This week, two terrible acts of violence took place in the US. First, three young Muslim-American students were killed in cold blood in North Carolina by a neighbor. The cause, it was said, was an argument about parking spaces. It was also noted that the killer was an atheist and broadly anti-religious and, therefore, it was suggested that perhaps the attack could not be described as a religious hate crime.
That suggestion was instantly, perhaps naturally, met with a barrage of opposition. Al Jazeera published a learned summary of years of media research on Muslim stereotyping. Internet memes pointed out how the American media differentiated between white and Muslim criminals. The argument was made, effectively, for continuing concern about Islamophobia.
The other terrible act of violence, of course, was the one that took place in Alabama.
An elderly Indian grandfather travels to America to see his grandson for the first time, goes out for a walk, and gets smashed into the hard concrete footpath by policemen leaving him broken and paralyzed.
There is outrage in the media, and rightly so. The Indian-American community and many American friends (though not the one who visited India recently and told us Gandhi would be shocked), have spoken out against the ignorance, prejudice and brutality that took place here. In the wake of recent atrocities like what happened in Ferguson, the idea of the dangers of “walking while brown” obviously did the rounds.
But there was one notable difference in the reactions to North Carolina and Alabama.
When a Muslim is harmed, it is Islamophobia. When a Hindu is brutally assaulted, there is not one word uttered about Hinduphobia.
One might argue, not unlike the parking dispute angle in North Carolina, that there was no Hinduphobia in the atrocity that took place in Alabama. Maybe the cops did not know he was Hindu and brutalize him for that reason. Maybe it was just racism in the black and white sense. After all, we have been told for years now by concerned south Asian activists and commentators that the Indian-American community, by virtue of its elitism, fails to recognize racial solidarity. Once again, that trope surfaced about the Alabama attacks. We are getting attacked because of racism. True enough!
But how can we be so sure that the racism that Indian-Americans sometimes face has nothing to do with prejudices about the major religion they are identified with? How can we be sure that one kind of racism is independent of another?
We cannot. And yet, for several years, every single time we have talked about the brazen misrepresentation of Hinduism in American media, pop culture, and most all in academia, we have been shouted down by the same concerned south Asian activists and commentators. We could not even talk about Hinduphobia without being rudely told that no such thing exists, or that it is a figment of Hindu extremist paranoid fantasy. We could not even do the one thing every religious minority community in America did: get old colonial-era racist nonsense about them written out of their children’s history textbooks. We were shouted down by the same general group of concerned observers who want us to fight racism but just not this racism apparently. This racism is actually not racism in their view: the California textbooks according to them contain only the true facts about Hinduism, and questioning it is tantamount to saffronisation and fundamentalism.
To this day, children in America get just one basic kind of message about Hinduism and Hindus in their school lessons: that we are the last irredeemable racist-casteists and sexists in the world. When some of them get to college or grad school, they will read even more about how we dumbly worship body organs, and how we were not just racist-casteists but actually the original Nazis, the forerunners of Hitlerian genocide no less (no exaggeration, just look at what is written on page 111 and page 144 of Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History)!
And all this is still only in the genteel, ‘educated’ side. What about the insanity that bubbles in less scholarly corners?What about the ravings of supposed men of God in their sermons who rant about our gods as nothing more than animal-headed devils and beasts? And what about Hollywood, and big media and popular culture, which, under the guise of being fair to Muslims or feeling guilty for Guantanamo, goes Slumdog on Hinduism?
All this is around us. It is real. Whether it directly contributes to specific acts of brutality against people or not, it is there, a toxin in the culture. Just think of the attacks in Australia a few years ago on Indian students where the assailants reportedly used “slumdog” as an insult at their victims.
Prejudice is not something that plays out in microscopic precision inside the heads of people about to do something nasty. It is a big ugly cloud of falsehood, envy, self-hatred, and spitefulness lurking around a society, just waiting to burst into real life. It did, this week, in Alabama. We cannot be sure what exactly squirmed about in the brains of the man who called the police on an elderly neighbor walking around the block, or in that of a policeman who had to prove himself to be tougher than a meek old man not being remotely aggressive to anyone. Was it color, envy, boredom, overzealousness, fear…? We cannot say for sure. But the fact is that the culture in which they grew up, the culture in which millions of people, Hindu, Muslim, brown, black, are all growing up, still has a thriving place in it for the ugliest and pettiest kind of falsehood and maliciousness.
Who can say for sure that the men involved in brutalizing Sureshbhai Patel did not at some point in their lives, maybe in school, maybe elsewhere, pick up on anti-Hindu myths and prejudice?
The truth is that if Hinduphobia is not named, shamed and eradicated from the halls of media and academia, its consequences might end up being even worse, and not just for Hindus. I hope the enlightened and concerned observers of south Asia who deny that Hinduphobia exists quickly come to realize that bigots are not usually well informed in their actions. After all, Islamophobes have attacked not only Muslims but also Sikhs in America. It would be appalling to keep pretending Hinduphobia doesn’t exist until one day some poor person, Hindu or not, finds himself or herself at the wrong end of a maniac believing he is stopping a casteist idol-worshipper from doing Satan’s work or some such.
There used to be a popular poster on idealistic college campuses. It had these inspiring lines which Hinduphobia-deniers might want to look at again:
They came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak for them;
They came for the Communists, and they didn’t speak for them…
And then when they came for me, there was no one left to speak for me.