The Pulse | Society | South Asia

Ahead of Holi Holiday, Indian American Students Protest Hindutva

After an outbreak of violence in Delhi, the young Indian diaspora in the United States is speaking out.

Bansari Kamdar
Ahead of Holi Holiday, Indian American Students Protest Hindutva
Credit: AP Photo

Holi is a major religious and cultural festival for Hindus that is celebrated in India and other parts of the world by the diaspora. Also known as the festival of colors, it is often celebrated with water and washable colors. However, on March 5, 2020, young Indian American students gathered on university campuses across America – a week before the festival – wearing black as opposed to Holi’s traditionally white and colorful attire for a Holi Against Hindutva protest.

“We are not protesting Holi,” said Vedant Bahl, a senior at Harvard University from Delhi who was leading of the Harvard University protests. “Through our protests, we want to help the diaspora introspect about what it means to be celebrating a festival of colors when India’s colors, in respect to its diversity and tolerance, have been stripped away by the government.”

The event was organized by Students Against Hindutva, a growing body of Indian American students from 21 university campuses to protest “India’s CAA and NRC and the state’s use of police brutality.” Over 120 people attended the protest at Yale; the UCLA protest was attended by at least 100 people; and around 50 people attended the protests at Harvard University.

The organizers wanted to use the protest as a platform to amplify the voices of the protesters in India fighting against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) since December 2019. The CAA provides a fast-track path to Indian citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian minorities who have fled persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. Anti-CAA protests have raged across India decrying the law as exclusionary towards Muslims. Over 30 people have died in anti-CAA protests.

These policies have been strongly censured by the United Nations and the United States Commission on International Religious freedom (USCIRF). Additionally, three U.S. cities – Albany, Cambridge, and Seattle – have called on the Indian government to repeal the law.

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Last week, New Delhi witnessed three-day sectarian violence where 54 people died and more than 200 were injured. A recent report by the Delhi Minorities Commission found that the violence was “one-sided and well planned” in which “maximum” damage was inflicted on houses and shops of Muslims. The protesters at Holi Against Hindutva have called it a “pogrom.”

Against Hindutva or Hinduphobic?

“What white nationalism is to Christianity, Hindutva is to Hinduism,” said Shreeya Singh, a third-year History and South Asia double major at Yale University and the President of Students Against Hindutva. “As a practicing Hindu, I see the principles of Hinduism as antithetical to being a follower of Modi’s Hindutva agenda.”

Singh differentiates Hinduism from Hindutva with the latter is defined as a “violent, brahmanical ideology that strongly adheres to the idea of a ‘Hindu rashtra’ (Hindu nation).” She argues that the student protests borrow from South Asia’s rich tradition of using art like rangoli and kolam (auspicious patterns traditionally hand-drawn outside Hindu households) to make political statements.

Just a few weeks ago, women protesters were detained for using kolams to make a statement against the CAA in India.

Suhag A. Shukla, the executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, has called the student protests an “anti-Hindu” project that is rejecting and demeaning Hindu traditions and “importing caste wars to college campuses.” She has instead pushed support for “Holi for Unity,” an online campaign started last week by around 50 students across the United States and Canada, alongside community organizations.

Holi for Unity is a platform for the Hindu community to come together and make sure that Holi is respected just like any other tradition and is not misappropriated or commercialized, according to Nikunj Trivedi, the Chairman of Hindu Student Council (HSC). The HSC is one of the key organizers of the Holi for Unity campaign.

“Using a religious festival to drive a political agenda or a protest is not really good,” said Trivedi about Holi for Hindutva. “We are just trying to say that this is our tradition, so give us that space, give us the respect, and don’t commercialize it, and don’t misappropriate it.”

The debate around “Hinduphobia” went viral after a tweet by Congresswoman and Democratic Presidential Contender Tulsi Gabbard on the day of the protests. Trivedi, who underwent bullying in high school due to his faith, asserted that “Hinduphobia” is an important issue for the Hindu-American diaspora.

“When we call it out, we are told that we are being fascists, but every other community is provided this space,” he added. “Muslims, Sikhs, Native Americans, African Americans, everyone gets their space and no one is calling them fascists. It is important that, as Hindus, we also get the space to talk about these issues that we face.”

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“They harass, harass, harass”

Student activists like Bahl have argued that any criticism levied on Prime Minister Modi or Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) policies is frequently labelled as “anti-national,” “anti-Hindu” or “Hinduphophic.” And these can often have severe consequences on social media.

In the last few days, the student organizers of Holi Against Hindutva have been targeted by vitriolic social media campaigns littered with threats. Shreeya Singh had her pictures plastered over the internet alongside hashtags like #SpareHinduFestivals and Twitter handles of the participant’s universities were flooded with hateful messages in an “organized attempt to intimidate and harass online.”

“It has been quite scary,” said Singh. “It was not something that I expected but this is the reality for so many activists, particularly women, who speak up on social media.”

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a Dalit American activist and the executive director of Equality Labs, which has been one of the key organizers in back-to-back anti-CAA protests outside the Indian Consulate in New York, has also been a victim of similar threats.

“Most importantly, they harass, harass, harass… If it was about demanding greater equity, they would not go so viciously after the most vulnerable,” she added. “What you see is the weaponization of the BJP IT cell trending hashtags and sending hate towards young students. That is not the activity of people who are there to dialogue.”

Soundararajan also mentioned instances of rape threats, death threats, and cases where activists protesting on the Hill were photographed, doxxed, and had their information sent to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), stating that they are violating their visa.

The Young Indian American Vote

For some Indian American students, who will be voting for their first U.S. Presidential elections later this year, the response of American leaders to Indian American issues may play an important role in who they support.

“It is important for me that whoever the future American president is going to be must care about human rights even when the incidences are in countries that are predominantly brown,” said Singh.

As the ties between India and U.S. deepen, President Donald J. Trump has been quiet about CAA and the Delhi violence despite being in India during the time of the riots. Only one of the two Democratic Presidential front runners have spoken on this matter. Senator Bernie Sanders has called it a “failure of leadership on human rights.” Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign has not responded to a request for comment.