Hindutva Nationalism and Islamophobia in Canada

Hindutva Nationalism and Islamophobia in Canada

Are international actors stoking tensions between racial and religious groups in Canada?

By: Steven Zhou

May 20, 2020

Source: Twitter.

Recent decisions by Canadian cities to allow the broadcasting of the Islamic prayer call during the holy month of Ramadan have generated an Islamophobic backlash. Some of the outrage has taken on a particularly sectarian tone resembling the dynamics of “imported conflict.”

One critic of the prayer call decisions likened it to allowing, “Separate lanes for camel & goat riders” or “allowing slaughter of animals at home in the name of sacrifice.” Ravi Hooda was let go from RE/MAX and his position as a School Council Chair at the Peel District School Board after complaints from the Canadian Anti-Hate Network and many individuals on social media.

Hooda almost immediately set his Twitter account to private and hasn’t been very responsive since. A 2018 Peel Regional Police media advisory about celebrating a Hindu festival, features a Ravi Hooda who volunteered for and spoke on behalf of a community group called the Hindu Swyamsevak Sangh (HSS). While there is no other public evidence of Ravi Hooda's involvement with HSS that we are aware of at this time, HSS' history and broader activities worldwide are a cause for concern.

Ravi Hooda declined the opportunity to comment.

The HSS is a prominent Hindu community organization and a subsidiary of India’s controversial Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing Hindu nationalist organization tied to mass anti-Christian and anti-Muslim violence in India. The HSS is responsible for organizing Hindu communities living outside of India.

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Several US national security think tanks consider the RSS to be a terrorist organization. With a worldwide membership numbering in the millions, the group’s initial goal of making India a “Hindu nation” has since evolved into a more general championing of an ideology called Hindutva (literally “Hindu-ness”). Idealizing extreme nationalism, the RSS, founded in 1925, has also openly expressed admiration for fascist leaders like Hitler and Mussolini. India’s current governing administration headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have openly adopted right-wing nationalism. Modi himself was an organizer for the RSS and a current member and critics are accusing him and the BJP of remaking India through the framework of “Hindu supremacy.”

Modi’s tenure as India’s PM (since 2014) has rejuvenated the central Hindutva premise that all Hindus are united through a single culture and set of beliefs that always formed the foundation of India until foreign intrusion destroyed everything. A big part of Hindutva rhetoric today is shaped with reference to this outside meddling and the need to get back to an earlier purity.

Chief among these “foreigners" are the Muslims. Many instances of openly Islamophobic violence have occurred under Modi, who stripped the Muslim-majority terrority of Jammu and Kashmir of special status last fall, and then fast-tracked citizenship for all non-Hindu refugees except for Muslims. The latter decision, known as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), sparked huge protests across India.

“In response, there was widespread violence targeting the protestors and Muslim communities including the police and vigilante-led massacre of scores of Muslims in New Delhi in February 2020 when Donald Trump was visiting India,” said Fahad Ahmad, a Pierre Eliot Trudeau Foundation Scholar who studies political extremism at Carleton University. “In the past few weeks, the BJP government has also used the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic and the nationwide lockdown to target and arrest the protestors who opposed the CAA.”

Moreover, Modi was also the Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002, when mobs infamously tore through communities to lynch over 1,000 Muslims. The allegation has always been that Modi knew this violence was going to happen and fueled it, or at least turned a blind eye. The Indian courts have upheld Modi’s innocence but numerous human rights organizations have pointed to evidence that links his administration to the mob violence. Modi was then banned from US soil from 2005-2014.

“Muslims of India, who make up about 15% of the total population, have been the primary target of RSS ideology and BJP policies,” Ahmad said. “For example, the BJP government banned the slaughter and sale of cattle (a sacred animal for Hindus), an act that was accompanied by the rise of ‘cow protector’ vigilantes who have harassed, attacked, and killed Muslims (and other non-dominant caste Hindus) falsely accusing them of slaughtering cattle.”

The RSS operates in Canada and other non-Indian countries (including the US) through the HSS, which gathers financial and volunteer support for back home, and runs schools and community centres.

Today, the BJP’s unabashedly Hindutva-inspired, often Islamophobic, rhetoric has made it a lot easier for its electoral base in India to express those sentiments. Nowhere is this more true than online and, since the Internet has no borders, this Hindutva-Muslim antagonism has migrated into other parts of the world along with India’s widespread diaspora.

The prayer call controversy was a flashpoint of this broader instance of “imported conflict.” Pro-Hindutva voices often coalesce online into cohesive partisan support for the ruling BJP. Supporters of the decision to allow broadcasting prayer calls who voiced their opinions on Twitter were met with a barrage of often Islamophobic, racist, and deliberately offensive replies from accounts that identify in some way with the slogans of India’s Hindutva far-right.

This in turn triggered replies from pro-Muslim accounts; some of which shot back with some generally anti-Hindu and anti-Indian comments and slurs, further contributing to the cyclical conflict. Some replies to a CAHN tweet about Hooda look like they could be part of an influence campaign, including the use of handles ending in eight digits, which is commonly associated with bot accounts. A majority of these replies also seem to be tweeted from accounts with locations in countries outside of Canada, which underscores the international character and reach of such conflicts.

Of course, neither the actions of Ravi Hooda nor the RSS reflect on all Hindus. As Sukhdev Walia writes in a letter to the editor to the Toronto Star, "I congratulate Shree Paradkar for penning an eloquent defence of the legitimate rights of all religions . . . It is very disturbing to me, as a Hindu, that some people, uneducated about their own religion, Hinduism, were the torch-bearers for the petition against the [call to prayer during Ramadan]."

The RSS has fueled large-scale discrimination against India’s Muslim population, including attacks on Muslim communities, mosques, and physical lynchings. The prayer-call controversy should be taken as a reminder that this conflict, facilitated by social media, has the potential to migrate into Canada in various forms.

Editor’s note: The Canadian Anti-Hate Network has received many requests to investigate or call for public action against other prominent individuals who have promoted hatred towards identifiable groups. We will not be able to follow up on every request, so we have the following suggestions:

If you see something, screenshot it and save it.

Speak with your community and expose the problem.

If it’s a very bad example (eg. directly advocating for violence), send us a message.

Decide whether they should be given the space to apologize.

Use accountability levers: contact their professional associations, sponsors, or employer.

Be specific in your criticisms and careful not to blame their entire community. 

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