Sunday, Sep 25, 2022

This is what’s wrong with the concept of ‘Jim Crow Hindutva’

Vamsee Juluri writes: South Asia studies scholars have not come up with any compelling new ideas of their own, and rely on borrowed vocabularies

The idea here is that unlike the BJP’s earlier run under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, when the government only sought to make India “more Hindu in public symbolism and discourse”, now the Modi government is also using laws to make India “more anti-Muslim”. (File)

After spending nearly three decades of my life in American universities watching the rise and spread of South Asia studies, I find myself remembering the opening lines of Allen Ginsberg’s masterpiece Howl (“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”) after Ashutosh Varshney’s recent claim (‘Jim Crow Hindutva’, IE, October 19) that perhaps all those Nazi comparisons to Hindutva weren’t quite right, but that it’s really about “Jim Crow Hindutva.”

The idea here is that unlike the BJP’s earlier run under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, when the government only sought to make India “more Hindu in public symbolism and discourse”, now the Modi government is also using laws to make India “more anti-Muslim”. The first notion is a stock phrase in US media and implies that India was inherently not Hindu, or at least “less Hindu”, to begin with. As for the second point — alleged anti-Muslim laws — I will leave it to legal scholars to say more but I will note that invoking the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) as an example in this context is especially off-key at this time. It is not Muslims but the non-Muslim minorities of South Asia, the intended beneficiaries of this law, who have faced a spectacular outbreak of violence in the past few weeks — the 26-year-old ISKCON devotee Pranta Chandra Das murdered by a raging Islamist mob in Bangladesh; the numerous desecrated Durga puja pandals; before that, the poignant images of Afghanistan’s Guru Granth Sahib being brought home respectfully and the Hindu and Sikh teachers targeted and murdered in Kashmir. All of these incidents make the characterisation of the CAA as evidence of an “anti-Muslim Jim Crow Hindutva” conspiracy sadly misplaced.

None of this is new. In the last 30 years, neither the purge of Kashmiri Pandits, nor multiple assaults on civilians in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Coimbatore, Delhi was noticed in South Asia Studies. It took 30 years, as far as I have known, for someone to say that perhaps the avalanche of Nazi-Hindu comparisons that have constituted the entire published careers of a generation of scholars, editorialists, and activists may not quite be accurate. And yet, it’s not fully a recognition of reality. It’s just an attempt at a new adjustment. The neologism now proposed by Varshney will probably have quite a good run too.

The comparisons, after all, were already in the works. Back in 2017, even as a bunch of newspapers in India and abroad, including, ironically, a German one, were busy spinning some obscure rural health programme for expectant mothers in the Hindi heartland into an RSS neo-Nazi eugenics scheme, leading magazines were flaunting cover stories of white-hooded masks with red tilaks on their brows (Hindutva-KKK stuff).

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Both were certainly creative and sensational moments in the media’s anti-Hindutva resistance. But what of academia, where we face less of the daily and weekly pressures of editors and owners to sell and sensationalise? Have our concepts for what is happening in India and elsewhere been more reflective, responsive, accurate? Have scholars in South Asia studies come up with any compelling new ideas beyond the borrowed (or appropriated) vocabulary of the Jewish experience of Nazi anti-Semitism and the Black experience of Jim Crow to describe what they believe is India’s growing capture by Hindutva?

Now, it may well be the case that they have good reasons to fit these Euro-American theatres of oppressiveness onto present-day South Asia, but have they tested those reasons with any real debate? Have scholars who disagree with their canonical assumptions about Hindutva, Hinduism, and Hinduphobia (its entrenched denial despite evidence of its usage from the 1850s is so obvious to anyone outside the ivory tower now) been invited to their conferences or journals? Have they at least been spared the discourtesy of gaslighting and censorship?

There was quite a commotion the past few months about a conference hosted by leading scholars, activists and academic institutions on Hindutva. Some of its supporters argued that they were not proposing to “dismantle” Hinduism but only Hindutva. Some of the presenters at the conference argued, though, that there was no difference. The Hinduism/ Hindutva distinction in their work all these years was too fragile to even be called a fig leaf.


But Hinduphobia, that one word being yelled from a place of alarm about the violence against Hindus in Kashmir, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and even in India, was never heard.

Some see Sanskrit in the Nazis, others see American slavery in India. Do they really see this, or is it the codes of their profession, the practices of academic omerta and the “restorative citation of antecedent authority” as Edward Said called it? Media being called Goebbelsian or Orwellian is one thing. But college professors, teachers, people who live for truth, ostensibly? What have we done with all this privilege, really?

I saw the best minds of my generation once, awakened by the suffering of others, turning their words and hearts to worlds not seen or heard before, in the name of the subaltern, the colonised, the powerless. Then, they saw that suffering, a great massive swathe of it, a billion bodies all, uphold a name they did not expect. These people, for all their pain, did not call themselves “brown”. Or “South Asian”. Or what the corporate-military-academic apparatus wanted them to. Instead, they called themselves “Hindu”. And I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed. By reality.


This column first appeared in the print edition on October 26, 2021 under the title ‘The ‘Jim Crow Hindutva’ canard’.
The writer is a professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco

First published on: 26-10-2021 at 03:45:39 am
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