Gen Z Hindu Americans reckon with faith and politics

The Hindu tradition of Holi is one of the Hindu festivals that has been adopted by many Americans.  The recognizable pop of color can now be found at events and festivals across the US.  Courtesy of the photo

The Hindu tradition of Holi is one of the Hindu festivals embraced by many Americans. The recognizable pop of color can now be found at events and festivals across the US. Courtesy of the photo

(RNS) – Three years ago Abby Govindan, a Twitter personality and stand-up comic, was invited to perform at “Howdy Modi,” a rally with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and then-President Donald Trump, held in her hometown of Houston.

After much deliberation, Govindan declined the performance. While it was an opportunity to perform in front of 50,000 fellow Indians at NRG Stadium, Govindan did not want to show tacit support for the Indian politician whose name has become synonymous with Hindu nationalism.

“I love India. I’m so proud to be Indian, but I’m not proud of Modi,” Govindan said. “It would make my parents proud, but at the end of the day my morals are all I have.”

For Hindu Generation Z, now in college or just graduating, it is becoming increasingly difficult to forge Indian and Hindu identities outside of India’s contentious political climate. Since Modi was elected prime minister in 2014 as leader of the Hindu nationalist BJP, he has been criticized as a threat to India’s longstanding secular democracy, and partisan resentments have begun to divide the US Indian diaspora

There is a distinct lack of resources for American students seeking a Hinduism detached from politics.

Amar Shah.  Photo courtesy of Northwestern University

Amar Shah. Photo courtesy of Northwestern University

“Right now, it looks like Hinduism is inseparable from international Indian politics,” said Amar Shah, the first Hindu chaplain at Northwestern University. “Students have to deal with some of these oversimplifications that can come from their peers, from their own parents, and from other students of other faiths.”

Hindu students arriving on large campuses will find a variety of groups that offer fellowship, social circle, and a haven from ignorance about their faith and culture. But most of the time these groups are either associated with Hindutva politics or actively oppose it.

The Hindu Students Council, the oldest and largest pan-Hindu student organization with over 60 high school and college chapters, is a project of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), itself historically associated with the BJP and its older umbrella nationalist organization called RSS.

Offering what it calls authentic Hindu practices and traditions, the Hindu Students Council seeks to create a safe space for Hindu students who, it says, are afraid of being ridiculed for their practices by non-Hindu classmates .

“Typically with other religious groups, they have this sense of community from a young age, a set of friends and a set of events to celebrate their religious festivals,” said Vishnupriya Parasaram, vice president of education and advocacy at the Hindu Students Council, who runs the council only discovered after graduating from the University of Oklahoma. “It would have been helpful to feel secure in my Hindu identity.”

In this March 7, 2021 file photo, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a public rally ahead of West Bengal state elections in Kolkata, India.  (AP Photo/Bikas Das, file)

In this March 7, 2021 file photo, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a public rally ahead of West Bengal state elections in Kolkata, India. (AP Photo/Bikas Das, file)

The alignment of the HSC with BJP caused trouble from the start. Three years after its inception, Columbia University’s Hindu Students Association split from the council, citing its ties to right-wing Indian groups. The Columbia students punctuated the pause by walking out of a speech by a Vishva Hindu Parishad official who advocated the demolition of the Babri Masjid, a mosque on the Hindu holy site of Ayodhya that was torn down by a mob in 1992. The Council claims it has been the target of hostilities since.

Parasaram objects that critics fail to distinguish between Modi’s policies and the Hindu diaspora. “Why is my Hindu identity equated with being Indian? Cornering us and always associating us with a political belief just doesn’t do justice to our history,” she said, noting that politics does not define Hinduism, which exists in many places outside of India.

But Hindu youth say the political climate in India is an inevitable conversation.

“If you come to campus as a Hindu student and want to find a Hindu community, often the only Hindu association is the HSC,” said Pranay Somayajula, the 21-year-old organizer of Hindus for Human Rights, a liberal advocacy group. “It creates this nefarious pipeline of inducting otherwise progressive, left-leaning young Hindu Americans into this Hindutva ideology.”

Pranay Somayajula.  Photo courtesy of HHR

Pranay Somayajula. Photo courtesy of HHR

Somayajula said studying human rights and international justice at George Washington University deepened his Hindu faith. On campus, he joined Students Against Hindutva Ideology, an organization that launched the #HoliAgainstHindutva initiative in 2020. Through the group, he met Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of the social justice organizations Sadhana and Hindus for Human Rights, both of whom have been vocal against the Indian government’s treatment of religious minorities.

“Especially for those of us who are Hindus, I really want my peers to stand up and say this should not be done in the name of my faith,” Somayajula said. “That’s not the meaning of Hinduism I grew up with.”

Shoumik Dabir, a 23-year-old attending the University of Texas, spent part of his sophomore year as an intern at the Hindu American Foundation, which, while maintaining a politically centrist stance, is staunchly defending the faith against discrimination. Dabir too spent a summer as a community organizer for HSS, a service organization that is an international arm of the right-wing RSS.

But Dabir said Hindu nationalism does not correspond directly to the Christian nationalism that has polarized American politics and played a role in the January 6 Capitol bombings. “People in the diaspora tend to look at Indian politics with the same frame and lens that they understand American politics,” Dabir said, saying that many American Hindus of Generation Z don’t see beyond what they do read in the New York Times.

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Abby Govindan.  Photo via Instagram/@abbygovindan

Abby Govindan. Photo via Instagram/@abbygovindan

Govindan, whose parents supported the BJP until she changed her mind about Modi’s intentions, agrees that many Hindu Americans she interacts with do not think critically about politics in India and do align themselves with their parents’ views.

She added that settling accounts with belief and identity is a common struggle for many immigrant children of all backgrounds.

In fact, the polarization about Hindutva will not end with the current generation’s college graduation; Many campus groups, from both left and right, tend to fight for young minds on behalf of their parent associations.

Viswanath said Generation Z’s political and spiritual awakening will define the future. “I have three children,” she says. “I must believe that there is good in human beings and that some of us will find a way to contribute to peace, love and good.”

But Shah, the Hindu chaplain at Northwestern, said the lack of institutional support to help Hindu students find a balance is a problem. (He is Northwestern’s first Hindu chaplain, and he has few peers elsewhere in American academia.) He seeks to act as a mediator and unifying force, bringing together those who differ in message and purpose.

“On both sides, we really need to sit down and debate with like-minded, good people who are trying to serve the purpose of learning as well, rather than put down or adopt a stance of political advantage.”

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