Hindu nationalism has helped spread a distinct brand of anti-Islam around the world, and famously multicultural Canada may have a problem on its hands
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration has long been criticized for discriminating against India's estimated 200 million Muslims. Tensions between this large minority and the Hindu nationalists who support Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been mounting in recent years, resulting in worrying laws, dangerous harassment, and deadly mob violence in India. Now, the hostility has moved outside of India's borders. Thanks to social media and a dedicated diaspora, antagonism toward Muslims by supporters of India's right-wing, Hindu nationalist government has gone global. And the international spread of domestic prejudices is causing diplomatic ripple effects for India's allies.
This has been particularly apparent in the Persian Gulf region, home to millions of Indian expatriates. Modi's carefully cultivated ties to the Gulf regimes are now threatened by instances of ultra-nationalist Indian expats spewing Islamophobic rhetoric online. While much of the vitriol has been aimed at the Muslim population back home in India, it has also taken the form of social media posts that denigrated Islam more generally, as well as the Prophet Mohammed. The situation has led to rare criticism of Modi by Gulf elites. In April, the government of Kuwait, along with a member of the Sharjah royal family in the United Arab Emirates, criticized widespread Islamophobic social media posts in India accusing the country's Muslims of deliberately spreading the coronavirus and engaging in a "corona jihad." Modi eventually responded by tweeting that the virus "does not see race [or] religion," although his government's rhetoric says otherwise. A month later, the UAE Federal Public Prosecution issued a public warning against discrimination after scores of Indian expats were fired from their jobs for anti-Muslim social media posts. This and similar incidents led the Dubai-based Gulf News to run an editorial in May calling for India to stop "exporting hate" to the Gulf.
In the West, the BJP's brand of Islamophobia has found an eager partner among the far-right, as recent developments in famously multicultural Canada demonstrate. In April, city councils across Canada voted to allow the Islamic call to prayer, the azan, to be broadcasted for a few minutes a day during the holy month of Ramadan. The government hoped to foster a sense of inclusion as mosques and other places of worship were closed for the COVID-19 lockdown. The decision elicited a major backlash, including mass petitions and online hate, with the far-right suggesting "Islamism" had infiltrated Canadian society and politics.
Some members of Canada's Indian diaspora echoed such sentiments, tweeting comments about how the prayer call broadcasts are part of an Islamist "strategical campaign through out the world" or that "blaring loudspeakers" can never be "peaceful." Several of the tweeters have quietly lost their jobs since then, amid pressure from anti-hate groups.
But few cases have garnered much attention. The exception is that of Ravi Hooda, who sat on a regional school board in the Toronto area and tweeted that allowing the prayer calls to be broadcast opens the door for "Separate lanes for camel & goat riders" or laws "requiring all women to cover themselves from head to toe in tents." When Hooda's tweet was called out by the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, a Twitter war ensued. Dozens of pro-Indian accounts, often with usernames containing an eight-digit string of numbers—a common indicator of a bot account—came to Hooda's defense. A local controversy instantly took on an international character.
Hooda, for his part, is a volunteer for the local branch of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, which represents the overseas interests of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the right-wing Hindu nationalist organization that promotes the Hindutva (literally, "Hindu-ness") ideology that India is a purely Hindu nation at its core. Modi himself is a lifelong RSS member, and a majority of his ministers have a background in the organization. The Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh opened its first chapter in 1947, in Kenya, and today has more than 500 branches in 39 countries. The group's chapters are called shakhas (branches) and, in addition to offering community services, help organize the diaspora through lectures, camps, and other organizational sessions that are aligned with the RSS's ideological outlook.
The spread of right-wing Hindu nationalism in Canada has allegedly dovetailed with efforts by Indian intelligence agencies to "covertly influence" Canadian politicians to support Indian government positions through disinformation and money, according to documents obtained by Global News. There's no proof of how successful this lobbying has been, but it's clear that New Delhi is stretching its global reach at the same time that the BJP's rhetoric and actions have politicized a new generation of Indian expats.
A glimpse of this global reach was provided by the EU DisinfoLab last fall in a report detailing a network of over 260 pro-India "fake local media outlets" spanning 65 countries, including throughout the West. The media organizations bear the names of local towns and cities, but none of them has any real connection with the localities they purport to represent, and all feature pro-India and anti-Pakistan content. Every news site was registered by the Srivastava Group, an Indian corporation that last year took right-wing European politicians on a trip to Kashmir, where they met with Modi.
Such reach can also be seen in the efforts of Indian expats and Indian Americans in the United States who organized last fall's "Howdy, Modi!" event in Houston attended by 50,000 people, including U.S. President Donald Trump and other Republican and Democratic politicians. Indian American volunteers did the heavy lifting and funded the event, which turned a meeting between heads of state into a public spectacle. The event was meant to cement Trump-Modi relations as well as to rally the U.S.-based diaspora around the BJP, thus bolstering the prime minister's popularity back home.
An organized, RSS-minded, pro-BJP diaspora in the West and beyond would obviously be a great asset for Modi's government. Elected officials would think twice before criticizing India, already a rising and influential power, for fear of angering their constituents. There are already hints that such calculations are being made by leaders. After an anti-Muslim pogrom broke out in Delhi in February, resulting in more than 50 deaths—the worst sectarian violence India has seen in years—Canada kept almost silent. While speaking to his Indian counterpart after the riots, the Canadian foreign minister offered a note of vague concern, roundly criticized in Canadian media. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made no statement, and the four Indian Canadian members of Trudeau's Liberal caucus showed a similar reluctance to comment, drawing criticism from community organizations.
Similarly, foreign governments remained largely silent last summer when Modi stripped Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir of its special status and placed it under a brutal military lockdown. This had observers wondering whether "Hindutva-inspired lobbies in the West," as the researcher Fareeha Shamim labeled them, succeeded in their goals of building global influence from the ground up. Liberal politicians now hold an uncomfortable position, reluctant to criticize Modi lest they be attacked by his supporters in the diaspora.
The anti-Islam social media backlash that set off a small firestorm in Canada could well prove a one-off, but such cases pose a litmus test for how democracies may manage imported conflicts, particularly when Western politicians become heavily invested in one side of the divide. Modi's brand of Hindutva has found an eager partner among the right wing in the West, and liberal leaders would be wise to pay attention.
Steven Zhou, is an investigative journalist based in Toronto focusing on national security and far-right issues. Twitter: @stevenzzhou
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement