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Britain’s Hindu nationalism problem

An ideology of grievance and power could cause problems for Britain

March 2021. Rashmi Samant was forced to resign just one month into her term as President of the Oxford University Students Union. 

Samant cites her Hindu faith as the reason for her dismissal — “it was declared that ‘Oxford students are not ready for a Hindu President’, compelling me to step down from my rightfully elected position.” The Oxford “ecosystem”, according to Samant, “abhors the Hindu Dharma”. Ashwini Vaishnaw, India’s Minister for Railways, attributes her resignation to “a continuation of attitudes and prejudices from the colonial era”. The incident even received dedicated Parliamentary time over in New Delhi. In August 2023, Samant announces that she has authored a book, A Hindu In Oxford, which recounts the events in detail. 

A harrowing tale to be sure — a bright, ambitious Hindu girl hounded out of office by her xenophobic peers. Yet scratch below the surface, and Samant’s tall tale doesn’t quite add up. 

In fact, Samant was pushed to resign due to distasteful comments made on social media. In one post, she accompanied a picture taken in Malaysia with the caption “ching chang”. In another, she captioned a picture taken at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial with a pun on the Holocaust.

The Oxford India Society, Oxford Hindu Society, and Oxford South Asian Society issued a joint statement which clarified that Samant’s resignation had nothing to do with her nationality or religion. Her OUSU successor, Anvee Bhutani, is herself a Hindu, who successfully ran for election and served a full term as President. Hardly the behaviour of a University body which “abhors the Hindu Dharma”.

To the untrained eye, Samant’s insistence on her own victimhood may simply seem like another case of the Girl Who Cried Racism; an entitled young graduate mythologising her failed stint in student politics. For those who fear the rise of cancel culture, Samant might also appear to be the latest in a long line of students persecuted for online jokes by their woke peers. 

The truth is far more sinister. Rashmi Samant’s self-pity is grounded in extreme Hindu nationalism, also known as Hindutva. This culturally chauvinist ideology plays an increasingly prominent part in modern Indian political life, yet its relevance is little understood here in Britain. 

It paints Hindus as a victimised group — formerly great, briefly subjugated by their enemies, and now locked in an existential fight for survival

Samant’s narrative is a classic of the genre. Hindutva insists that the increasing influence of India and its Hindu majority is resented by a shady coalition of leftists, Muslims, and imperial nostalgists. It paints Hindus as a victimised group — formerly great, briefly subjugated by their enemies, and now locked in an existential fight for survival against those opponents. Indian successes are the product of an inherent cultural strength; Indian failures are the result of a grand conspiracy. Indians who dispute the narrative — like Bhutani — are often tarred as “sepoys” and accused of kowtowing to their former colonial masters.  

This new strain of Indian nationalism differs starkly from the vision of figures like Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, who respected the contributions of the British in India and sought to build a modern, pluralistic nation state. It is deliberately exclusive, and chauvinist in the truest sense. It seeks to rewrite history, placing India at the centre of global events while blaming the British for the country’s recent poverty. It rejects pluralism, and champions a sense of innate, inherent “Hindu-ness” that forms the core of Indian identity. 

When convenient, Hindutva sides with Western conservatives in a perceived civilisation struggle against Islam. On March 8th, Samant took to Instagram to mourn the death of Charlene Downes, an English girl who disappeared in 2003, allegedly the victim of a grooming gang. Online Hindu nationalist accounts often draw on the work of British activists like Tommy Robinson.

Just as quickly, the West can become the hated enemy. “If the UK were to return the wealth it looted from India” wrote Samant on July 16th, “there would not be enough in the exchequer to give out monthly salaries to the British Members of Parliament.” The country’s prohibition on same-sex marriage is attributed to “Victorian morality”, with no recognition of the fact that independent India has had more than 75 years to change the law. 

The language of Hindu victimhood and an imminent return to greatness is now a feature of Indian political life. The country’s talented foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, has promised to “[rejuvenate] a society pillaged by centuries of foreign attacks and colonialism”, while propagating discredited narratives about how the British “looted $45 trillion” from India. He has also been known to silence critics by suggesting that their disapproval is grounded in Hinduphobia. Sound familiar?

It also influences conflicts closer to home. When Muslims and Hindus clashed on the streets of Leicester last year, allies of Hindu nationalism moved quickly to heap blame on the city’s Pakistani community. Within days, a narrative of Hindu victimisation by dangerous Islamic extremists had taken hold, further inflaming tensions. Video footage of Indian cricket fans chanting “Pakistan murdabad” (death to Pakistan) tells a more complicated story, yet received little-to-no mainstream coverage. 

What makes Hindutva so remarkable is its ability to evade understanding. Political pundits in Britain are singularly bad at identifying and refuting Hindu nationalist tropes. When an Islamist uses Western intervention in the Middle East to justify terrorism in Europe, they are rightly and roundly dismissed by the political mainstream. When Indian nationalists cynically exploit reports of Pakistani grooming gangs, or insist that Hindus are subject to unique persecution, few in the UK are equipped to combat these falsehoods. Those who attempt to respond are accused of possessing an outdated, colonial outlook on the world. 

For many on the right, Hindu nationalism has become a convenient ally in the fight against the rise of China and the influence of political Islam. The right-wing Henry Jackson Society has allied with Hindu groups in order to criticise Islamic extremism here in the UK, feeding into ill-proven narratives about pervasive Hinduphobia. Naturally, Hindutva-friendly conservatives ignore celebratory posts about how Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is “colonising the colonisers”.

For many on the left, Hindutva’s anti-colonial tendencies fit nicely alongside their own attempts to “decolonise” British society. Narendra Modi’s repeated threats to force Britain into a “colonial reckoning” over imperial artefacts are music to the ears of left-wing academics intent on repatriation. Of course, these fervent anti-colonialists ignore India’s persecution of religious minorities and its own mistreatment of modern Africans. 

For both sides of the political divide, the vast and growing capital reserves of India provide a compelling reason to overlook the ugly truth. When trying to attract Indian businesses and Indian students, it makes sense to turn a blind eye to the flaws in India’s governing ideology. 

Just as importantly, British perceptions of India are shaped by the benign and constructive British Indian community. In the popular imagination, Indians are friendly and well-integrated. They share a number of common cultural touchstones and have taken on the character of a “model minority”, bearing a reputation for hard work and speedy assimilation. Few in Britain have any knowledge of Indian politics or any understanding of India’s culture, beyond its cuisine. 

Yet India is not what it once was. It is newly — and rightly — confident. The Indian ruling class is no longer made up of those educated in Britain and the country’s newfound prosperity affords it the ability to assert itself, culturally and politically. This cultural confidence brings with it a new national mythology, which rests upon twisted historical narratives and dogmatic sectarianism. 

The British political mainstream must acquaint itself with the language of oppositional Hindu nationalism, and it must do so quickly. Newly ascendant India can be a valuable partner, but only if we approach that relationship with frankness and honesty. While recognising the legitimate grievances of some Indians, we must not be taken in by exaggerated claims of an anti-Hindu conspiracy. Britain in particular must learn to stand up for itself on the question of empire; fail to do so, and India will exploit our post-colonial guilt to its own advantage. 

We must not labour under any illusions — while India may be our friend, Hindu nationalism is not.

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