From Nagpur to Nairobi to Neasden – tracing global Hindutva

The disturbing rise of Hindutva supremacism in India has been mirrored by a corresponding growth of extremism in the Indian diaspora, particularly in the UK where the efforts of such groups are now feeding into public policy decisions, says Amrit Wilson.

In the six weeks or so before UK’s 2019 general election, WhatsApp messages started circulating urging UK’s Hindus to vote Tory, claiming the Labour Party was anti-Indian for criticising Modi’s policies in Kashmir.  Soon after, in the Gujarati Hindu heartlands of Leicester, Harrow and Brent leaflets dropped through people’s doors emphasising this message. Then, with just over two weeks left till election day, a spokesperson for the Hindu Council made a statement in support of Rabbi Mirvis’ claim that Labour Party is anti-Semitic, adding that it is ‘anti-Hindu’ too.

It was a very public flexing of muscles and declaration of position by Hindu far-right groups who, as their interventions indicated, are directly linked to the Modi regime. To understand them we must look at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Sangh Parivar, the family of Hindu supremacist organisations (including killer gangs, cow vigilantes, cultural and students’ organisations and women’s wings) to which the BJP belongs, and in particular at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the authoritarian, militarist, cadre- based organisation which controls this sinister family.

The pivot around which the Hindu far-right revolves

People often hesitate to use the word fascist but it is the only accurate description of the RSS. Established in the 1920s, in Nagpur, in Maharashtra, in opposition to India’s anti-colonial movement, it is the pivot around which the Hindu far-right groups in India, and also Britain, revolve. It provides  ideological direction, as well as leaders. Narendra Modi, for example, is a life-long RSS member, as is his powerful Home Minister, Amit Shah, most BJP cabinet ministers and Chief Ministers of BJP ruled states. In Britain many leaders of organisations allying with the BJP are members of the HSS, its overseas wing.  

The RSS was modelled on Mussolini’s Black Shirts and inspired by the Nazis. Its ideologue M.S. Golwalkar, for example, regarded Hitler’s treatment of  Jews as a model of ‘race pride’ which India should emulate in its treatment of minorities. Its views on religion also do not originate in India’s ancient history but are drawn from the ‘scriptural’ and elite-based interpretations of Hinduism encoded by British colonialism, and their deliberate policies of divide-and-rule in response to the first war of independence of 1857.  It has also adopted the strategic British rewriting of Indian history as an age-old struggle between Hindus and Muslim ‘invaders’. These distorted ideas of religion and history together with some basic tenets of European fascism have helped shape the Islamophobic and misogynistic notion of Hindutva which, though sometimes mistaken to be a religious philosophy, is in fact the political ideology of Hindu supremacy.

Like many other fascist organisations, the RSS wishes to extend its territory  creating a right-wing Hindu Indian state or Akhand Bharat extending across South Asia and swallowing up Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Myanmar.  It also aims to establish a world community of right-wing Hindus.

In 1947, it set up one of its earliest, and in hindsight, most fruitful overseas outposts in the heart of the Hindu immigrant community in Nairobi in Kenya. The Nairobi branch launched Shakhas  (‘activity centres’ where children and adults are taught the RSS version of Indian culture and history and provided physical training to be fighters for Hindutva) and organised Satsanghs (gathering where revered leaders of the RSS held discussions and religious songs were sung) and successfully drew in the Gujarati community, who were mainly from a rural background and eager like many immigrants to set in stone the deeply conservative traditions they had brought with them.

In 1966 an RSS office bearer who had emigrated to the UK received an order from M.S.Golwalkar himself telling him to set up a branch in London. Initially, as HSS records tell us, the new branch struggled for manpower (it was run entirely by men) and its activities were comparatively low key. This changed when East African Asians started arriving in Britain in large numbers as a result of the Africanisation policies in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Malawi. By the end of the 60s Shakhas had sprung up in cities like Leicester, Birmingham , Bradford and in Harrow and Brent in London where the refugees had settled.  

East African Asian communities and their changing identities

The new communities had brought with them their view of the world and the intense racism against people of African origin, which came from their intermediate position in the rigid racial hierarchy of Britain’s East African colonies (they had been located below white people but above, and looking down on, Africans).

However when they entered Britain they faced blatant racism. Their British passports were at first not considered sufficient for entry into the UK and some were rendered stateless. Stripped of their wealth and status, the men tried, often unsuccessfully, to get white collar work, while the women, who had rarely worked outside their homes and communities were forced to take up the lowest paid, most unpleasant jobs in small factories and sweatshops simply to make ends meet.

In the 70s, I was lucky enough to conduct a series of one to one interviews and conversations with women who had arrived comparatively recently from East Africa for my book ‘Finding a Voice, Asian Women in Britain’. Women like Prabhaben (not her real name), for example, who was in her late thirties, and worked in harsh conditions in a laundry. She told me how she felt:

‘I came to Britain from Nairobi in 1968. There [I had] such a wonderful life. The life of a boss. The days seemed to be longer, the air sweeter than it can ever be in England…. I used to be proud. We had servants. Here it is we who are the servants’. [In the laundry]  ‘our women suffer, they are paid low salaries, they have to face the insults of the supervisors…all English women. They don’t know English but it is more than that. It is that all your life you have been soft and this treatment stuns you… but one or two of us have begun to speak up’.

Prabhaben’s words show that she was both bemoaning the loss of her class privileges in East Africa, and angry at her exploitation as a low-paid worker in Britain. This mixture of emotions was common among the women who spoke to me. It gave rise to an intense anger and outrage which sparked and sustained the historic strikes at Imperial Typewriters in Leicester, Grunwick and Futters in Brent where women from this community were the driving force and often the leaders.

The impact of these struggles on the women involved was enormous. They claimed a new-found collective identity arising not only from taking a stand as exploited workers but from collectively confronting racism at work. It often involved also winning a struggle against patriarchy at home since they were largely from families and communities where menial work outside the home was looked down upon. Patriarchy dictated that even if they had to take up such jobs out of sheer necessity, they should not make this publicly visible by participating in a strike.

For many of the women involved and many in the community who supported them, these intense struggles brought a sense of hope, a possibility of radical transformation. But betrayals by the trade union leadership (as at Grunwick) extinguished this. Years of Thatcherism followed, clamping down on the power of rank and file trade unionists. Through this whole period, however, and despite their self-identifying as workers, Hindutva ideologies remained rife in these communities.

At the same time in the 80s and 90s, the policies of multiculturalism and later faith communities helped the Hindutva groups to flourish as never before, acquiring recognition and resources from local councils, while also heightening divisions between Hindus and Muslims, who at the time of the Grunwick and Imperial Typewriters strikes, had worked closely together.

The Hindutva organisations began to cater for families as a whole. Children, for example, would be drawn in through Shakhas, often held in schools as part of after-school multicultural activities, whilst older men and women were catered for by Hindu Associations and local temples which began to proliferate in the 70s, either started by the Hindutva organisations or gradually taken over by them. Among them were the Radha Krishna Temple and Bhaktivedanta Manor of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) better known as the Hare Krishnas which had started in the 1970s fuelled by the Orientalist fascination with “the East”. In 1978, the temples were brought under the umbrella of the National Council of Hindu Temples (NCHT) which was also controlled by the HSS.

A deep sense of insecurity seemed to cling to the East African Asian community – a result, perhaps, of having had to migrate twice in as many generations. As Kamlaben a woman in her sixties told me in the early 2000s ‘Even respectable people are insecure. One day you may have money, next day you have none. One day you may have your morality, next day you may lose it… People think there is something wrong with you’.

While in many rural communities the ownership of land had been a mark not only of class and caste but also of honour, prestige and ‘respectability’, for the Gujarati Hindu communities who had been mainly traders, particularly in East Africa, money was the key to this much sought after ‘prestige’ and  ‘respectability’. The Hindu far-right were able to play into their insecurities by bestowing the identity of being a ‘respectable’ person which was based on feeling superior to others – particularly Muslims, oppressed caste people and Black people.

The rise of the BJP, the corporates and the love affair with Modi’s Gujarat

Back in India the BJP had been launched in its present form in 1980 emerging from earlier right-wing Hindu supremacist parties also controlled by the RSS. It was not initially very successful, winning only two seats in the 1984 general election. This changed in 1990 when the Sangh Parivar launched a campaign to demolish the Babri Masjid, a 500-year-old mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, claiming that it was the site of a Hindu temple which was the birthplace of Ram. The demolition itself was planned carefully in advance by the RSS with the knowledge of senior BJP leaders . In December 1992 a mob of 15,000  Hindutva activists led by senior BJP leaders destroyed the beautiful building, sparking violence between Hindus and Muslims across the country which claimed some 2000 lives.

Against this background, the BJP rose to power and, between 1998 and 2004, ruled India in alliance with a number of other parties. The Congress Party, its main rival, had, with its own record of anti-Muslim communalism and a pogrom against Sikhs in 1984, acclimatised the electorate to the BJP’s more systematic anti-minority politics. While Congress embraced neoliberal policies, implementing structural adjustment policies and other conditions for an IMF loan, the BJP too began to reshape its nationalism to fit in with neoliberalism. It modernised, as it were, its violence against Dalits and religious minorities by embedding it within the predatory neoliberal version of ‘development’ which the BJP now stood for.

In 2001, before he came to power as Prime minister, Modi became Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat and launched the so-called ‘Gujarat model’ of development. Huge swathes of land and coastline were converted into Special Economic Zones and handed over to corporations massively subsidised by the state. High levels of growth in relation to the rest of India were accompanied by some of the worst rates of farmers’ suicides, nutrition poverty levels exceeding all-India levels, an incidence of child malnutrition of 47%, (higher than the national average), and the virtual elimination of labour rights.’

The corporates hailed Modi as a hero and flocked to Gujarat.  Reliance, Essar, Tatas and many more have regarded Modi as a ‘Vikash Purush’, or man of development. In addition there are those like Gautam Adani, notorious for his environmental crimes in Australia, whom Modi helped to nurture. His favours were returned and many went out of their way to support the Hindutva project. Jaguar, Dunlop, Jindal and many other multinational companies, for example, sponsored a three-day World Hindu Congress where at a workshop on education  a pamphlet was distributed listing the five enemies of Hindu society, five fingers in the claw of the demon Mahasur. Among them were Marxists,  ‘the thumb of the demon’s claw,’ which has given birth to ‘multiple bastard offspring like Communists, Socialists, Liberals, Maoists, Anarchists and all other forms Leftists,’ and Muslims who are the ‘poisonous fruit of Islam’.

But by the late 1990s the support for Modi and Hindutva was also coming from Asians from East Africa, particularly those who had once fled Uganda for Britain. Many of the more well-off had returned when Idi Amin was ousted to build or rebuild businesses. Among them were the Madhvanis, who before they were expelled, had owned an empire of 52 industrial, commercial and agricultural companies in East, Central and South Africa in addition to assets in India.

The Madhvanis returned to Uganda in the 1980s, repossessed their properties and with loans from the World Bank, East African Development Bank and Uganda Development Bank and encouragement from President Museveni rebuilt and extended their empire which today has an annual turnover of $500 million in Uganda alone.

In 1994, to give thanks to God, Manubhai Madhvani decided on a lavish ‘Festival of Spiritual Unity’ in London. In fact it turned out to be mainly about Gujarati  Hindu unity. High profile Hindutva-supporting Godmen Morari Bapu and Swami Chidanand Saraswati were the stars while in the interests of a ‘multi-faith approach’ Maulana Wahiuddin Khansaheb, a Muslim who is approved of by Modi and also supports Zionism, sat on the dais.

Three years later with the Swaminarayan Temple building completed in all its opulent glory, President Museveni, himself, by now a neoliberal star of the Global South and admirer of Modi, paid a visit. All the big names of South Asian business, including Manubhai Madhvani were present when Museveni urged more Asians to return to Uganda. The Madhvanis’ love for Modi has continued with Aparna Madhvani, daughter-in-law of Manubhai, recently composing a paean of praise for him about his (mis)handling of the Covid-19 lockdown.

Throughout the 1990s funds were also being collected from ordinary people in communities in the UK. Hindus were urged to demonstrate their piety by buying gold bricks for the construction of the Ram temple on the site of the Babri Masjid and, in 2001, Barry Gardiner, MP for Brent North and Chair of Labour Friends of India, a devoted follower of Modi, visited Gujarat and personally presented Modi with a cheque for £1 million collected by Sewa International for earthquake relief. After the Gujarat genocide of 2002, progressive South Asian organisations in Britain exposed Sewa International for diverting funds raised for earthquake relief and channelling them to organisations directly involved in carrying out the violence. Gardiner was the first of a number of MPs, both Labour and Tory, whose adulation for Modi is linked to Hindutva supporting vote banks in areas like Harrow, Brent and Leicester.

The Gujarat genocide of 2002 and responses in the UK Gujarati Hindu community

In 2002, Modi presided over systematically organised genocidal attacks on the minority Muslim population of Gujarat. Some 2000 people were murdered and 200,000 displaced. As feminist academic Tanika Sarkar wrote, women were specifically targeted ‘their sexual and reproductive organs attacked with a special savagery’ and ‘their children, born and unborn… killed before their eyes’.

The BJP declared that Gujarat was the ‘laboratory of Hindutva’. The genocide became a blueprint which would be repeated again against Christians in Odisha in 2008 and against Muslims in Muzaffarnagar in 2013.

Following massive protests in the UK and US and scathing criticism from international human rights organisations Modi was banned from entering the US and UK. Barry Gardiner, however, continued to adore Modi, displaying a prominent endorsement from him on his own campaign material and in 2013,  attempting to invite him to the UK – only changing his mind after South Asian, human rights and trade union groups staged a vocal protest outside his constituency surgery. 

The intense propaganda by the Hindutva organisations had encouraged many East African Asians to fall in love with India, not the real country with its diverse communities and religions and rich syncretic culture, but an imagined Hindu India centred round a mythical shining Gujarat. Many had never actually lived there; the fact that many people of Indian origin in the UK were Muslims, a considerable number from outside Gujarat, or the large proportion of Sikhs in the Indian diaspora was erased from their discourse. (More recently the BJP has tried to take Sikhs under their wing by launching the notion of Dharmic communities who include Sikhs).

As for the Gujarat genocide, many did not think it was of much relevance. Others supported it – even those who had been involved in the strikes of the 1970s.

In 2004, I visited a woman who had once been a militant participant in workers’ struggles. Her family, like that of a number of the other workers of the 1970s had gone up in class. She told me ‘whatever has happened [in Gujarat] is the right thing’. As I eventually called a minicab to leave her house, she warned me not to travel with a Muslim driver repeating tropes straight from the playbook of the RSS (which are very similar to those surrounding Black men in white supremacist discourse) that Muslim men and Black men are ‘beast-like’ and ‘oversexed’ and a danger to Hindu women. When I asked her about the rapes of Muslim women in 2002, she said ‘Hindu men have been too meek in the past’.

What she was regurgitating, perhaps unknowingly, was a version of the words of  Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the revered icon of Hindu supremacists – that for a Hindu man to rape Muslim women is justifiable and that not to do so when the occasion permits is not virtuous or chivalrous, but cowardly.

Resistance from Dalit organisations

While the intense Islamophobia stirred up by the Hindutva forces was normalised and invisibilised in Britain by the discourse of the War on Terror,  their caste-based discrimination and abuse could not be so easily hidden. The everyday practice in Britain of the notion of caste led, for example, to elderly patients being refused care because ‘upper-caste’ medical professionals would not touch them, workers being sidelined or refused promotion, schoolchildren bullied for reasons of caste, and Dalits refused entry to temples.

After almost a decade of campaigning, by Dalit organisations, in 2010 a law against caste-based discrimination was effectively passed by the outgoing Labour government and eventually the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 imposed a ‘duty’ on the government to make caste an aspect of race in the Equality Act of 2010. However, this ‘duty’ has not yet been met. Instead, in response to the Hindu far-right’s claim that it would stigmatise the Hindu community, the Tories have all but scuppered the law. However, the struggle to end caste-based discrimination continues and so does the Hindu far-right’s angry opposition to it. A 2019 BBC film by YouTuber Parle Patel, exposed not only blatant caste-based exclusion but the attitude of Satish Sharma, the Chair of NCHT who claimed on camera that caste discrimination does not happen and that even the word caste should not be mentioned as ‘it is as toxic for us’ as the n-word. According to Sharma, caste is non-existent because ‘we do not have a hereditary, hierarchical, endogamous structure’ (in fact this is an almost textbook definition of caste). A dedicated supporter of the right-wing of the Tory party, Sharma was in 2019 suspended from Chairpersonship of NCHT for electioneering on behalf of the Conservatives after the Charity Commission raised concerns.

New faces and strategies of neoliberal Hindutva

In the last two decades, a new suave, westernised image of Hindutva has emerged particularly in the world of finance and business. These new representatives are men like Manoj Ladwa, Narendra Modi’s chief strategist in the UK, himself a HSS member, and Alpesh Shah, hedge fund manager and columnist for the pro-Modi Asian Voice newspaper.

These men frequently reflect Modi’s deepening relationship with Israel. So while India becomes the world’s largest purchaser of Israeli weapons accounting for some 50% of Israel’s arms sales and providing a huge boost to the Israeli economy, Alpesh Shah notes in an open letter to Modi that “It has to be the business of this [India’s] government how Hindus are treated worldwide…This doctrine is not novel in International Relations. The people of Israel provide protection for Jews wherever they are in the world, of whichever nationality. We shall extend no less protection to Hindus”. Shah skates over the fact that Hinduphobia unlike anti-Semitism has no historical material reality.

And while Modi attempts to replicate in Kashmir the policies Netanyahu has been following in Palestine, in the UK, Zionists and Hindutva forces are increasingly working together. At a meeting at the House of Commons about the Caste law, attended among others by Satish Sharma and Conservative Party donor Lord Jitesh Gadhia, Bob Blackman (the rabidly pro-Hindutva Tory MP from Harrow East) welcomed Gideon Falter, the CEO of the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism (CAA) and called for the need to learn from the way the CAA had got the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism passed in the Labour Party. (The IHRA definition effectively brands those who criticise  Israel’s actions and policies against Palestinians as anti-Semitic). Clearly Blackman and Gadhia were seeking something similar to prevent criticism of the BJP government in Britain, possibly along with criticising the Hindu far-right defined as Hinduphobic.

Currently, Labour leader, Keir Starmer is trying to cosy up to the Hindutva brigade, by distancing the party from a resolution in favour of Kashmiri self-determination passed by the Labour Conference under Corbyn. But no amount of pandering to Hindutva organisations is going to change the minds of the many die-hard Tory supporters and Brexiteers like Satish Sharma. They know that India’s billionaires have much to gain from post Brexit deals and they are comfortable in the knowledge that the BJP’s aims are looked  after by RSS supporting Priti Patel and  Rishi Sunak, whose father in law, Infosys founder and Modi admirer NR Narayana Murthy, backed Modi for his second term,

Solidarity and resistance in Britain

If the Hindutva forces have managed to insert themselves into the fabric of global capitalism and joined its facilitators in Britain, the anger of ordinary people of all faiths and none has spilled out in protests in the UK, preventing Modi visiting before he became Prime Minister and confronting him and his entourage every time he has visited since. Every protest has faced threats from Hindutva groups and individuals in the UK, usually online, while public meetings have faced attempted disruptions – on one recent occasion by masked intruders.

Days after Modi came to power in May 2014, two oppressed caste girls were raped and murdered and their bodies hung from a tree in Uttar Pradesh. The grief and rage following this and Modi’s silence had led to the first mass protest against the ruling BJP in which Dalit women in their thousands joined with South Asia Solidarity Group (SASG), an anti-racist, anti-imperialist organisation with a decades long record of campaigning against the atrocities committed by the Indian government. Caste Watch UK, Britain’s largest Dalit organisation and SASG continued to work together holding public meetings and further protests, staging street theatre and vigils in remembrance of Rohith Vemula and in solidarity with those attacked in the Una atrocity.

In response to the tsunami of mob-lynchings of Muslims, Christians and Dalits, these two organisations continued to work together, sometimes joined by UK women’s groups and human rights organisations. On August 15, 2017, India’s Independence Day, under the banner ‘Resist the Republic of Fear’, they marched through the streets of London carrying posters of those who had been lynched; 15 year old Junaid Khan, murdered when he was returning from Eid shopping, for no reason other than he was a Muslim; Sapnil Sonewane, also 15, lynched because he was a Dalit and had fallen in love with a girl of another caste;  Muhammed Akhlaq, killed in his home on the pretext that he had eaten beef; Pehlu Khan, a dairy farmer murdered by a gang of some 200 ‘cow vigilantes’ and many others.

Modi’s second term has seen the annexation of Kashmir;
the handing over of the land the Babri Masjid had stood on  to a Hindutva organisation for the construction of a massive Ram temple; and in December 2019 the enactment of laws and processes which go against India’s secular Constitution and could well be the first steps towards the ethnic cleansing of India’s Muslim population. This is the last phase in the creation of a fully-fledged Hindutva fascist state and against it a massive movement of resistance has risen up, sweeping across India, its voices amplified by solidarity from across the world. In Britain, on 25 January 2020, the eve of India’s Republic Day, UK’s Indian Muslim Organisations joined hands with SASG, Caste Watch UK, and the Kashmir Solidarity Movement to march 3000 strong in solidarity with the resistance in India.

Since February this year, having taken no measures to control Covid-19, Modi hosted a huge and glittering gathering to welcome Donald Trump to India. The days that followed saw a pogrom against Muslims. When a lockdown was finally implemented, it was at four hours’ notice which left thousands of migrant workers and daily wage earners whose work sustains the cities penniless and without shelter or transport. Many have died of starvation or police brutality or simply of exhaustion. As Covid-19 spreads through India like wildfire, the BJP has heightened its Islamophobic propaganda, blaming Muslims for spreading the virus and taking advantage of the lockdown to target activists against the citizenship laws, charge them under India’s draconian and colonial anti-Terrorism law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, and throw them into prison.

Even in this dire situation the Hindutva forces continue to sing the praises of Modi, CB Patel, the editor of Asian Voice, even claimed that 87 per cent of people are happy with the lockdown which tells of the ‘compassion and humanity at the core of Indian ethos’. Meanwhile solidarity with the resistance continues unabated taking innovative forms from online concerts to raise funds for the survivors of the pogroms and migrant workers to meetings linking the voices of activists from Kashmir, India and beyond, reminding the world that Modi, like Netanyahu, Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Orban and Trump is a fascist who must be fought and defeated and that Modi’s cheerleaders don’t speak for the majority of South Asians in this country.

Amrit Wilson is a writer and activist on issues of race and gender in Britain and South Asian politics. Currently she is a member of South Asia Solidarity Group. Her books include ‘Finding a Voice: Asian Women in Britain’ which won the Martin Luther King Award and has been republished in an extended form in 2018 and ‘Dreams Questions Struggles: South Asian Women in Britain’.