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Can There Ever Be an Apolitical Conversation About Hinduism?

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Last week, I was in Hyderabad, India for the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) to present two papers and (re)connect with academic colleagues.

One of my co-authored papers - with fellow academic and Huffington Post blogger Vamsee Juluri - was on the Western media's framing of Penguin India's withdrawal of The Hindus by Wendy Doniger from the Indian market. While we strongly condemned the withdrawal of the book (and any attempt at the censorship of ideas), we also presented the case that the media framing overlooked significant scholarly issues in the book (including her use of psychoanalysis, a pseudoscience), incorrectly oversimplifying the debate as one between academics and Hindu nationalists.

My presentation was well-received by most of the scholars in the room, but two young women began to pepper me with questions about Hindu theology that actually had nothing to do with my presentation. Even as I calmly answered, they became more agitated, claiming that Hinduism and Hindutva - an Indian political ideology - were one and the same. One of the women, who later self-identified as a Hindu, claimed that Hinduism was merely a practice to oppress lower castes and women.

Even after the presentation, when I talked to the two of them in a smaller setting, they seemed convinced that anyone who self-identifies as a Hindu in any context endorses Hindutva. I asked, "Does this mean anyone who identifies as a Muslim is an Islamist?" They were silent, going back to the argument that Hindus could never be considered marginalized or oppressed.

As troubled as I was by their bizarre logic, I found they weren't alone. I spoke to one professor, who, after I handed her my card, turned pale. She said, "You know Hindu isn't a good term here, right?" I was floored. Even in India, where 80 percent of the population is Hindu?

That's because many Indian intellectuals have convinced themselves that Hinduism and Hindutva are one and the same, and that Hindus can never be part of what scholars call the subaltern, or marginalized. This, despite works by Homi K. Bhabha, Mrinalini Sinha, and most recently, my friend Gauitra Bahadur, among others, that explicitly show how Hindus in India and across the Diaspora have been part of the subaltern. The legacy of colonialism, exploitation, and being Othered in countries such as the United States is a very real part of the Hindu narrative, even if it doesn't fit into what Indian-born and raised intellectuals want to believe.

This is fundamentally the problem with the politics of identity and experience. While Indian academics may rightly criticize what they see as Hindu majoritarianism in India, it's ludicrous to make those claims in places where Hindus are a marginal (and marginalized) population. For example, telling Sri Lankan or Bhutanese Hindu refugees that they are part of some Hindutva cabal is tone-deaf, offensive and hypocritical - it would be tantamount to conflating the kaleidoscopic expanse of Islam with monolithic Islamism. It's also dangerous to essentialize the experience of Hindus - even within India - and ignore the dynamics of class, culture, and geography that impact one's understanding of religion.

Unfortunately, the assumptions of Hindu majoritarianism have been imported to the United States, where Indian-born and raised intellectuals have tried to link any effort for self-identifying Hindus to be active in the public sphere as a promotion of a political ideology. That sort of stigmatization has made it hard for many second and third-generation Hindus (most of us who have no interest in Old World politics) to proudly identify with our faith. It's why the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) and other non-political Hindu-based groups have been frequently attacked, despite their record of progressive pluralism and advocacy for social justice. In the process, the legitimate concerns Hindus have about being victims of bullying, hate crimes, and religious intolerance are downplayed and trivialized.

The good news is that, based on my conversations with folks at IAMCR and even back in the United States, progress is being made to help "de-politicize" Hinduism. It will eventually mean Hindus - no matter how they self-define or self-identify - can start to more boldly be part of the public sphere without politicized or attacked for doing so. We still have a ways to go before that, however, as I learned the hard way at IAMCR.