(RNS) — As Rishi Sunak, the new prime minister of the United Kingdom, prepared to lead his country amid economic, political and social turmoil, he used the term “proud Hindu” to describe himself. That identity matters to millions, British and not, around the world.
For some years now, “proud Hindu” would be understood in the West as referring to someone who endorses majoritarian politics in India. For decades, the idea of a proud Hindu ran counter to the shame felt by those of us born and raised in Western countries. Born and raised in the United States, I was well into my 30s before I could call myself a “proud Hindu.”
Sunak’s use of the phrase finally makes a genuine connection with a religion that has existed for thousands of years and whose influence is felt across the globe.
There is more to Sunak’s Hindu pride, however. A few (but only a few) Western news outlets have taken note of Sunak’s religious identity, noting that he took the helm of the United Kingdom on Diwali, Hinduism’s festival of lights and one of its most important holidays. But the media has largely failed to grasp the significance of the ascent of a Hindu to the leadership of a country that for two centuries subjugated Hindus in the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere.
To this point, the few Hindu modern heads of state have governed Hindu majority countries (India, Nepal and Mauritius) or where there are large Hindu populations (Guyana, Trinidad and Singapore). A Hindu was elected prime minister of Fiji in 1999 but was overthrown in a coup within a year.
Besides demographics, Hindus have been shunned because the British colonizers strenuously codified a caricatured idea of Hinduism, and their scholars reimagined the religion based on their own prejudices. That framing was influential for American scholars and journalists as well. Nearly a century ago, the writer Katherine Mayo published “Mother India,” an attack on India’s Hindu culture and a plea for Americans to support British rule over India. She called “Hindoos” “men who enter the world out of bankrupt stock” whose “hands are too weak, too fluttering, to seize or to hold the reins of government.”
Mayo’s description was embraced in the United States and championed by Winston Churchill, the conservative British leader who viewed Hindus as backward and degenerate. The irony shouldn’t be lost, then, that Churchill’s party has now embraced a Hindu as its leader.
Even in the 75 years since India gained its independence from the British Empire, Hindus around the world, but particularly those of Indian descent, continue to struggle with identifying as Hindu, or the degree to which they claim their Hinduness. There’s a profound shame associated with practicing a religion that has been the subject of exotification, vilification and marginalization, outside of the few countries where Hindus are majority.
Whether we are fans of his politics or not (and I am not), many of us “proud Hindus” will be invested in Sunak’s success, in hopes that he may not be the last head of state in the West to identify that way.
(Murali Balaji is a journalist and a lecturer at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Pennsylvania. His books include “Digital Hinduism” and “The Professor and the Pupil,” a political biography of W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)