Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Teach-In Draws Attention to Hindu Nationalism, Provokes Protest from Groups Outside College

Photo courtesy of Sayanth Shajith
Students particpated in a teach-in titled “Holi Against Hindutva.”

On Sunday, the Asian American Alliance and the Muslim Students Association hosted a teach-in called Holi Against Hindutva. The talk featured Associate Professor of History Rishad Choudhury, OC ’07, who gave an introduction to Hindutva and its history, and Pranay Somayajula, the director of research for Hindus for Human Rights, a nonprofit that supports anti-casteism and opposes Hindutva.

Hindutva literally translates to “Hinduness,” and its definition is highly contested. Those more sympathetic to Hindutva often define it as the “idea and practice of living a life according to Hindu teachings or even just a descriptor of being Hindu,” according to the Hindu American Foundation. Other organizations, such as Hindus for Human Rights, who disagree with the ideology, argue that “Hindutva … is a modern political ideology that advocates for Hindu supremacy and seeks to transform India, constitutionally a secular state, into an ethno-religious nation known as the Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation).”

College second-year and MSA Co-Chair Juwayria Zahurullah noted the importance of the event given the political climate in India and the intersections that the belief can have with other ideologies.

“This talk was about the history and current state of Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva, and its violent implications,” Zahurullah wrote in an email to the Review. “Especially with the current elections in India, we felt it was important to host this talk on campus because many people are unaware of the political climate and dominant political ideology in India, and the harmful anti-Muslim rhetoric it promotes.”

The event ultimately proceeded as scheduled. However, there was a demonstration by a small group from Cleveland’s chapter of the Coalition of Hindus of North America. In a statement on X, formerly Twitter, they explained the reason behind their demonstration, citing the anti-Hindu discrimination that they believe the event spread.

“We will not remain silent when people co-opt and desecrate our religious festivals, symbols, and figures for their political agenda and then turn around and accuse Hindus of being ‘Islamophobic’ simply for raising their voices against this anti-Hindu bigotry,” the post reads.

Before the event started, word about it spread to pro-Hindutva far-right circles, which resulted in mass comments and posts from various websites and news sources and backlash at the wording of the event’s name. Holi is a religious festival in Hinduism, known as the festival of colors. Those protesting the event objected to its use in the event’s title. A pamphlet handed out by those protesting claimed that the use of the festival “wrongfully paints the festival as divisive.”

“They co-opt and demonize our traditions and unfairly target a minority community,” the pamphlet read.

This controversy prompted AAA to release a statement on Instagram regarding the name.

“Critiques of this event are ill-informed at best, and dangerously Islamophobic at worst,” the statement read. “Attempting to discredit legitimate critiques of a right-wing nationalist movement by pointing fingers at Islamic extremism is a blatant whataboutism that does not contribute to the conversation we want to have.”

Choudhury explained the controversy about the event and his role throughout the talk, clarifying that he was there to provide the historical context of the event, rather than working as an activist.
“I think the way the event was advertised, where my name was associated with the title, made it sound as if I’m a political activist” Choudhury said. “I am not. I am a historian. As I saw it, my job here was to provide historical overview and empirical context for the student-led conversation.”

Even so, Choudhury emphasized the importance of discussing the issue. He also added that the name of the event was not picked by AAA or MSA; rather, it has been used by Hindus for Human Rights on various campuses.

“Hindutva is undoubtedly an important topic,” Choudhury said. “It has relevance both for South Asia and the diaspora, a fact that was made all too evident by how the event drew in protesters. But I the protest itself was misguided. It was obviously motivated by knee-jerk reactionary politics that bristle at the slightest criticism of Hindu nationalism. Here, though, we can have a discussion over how the title of the event could perhaps been less provocative, as I think Holi against Hindutva was what ultimatley raised the hackles of the protesters.”

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