Sunita Viswanath: India’s democracy is in grave danger; state repression of minorities, dissenters at all-time high

Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR).
Sunita Viswanath, cofounder of Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR).

Sunita Viswanath, cofounder of Hindus for Human Rights, speaks about the rise of Hindutva and its consequences.

Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR) is a US-based advocacy organization that provides a platform for progressive Hindu voices. Founded in 2019, the group’s mission is to promote multi-religious pluralism in the United States and South Asia, among other regions.

The organization says it speaks from a Hindu perspective for shanti (peace), nyaya (justice) and the manavtha (human rights) of all communities. It supports an egalitarian and inclusive Hinduism, committed to the right to equality for Dalits, Bahujans, and Adivasis.

In the past two years, HfHR has participated in peaceful protests against religious violence in India, organized conferences on the issue and attended congressional hearings. It has been very vocal in opposing a controversial Citizens Amendment Act and in advocating for Farmers’ Rights in India.

In a recent interview, Sunita Viswanath, cofounder of Hindus for Human Rights, spoke to the American Bazaar about the ethos of Hinduism, the rise of Hindutva in India and its consequences, among other issue.

A human rights activist and a progressive leader, Viswanath has also cofounded two other organizations: Women for Afghan Women and Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus.

A recipient of the White House Champion of Change Award (2015), she is the Hindu Religious Life Advisor at Columbia University. Here are the excerpts from the interview:

Tell us about your organization, Hindus for Human Rights. Why do you think it was important to form one, especially in the current climate?

We formed Hindus for Human Rights in the summer of 2019, after the second election of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister of India. As Hindutva has grown in power and popularity in India, there has been a simultaneous growth of popularity of Hindutva ideology in the Indian/Hindu diaspora. We felt that it was imperative that a platform exists for Hindus to come together to stand for social justice for all, and to oppose caste and Hindutva from within the faith and tradition.

In the recent past, terms such as Hindutva and Hinduism have been used interchangeably, often creating confusion, even conflict. What would you want to tell the readers about it?

I would want readers to know that although Hindutva literally means “Hindu-ness,” Hindutva and Hinduism are not the same. We believe that a Hindu is anyone who self-identifies as such — culturally, spiritually, or religiously. “Hinduism” is an umbrella term that includes an incredibly diverse set of religious traditions or sampradayas. Some aspects of our traditions are thousands of years old, while others aspects may be innovations created just last week. Hindutva, on the other hand, is a narrow, ethno-nationalist political ideology which is just about 100 years old. Many of its early proponents — men like V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar — were impressed and influenced by the European fascist ideologies of the early 20th century. The goal of Hindutva forces is to achieve a Hindu rashtra (Hindu nation), in which non-Hindus are second-class citizens. At the same time, we cannot simply dismiss Hindutva as “fake Hinduism,” or “anti-Hindu.” We have to acknowledge that many proponents of Hindutva are inspired by their faith, but it is this same faith that leads us to reject Hindutva.

Even though your organization is based in the US, it has been championing human rights causes in India. Do you feel that diaspora and civil rights organizations are extremely connected to events in India? Does the diaspora initiative make a difference?

HfHR is focused on human rights and religious freedom in India and other South Asian countries. We are also concerned with the growing entrenchment of Hindutva ideology — which is Islamophobic and casteist — in the Indian diaspora. Being a human rights organization based in the United States, and with members around the world, we are also committed to addressing civil and human rights priorities in diaspora countries. For instance, in the United States, we have been immersed in civil rights work by serving on the organizing committee of the 56th Anniversary of the Selma Bridge Crossing and Bloody Sunday, and also through our civil rights art and essay contest for middle and high school students. Our mission is to build a progressive, inclusive and egalitarian Hindu human rights platform and movement, but the issues we address are in India, South Asia, the Indian diaspora and beyond.

You have been involved with women’s rights issues for a long time. What would you say about women’s rights in India and in the US. Are you also taking up the women’s justice issues faced by diaspora women?

I am cofounder and board chair of a 20-year-old human rights organization Women for Afghan Women. Hindus for Human Rights has spoken up on women’s rights in India, particularly the recent cases of rapes and murders of Dalit women in UP [Uttar Pradesh].

With regard to the ongoing farmers’ protest and the Indian state’s response, what would you say the diaspora should do and what changes do you demand?

The brave Indian farmers who have been protesting for their rights for many months need global solidarity and support. While their actual demands — primarily the repeal of the three farm bills which they find unacceptable — deserve our attention, Hindus for Human Rights takes a broader perspective in our approach. Our concern is that democracy is not functioning: the farm bills were passed without proper democratic procedures. Farmers’ protests have been met with violence and tear gas. Over 300 farmers have died during these protests.

What would you say about the American response to the farmers’ protest in India?

The massive nationwide anti-CAA protests and the solidarity protests that took place in dozens of cities around the globe were inspirational and gave so much hope to those of us who are deeply alarmed about the fast-eroding democracy, human rights and religious freedom in India. The anti-CAA protests were going strong when Covid-19 hit and the protests were forced to stop.

The farmer protests have arisen in spite of Covid, and do not seem likely to end any time soon. While they are focused on the rights of farmers, many other movements have stepped up to stand in solidarity, particularly women’s rights groups and students. These protest movements in India may be focused on particular issues (first CAA, now farmers), but we see them as impacted communities standing up in unison to call for the Indian government to respect its own constitution.

India’s democracy is in grave danger. State repression of religious minorities and anyone expressing dissent is at an all-time high. Many feel that global solidarity and attention, and pressure on the Indian government by world powers like the United States is the only thing that can make a difference.

What are some of the other initiatives you are currently working on?

We recently hired a full-time Advocacy Director based in Washington, DC. Nikhil Mandalaparthy started in this role three weeks ago and will focus on ensuring that the US government — the State Department, individual elected officials, and other stakeholders — will hear from us about the reality on the ground in India. So far, the only Hindus speaking in the political arena have been Hindutva-aligned Hindus. We will ensure that an alternative Hindu perspective is presented in all these spaces, one that is concerned with secular democracy and human rights.

As a Hindu heading a human rights organization, there must be accusations of the “neo radicalism” or anti-Hindu stance. How do you deal with these ironies, if we may say so?

Our positions are grounded in an inclusive and egalitarian understanding of Hindu traditions. We believe that one of the reasons why Hindu traditions have flourished and endured is because of reformers and dissenters who questioned the status quo. Yes, some were persecuted, many were acknowledged and respected, and no one was able to completely dislodge the entrenched hierarchies of varna and jati. But society did not succeed in trying to simply dismiss them as ‘anti’ this or ‘anti’ that; and indeed, some of their reforms have endured. We see ourselves as following in the footsteps of social reformers and poet-saints such as Sree Narayana Guru, Basavanna, Mahadevi Akka, Meera, Lalla, Sant Tukaram, Kabir Das, and many others. Mercifully, they did not have to face Hindu nationalist trolls!

We find ourselves wondering what the course of history might have been if the Jat Pat Todak Mandal had not uninvited Dr. B.R. Ambedkar from their anti-caste conference in Lahore in 1936.

We believe that our traditions abound in stories that exemplify peace, justice, kindness, compassion, and inclusion. And we believe these narratives can help sustain our commitment to work for the welfare of all communities in the world.

Those who call us anti-Hindu would be more accurate if they called us anti-Hindutva.

In recent years, there have been concerns among progressives about failure of judiciary and other institutions in India. What are some of your concerns, specifically?

Hindutva ideology has been growing in power over the past 70 years, and has enjoyed a zenith since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014. Since then, the following events are the cause of our concern:

—the lynchings by Hindu mobs of over 150 Muslims across India on accusation of eating beef or trading cattle

—the arrests of anyone expressing dissent on accusation of sedition

—the citizenship law of CAA coupled with NRC. This combination of laws render religion a criteria for citizenship and create a serious threat that countless Muslims might be stateless.

—the Supreme Court’s decision in the Babri Masjid case — that it is a crime that the 500-year-old mosque was destroyed by Hindu mobs in 1992, and yet the land was given to Hindus for the construction of a Ram Mandir—demonstrated the anti-Muslim bias of the judiciary.

—there is also ample evidence of the anti-Muslim bias of mainstream media.

Since the media, the judiciary and the government itself are increasingly explicit in their pro-Hindu and anti-Muslim stance and their disregard for constitutional rights and processes, we feel we have to join those raising the alarm. As Hindus we have a particularly important role in waking our own community to these horrors.

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