of Hindu fragility is part of a much larger trend among North American Hindu groups. These groups understand appeals to ‘progressive’ politics as an effective means to gain public support for their agendas, which focus on the representation of Hindus, Hinduism, and Indian history, culture, and traditions in educational contexts. Although Hindutva leaders in India have, since the 1920s, invested their energy in trying to control the content of curriculum and textbooks, these efforts to regulate representation have involved a different tone and set of tactics in the North American diaspora. The language that these groups employ is rife with anxiety about the potential threat that ‘negative’ representations pose to future generations of North American Hindu children, who as vulnerable minorities face a dominant, white, Christian culture that maligns and marginalizes them on a daily basis. It is this narrative that has enabled Hindu right-wing ideologies to permeate so many different facets of diasporic Hindu life, facilitating its success and appeal to such a broad base of Hindu community members in North America.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the representation of Hinduism in North American academia became a focal point of right-wing Hindu activists, and since 2004, periodic debates have erupted throughout the country about the portrayal of South Asian history and religion in public-school textbooks. Most recently, attempts to end the violence of caste through education and policy efforts have become the latest target of Hindu advocacy groups. Hindu organizations’ campaigns to oppose anti-caste advocacy are particularly compelling to Hindu parents, who, at workshops held by groups like HAF and the Hindu Parents Network, are told things such as “one ten-minute lecture by a college professor can undo eighteen-years of loving parenting” or “after learning about caste, your middle schooler will come back from school thinking Hinduism is evil and they will turn their back on everything.” Such hyperbole—the suggestion that the continuity and survival of the Hindu community is under threat—is especially powerful because efforts to educate the next generation of Hindus are at the core of North American Hinduism and echo moves by the Christian right with whom these groups have an ambivalent relationship. All of this is used to cultivate an affective politics of Hindu fragility.
White supremacy and caste supremacy are both invested in maintaining hierarchical oppression through historical revisionism, narratives of victimhood, and the rejection of solidarities that might lessen their power. However, Hindu groups want to be perceived as championing minority rights. For example, reflective of homohindunationalism, many claim solidarity with LGBTQ+ groups but reject working with anti-caste groups. Appeals to supposedly liberatory politics with respect to gender and sexuality are used as tools to deflect criticism of such things as India’s occupation of Kashmir. Furthermore, as awareness of caste and other forms of bias within the South Asian community has risen, it is increasingly common for Hindu groups to criticize “woke culture” for being exclusive and discriminatory against Hindus. In this way, right-wing Hindu discourse in North America both diverges from and resembles white nationalist rhetoric. Hindu groups wish to present themselves as more inclusive and progressive than other groups (i.e., Muslims), often relying on a discourse of Islamophobia. This leveraging of progressive discourse in regressive ways is one of the many tools that North American Hindus have used to win the support of non-Hindu politicians from across the political spectrum. They gain traction for their ideas and forge political and social alliances on the basis of minority rights that ignore caste, class, and racial privilege.
A clear parallel between fragility, white supremacy, and caste supremacy is evident in the recent controversies over the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in schools. White supremacists claim that CRT makes white children feel badly about themselves. Indeed Republican Senator Ted Cruz has outlandishly argued that CRT paints America as “irredeemably racist” and is “every bit as racist as the Klansman in white sheets.” Such comparisons are part of a much more normative discourse that suggests that the ‘glories’ of America’s past are being forgotten in favor of ‘woke’ narratives. Mimicking these strategies, Hindu organizations in North America make accusations of ‘Hinduphobia’ whenever caste is discussed—whether on college campuses, in secondary school textbooks, or in educational workshops at tech companies. These groups claim that to discuss caste oppression makes minoritized Hindu students feel vulnerable and ashamed. Hindu groups claim that the greatness of ancient Indian civilization and Hindu tradition is denigrated by teaching these critical perspectives on caste in schools. In this respect, Hindu organizations’ logic mirrors the rhetoric of white supremacy. Furthermore, many Hindu groups ignore centuries-old textual and historical evidence to make the spurious claim that caste is a “British created legal category…[that] was forced on South Asians.” Co-opting and twisting the language of decolonization, they deny caste oppression by absurdly suggesting that any discussion of caste perpetuates colonialism. To suggest that they (whites or Hindus) might be complicit in marginalizing others, these groups argue, in fact discriminates against them.
Although we cannot explore them in this short article, unfounded accusations by Hindu groups of widespread Hinduphobia who seek to silence academics and limit the critical study of Hinduism reveal clear parallels to the ways that right-wing Zionist groups try to censor any speech critical of Israel by deeming it as antisemitic. Like Jews who have experienced antisemitism, Hindus in North America have been the victims of racist violence (along with other South Asians) and have experienced discrimination as a result of their religious practices and beliefs. However, being the target of racist and anti-religious violence does not absolve a group from weaponizing fragility or engaging in caste oppression.
Understanding the ways in which Hindu fragility is weaponized and performed by Hindus and Hindu organizations in North America as a manifestation of Hindu supremacy points to the complex and subtle ways that power in minority communities mimics and reformulates the discursive grievances of white supremacy culture. The rejection of anti-caste organizing by North American Hindu advocacy groups may seem perplexing, but in the context of supremacist logics, it makes perfect sense. Opposition to anti-caste policies and caste-focused educational initiatives exposes the ways that Hindu formations are built on the oppression of others. Caste supremacy in South Asia and South Asian diasporas, which has been sustained over thousands of years through a wide-array of religious texts and practices as well as economic and social structures, upholds brahminical patriarchy at the expense of caste-oppressed communities, religious minorities, and others not included in the vision of Hindu supremacy. North American Hindu appropriation of fragility as a debate-ending strategy effectively erases the complex forms of domination and marginalization within Hindu and South Asian contexts. This appropriation aims to secure the place of Hindus as a ‘model minority’ who can simultaneously lay claim to the narratives of Indian and North American exceptionalism.