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From 'Deafening Silence' to Desperate Silencing: Hinduphobia Denial Is Hinduphobia Too

02/19/2015 01:51 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

An interesting thing happens when you search for the term "deafening silence" on Google News. You get several results about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi right on top.

These results include extra-chilling variations, like the New York Times' recent editorial which characterized Modi's silence on some thefts and a fire in New Delhi churches as a "dangerous silence."

Deafening.

Dangerous.

"Debatable" too would be an apt addition to this, but anyway.

The important thing now is to reiterate that Modi has just made a welcome public gesture by assuring the Indian Christian and other minority communities that he will not be silent as far as concerns about religious freedom go. It was perhaps especially symbolic that the event at which he made this speech, a ceremony to honor Christian saints, took place around the same time as Shivarathri, one of Hinduism's most important festivals.

It is a symbolism that resonates with Hindus like me who like to remember, amidst the deep devotion and love we feel for one of our most powerful and mysterious forms of God, that our goodwill remains as strong for other forms and names of God too, even those given by people of "other" faiths. I welcome this truly Hindu and Indian symbolism, and even assert it because for too long Hindu symbolism has been only perceived in today's virulently Hinduphobic media discourse as a negative thing (He said he's fasting! That's wink-wink code for Hindutva!).

But this essay is not about Narendra Modi's silences, real or perceived. It is not about allegations of silence made and repeated in the echo-chamber of unimaginative media discourses. No. It is about a real silence that no one in the media bothers calling out, the sort of silence that won't fetch hundreds of results on Google News.

It is the sort of silence that borders on complicity.

A few days ago, a Hindu temple near Seattle was vandalized in a racist attack.

Last week, an elderly Hindu grandfather walking outside his son's home in Alabama was brutally assaulted and left paralyzed by a police officer.

Just two years ago, an innocent passenger was pushed onto the path of an oncoming New York subway train by a woman who said she did it because he was either Hindu or Muslim (one truly secular hater-killer, for sure).

These are three particularly harsh examples, spilling over into real life. But there is more, in the less tangible world of ideas.

For several decades, American children have learned just two or three things about Hinduism and ancient India from their textbooks; not that we have one of the oldest philosophies of religious coexistence and harmony in the world, not that we have one of the oldest legacies of science and medicine in the world, not that we have made our land home to the greatest diversity of faiths in the world. No. All that millions of American children have learned about their classmates, neighbors and colleagues who happen to be Hindu is that we have some unchanging monolithic code of conduct called caste, and we naively worship sacred cows and monkeys, perhaps thinking they could be our reincarnated long dead ancestors.

Some of these children go on to college or grad school and learn a more sophisticated version of the same thing, or that the Hindus were the original forerunners of the Nazis, the Holocaust and the Native American genocide, sort of (see my new book for more on this).

As for what the international religious propaganda industry with its hundreds of millions of dollars puts into saying about Hinduism on social media and You Tube videos, it is another deep pit altogether.

Now all of this manufactured, institutionalized disdain and the several centuries of colonial plunder of India, and the denigration of its native civilization that preceded it, still do not seem like a real phenomenon or concern to some observers. When you try to say it does, when you see the long stewing ignorance boiling over from textbooks and media into the real world of physical harm -- and you still find the strangest sort of silence around it.

And when that silence about Hinduphobia is broken, usually what comes out is even worse: a desperate and contrived denial of its very existence. Just compare how the discourse reacts to attacks on Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus. When a Muslim or Sikh is attacked, it is recognized, rightly so, as racism. When a Hindu is attacked, incredibly though, the discourse turns around and says Hindus are not anti-racist enough.

The cliche has gone from being inane to being dangerous.

After all, isn't blaming Hindu victims of violence for being insufficiently anti-racist just another way of saying that Hindus are just racist?

That is the core problem with the Hinduphobia of the supposedly anti-racist progressive consensus among South Asians today. There is such a deep belief that Hinduism is innately and irredeemably racist (little surprise such a fantasy exists, given what the textbooks in America say), that even the most glaring and ugly manifestations of Hinduphobia will not let them admit it exists. Instead, there is only a myth perpetuated that those who identify as Hindus in America who somehow do not know what it is like to be othered as a minority, or do not have the slightest sympathy for blacks and other minority communities.

There is probably no other community for which the mainstream self-definition is perceived as an extremist one. After all, no one mistakes a person who simply identifies as Muslim as being an extremist or militant, no one who is sensitive about racism and xenophobia at least. But somehow, the moment someone speaks as a Hindu, or speaks of marginalization as a Hindu, the wild labels and associations all seem to kick in. To say "Hindu" in their view is akin to saying something like saying "I am an oppressive, supremacist, racist caste-ist". At least that is what it seems like, given how hard they try to argue that being Hindu is somehow never connected to being at the wrong end of racism.

Now, was it being Hindu alone that led to some of the terrible crimes we have seen in our times? We cannot say so in every case. The simple truth is that prejudice, racism, xenophobia, ignorance, are all by definition imprecise things when it comes down to specific acts of violence. Whether someone got attacked for being black, brown, muslim, hindu, gay, poor -- the point is still that someone got attacked.

And decency demands that there needs to be more than the silence, and the deliberate silencing, of the sort we have seen in the last few days.

A news media that churns out dozens of articles about the alleged "deafening silence" of another country's Prime Minister about vandalism in one city that has affected all places of worship, minority and majority, is silent about far more than vandalism right here.

A President who has just told people in India that they might destroy their country if they forget about religious tolerance for minorities, is silent too.

But the worst silence of all is not that of profit and motive driven media and officials. It is the dreary moral and intellectual emptiness of those in the community who eagerly rise to say "I am this (hashtag)," or "I am that (hashtag)," in solidarity with some identities, but then rush, hands-over-tweets, to censure that one Hindu who dares to say, simply: "I am a Hindu."

Silence, it is.