At a recent rally celebrating India’s Independence Day on August 15 in New Jersey, a bulldozer bearing images of the far-right Hindu monk Yogi Adityanath and the Indian Prime Minister Modi roamed the streets with Hindu nationalist slogans chanted in the background. Under Adityanath, who is currently the chief minister of India’s most populous state and a political stronghold in the country, Uttar Pradesh, instances of police brutality (popularly known as “encounter killings”) against Muslims and Dalits (so-called untouchables) have raised alarm among several transnational human rights organizations. Speaking about Muslim women protesting against discriminatory legislation in 2020, Adityanath asked his followers to “feed them bullets, not biryani” (traditional North Indian Muslim cuisine). Today many Hindu nationalists view Adityanath as an able politician who might eventually replace Indian Prime Minister Modi to head the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In Uttar Pradesh nowadays, the bulldozer has become a potent instrument for demolishing Muslim homes when they protest against violence, humiliation, and discrimination. For Hindu nationalists, it has clearly become a celebratory symbol within and outside India.
While 9/11 has etched the figure of the Muslim terrorist in the Western imagination, the phenomenon of Hindu terrorism has received little scrutiny. In a strategic move to politically cement their power at the global stage, Hindu nationalist actors in both India and the Western diaspora have not only appropriated Islamophobic discourses of the “War on Terror” but actively thrived through it to wantonly mark disposable Muslim bodies for death, rape, violence, and statelessness through their support for an Indian state that enacts these brutalities as an active component of its Hindu nationalist/Hindutva ideology. Older histories have proved to be fertile grounds for the ongoing persecution of Muslims in India, following the colonial legacy of British institutional efforts to cause a schism between Hindus and Muslims, racializing Muslims as more masculine and violent than subservient and effeminate Hindus, and distorted school history textbooks that presented Muslims as medieval foreign invaders to the country. Today Muslims are problematically and singularly blamed for the Partition of India in 1947.
This anti-Muslim animus in postcolonial India gained further momentum under the country’s unique trajectory of Brahmin supremacist racializing, gendering, and demonizing of Muslims and Dalits through casteist lenses of desirability and belonging, propagated through popular mediums such as Bollywood movies, demographic myths, and, as some scholars have argued, the structures of liberal representative democracy itself. Importantly, Hindu privilege as a majority in India and Hindus as model minorities in the West, rather than being a monopoly of the Hindu right, is baked into Western liberalism. This is not to deny the century-old exceptionally violent project of Hindutva heralded by Savarkar and Moonje since the 1920s or the links between Nazism and the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak (RSS), or the fact that several Hindu nationalists were troublingly also members of the Congress Party prior to the Partition of 1947. Nor is it to downplay the racism that Hindus face in the West. However, scholars must reconsider how majority-minority dialectics are structurally implicit in representative liberal democracies and how these representations draw on national and international discourses.
India’s international standing insulates it from repercussions for discriminatory legislation and practices. The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) will prevent Muslim refugees like Ahmadis, Afghans, Rohingyas, and internally displaced Kashmiris from getting citizenship and equitable access to asylum in India as they flee persecution and conflict. This act will also expel and expunge India’s very own population of overwhelmingly poor and illiterate Muslims, who would be made to produce documents to prove their ancestry on the lands they have lived for centuries. Perhaps it should not come as a shock that India has violated the Geneva Convention and sent Rohingya refugees facing persecution back to Burma. Yet the United States continues to tout India’s reputation as the world’s largest democracy in diplomatic endeavors and for several reasons.
India’s geopolitical location and economy also make it a natural American ally. For the West, India is not a threatening or communist power like its neighboring country China. It is not deemed as a terrorist haven like Pakistan in popular representations. It is not a poor Muslim-majority country like Bangladesh which currently faces trade deficits due to neoliberal Western financial institutions. It is not a small crisis-ridden country like Sri Lanka or landlocked Nepal. Rather, India provides a large consumer market and cheap land for multinational corporations. Subsequently, savarna Hindus who advance the project of Hindutva have greatly benefited from the current international relations scenario, especially since 9/11, both as a community and as individuals.
Despite many cases of Hindu terrorism in India, the figure of the Muslim as a terrorist in Indian society lurks in no small part due to post 9/11 Western discourse of the “War on Terror.” That the Malegaon bombasts, Ajmer Dargah attack, and Mecca Masjid blast were carried out by Hindu terrorists is somehow comfortably forgotten in mainstream narratives. In each of the instances mentioned above, many Muslims were politically targeted and killed, yet young Muslim men were arrested and tortured in prisons for these poorly investigated crimes, often without evidence, and sometimes for decades. Much like white bodies that allegedly do not commit terrorism in mainstream media narratives, even when white supremacists shoot down Black people, so do Hindu extremist outfits allegedly not commit politically motivated acts of terror. For example, in 2007, the Samjhauta Express, a train running between New Delhi and Lahore, was attacked and bombed by Hindu terrorists. However, in 2019, all nineteen culprits, including Swami Aseemanand who had openly declared that he had masterminded the attack, were acquitted. There can be no Hindu terrorism if there is no court of law to recognize that Muslims can be victims of terrorism from non-Muslim perpetrators. Recently, some have claimed that other instances of bombings in India have been carried out by far-right Hindutva cells, with the intent to set up more “terror training camps.” Yet any reference to the term “saffron terror” to indicate growing Hindu terrorism in India can be used a disciplinary ground by the Election Commission of India for allegedly endorsing a “political conspiracy.”
Even in some liberal Indian media forums, articles have been published commending Muslims for using a secular discourse to assert their rights as citizens during the anti-CAA protests. The assumption here remains that the Muslim body is always on the brink of terrorism, and not choosing that route makes their nonviolent resistance commendable. It also implicitly seeks to regulate expressions that can be construed as forms of Muslimness, preventing the community from finding solace in their religious beliefs against very real oppression. In doing so, such liberal discourses like Hindu Nationalism do not permit Muslims to articulate a resistance that is a little more nuanced than simply violent and nonviolent. Muslims cutting off the roads to keep the army at bay, in order to protect themselves from being thrown into abysmal detention centers, are likened troublingly to Islamist terrorists. Moreover, many activists and academics are calling upon us to rethink the very term “terrorism,” seeing how certain nation-states, like the notorious Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, use the term to target dissenters and activists. But this should be distinguished from State monopoly on violence (and mechanisms to surveil and punish) against those who challenge it. The insidious violence by the genocidal Hindutva Indian State and its vigilantes is not interpreted as terrorism, just as the terrorism committed by the USA on innocent civilians of Afghanistan and Pakistan in South Asia.
Significantly, what gets overlooked in these contested terms and representational politics of Muslim terrorism in India is the issue of foundationally discriminatory institutions and laws that have become more emboldened under the current regime of Hindu Nationalists to harm marginalized communities. Meanwhile, Modi continues to use the discourse of terrorism to represent India in a favorable light internationally and to win elections repeatedly. Just before the 2019 Indian elections, Modi raised the familiar South Asian trope of the enemy within—the figure of the Muslim terrorist—following the controversial Pulwama case in Kashmir that witnessed the deaths of forty Indian army men. To date, international investigations of the case dispute any conclusive evidence over who was responsible for the incident. Tellingly, similar discourses of terrorism have been used against Sikhs, another religious minority in India, very recently when they protested and eventually succeeded against the passing of polemical agricultural laws that Hindu nationalists had initially sought to pass. In other words, all minorities in India except for the figure of the upper caste Hindu can be cast with aspersions over charges of terrorism.
Notably, consorted efforts to resist the label of terrorism among Hindu nationalists exceed India’s borders. Privileged diaspora Hindu nationalists in North America have happily catered to the White gaze as model minority immigrants who are successful doctors and engineers, or taxi drivers with PhDs. All the while, the largest funding for Hindu extremist projects has come from diaspora Indians in the West since the 1980s. Within the United States, Hindu Nationalists have also funded research scholarships and advocated for caste-based oppression to be removed from California school history textbooks. Significantly, they have sought to fund political campaigns of young right-wing cadres as representatives of the Indian community to the White House across the Democratic-Republican political aisle. Even in popular media representations, Hindus are represented as affable “people of color”/people without a caste, unlike images of the undesirable or dangerous Muslims that pervade most of Hollywood. India has successfully branded itself as “Incredible India,” a land ripe for Western tourism, with yoga serving as an important force for Modi’s ‘soft power’ diplomacy. Meanwhile Kashmir, the world’s most militarized region finds even less solidarity than Palestine when it comes to the draconian occupation and subjugation of its peoples and land. Secular and liberal Hindus are often unwittingly complicit in downplaying if not invisibilizing Hindu terrorism when they use questionable vocabularies or give endless warnings about India at the “brink” of “descending into fascism,” while Muslims in the country are already suffering without the need to portray the public calls for genocide and rape against them as “impending” in academia. For Indian Muslims and Kashmiris, the horror and suffering has already begun or started even before the Partition of 1947, yet their appeals as imperfect victims in the era of global Islamophobia falls short in most analyses of Hindutva State terrorism.
It needs to be vigorously asserted lest we forget: Modi came to power as a Prime Minister in 2014 in India after he was accused of being complicit in the Gujarat Massacre of 2002 that killed over a thousand Muslims by the government’s own conservative estimates. In recent times, Hindu leaders have been elected to the Indian Parliament after they have committed known acts of terrorism, including planting bombs in mosques that killed people. As India increasingly gets synonymized as Hindu, and academic-activist works interrogate Hindutva, we must investigate the pre- and post-9/11 impact of the “War on Terror” in invisibilizing Hindu terrorism and the consequences that has had within and outside India. In fact, an honest examination would require how overlooking the material consequences of naming Hindu terrorism, aka “certain activities,” has facilitated an openly fascist-inspired Hindutva movement to be elected twice to state power with historic majorities and unabashedly organize rallies in America to celebrate it.