On the morning of December 6, 1992, a crowd of 150,000 Hindus assembled outside the Babri Masjid, a 16th-century mosque in the North Indian city of Ayodhya. One by one, representatives of the country’s most prominent Hindu nationalist organizations took the stage to call for the construction of a Hindu temple on the site of the mosque, which they alleged had been built over the birthplace of the Hindu deity Ram.
As the speeches went on, the crowd, clad in saffron and chanting slogans, grew increasingly restless. Finally, around noon, a few young activists broke through the police cordons, and the mob quickly followed, armed with iron rods and pickaxes. Within hours, the nearly 500-year-old structure had been completely razed. The demolition of the Babri Masjid sparked communal rioting between Hindus and Muslims across the country—most prominently in Bombay, where over 900 were killed and thousands forced to flee the city.
The mosque’s demolition was the culmination of a campaign launched eight years earlier by India’s Hindu nationalist movement, tired of decades spent on the political fringes in the post-Independence era. The rally featured several speakers who would go on to secure prominent positions in the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including soon-to-be home minister and later deputy prime minister L.K. Advani.
Among these speakers was a woman known as Sadhvi Rithambara, whose oratorical prowess and incendiary rhetoric had made her a regular campaigner for the BJP in the 1989 and 1991 elections. Her speeches, which demonized the Muslim minority and called for war between Hindus and Muslims, had been widely disseminated on cassette tapes in the run-up to the Ayodhya rally. In the wake of the deadly violence that followed, Indian historian Tanika Sarkar described Rithambara and her speeches as “the single most powerful instrument for whipping up anti-Muslim violence.”
Fast forward 20 years to Tuesday, August 30: Rithambara, invited by national Hindu groups, performed religious services at the Global Mall in Norcross, Ga. The event, which was condemned by civil society groups including Hindus for Human Rights, CAIR, and the Indian American Muslim Council, drew more than 100 protesters outside the mall calling for Rithambara to be disinvited and denounced as a “Hindu extremist leader.” On Friday, September 9, the Old Paramus Reformed Church in Ridgewood, N.J., canceled a separate planned event featuring Rithambara, citing controversy over her extremist affiliations.
Rithambara’s American appearances came just weeks after Indian Independence Day celebrations across the country sparked contention for featuring Hindu nationalist activity and imagery. At the August 15 India Day Parade in Edison, N.J., hosted by the Indian Business Association, participants marched alongside a bulldozer emblazoned with the faces of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath, whose policy of demolishing the homes of Muslim protesters has turned the bulldozer into a symbol of Hindu nationalism and Indian state violence. At a town hall meeting following the parade, Edison Mayor Samip Joshi denounced the bulldozer as an unwelcome “symbol of division and discrimination”; the bulldozer float was also condemned by a coalition of New Jersey state legislators, as well as US Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman, who called it a “display of bigotry” with “no place in New Jersey.” On the other side of the country, an Independence Day parade in Anaheim, Calif., saw clashes between parade participants and demonstrators protesting against Hindu nationalism (also known as Hindutva) and caste discrimination, with marchers shoving protesters and hurling anti-Muslim slurs.
These incidents in Edison and Anaheim, as well as the controversy surrounding Rithambara’s appearances in Georgia and New Jersey, highlight what Sunita Viswanath, cofounder and executive director of Hindus for Human Rights, calls the “dangerous spread of Hindutva” in the Hindu American community. Hindu nationalism’s considerable influence within the Indian diaspora previously received widespread attention in 2019, when a rally featuring Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump in Houston, Tex., drew a crowd of 50,000 and exposed deep-seated political fault lines within the Indian American community. Last February, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace released the results of the first-ever Indian American Attitudes Survey, which found that the BJP is the most popular Indian political party among Indian Americans. The survey also found that nearly 70 percent of Hindu Americans (compared to just over a quarter of Indian American Muslims) approve of Modi’s performance as prime minister, and that support for Modi is highest among older Indian Americans and those born outside of the United States.
Beyond political attitudes, Hindu nationalism’s presence in the Indian American community has a real-world dimension as well. Earlier this year, South Asia Citizens Web published a 93-page report detailing the names and financial activities of 24 organizations operating in the United States with documented links to the Sangh Parivar—the vast, India-based network of Hindu nationalist organizations that collectively make up the global Hindu nationalist ecosystem. In addition to charitable foundations such as Sewa International and the India Development and Relief Fund, which are part of a group of seven organizations that the report alleges have funneled tens of millions of dollars to Sangh Parivar-affiliated groups and initiatives in India, the report also explicitly names two of the primary sponsors of Sadhvi Rithambara’s Georgia event: the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA).
Both groups have documented ties to Hindu extremist outfits in India. The HSS, which operates in nearly 40 countries around the world, is the overseas wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an explicitly fascist-inspired Hindu supremacist paramilitary that was founded in the 1920s and has been linked to deadly anti-Muslim violence—including, as one of its functionaries revealed last week, a conspiracy to carry out bombings across India. Similarly, the VHPA was founded in 1970 by a longtime RSS activist to be the American wing of another extremist organization: the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which in 2018 was classified in the CIA World Factbook as a “militant religious organization” and which has also been linked to deadly hate violence.
In spite of their extremist links, both the HSS and VHPA are also deeply embedded in Hindu American cultural life—the HSS operates over 220 chapters across 32 states, while the VHPA has 21 chapters in 14 states. Both organizations, the report notes, “present themselves as authorities on Hinduism” through “identity-based youth programs, cultural events, and disseminating Sangh-approved forms of Hindu culture to the diaspora.”
Among these initiatives is the Hindu Students Council, which was founded in 1990 as the VHPA’s youth wing and which maintains a presence at more than 70 colleges and universities across the United States, presenting itself as the voice of Hindu American students and inserting itself into contentious debates over issues such as “Hinduphobia” on college campuses. Through this and similar initiatives, Sangh-affiliated groups like the HSS and VHPA capitalize on what London-based scholar Subir Sinha describes as “the diaspora’s longing for a connection with ‘Indian culture’, ‘history’ and ‘traditions’ in a context in which they are a minority…[which] provides a ready social basis for the RSS.”
Despite the widespread support for Modi and the BJP, the Carnegie Institute’s 2020 survey found that 53 percent of respondents saw Hindu majoritarianism as a threat to minorities in India’s democracy. For activists like Viswanath, however, whose organization mobilizes progressive Hindus in support of democracy and human rights, combating that threat means more than taking on organizations like the HSS and VHPA.
“Organized groups with extremist ties are just one dimension of the bigger issue,” she explained. “The real challenge is confronting these hateful attitudes and ideologies within our own communities, and we Hindus have an especially strong responsibility to do exactly that.”