By Harjit Kaur

For decades, civil and human rights activists in California have actively been addressing injustices and oppression created by Hindutva organizations, who wish to silence this advocacy by claiming activism against Hindutva is Hinduphobia.

Let’s be clear, it is not.

One such organization is the Hindu American Foundation (HAF). Founded in 2003, HAF states on its website that its advocacy tactics require them “to highlight current and historical discrimination, subjugation, and violation of human rights committed by members of other religious communities [emphasis added].”

Civil and human rights organizations are defined by their mission which addresses the ongoing fight against discrimination, systematic oppression, human rights violations, and other injustices; HAF takes a stance against the “other” (read, “non-Vedantic Hindu”) religious communities and identities while emboldening and increasing Hindutva ideologies and practices within its own activism.

As Modi’s Hindu nationalist government continues to openly discriminate against minority communities across India, HAF has not only supported but endorsed those actions.

For example, in the case of the recently signed Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), HAF has unequivocally stated that it is necessary, despite the international community recognizing that the CAA openly discriminates against Muslim migrants on the basis of faith.

In an interview with The Economic Times, HAF’s founder (Mihir Meghani), doubled down on support for India’s Hindutva policies in Jammu and Kashmir that strip people of their right to autonomy under the Indian Constitution, stating that “[t]he Hindu American Foundation strongly opposes anti-India and anti-Hindu resolutions that wrongly condemn India for taking life-saving steps following the repeal of the discriminatory Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian constitution on August 5, 2019.”

HAF has been criticized for its relationship with India’s Hindu nationalist agenda but it is clear through their advocacy campaigns that they follow the same ideology.

HAF has a long-standing track record of creating a false narrative to misrepresent the histories of many communities (including, but not limited to, Sikhs, Muslims, and Dalits) in efforts to further their Hindutva agenda. HAF also has a long-standing history of denying the existence of any caste and social stratification of class within Hinduism. This argument erases the experience of violence, oppression, and discrimination Dalits have endured for centuries.

For decades, HAF has actively attempted to remove references to the caste system and Dalit identity in California’s school curriculum. HAF specifically advocated removing the mention of the word “Untouchable” from curriculum frameworks, denying their origins in Hinduism.

In fact, they outrageously suggested that the caste system was a matter of choice, not birth, by creating the myth that caste is a social practice without scriptural backing that is rooted in colonialism. On the contrary, Dr. Ambedkar “defined a caste as an endogamous unit, an ‘enclosed class’. On another occasion, he described the system as an ‘ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt’. What we call the caste system today is known in Hinduism’s founding texts as varnashrama dharma or chaturvarna, the system of four varnas. ”

This denial of caste within Hinduism’s origins also denies historical challenges made by many communities, including Sikhs, to this oppressive and discriminatory practice.

In 2016, Equality Labs, a South Asian-American human rights and technology start-up conducted a caste survey in the United States, the results of which were extremely telling of the pervasiveness of caste discrimination in the U.S. Based on more than 1,500 participants, the survey found that 67 percent of Dalits participants reported being treated unfairly in their workplace because of their caste.

HAF and Suhaag Shukla, Executive Director of HAF, vehemently opposed the survey. Shukla stated that what some people know as casteism may be overblown in the U.S.

“Where [there is] any sense of hierarchy and any sort of manifestation of caste that denies human dignity, HAF firmly believes in the annihilation of those types of practices, but where some sort of caste tradition might give people a sense of solidarity or a way of relating to one another is a force for good,”  Shukla said in an interview with The Wire, simultaneously attacking the system and defending it.

Instead of following its mission which purports to stand up “for the rights of Hindus and other minorities around the world”, HAF doubled down on its vitriol and refusal to stand against caste-based discrimination, inequity, and violence perpetrated against the Dalit community.

In June of 2020, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) filed a lawsuit against Cisco alleging that Cisco failed to prevent employment discrimination against a Dalit engineer by two of his Brahmin co-workers. HAF intervened in the lawsuit arguing caste is not rooted in Hinduism and the DFEH’s lawsuit is essentially Hinduphobic.

HAF claims their intervention was rooted in protecting the “religious freedoms of Hindu Americans”, but let’s be clear, HAF does not protect all Hindu Americans, just upper-caste Hindu Americans.

HAF has not defended the rights of Hindus who are forced to occupy the lowest social standing in the caste system hierarchy and in fact have gone so far as to cause harm in these spaces to allow for further constitutional violations that align with Hindutva agendas. Despite HAF’s claims that the caste system is no longer practiced in Indian society, their own Hindutva ideologies and advocacy, especially in California’s Silicon Valley, prove otherwise.

HAF has criticized community activists speaking up against Hindutva agendas as “hinduphobic” in misleading efforts to protect politicians who ascribe to the same agenda, like Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and Congressman Ami Bera.

What HAF fails to realize is that criticisms of these politicians are rooted in their refusal to condemn Hindutva organizations and their violently harmful agendas. In 2014, Gabbard criticized the US State Department for its decision to deny Modi a visa for his involvement in initiating and condoning violations of religious freedoms in India, specifically his role in the 2002 Gujarat Pogrom against Muslims.

Ami Bera has continuously refused to formally condemn the Indian Government for its role in the Sikh genocide of 1984. HAF has gone out of its way to launch smear campaigns against Sikh civil and human rights activists and has also misdefined terms like Khalistani by equating it to terrorism, which is offensive and religiously discriminatory in itself.

Gabbard and Bera have done nothing to counter Hindutva agendas pervasive in the U.S. through organizations like HAF, and as citizens in a democratic country it is our constitutional right and duty to speak out against their alliances with such groups.

The mission of any ethical human and civil rights organization is to condemn and raise voices against oppression, discrimination, and human rights violations. Not to silence and malign those that do the actual work. Fighting Hindutva, and the organizations that support and enable it, is not Hinduphobia.

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