Inside Story

Modi’s expatriate army

Western leaders are distancing themselves from the Hindu nationalism popular in some sections of India’s diaspora

Hamish McDonald 20 December 2023 3105 words

Less fertile ground? Indian prime minister Narendra Modi at Sydney’s Admiralty House in May. Dean Lewins/AAP Image

It was an effusion that Anthony Albanese might now wince about. Hailing his official guest, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, before thousands of wildly cheering Indian residents in Sydney, he enthused: “The last time I saw someone on the stage here was Bruce Springsteen, and he didn’t get the welcome that Prime Minister Modi has got… Prime Minister Modi is the boss!”

The mass adulation came as Albanese — like a swathe of Australia’s politicos, strategic thinkers and business leaders — embraced India as the best available escape from dependency on China. Add to that the fact that the fast-growing Indian community is made up of the ideal sort of migrant: well-educated, professionally skilled, prosperous, English-speaking, pious but moderate and even cricket-loving.

India may well turn out to play a key economic role for Australia one day, and the Indian community, now nearly 800,000-strong and the second-largest foreign-born component of the population (after those from Britain), has all the qualities claimed for it.

But since the mass rally in Sydney’s former Olympic stadium in May, the lustre has come off Narendra Modi. Longstanding concerns about where he is taking India are getting more air, and other members of the Quad grouping lined up against China, and their Five Eyes intelligence allies, are questioning his scruples.

Most pointedly, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau revealed in September “credible allegations” that India was responsible for the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh separatist gunned down in British Columbia in June. Canada immediately expelled India’s chief intelligence official in Ottawa

India called the allegations “absurd” and responded to the expulsion by sharply cutting the number of Canadian diplomats in New Delhi. But the following month, ASIO director-general Mike Burgess told the ABC he had “no reason to dispute what the Canadian government has said in this matter.”

Then, on 29 November, the US Department of Justice announced the prosecution of an Indian man allegedly commissioned by a senior intelligence official in New Delhi to organise the assassination of another Sikh separatist, US citizen Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, on American soil. The plot was thwarted when the hired gunman turned out to be an undercover anti-drug agent.

According to a contributor to the respected US journal Foreign Affairs, any intelligence plans to kill Pannun and Nijjar would most likely have been cleared with Ajit Doval, Modi’s national security adviser: “He is known to be hands on, and the Indian intelligence bureaucracy is too hierarchical for something as high stakes as an international assassination to happen without Doval’s approval.”

The ripples spread further. A well-regarded Indian news outlet, the Print, reports that the British government asked a senior official of India’s Research and Analysis Wing, the external intelligence agency reporting to the prime minister, to leave his station in London. The US also expelled a senior official with the same agency from his station in San Francisco and blocked the agency from replacing its station chief in Washington. US president Joe Biden, has since declined an invitation to be chief foreign guest at India’s big Republic Day parade on 26 January.

That kind of foreign interference, and its alleged source, was not what Australia’s government and security apparatus had in mind when they introduced controversial laws to criminalise clandestine influence-building in 2017. Their aim was to keep an eye on Australia’s Chinese-origin community, numbering about 1.2 million, and on efforts by Beijing’s spy agencies and Communist Party “united front work” operatives to manipulate its members and recruit gullible or venal figures in the wider population.

Now it appears our spooks and analysts need to worry about the possibility of India’s intelligence service working in illegal ways to further the political aims of its ruling party. They need to educate themselves about how Modi’s brand of communal politics plays out in the diaspora, and reassess the lengths to which they believe New Delhi is ready to go.

This isn’t likely to be a short-term problem either: after nearly ten years in office, polls show Modi and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, to be as popular as ever and his Congress Party–led opposition failing to gain much traction, pointing to another Modi victory in elections due early next year.

Modi’s campaign to turn India away from the secular, minority-inclusive model of its modern rebirth into a Hindu-majoritarian state is likely to get fresh impetus after that likely win. At the recent G20 summit in New Delhi, he seemed to float a name change from India to the ancient, pre-Muslim, pre-British Bharat. The new Indian parliament building, opened in April this year, includes a mural showing India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and part of Afghanistan as forming Akhand Bharat (“unbroken India”), an idea pushed by the far-right, Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteers Order), or RSS, the movement from which Modi sprang.

On 22 January, Modi will inaugurate a lavish new temple at Ayodhya to mark the legendry birthplace of the Hindu deity Ram. To hundreds of millions of poorly educated Hindus, mainly in India’s north, the new Ram Birthplace Temple marks a historical truth rather than a legend. It is described as a replacement for an ancient one torn down centuries ago by a Muslim conqueror and replaced with a small mosque. That mosque was notoriously destroyed in 1992 by Hindu mobs fired up by earlier BJP leaders, initiating decades of communal strife and friction between Hindus and Muslims.

No wonder Biden didn’t want to chance standing alongside Modi four days after the new temple is opened. If he did, he might also have gazed down New Delhi’s majestic Edwin Lutyens–designed avenue — the avenue that ends in a memorial arch to the Indian dead of the British forces in the world wars — and noticed a new structure alongside, inaugurated by Modi last year. Under a stone canopy is an 8.5 metre black granite statue of Subhas Chandra Bose, the independence fighter who rejected the non-violent campaigns of Nehru and Gandhi and aligned himself with the Axis powers. After being smuggled by Nazi agents to Germany, where he met Hitler and Himmler, Bose was delivered by U-boat to the Japanese, for whom he raised an anti-British army among Indian prisoners of war. In Modi’s eyes, Australians, the British and the Americans were on the wrong side in the Pacific war.

Although Indians have been in Australia since first British settlement, the community’s present numbers were reached by a fivefold expansion only in the last twenty years. Its social and political streams are still in formation. But pointers to emerging internal pressures can be found in British historian Edward Anderson’s important new book, Hindu Nationalism in the Indian Diaspora.

Of an estimated thirty million worldwide, Anderson focuses on those living in Britain, making comparisons with the United States, in both cases communities that grew large a generation earlier than Australia’s. If our diaspora follows the same pattern, a Hindu identity will grow in importance over an “Indian” one, and even more than a “South Asian” one, for its members of that faith. And that identity will increasingly be flavoured by a Hindutva (“Hindu-ness”) wider than religious belief and worship.

Hindutva is almost synonymous with the Hindu nationalism pursued by Modi and his BJP: a majoritarian, conservative and militant political ideology and ethno-religious movement (in Anderson’s description) that rejects pluralistic secularism and is ascendant in contemporary India.

Strangely, Hindutva also has wide support among Hindus living outside India, who simultaneously favour a chauvinistic, majoritarian ideology in India while negotiating recognition and rights in their new homes as a “model minority” noted for peaceful and prosperous integration. “Why is it that some of the most outspokenly patriotic Indians are those who have chosen to live outside of their motherland, or may have never lived in India at all?” Anderson asks.

It’s not just an assertiveness masking insecurity or guilt about leaving for a better material life, he says, but the result of decades of cultivation by Hindutva idealogues centred on the RSS. Founded in the 1920s, the RSS has nurtured generations of pracharaks (cadres) dedicated to hardening up India’s Hindu population to throw off the influence of Muslim and then British overlords.

“The life of a pracharak,” Anderson tells us, “is in many ways modelled on an ascetic: itinerant (as and when required), abstinent and unmarried, and renouncing of material possessions (receiving no salary, but provided with accommodation and vegetarian diet).” They are often from middle-class and upper-caste backgrounds, university-educated and English speaking, and well travelled, though they don’t mix much outside RSS circles.

Although he comes from a low caste, from where he was put into a teenage marriage (apparently unconsummated), Modi spent his early adult years as an RSS pracharak. He was then placed as the BJP’s chief minister in Gujarat, just ahead of the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom there that stained his reputation and kept him barred from the United States until he became prime minister. His humble origins count as a plus for a BJP often accused of trying to keep the Hindu upper castes in charge.

The RSS began its external proselytising in the 1940s among the Indian communities in East Africa, mostly from Gujarat, which thrived as commercial intermediaries between the British and the Africans. Expelled after independence, they were able to settle in English cities, notably London, Birmingham and Leicester, by virtue of their British passports. The RSS followed them, setting up in 1966 in England as the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, or HSS, an organisation that remains active today.

Living in group housing in Leicester, the pracharaks organise rank-and-file recruits, the swayamsevaks, at regular shakhas that start with a Sanskrit prayer and hoisting of the saffron-coloured flag of Hinduism, followed by marching drills and practice with bamboo staves, sessions of the Indian game kabaddi, closing prayers, and singing of the RSS anthem “Namaste Sada Vatsale Matrubhoomi” (Hail to Thee O Motherland).

Physical development is very much part of the ethos. The aim, Anderson says, has been “to ‘rebuild’ a population of strong Hindu male figures, largely to countenance (while simultaneously justifying) the threatening construction of the Muslim Other…” Tolerance and Gandhian non-violence have been shelved in favour of warrior models from history and legends.

“The promotion of physical training, toughness, and group unity also relates to the perception that individualism and material comforts of the West constitute a danger for Hindus,” he writes:

Second-generation Hindus overseas are considered particularly susceptible to picking up bad habits from morally bankrupt host societies, and many have discussed the “disdain” South Asian migrants have for the lax ethics of the West, its declining parental authority, licentiousness, culture of instant gratification, weakening family units, and so on. The HSS has performed a specific role in this context, providing segregated spaces for socialisation away from “corrupting influences,” in which curative “Indian” values can be transmitted.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the following is not large: the eighty-two shakhas operating in Britain have an average weekly total attendance of 1903. They are notably more casual than those in India (where volunteers turn out in uniforms), many participants are female, and the dropout rate is high. The local volunteers often find visiting RSS cadres from India possessed of a much more hard line against Muslims than they themselves feel, or are willing to express.

Recognising this tension, the cadre-based RSS and its mass affiliate the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) have slipped into the background in recent decades, pushing forward more worldly figures to head councils claiming to speak for the one million Hindus among the 1.8 million Indian-origin residents of England and Wales. The same trend is found in the Indian diaspora of the United States, which has grown to 4.2 million from one million in 1990.

The message is also much the same, expounding the virtue of ancient Hindu theology and social organisation. All religions that began in India — Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism — are claimed to be branches of Hinduism. The theory that Hinduism itself flourished among Indo-Aryan migrants from Central Asia, imposing the caste system on darker-skinned Dravidians, is portrayed as being wrong. The real invaders were the Muslim conquerors of the last millennium. Marriage and the rearing of children are the principal roles of women. The ideal diet is vegetarianism. Homosexuality is “against nature.” Caste provides social space and closer identity, and was much more tolerant and accepted until the British raj started classifying everyone. And watch out for those young Muslim men waging a “love jihad” to seduce and convert Hindu girls.

Any criticism of these historical distortions and attendant social ills is increasingly attributed to “Hinduphobia.” In fact, Hindu councils in both Britain and the United States consciously borrow the example of Jewish organisations using charges of anti-Semitism to deflect criticism of Israel. Indeed, India’s previously lukewarm, sometimes hostile relations with Israel have been transformed under Modi, who made the first visit by an Indian prime minister in 2017 and often speaks of his friendship with Benjamin Netanyahu.

Beyond defence and corporate interests (Modi’s favoured entrepreneur Gautam Adani runs Haifa’s port) and shared suspicion of Muslims, Modi would like to follow Netanyahu’s pathway to a state with two-tiered citizenship that gives the religious majority more rights than minorities.

Alongside this assertive victimhood, which Anderson calls a “soft” neo-Hindutva, have been occasional flare-ups of a harder version, often attributed to new arrivals from India. In 2006, a vandal forced the closure of a London exhibition of paintings by the Mumbai artist M.F. Husain, a Muslim forced into exile for his depictions of Hindu goddesses. In Leicester last year, hundreds of masked young Hindus paraded through a Muslim neighbourhood shouting Jai Shri Ram (Hail Lord Ram) after watching an India vs Pakistan cricket match.

Internet trolls in India and among the diaspora fire threats of murder and rape at academics who criticise Modi and Hindutva. In 2014, Wendy Doniger, an eminent Indologist and Sanskrit scholar at the University of Chicago, came under attack by a US-based online firebrand, Rajiv Malhotra, for her book, The Hindus. Malhotra’s campaign eventually resulted in Penguin India pulping its local edition.

Although Hindu activists often accuse Muslims of living in ghettos, the Hindus in Britain are remarkably concentrated and have low rates of marrying out of their communities. Given the first-past-the-post voting system, this has made some British constituencies and their MPs captive to the Hindu vote. Periodically, British ministers invited to their functions are embarrassed when pictures circulate showing them standing next to dubious communalists visiting from India.

Where Indians were once more inclined to the Labour Party because of its warmer embrace of migrants, Hindu organisations have swung behind the Conservatives in the past decade. The diaspora’s advance into higher income brackets would have something to do with this, but the Tories are less likely to worry about human rights issues in India and have shelved a Labour initiative to outlaw caste discrimination in Britain itself. Britain’s first Hindu prime minister, Rishi Sunak, might be more representative of the secular, US green card–holding CEO class, but he does wear his Hindu identity as a temple thread on his wrist.

Conceivably, the United States could get a president of Indian ancestry in Nikki Haley, a US-born daughter of Sikh migrants (although she converted to Christianity when she married out of the community), or a part-Indian one in Kamala Harris if she were to take over from Biden.

Australia is probably a generation off seeing an Indian-Australian close to national political leadership, though many are already at the top levels of professions and corporations. But the diaspora’s generally sunny picture is already showing some of the tensions Anderson portrays.

The RSS has a local outfit, the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh Australia, running forty-nine regular shakhas with an average combined attendance of 1230 volunteers. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad is also well established, as is a self-proclaimed umbrella body, the Hindu Council of Australia, which fits Anderson’s definition of soft neo-Hindutva. For Modi’s visit in May, a new body calling itself the Indian Australian Diaspora Foundation, which claimed to include 367 professional, caste, regional, religious, cultural and local groups as well as RSS and BJP branches, organised flights and buses for thousands of attendees at the Sydney meeting.

Hard neo-Hindutva showed up in 2019 when hecklers forced the Australia India Institute at Melbourne University, set up by Kevin Rudd’s government to further bilateral relations and knowledge, to revert from public lectures to closed seminars on issues relating to Modi and Hindutva. More than a dozen India scholars severed links with the institute in protest at the decision.

Probably in response, the Albanese government announced during Modi’s visit a new body to take over the task of promoting the bilateral relationship, implicitly leaving the Australia India Institute to function as an academic think tank. The new Centre for Australia–India Relations has a banker, Swati Dave, rather than an academic as its advisory body’s chair. It will be located in Sydney’s Parramatta, a focus for the city’s Indian diaspora, whose newly elected federal MP, economist Andrew Charlton, has just written an upbeat book about the India relationship, Australia’s Pivot to India.

But there’s an important reason to think that Hindutva’s appeal might never be as great among the Indian diaspora in Australia. Our Indian population is more diverse than the British one, with Hindus barely 50 per cent of the Indian-born population and many of them drawn from India’s southern states, which are resistant to the BJP message.

As well as a large number of Christians, the diaspora also includes as many as 200,000 Sikhs, some of whom support the movement for a separate Sikh state of Khalistan in India’s Punjab. In their meetings, Modi has ambushed Albanese with charges that these elements have vandalised Hindu temples with separatist slogans. Albanese doesn’t seem to have responded by pointing out that police suspect some of these to be “false flag” operations, or that the most violent clash so far has been an attack with bats and hammers on a Sikh group in Western Sydney in February 2021 by men recognised from a BJP–HSS rally. Or if he has, we have not been told about it.

In Sydney, as in London, New York and Texas, Indian groups opposed to Modi’s Hindutva campaigns picketed outside his mass reception. This book will help our politicians understand why. •

Hindu Nationalism in the Indian Diaspora: Transnational Politics and British Multiculturalism
By Edward T.G. Anderson | Hurst | $57.99 | 488 pages