India is the world’s largest democracy, and its constitution enshrines secularism, but leaders in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party espouse an ideology called “Hindutva” — loosely translated “Hinduness” but often called “Hindu nationalism.” The party is linked to groups such as the paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad — often collectively referred to as the Sangh Parivar.

The RSS can be among the first groups to offer help after natural disasters, but its militants can also show extreme intolerance, including violence against religious minorities and maligning writers and artists. Many senior officials in the Indian government, including current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are or have been RSS associates.

There have been Hindutva attacks on Muslims, Christians and Sikhs. The most horrific instance was the 2002 killing of some 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat after Muslim mobs were accused of having set fire to a train carrying Hindu nationalists, killing 58 people. Attacks against Christians are widespread and escalating.

Hindutva ideology can be distinguished from Hinduism itself. It demands neither a theocratic state nor Hinduism as a state religion. It is a national-cultural project — rather than religious in the strictly doctrinal sense used in the West — and self-identifies as the soul of India itself. Sangh Parivar militants maintain that religious minorities, including Muslims and secularists, could support Hindutva — and therefore if they do not, they are betraying the nation.

The mainstreaming of Hindutva politics, especially since the BJP returned to power in 2014 under Prime Minister Modi, has led to a widespread narrative that Hindus in India are in danger from Muslims as a result of population changes, interfaith marriage and illegal Muslim immigration. This has led to discriminatory laws on citizenship and marriage.

The potential impact of Hindutva does not necessarily end at India’s borders. Some Hindu nationalists believe that an accurate map of India should include Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh and have campaigned to rewrite Indian textbooks to reflect this. If this sentiment grows and results in a future expansionist foreign policy, India will be more likely to clash again with Pakistan and other neighbors, including China.

The spread of Hindutva

In recent years, there have been attempts to mobilize Indian emigrants, perhaps the largest diaspora in the world, in support of Hindutva goals. Because of British imperial history, many efforts are in the English-speaking world. Overseas Indians cannot vote but can retain strong connections with India and often wield much influence. As with other diasporas, most of these connections are simply retained links with the mother country and family. But the rise in the BJP’s global support, often through social media, has coincided with a rise of radical groups.

In 2019, EU DisinfoLab, an organization that tracks disinformation campaigns, reported the existence of a large network of fake local news sites set up to spread pro-Modi, pro-Hindutva, and anti-Pakistan misinformation. There were 265 of these sites in some 65 countries registered to just one entity, the Delhi-based Srivastava Group.

Overseas funding for the BJP is opaque but appears substantial. The Overseas Friends of the BJP claims 46 branches worldwide, significant political clout and substantial funds. Indians are the wealthiest ethnic group in the United States, and Merrill Lynch categorizes more than 200,000 Indian-Americans as millionaires. In 2020, Overseas Friends was required to register in the U.S. as a foreign agent. The Indian charity Sewa International appears be a wealthy affiliate of the RSS: the U.K. Charity Commission has investigated its classification of £2 million as “earthquake relief.” Laws introduced in 2017 by then-Minister of Finance and Corporate Affairs, Arun Jaitley designated donations from “foreign entities” as “unknown sources.” Half of the BJP’s 2019 campaign coffer was from such “unknown sources.” In 2018, the World Bank reported that $80 billion was remitted to India from its diaspora — but this would be mostly nonpolitical contributions.

United States

Apart from funding, Hindu-related groups were active in the 2016 presidential elections in the U.S., especially with the Republican Hindu Coalition. Of course, Hindu groups are as free as Christian, Jewish, Muslim or any other groups to politically promote their views and interests, and much of this is simply interest-group politics. But there are signs of darker currents.

In August 2022, the Indian Business Association came under fire for bringing bulldozers, featured with the faces of Modi and Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu monk and BJP official who serves as the chief minister of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, to two India Day parades in New Jersey. Bulldozers have become a symbol of anti-Muslim activity in India as they have been used to demolish Muslim activists’ homes held to be illegal structures. Hindutva activists have celebrated Adityanath as “bulldozer baba” for these demolitions.

The Global Hindu Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Frisco, Texas, announced a Nov. 27 fundraiser at its annual dinner that included amongst its goals the intention to support “The Demolition of Illegal Churches in Tirupati, Gaushalas” and for a campaign to “reconvert” Christians to Hinduism. Several of the “reconversion” campaigns in India have been coercive, and churches have been deemed illegal — that is, not properly registered — while similarly situated Hindu temples and other structures have been tolerated. But, if we allow that there might be illegal churches, then any closure would be a matter for the authorities. In which case, the Global Hindu Heritage Foundation would be raising money to support Indian government actions, which apart from its support of a repressive program is not usually regarded as a charitable activity.

Some groups have been accused of trying to undermine academic freedom on university campuses by targeting scholars whose work on India differs from that purveyed by Hindutva writers. In September 2021, organizers of an American academic conference on Hindutva received rape and death threats.

After March 2021, when Audrey Truschke, a professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University in New Jersey, began researching Indian nationalism, she received many verbal attacks. She had received hate mail before, but the severity of this new abuse was unprecedented. She and her family were threatened, and after several credible threats, venues that hosted her hired armed security.

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