Hindu Diaspora: a strategic ally of Modi & BJP but a threat to “Idea of India”

Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden highlights the strategic alliance between the Hindu diaspora and PM Narendra Modi, and how the relationship has gradually eroded India’s progressive and secular outlook and is becoming a threat to India itself.

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Since 1947, India has been for the most part successful in keeping the country united and maintaining a general peace and harmony between its different religious groups. It has been providential for India in the aftermath of its partition and independence to be governed by a mass-based political organization like the Congress Party.

However, the biggest challenge for India’s accommodative policies towards its minorities has come from the historic loss of the Congress Party in the 2014 General Election and the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu chauvinist party. From a minimal support base, this majoritarian party BJP has become a significant force in Indian politics since the 1989 election.

Indian diaspora has become a very divided house as the Sikh, Kashmiri and Dalit diaspora groups have joined hands to counter Hindu diaspora in the West.

Its spectacular ascendance to power under its populist leader Narendra Modi in 2014 has posed serious challenges to the concept of informal power-sharing, particularly with Muslim minority which is 190 million strong and nearly 15 percent of the country’s population.

The rise of BJP is not only a severe threat to India’s accommodative and power-sharing politics but the peace and stability of the country as such. The Hindu chauvinist forces are exploiting religion to ferment communal oppression and violence in India, and these forces of injustice and bigotry are patronized by India’s large and powerful diaspora community.

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‘Mother India’ Uniting a Diverse Diaspora

India is perhaps the largest and most plural society in the world, home to a vast variety of castes, tribes, communities, religions, and languages. Thus, 31 million strong overseas Indian diaspora constitutes a diverse global community representing different regions, languages, cultures, and faiths.

So, for the successful mobilization of them as a single unit, the role of religion is being increasingly used to define the notion of the Indian diaspora. Not all Indians are Hindus, but almost all Hindus are Indians (except Nepalese). Unlike other world religions, Hinduism is an ethnic religion due to the strong sense of its origin and rootedness in India.

The diaspora is more Hindu than the Hindus in India. It adores Modi not because he has come up with any grandiose ideas, but because of his pro-Hindu politics and anti-Muslim world view.

Thus, Indian diaspora has primarily taken the shape of Hindu diaspora, because most Hindus no matter where they live are likely to venerate ‘Mother India’ and possess a deep, symbolic, special relationship to a spiritual homeland. There are many Indian religious minorities embedded within overseas Indian communities, but due to the sheer number and domination, of Hindus, a cultural form of Hinduism is being used to describe the Indian diaspora.

This identity has not been limited to being cultural only but has also gradually become colored with the political ideology of Hindutva. ‘Hinduness’ or Hindutva can be described as a vision of India based on a “cultural nationalism” rooted in the Hindu majoritarian religious customs and traditions. The size and influence of the Hindu diaspora have leaped in the last two decades. As the Indian community in the West comes of age both in terms of numbers and financial capabilities, its political role has also evolved significantly.

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The origin of the Hindu Diaspora stems from the British and French colonial masters exporting indentured labor to their other colonies such as Fiji, Trinidad, and Jamaica, to the French colonies of Guadeloupe and Martinique and the Dutch colony of Surinam. After the end of the 2nd World War and the country’s independence from colonial rule, Indians provided both labor and professional help with the reconstruction of war-torn Europe.

From the 1960s, Indians started migrating to non-European developed countries due to their demand for well-educated and professionally trained workforce. However, the most significant wave of Indian migration came in the very end years of last century, with the movement of software engineers and other professionals to western countries – especially the United States.

Indian Diaspora: Strategic Foreign Policy Asset

Coinciding with India’s socio-economic and technological development, the Hindu diaspora has started taking a keen interest in investing in India, not only economically, but also in the social and political spheres. Remittances have begun flowing to India, and its diaspora has left behind their Chinese, Mexican and Filipino counterparts in sending money back home.

 Hindu diaspora has developed a myth of Hindus being oppressed majority in a ‘secular’ state and spreading the belief that Hinduism is under constant attack from external agencies. 

Not only India has recognized the massive contributions its diaspora makes through remittances (69 billion USD in 2017), but also like Israel and Armenia, has started to regard them as strategically vital political assets. The contribution of the Hindu diaspora is not anymore limited to domestic economic growth; it is also playing a significant role in supporting Indian foreign policy.

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BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, London is the largest Hindu temple outside India.

The Indian government is taking regular help of its diaspora to promote its interest in the foreign capitals, mainly to counter Pakistan and China’s diplomatic offensives. The Hindu diaspora, whose financial muscle has become quite impressive, strives hard to get its social and political agenda to India. Its involvement has grown beyond doing some philanthropic activities in and around their villages of origin.

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The diaspora is now taking a keen interest in electoral politics, supporting and financing the ‘Hindutva’ candidates in elections. Signs of it were seen clearly in the 2014 general election, where the diaspora took a greater interest in BJP candidates’ selection and electioneering. Diasporas usually enjoy a superior social status at home. Due to their access to wealth and knowledge, members of Hindu diaspora can influence the identity and interests of their family members and relatives and also their voting behavior.

The goal of rescuing their ‘Hindu’ nation from ‘minority-appeasing’ secular forces, the diaspora is no longer isolated from what is happening in India in the current era of increased global connectivity and communication. Through personal connections, travel and the use of information technology, the Hindu diaspora is actively engaged in India’s political processes.

Hindu diaspora is neither a stateless diaspora nor is the home state an underdog in a regional security structure.

In spite of Hindus having tremendous numerical strength and being in the control of country’s political and economic power, Hindu diaspora has developed a myth of Hindus being oppressed majority in a ‘secular’ state and spreading the belief that Hinduism is under constant attack from external agencies. Hindu diaspora is neither a stateless diaspora nor is the home state an underdog in a regional security structure.

Rather India is a strong, relatively stable and functioning democracy, moreover, it is a regional power with a global ambition. However, by playing the ‘victim’ card that Hinduism is in danger from the ‘secular’ forces in India, Hindu diaspora is consistently influencing the domestic politics to promote an aggressive form of Hindu nationalism.

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Diaspora: More Hindu than Hindus in India?

Several Hindu diaspora associations in the West have been raising money to support radical Hindu organizations to suppress religious minorities in India. Some even under cover of ‘development’ organizations use the host country aid money to support majoritarian programs. Many of them have long become a major power base and source of funding for the Hindutva politics.

Hindu diaspora groups in the West have become an important source of support, canvassing and even postal votes for the BJP. In recent years, they lobbied hard to give an image makeover to Narendra Modi’s reputation after the Gujarat riot of 2002, in which 2000 Muslims were killed under his watch, and he was denied a visa to travel to the United States and the E.U. – almost till his election as Prime Minister.

The Rise of BJP and Modi has not only divided India further but also divided Indian diaspora more on religion and caste lines. The mobilization of Hindu Diaspora has been good for Modi but bad for India.

Modi after coming to power has continued to nurture his diaspora constituency. In each and every foreign visit, one pressing engagement is to hold meetings addressing the diaspora. He has initiated the process that Indians living abroad will be able to vote in Indian elections by proxy. In the West, Hindu revivalism among the diaspora has assumed a powerful political shape. Many theories explain the diaspora’s adulation for Modi, most of which focus on his record as an able administrator and a free-market enthusiast.

However, the truth is far from that. In reality, the diaspora is more Hindu than the Hindus in India. It adores Modi not because he has come up with any grandiose ideas, but because of his pro-Hindu politics and anti-Muslim world view. Hindu diaspora in the West, like most other diasporas is highly conflicted within itself when promoting its homeland.

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In general, it supports and advocates for a muscular policy vis-à-vis Pakistan and openly engages in war-mongering as witnessed in the on-going Indo-Pak crisis after Modi’s decision to conduct an airstrike inside Pakistan in February 2019. However, the aggressive mobilization of the Hindu diaspora in the West has also instigated the large and powerful Sikh diaspora to work again to build a separate Sikh identity and demand for an independent homeland.

Similarly, this over-active Hindu diaspora has also led to the Kashmiri diaspora groups coming together to support the struggle in Kashmir. Indian diaspora has become a very divided house as the Sikh, Kashmiri and Dalit diaspora groups have joined hands to counter Hindu diaspora in the West. The Rise of BJP and Modi has not only divided India further but also divided Indian diaspora more on religion and caste lines. The mobilization of Hindu Diaspora has been good for Modi but bad for India.

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Rockstar appeal: Indian diaspora pitches for PM Modi

Prime Minister Modi received a rousing welcome from Hindu stalwarts at Madison Square Garden, New York in front of an adulating crowd of 22,000 cheering and chanting for him in September 2014, during Modi’s first visit to the US; and more than 70,000 welcomed him in Wembley Stadium, London later in November 2015. Providing a rockstar welcome to Modi is not all these ardent supporters do.

Modi after coming to power has continued to nurture his diaspora constituency. In each and every foreign visit, one pressing engagement is to hold meetings addressing the diaspora.

The Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP) has thousands of members in over 40 countries; the US chapter alone is estimated to have 4,000 active members with its President Krishna Reddy claiming indirect support of another 300,000. Their mandate includes raising funds, promoting the Hindu religion and Hindutva ideology, and conserving and building temples in India, and of course to support the BJP to do this.

These overseas BJP supporters are incredibly active on social media for the party and are even calling back home to ask families, friends and even strangers (numbers provided to them by the BJP) to vote for the BJP. In the 2014 elections, the US supporters of the BJP made an estimated 500,000 calls. The group was created in April 1992 by the BJP, to counter the negative press against itself and the “Ram Janmabhoomi” movement after the burning and destruction of the 16th century Babri Mosque in Ayodhya.

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The group became even more active, after the BJP came into power in 1998, and when India faced sanctions from the US after conducting its nuclear weapons tests in 1998; engaging congressmen and senators in Washington DC to explain the situation. In 2001, after the Indian parliament attack, the OFBJP led a group of 200 people to demonstrate outside the White House, and spoke to dozens of American lawmakers to convince them that Pakistani intelligence services should not be trusted.

The OFBJP is also very active on India’s foreign policy objectives. After Modi’s referral to Balochistan in his 2016 speech on Indian Independence Day; the OFBJP linked up with Baloch separatist to raise slogans for an independent Balochistan in New York in 2016 outside the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meeting. Similar protests were held in the UK, Germany, Switzerland, and Australia. The senior leadership of the OFBJP is on record saying they work with various groups to attend any hearings related to Pakistan, and help block aid or sale of military equipment to Pakistan.

Professor Ashok Swain is a professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden, a columnist & researcher with a strong presence on Twitter. He tweets @ashoswai.

The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

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