Social Science Research Council Research AMP Mediawell

Hindutva 2.0: How a Conference on Hindu Nationalism Launches a Change in Strategy for North American Hindutva Organizations

Sundaram, Dheepa
Journal of the American Academy of Religion

IT NEVER occurred to me that I would see a bomb threat for an academic, virtual conference. Nor did I imagine having to sift through a pile of violent threats when I agreed to coordinate the media response for a conference on Hindu nationalism, “Dismantling Global Hindutva: Multidisciplinary Perspectives” (DGH), which took place online September 10–12, 2021. The conference sought to address the rise of Hindu supremacism, or Hindu nationalism, in a global context. Over three days, panels of scholars and human rights activists analyzed how Hindutva ideology has grown, capitalized on social hierarchies, exacerbated discrimination toward marginalized communities, engaged in religious supremacism, and reinforced patriarchal structures. With over thirty thousand unique YouTube impressions, this conference was a critical moment as it offered a holistic picture of the growing, global presence of Hindutva as well as strategies for resistance from both within and outside the academy. While many academics and members of civil society tuned in to listen, Hindu Right leaders and groups responded by coordinating a harassment campaign in the weeks leading up to the conference.

The election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 and the growing strength of Hindu nationalist cultural power in India has emboldened Hindu supremacist organizations in the United States, who are often “camouflaged” as Indian or Hindu advocacy organizations (Jangam 2016, 18). Two US-based Hindutva organizations led the charge against the DGH: Hindu American Foundation (HAF)1 and Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA). HAF and CoHNA initiated a massive letter writing campaign that crashed several university servers in their attempts to stop this conference from proceeding and to punish its organizers afterward (Hindu American Foundation 2021b). They also coordinated with Hindu supremacist groups in India. These actions invited many violent threats. HAF argued that the conference was an affront to Hindus and would prove dangerous for Hindu students on the university campuses that sponsored the event (Hindu American Foundation, 2021a). In a bit of circular logic, Suhag Shukla, executive director of HAF, pointed to her own group’s organized effort to disrupt this routine academic event as “proof” for such an outlandish claim of harm.

In this article, I argue that the transnational and coordinated attacks on the conference, its organizers, and participants offer insight into important changes in how US-based Hindutva groups are coopting and instrumentalizing student voices, among others. Specifically, this assault traded on anti-racist rhetoric, seizing upon the real harms that South Asians have faced under white supremacy and deliberately misconstruing these as a broader, systemic assault against Hindus (i.e., “Hinduphobia”) to advance the key Hindutva goal of muzzling criticism in the North American academy.