Hindutva is not Hinduism

Sharmila Rudrappa , Contributor

Editor’s note: This column was submitted to the Texan by a member of the UT community and first appeared as part of the September 10 flipbook. 

Along with colleagues from 53  U.S. universities, as the director of the South Asia Institute I decided to co-sponsor the conference titled “Dismantling Global Hindutva: Multidisciplinary Perspectives.” The organizers and co-sponsors around the country have faced unprecedented opposition to this conference, which is an examination of the politicization of Hinduism. The conference has been wrongly cast as a criticism of Hinduism, and an attack on Hindus. Some of the backlash has been in bad faith, with violent, hate-filled emails and tweets directed at the conference speakers. But in addition, there have been heartfelt questions from individuals who have expressed consternation that their religion and their communities are being misrepresented. They have reached out to start a conversation. 

I am saddened that the misrepresentation of the South Asia Institute’s support for an academic conference has caused pain in some people. Our position is exactly the opposite of how some critics have cast the conference: We are, in fact, deeply committed to the understanding of Hinduism as an organic and irreducible part of South Asia. I want to reiterate that Hindutva cannot be conflated with Hinduism. Instead, it is a political ideology that asserts that only Hindus can be full citizens in India. M.S. Golwalkar, a founding figure in the Hindutva movement used to argue that only for Hindus did the nation, motherland and sacred land coincide, and therefore Muslims did not belong in India, and Buddhists and Sikhs were only lapsed Hindus. 

Like many fundamentalist ideologies, under the banner of Hindutva ideology there has been a horrific rise in hate crimes, lynching, rapes and killings of Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and dissident Hindus in India. The most heartbreaking case for me, as someone who grew up in Bangalore, is that of Gauri Lankesh, journalist and critic of the right, who was shot to death outside her Bangalore home Sept. 5, 2017. Since then, the suppression has gotten worse. Dozens of human rights advocates have been imprisoned without due process under repressive anti-terrorism laws. An example is that of Stan Swamy, a Jesuit priest who was a tribal rights activist. At 84-years-old  he was the oldest person in India to be accused of terrorism. He was arrested in October 2020, and denied bail repeatedly even though he was very ill. He tested positive for COVID-19 and passed away July 5, 2021.  

This is not the India I grew up in. And I am a Hindu. My religious tradition does not turn a blind eye to repression, rape and death. I am a Lingayat, a member of a community of Hindus in South India that was founded by 12th century philosophers Basava and Akka Mahadevi (a powerful spiritual woman leader, I might add) who rejected caste distinctions. My Lingayat community is joyously syncretic; We celebrated Ganesh Chaturthi as well as Christmas, and joined our Muslim neighbors when they broke the fast at the end of Ramadan. I am grateful for what my religion has given me through its teachings on self-reflection, generosity to others and respect for all forms of life.

My ethos of justice, inculcated through my religion, carries into my profession and belief in academic freedom that is a central tenet to knowledge production. Academic freedom protects the right of university professors to engage in unbiased, evidence-based intellectual pursuits. Such freedoms seek to promote scholarly debates in our search for knowledge. The University of Texas at Austin is world renowned precisely because it has facilitated critical research and learning among its faculty, students and staff.

As a federally funded National Resource Center, the South Asia Institute’s mandate is to provide resources for our communities on the cultures, histories and religions of South Asia, including teaching languages such as Sanskrit, Urdu, Hindi, Kannada and Malayalam. We provide teaching resources for K-12 teachers, and we facilitate curriculum development on South Asia related matters with Texas-based minority serving institutions and community colleges. It is in this regard that the South Asia Institute supported the conference, “Dismantling Global Hindutva: Multidisciplinary Perspectives.”

As a practicing Hindu myself, I would not support anything that is xenophobic. My support for this conference is in the interest of debate on sensitive topics that must be discussed publicly. Bullying us into silence is not a democratic way to move forward. But I do want to engage with those individuals who are upset that the South Asia Institute would support such a conference. My hope is that I have started a conversation on this front.

Rudrappa is a sociology professor and the director of the South Asia Institute.