As a highly multicultural society, Australian election campaigns require politicians to actively connect with the country’s array of community groups. This is overwhelmingly a positive phenomenon, yet Australian politicians are generally a socially awkward group, and often lack the cultural sophistication to be able to engage meaningfully with Australia’s multicultural communities. The under-representation of minority communities in Australia’s parliament also limits the necessary knowledge political parties require to connect with minority groups, but also be attentive to any overseas political issues they may be walking blindly into.
The lack of knowledge about Indian politics in particular has become apparent during this election campaign. Indians are Australia’s fastest growing group, and as a result are becoming a critical community to seek support from during elections. However, in recent weeks, in their attempts to do so, both Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, have unwittingly allowed themselves to be used for domestic Indian political purposes.
In early May, Albanese and Shadow Home Affairs Minister Kristina Keneally attended a function at the Hindu Council of Australia, and last week Morrison and Immigration Minister Alex Hawke attended an event hosted by the same organization. During these events all four allowed themselves to be draped in scarves of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), unaware that they were not simply wearing a religious symbol as a show of respect to their hosts, but instead wearing a highly political symbol of a group they should in no way be seen to implicitly endorse.
The Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) are the religious wing of the Sangh Parivar, the umbrella name for a collection of Hindu nationalist organizations that includes its paramilitary wing, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and its political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s ruling party — all of which are organized around the ideology of Hindutva. While the VHP may in name be the Sangh Parivar’s religious wing, they — in particular the VHP’s own youth organization, the Bajrang Dal — are also often its vigilante wing.
The VHP have been the primary driver of communal violence in India over the past few decades, including the destruction of the Babri Mosque in 1992 and the Gujarat riots in 2002. Vigilante violence against Muslims, Dalits, and Sikhs in India has increased dramatically since the BJP took power in 2014, often with the government’s tacit approval. This violence is part of a collective political project by the Sangh Parivar to construct a new Indian state, one that has animosity toward the country’s minorities as its organizing principle.
This is critical to understand for Australian politicians as the BJP and its sister organizations have actively sought to cultivate an intimate relationship with the Indian diaspora. For the most part these are people who cannot vote in Indian elections, but they serve an ideological and financial purpose. The Sangh Parivar is not simply an organization that wishes to govern the Indian state — the BJP would be a stand-alone political party were this the case. It wants something more from people than just votes; it wants minds and souls (and often fists). This makes transnational reach an essential component of the movement.
Australia has already seen a serious example of this reach with an attack on a group of Sikh men in a Sydney suburb early last year. Providing a blunt illustration of the nature of the Hindutva movement, when a man convicted of the assaults was released after six months in custody he received a hero’s welcome upon his return to India. At the time the immigration minister tweeted, “Attempts to undermine Australia’s social cohesion will not be tolerated.” Yet he obviously didn’t learn the lessons from this incident when he allowed himself to wear the VHP’s insignia last week.
The added complexity for Australian politicians is that Canberra is actively seeking to build a much stronger and more intimate relationship with India. Yet as the BJP has become the country’s dominant political party – and looks like it is now entrenched in this position – the ability to differentiate between the state and its ruling party is becoming more difficult, especially as the Sangh Parivar continues to capture the state.
Australian politicians need to be able to distinguish between Hinduism and Hindutva – Hindutva is a political ideology that seeks to remake Hinduism into an identity rather than a religion, an identity that is based on hostility toward other groups, mostly Muslims, but also Dalits, Sikhs, and Christians. There is an obvious tightrope to walk here for Australian politicians, as engagement with the growing Hindu community is essential and should be encouraged. Yet this will require a keen awareness of when politicians are being co-opted into causes that they should be keeping themselves well clear of.