Op-Ed: As a Hindu, I can't stay silent about injustices in India — committed in the name of our faith

·5 min read
Indian students of the Jamia Millia Islamia University hold placards as they march during a protest against a new citizenship law, in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019. India's Supreme Court on Wednesday postponed hearing pleas challenging the constitutionality of the new citizenship law that has sparked opposition and massive protests across the country. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
Students protest against a Modi-backed citizenship law in New Delhi, India, in December 2019. (Altaf Qadri / Associated Press)

On Monday, India marks 75 years since its independence from British rule. Growing up in Orange County, I was taught that observing Hindu religious traditions made me a proud Indian. My family is Brahmin, the upper caste of Hinduism’s ancient hierarchy. I learned South Indian classical dance, attended Hindu Sunday school and spent summers at my grandparents’ home in Bengaluru, in southern India.

At the same time, my upbringing was relatively progressive. My grandfather had been a civil servant in India and taught me how corrupt governments could become. During the years he lived with us in America, I would come home from high school to newspaper clippings about global politics that he shared with me. In 2000, when I voted for Ralph Nader for president, he told me he would have too. And in 2014, he shared my grief at the election of Narendra Modi as India’s prime minister. My grandfather believed that equality and plurality were the riches of a society, and Modi represented the Bharatiya Janata Party, India’s ultra-conservative right-wing party supported by Hindus in India and abroad.

These two sides of my identity bred a contradiction. At community gatherings in California, I avoided politics like everyone else and smiled politely. I enjoyed being anonymous in a sea of Indian faces. Yet I was also involved in progressive causes with a multiracial group of activists and debated a lot with my family about racism, classism, misogyny and homophobia in the U.S.

It’s become harder to hold on to that contradiction. I want all the aunties, uncles and young people I’ve been raised around to know that I can’t stay silent about what is happening in the name of our faith in India. How can I speak out about injustice in the U.S. while ignoring India?

Modi has waged a political war against poor people, farmers, Indigenous and caste-oppressed groups and Muslims, and because of that, Hindu nationalists now feel free to brutalize those communities. In 2019, he abrogated the semi-sovereign status of Kashmir, the territory trapped between Indian and Pakistani military rule. Thousands of people protested when Modi’s government approved a bill that set religion as a condition for citizenship by only granting citizenship to non-Muslims fleeing neighboring countries.

In March, a school district in the southern state of Karnataka — where my family’s roots are — banned students from wearing hijab. Every day reports pile up on social media of Muslims being murdered or sexually assaulted in India at the hands of Hindu nationalists. Meanwhile, journalists critical of Modi have been silenced, incarcerated and harassed. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International and other non-governmental organizations have had to halt or limit operations in India.

Modi’s election showed me what was right below those polite smiles at community events I attended. At best, elders and even my parents debated me, arguing that Brahmins had also faced discrimination because of India’s reservations system, a version of affirmative action. One auntie — a term of respect we use for older women in our community, even if they’re not related to us — advised me, with love, that India was a lost cause and that I should focus my energy on the U.S. On social media, I’ve been attacked for speaking out at all.

When I was last in India in December 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, I got into several tearful debates with cousins repeating horrible stereotypes about Muslims. But conservatism in India is also culturally and financially supported by Indian communities here in the U.S. In November 2019, then-President Trump welcomed Modi to a Houston stadium with 50,000 paying Indian Americans.

We in the diaspora have a role to play against Hindu fundamentalism. The California State University system, where I work, now includes caste as a protected category, which means that students, staff or faculty can report caste-based discrimination they face on campuses to university administrators for internal investigations. That was a result of years of activism from Dalit students, who are from historically oppressed communities of the caste system, and their supporters. Just like the millions of activists in India, there is also a growing movement of progressive South Asian Americans, including Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans and Nepalis in the U.S. forming coalitions across religious and ethnic lines to advocate for better living conditions in the U.S. and to resist conservative policies in our homelands.

Last month, a group of us walked through the Lotus Festival honoring India at Echo Park with signs protesting Modi’s rule. We were met with many curious and supportive Angelenos, but also with Hindu conservatives, invited guests of the festival, aggressively calling us liars. One Indian woman lunged toward us before her friend pulled her back. This time, I did not smile politely. I yelled back.

On the 75th anniversary of India’s independence from Britain, I am as inspired by my progressive South Asian community as I am by the words of India’s constitution. The preamble, written by B.R. Ambedkar, the Dalit scholar and freedom fighter, proclaims that the people of India will create a secular democratic republic that secures for all its citizens: “JUSTICE, social, economic and political; LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; EQUALITY of status and of opportunity.” These are the ideals that I’ll be celebrating and that I’ll continue building toward, even if they feel out of reach right now.

Akhila L. Ananth is an associate professor of criminal justice at Cal State Los Angeles.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.