Little in politics is more dangerous than tarring an entire group of people with a provocative image associated with a single extremist sect that is either a part of or adjunct to the broader group in question. But this is exactly what Tulsi Gabbard did when she insisted that all those condemning her for her links to Hindutva extremism are doing so simply because she is a Hindu. First of all, every major religion and faith group has more than one set of practitioners. In other words, no groups of religious people are a monolith and this is true even in respect of highly centralised organised religions. This is even more the case in respect of Hinduism, a term which over time has come to denote not an ecclesiastical command structure as Roman Catholicism does, but instead refers to a disparate set of traditional beliefs across south Asia and some parts of south east Asia.
Crucially, among those labelled Hindu include groups whose beliefs and practices are often unrelated except for some superficial similarities in terms of customs or recognition of certain deities. It is of equal note that the name Hindu itself has etymological roots as a geographical rather than religious distinction. The word Hindu has its origins in the Sanskrit word Sindhu which refers to what is now referred to in English as the River Indus, a waterway that is located primarily in modern Pakistan. Locals in Pakistan still typically refer to the river as The Sindhu. The word Sindhu was eventually Persianised as Hindu and came to refer not only to the river itself but the people who lived east of the river. Likewise, the term Indoi(from which the word India is derived)was merely a Hellenised version of the Iranian (Persian) Hindu. Furthermore, it was only in the late 18th century when European imperialists in south Asia began to refer to the non-Muslim populations of south Asia collectively as Hindus.
This is why it is supremely disappointing that instead of empowering diverse groups of moderate Hindus or secular people with Hindu backgrounds, Tulsi Gabbard has instead chosen to hide behind a non-existent notion of monolithic Hinduism and in so doing, has tarred every Hindu as someone who shares her associations with the BJP and its violent RSS wing. Those outside of south Asia would be particularly wise to remember that while today, Hindu refers to a diverse set of spiritual practices, Hindutva refers to a political ideology stresses the supremacy of Hindus over that of other south Asians – Muslim Asians in particular.
While the US Presidential election is still well over a year away, India will hold one of its most important general elections in decades in a matter of months. While the BJP is still something of a political monolith, last year’s regional elections saw the Hindutva extremist party lose seats even in its traditional heartlands. The combination of very public scandals, a demonetisation policy that made the poor poorer and an economic system that has rewarded the super rich while doing little to help the poor in a nation with a profound wealth gap, has made the attraction of the Congress led opposition bloc all the more appealing in the run up to this spring’s elections.
Although the opposition still have quite a hill to climb in electoral terms, whilst the Indian opposition have not commented on Gabbard’s attempt to conflate her pro-BJP attitudes with her Hinduism and self-professed love of India, Gabbard has actively undermined India’s domestic political opposition to the BJP’s ultra-sectarian brand of politics. Gabbard has done so by stating that criticism of her association with the BJP and RSS somehow equates to a criticism of all Hindus and even all Indians. This last part is particularly insulting to India’s 172 million Muslims, 20.8 million Sikhis and 300 million Dalits (Indians of low cast background subject to untouchability) – all of whom have been victimised by the BJP’s radical Hindutva politics. The truth is that whilst the BJP forms the government of the day in India, the country remains far bigger than its incredibly divisive ruling party and as a politician herself, Tulsi Gabbard ought to recognise this.
The truth is that the first and foremost victims of the BJP in terms of pure mathematics are Indian nationals. After this are the indigenous people of Indian Occupied Kashmir as well as those in Pakistan who have to live next to a country governed by a political party that scapegoats not just Indian Muslims but Pakistanis for the very real failures of the current Indian government.
As such, many millions of Indians have a very different view on what India should be and what Hinduism represents than do Gabbard and her fellow travellers in India’s Hindutva political class. Millions of Indians are horrified by how the BJP’s RSS affiliate have tried to turn mob politics mainstream whilst brutally undermining India’s secular constitution in the process.
Above all, holding Tulsi Gabbard to account is a matter of principle. In reality, India’s Congress led opposition bloc stands a better chance of winning India’s next general election than Gabbard has of becoming America’s next president . Even so, it is necessary to convince Tulsi Gabbard that the only way for her campaign to move forward is if she unambiguously clarifies her stance regarding the BJP and RSS, as opposed to simply dodging the issue by claiming that those who are horrified by her apparent worldview are somehow engaged in some non-existence anti-Hindu conspiracy. It is certain that many in India who are opposed to the BJP and RSS will be equally curious to see how America’s first Hindu member of Congress will react to such matters, not least because millions of Hindus want neither to be represented by Narendra Modi nor by his friend Tulsi Gababrd.
Beyond this, I personally am not even suggesting that Gabbard should bed forced to renounce the BJP and RSS. She should simply come clean in a transparent manner. Just as the BJP’s supporters in India are unapologetic, so too should Gabbard be. This way, the American people will have at least some opportunity to learn about the kinds of extremism that the BJP and RSS represent and make their judgement about Gabbard peacefully at the ballot box during the primaries for the Democratic Party of the United States. Such an opportunity has been deprived to the Indian Muslims and other Indian minorities who have perished at the hands of mobs cheered on by supporters and in many cases members of the BJP.