Rep. Ro Khanna confronts Hindu Nationalism in his backyard


— But the Congressman’s rejection of ‘Hindutva’ is entirely consistent with his repudiation of White Nationalism

By Raju Rajagopal, Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR) 5 November 2019

“It’s the duty of every American politician of Hindu faith to stand for pluralism, reject Hindutva, and speak for equal rights for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhist & Christians. That is the vision of India my grandfather, Amarnath Vidyalankar fought for.”  — Aug. 29, 2019 Tweet from Rep. Khanna

As a first-generation immigrant in the post-Vietnam era, I remember the days when a handful of elected representatives in Washington, calling themselves friends of either India or Pakistan, held sway over American foreign policy and aid to the region. The Indian-American community at the time depended entirely on ‘old India hands’ like Sen. Patrick Moynihan of New York to speak to our concerns, not the least of which was our yearning for better U.S.-India relations. 

Today, thanks to the emergence of a politically active second-generation of Indian-Americans, we are no longer dependent on the “kindness of strangers” to shape views of India. Several young Congress(wo)men of Indian ancestry, who have a deeper understanding of South Asia, are now bringing their cultural and religious heritage to bear not only on U.S.-India relations, but also on our commitment to Human Rights around the world. 

When Rep. Ro Khanna recently tweeted his determined rejection of Hindutva, India’s grim equivalent of White Nationalism, he was staying true to his conviction that what is not good for American Democracy can’t possibly be good for Indian Democracy. His tweet, invoking the memory of his grand-father’s real Hindu values, hit a raw nerve with some of his Hindu-American constituents, who promptly labeled him ‘anti-Hindu’ — a pejorative hurled at Hindus who oppose Hindutva, similar to the way Jews who criticize Israel are sometimes labeled ‘self-hating Jews.’ 

It must be puzzling to non-Indian observers that many from a community that has taken full advantage of America’s immigrant-friendly, multi-cultural polity, and votes predominantly Democratic, appear to have no qualms about falling behind an anti-minority Hindu Nationalist government in India, whose words, actions, and policies are increasingly antithetical to our democratic values.

So, what are we missing here?

First, groups drawing inspiration from the right-wing ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) have been propagating their ‘faith’ in the Silicon Valley for years. With their strong ties to the ruling BJP party in India, and organizational skills to match, they now dominate the Indian-American political discourse, having marginalized traditional voices of support for a secular, pluralistic and tolerant India. Such groups are apt to justify the surging mob violence against India’s minorities as inevitable payback for centuries of foreign domination — mere ‘collateral damage’ on the path to a glorious Hindu Rashtra. So, it should come as no surprise that this minority have taken up the cudgel against Rep. Khanna and are demanding an apology for his tweet, pretending they speak for all Hindus. 

Second, while most Hindu-Americans do not subscribe to the ideology of Hindutva, they nevertheless seem to have embraced the well-honed image of Prime Minister Modi as a decisive and business-friendly leader, who is standing up for India internationally. So, they rally behind him despite the fact that the Indian economy is hurting deeply and Hindutva vigilantism has seen an alarming rise — which they tend to dismiss as mere aberrations willfully played up by the western media. The harsh reality is that beneath the surface, even some of the most liberal Hindus harbor some level of historical antipathy towards religious minorities; and that is being cleverly exploited by the ruling class of today.

Third, Hindu-Americans’ self-identity as a minority seems to strategically surface only when we are targets of hate crimes, or lobbying for better immigration deals, or demanding a ‘fairer’ representation in school text books. This identity, however, seems to vanish when it comes to empathy for India’s minorities, who are under siege today under Modi’s second-term. Sadly, as a highly successful and affluent community, we have never felt the need to forge alliances with other minorities, particularly with African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans, which may have brought a deeper appreciation for how their long struggle for civil rights has paved the way for later immigrants like us.  

It is in this context that we must applaud Rep. Khanna’s courage and leadership in trying to reshape the discourse in the Indian-American community. It is vital for us to celebrate that, but to also understand that his constituency probably sees his stand against Hindutva as part of his oft-stated support for pluralism and economic justice across the world. That came across loud and clear in his Town Hall in Cupertino a few weeks back, as he was quizzed on his hesitant stand on the Human Rights situation in Kashmir, Palestine, and Hong Kong, which contrasted with the clearer stands taken by some of his colleagues such as Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. Despite such criticism, however, there was little doubt that he had his constituents’ back as one of the leading progressive voices in the current Congress.

What I found remarkable in that Town Hall was that every time Rep. Khanna responded to questions from his Hindutva detractors, the audience seemed to applaud louder, as if to send a message that their divisive views do not represent the best values of India or America. 

**** is a US-based advocacy organization committed to the ideals of multi-religious pluralism in the United States, India, and beyond.