Massey Research Paper on Hindutva Leads to Trolling, Persecution and Threats
Richa Sharma, researcher at Massey University. Photo/Mark Mitchell
Richa Sharma was researching religious extremism in Aotearoa when she received a call from her mother. Her aunts and uncles, close family friends who have known her since birth, were convinced she was a terrorist.
For a few months last year, Richa Sharma didn’t go out after dark, always making sure she had safe ways to get around for work and meetings.
The 18-year-old was an intern at Care, a Massey University research center that was fighting online abuse for publishing a white paper on the far-right nationalist ideology known as Hindutva and its creeping presence in Aotearoa.
Calls have been made for the centre’s director, Professor Mohan Dutta, to be sacked or even burned alive. Police said the trolls were overseas, but an Auckland-based Indian news site published an article calling Dutta a “leftist fanatic in the guise of an academic”, and part of ” a bunch of smelly rats”.
The Hindu Council and Hindu Youth of New Zealand came in with nearly identical statements, condemning the paper for “accusatory and unsubstantiated claims” that cast a bad light on the Hindu community. Hindu youth said it was “outright hatred of Hindus”.
Most of the vitriol was directed at Dutta but his team, some of them South Asian and female, were not spared. Their profiles were made public on Care’s website and social media pages.
“We had to watch our steps carefully,” said Sharma, now 19. “I really didn’t feel safe. We had an open police file.”
Shortly after, an aunt and uncle contacted Sharma’s mother in Palmerston North. They were not related by blood, but it was customary in the community to address close family friends as aunt and uncle.
Over tea, Sharma’s mother learned that her daughter was working for an anti-Hindu group and was asked to intervene. The aunt and uncle were convinced that Sharma was a “radical leftist terrorist”.
Another aunt sent text messages condemning the white paper, including a petition against Massey University to withdraw it.
It was confusing, then painful.
“I had known them since I was born. They had all babysat me at one point, so it was weird to see them turn around and call me a terrorist,” Sharma said.
“Seeing what I once thought was my community, the place I belong, be so quick to disown me whenever something doesn’t fit their worldview – I didn’t expect people to be able to do that.”
Coming out transgender had already given him a sense of alienation – some aunts and uncles still call him a boy – so this was another blow.
“It’s tough – one week they serve you food, you’re part of the family, the next week people see you as an anti-national radical,” she said. “National in this case being India, against the nation.”
In October, Sharma was named along with Dutta and others on a fake map of the ‘anti-Hindu’ network on Twitter, claiming they were endangering the lives of Hindus and, most alarming of all, working for the Pakistani intelligence agency.
“That’s completely untrue,” Sharma told the Herald. “You hear a lot about conspiracy theories, but being involved in one is a whole different experience.”
She knew the people behind the graphic would have browsed her social media pages and employment history. What else did they know and what would they do? She was terrified.
“Hinduism on Steroids”
Hindutva means the Hindu way in Sanskrit, but today it has become a heavy reference to the political ideology of the Hindu right wing in India, led by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The movement and its supporters have gained ground since the BJP came to power with the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 and his re-election in 2019.
It has been called “Hinduism on steroids”, its relationship to Hinduism compared to that between Islam and Islamic fundamentalism.
Critics like Dutta are at pains to point out that Hinduism is not Hindutva — in fact, Hindutva extremism is the greatest threat to Hinduism, he says. Hindutva claims India as a Hindu state, a claim used to rationalize violence or at least antagonism against religious minorities in India, especially Muslims and Christians. Hindutva is against the idea of a secular India, scholars say, and its roots are deeply Islamophobic.
Hindu Youth NZ chairman Murali Krishna Magesan disagrees. He says Dutta is attacking an entire community in the name of political ideology. “Call political and extremist ideologies by what they are,” but leave Hindus out of it, he says.
The feud may seem alien and esoteric, but Dutta says the 2019 New Zealand mosque attacks show there is no room for complacency when it comes to any form of extremism.
More importantly, he says, the public backlash against his white paper suggests that Hindutva forces are alive and well in Aotearoa.
The 2018 census estimates that there are 121,644 Hindus in New Zealand, one of the fastest growing religious groups in the country. The Indians number 239,193.
Hindus come from all over the world, from Kenya to Malaysia and Fiji. Many were born in New Zealand to first, second or third generation migrant parents. The same goes for people who identify as Indian. Many are Hindus but not all – there are significant groups of Indian Muslims, Christians etc.
For New Zealand’s diverse Indian and Hindu ethnic communities, Indian politics and ideologies are unimportant and irrelevant, Magesan says. They understand that Hindutva means the Hindu way, and Dutta’s criticism of it hurts.
“Where does hate come from? »
Balamohan Shingade was also named in the “anti-Hindu” network card.
Like his colleague Sharma, the 30-year-old CARE researcher and Indian classical musician also felt scared and threatened even though the link to the secret service was “totally bonkers”.
But the controversy would bring his Hindu family closer together and give them a better understanding of who they are as Indians in New Zealand.
“The demonization of dissidents, like Mohan-da, is an age-old strategy of Hindu chauvinism,” he wrote on his Facebook page as the backlash was in full swing, using a term of respect for Dutta meaning “big brother “.
It was a public denunciation of Hindutva that made Shingade’s parents fear for his safety.
They were a temple-going family and part of a close-knit Hindu community. Over dinner, they discussed the online attacks on Dutta and their local repercussions.
A public row like this was a first for the Hindu community, a hardworking and peaceful model minority in New Zealand. Both sides have accused the other of hate, but where does it come from?
“What was alarming to us was that someone like Dutta, who is Hindu, offering internal criticism, would get so much hate,” he said.
“It demonstrated what my parents were talking about when they said, ‘Be careful.’ It became very clear that they understood the dangers of denouncing Hindutva.”
Growing up as a Hindu in Auckland, Shingade says she saw how Hindutva stories are integrated into the community’s cultural programs and activities.
These narratives discriminated against indigenous peoples and gender-diverse communities, and marginalized Muslims and Christians, who were seen as threats, he said. “I didn’t like it because I was there understanding the struggles of Maori as indigenous people.”
“There is an indigenous person, a Dalit or a dissenter at the corner of every Hindu story who is demonized or portrayed in other vulgar ways,” he wrote on that first Facebook post.
Speaking to her Indian-born parents, Shingade found that first-generation migrants facing hardship and racism in Aotearoa had found unity and community at the temple, solidifying their identities around religion.
For them, criticism of Hindutva, even as an illegitimate child of Hinduism, could be seen as an attack on religion which has long been a pillar of security.
“Anyone who knows a Hindu or knows Hinduism will tell you that it is a timeless tradition rooted in unity of existence, selfless service (sewa), non-violence (ahimsa), pluralism and dharma,” says Magesan, of Hindu youth.
“Just as there are extremist views in all communities… due to the large number of Hindus who live in New Zealand, statistically there can be individuals. However, as in other communities, extremists ( if any) do not represent the voice of the wider community,” he said.
Liberal versus Conservative
The fury around Hindutva is the case of a divided community, Sharma said.
It’s a contest of ideas, and on one side are religious conservatives who see the white paper as an unprovoked attack on Hinduism. On the other are young liberal Kiwi Indians like Sharma and Shingade, many (but not all) of whom were born and raised in a secular New Zealand, free from the battle to retain their culture and the need to rely on – or support – the Hindutva narratives. know they belong.
Sharma says her work with Dutta and other progressive Indians helped her find her place in the Indian diaspora.
“Not all uncles and aunts are transphobic. There’s actually a lot of good there, learning the history of activism and social justice in India, all the amazing minds working in this meaning now and in history. It really connected me to my culture in a way that I had never experienced before.”
They believe that a small number of Hindutva-aligned people in important places define what it means to be a Hindu in New Zealand.
“If you don’t subscribe to the Hindutva version, you are considered non-community…like whitewashed,” says Shingade.
It’s scary to talk about, and Shingade gets private messages “all the time” thanking him for doing it.
Not everyone can. He says he is lucky to have the support of his family for finding a clear and critical voice as an Indian New Zealander.
“The danger is that if you don’t find your voice, other people will find it for you.”