09/04/2014 12:26 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2014

South Asian American Activism Isn't Necessarily Inclusive

My first piece in The Huffington Post over a year ago highlighted the struggles many Hindu Americans face in self-identifying as both Hindu and progressive, despite the core principles of the former being inherently the latter.

Since then, more progressives have reached out to me and identified openly as Hindu, shedding the stigma of a religion that has been caricatured and misunderstood in the West while (wrongly) conflated with political majoritarianism in India. What has been fascinating to me is that many South Asian American activists are sometimes the most opposed to including Hindus in conversations about social justice. It's gotten so bad that some of us have started to joke that our religion has become the "H-word." Some organizations have even gone so far as to omit Hindus as victims of discrimination.

There are two fairly visible causes for this, and both are related. The first is that within the South Asian American activist community, many of the intellectual ideas are driven by Indian-born scholars whose own conceptualizations of the South Asian Diaspora are driven by the politics of India and the notion of Hindu majoritarianism. Some of these scholars, for example, have condemned Hindu nationalism in India, but have remained conspicuously silent on Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka, Islamic extremism in countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, and the adverse impact of aggressive Evangelical Christian proselytizing across South Asia. These scholars' importing of their own partisan and ideological frameworks to the Diaspora has greatly limited the ability of second and third-generation South Asian American scholars and activists to define their own discourses. Some scholars have told me, for example, that they support the progressive work of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), but don't want to acknowledge our work out of fear of being blacklisted by academic and activist circles. Even some of my friends, who have known me for works such as Desi Rap and my biography of W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, have sadly kept their distance because they worry that being associated with a Hindu group will be a stigma.

As a result of the stagnant intellectual discourse, South Asian Americans who also self-identify as Hindu - and groups that openly identify as Hindu-based - are too often left out of progressive South Asian American coalitions. Moreover, among South Asian American activists, a paradigm has emerged that places those groups identifying as Muslim or Sikh American as progressive and those identifying as Hindu-American as right wing. In many ways, this goes back to the conflation between Hinduism and an Indian majoritarian ideology known as Hindutva. As a result, Hindu Americans are frequently shunned unless they swear by a hypocritical oath of secularism.

The problem is that Hindu Americans born and raised in the United States, as well as the expanse of the Diaspora - which includes South Asia, the West Indies, South Africa, and other areas where Hindus make up marginalized minorities - can't be homogenized. What's puzzling is that some of the same South Asian American groups that have made strides in fighting Islamophobia by urging the end to stereotyping often typecast Hindu groups in the US as all linked to Hindutva, making Hindu-Americans reluctant to self-identify or speak out on behalf of their faith community. One Guyanese-American progressive activist who identified as Hindu told me last year that she didn't want to claim her identity because she feared being called a Hindu nationalist by other progressive South Asians.

For progressive South Asian American groups, it's important to keep fighting for civil rights, build working coalitions with African Americans, Latinos, and other Asian Pacific Americans, and stay on the frontlines of today's most prominent social issues such as immigration and LGBT equality. The problem is, embarking on that fight without including groups that demographically represent the faith identity of the majority of South Asian Americans is both nonsensical and counterproductive. Hindu Americans have played and will continue to play a pivotal role in progressive causes, and progressive Hindu groups such as HAF, Hindu American Seva Communities, and Sadhana will only grow.

It's critical for South Asian American organizations that truly embrace progressive values to be inclusive of a Hindu American voice, acknowledge that Hindu Americans suffer from various forms of discrimination and hate crimes, and include them on policy initiatives that impact South Asian Americans and other marginalized communities. Once they do, we might be able to achieve true and full representation of our kaleidoscopic communities.