Donald Trump’s campaign exposed a subtle but important divide in the Hindu American community. Trump was unabashedly supported by a small group of Republican Hindus calling themselves “Hindus for Trump,” but Democratic Hindu Americans, who are probably a much larger part of the community, simply did not project themselves as “Hindus for Clinton."
This hesitation among Hindus to call themselves Hindus is not uncommon, and parallels a broader ongoing de-Hinduizing of Hindu culture and history in mainstream Western (and Indian) academic and journalistic discourse. But the divide between non-Hindu-identifying Hindus (including but not limited to identifying “South Asians”) and the rather blunt and confident Hindus for Trump is not a simple Left-Right one, and needs to be understood within a larger history of postcolonial self-negation rather than the usual academic-journalistic platitudes about Hindutva, Modi and Trump (there were clearly some proud Hindu Americans who supported Hillary, or at least opposed Trump, but Hillary supporters on the whole seemed more enamored by phrases like "South Asians" and "Desis" rather than "Hindu- "or even "Indian-American").
Unsurprisingly, the Hindus for Trump campaign evoked both mockery and criticism. Their Bollywood-style charity event for victims of terrorism (“Hindus for Trump”) in New Jersey last month, got lampooned by American late night show comedians. In the days that followed, the RHC group produced several television ads that appeared regularly on Hindi satellite and cable channels available in the United States. One of them featured Trump delivering a variation of Prime Minister Modi’s famous campaign punchline in Hindi (“Ab ki baar, Trump Sarkar!” he said, or “It’s a Trump Government’s turn now”). Another advertisement showed Eric Trump visiting a Hindu temple in Florida, and a third one, less politely, directly targeted Clinton aide Huma Abedin’s Pakistani lineage, leading another Hindu American advocacy group to condemn this action.
Although Hindus for Trump clearly tried to capitalize on Prime Minister Modi’s popularity, the Indian American landscape is too complex to assume that all or even most Modi supporters are Trump supporters. Prime Minister Modi’s supporters in the Indian American community include both Democrats and Republicans. A Pew Foundation report suggests that 65% of Indian Americans “lean left,” .
However, the question remains as to why supporters of Hillary Clinton did not speak up as “Hindus for Hillary,” in the direct manner of “Hindus for Trump.”
There is, in my view, a widespread hesitation about speaking as Hindu Americans in the community due to the unexamined and unchecked anxiety about being perceived as Hindu nationalists, extremists or supremacists. This often turns into a form of self-censorship and self-negation for younger Hindu Americans seeking to embrace a place in the American multicultural spectrum on their own terms. Recently, the question of Hindu identity became one of the main points of contention between Hindu school children and a group of South Asia Studies professors who asked (unsuccessfully in the end) for the removal of the word “Hinduism” from parts of the California K-12 history curriculum. Perhaps as a result of a dogmatic academic belief that the word “Hindu” is a recent invention and its use therefore amounts to support for an exclusionary and intolerant ideology of Hindu nationalism, several South Asian activists and writers have) avoided the word in their discussions about identity in America.
For example, when the Obama White House hosted a summit on bullying last June, the title above the stage listed “Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian” as the identities they were concerned about, ignoring or subsuming Hindu identity altogether (despite the fact Hindu American children are not immune at all from bullying). When an Indian American father visiting his family in Alabama was manhandled and injured by an overzealous police officer, South Asian American activists were insistent that somehow Islamophobia was the main problem, though he happened to be Hindu.
The word “Hindu,” simply, has been rendered largely unspeakable in large swathes of South Asian public and academic discourse. For many Hindus in America, it is an awkward challenge to live with, as if identifying as Hindu is innately problematic. It is not unexpected therefore that at least some Hindus who are unafraid to speak as Hindus have gone on board for Trump.
Like the small portion of Latinos, African Americans and other minorities who have voted for Trump despite widespread media alarm about racism and xenophobia, the presence of Hindus for Trump may be an indication that the multicultural and multireligious reality of the United States is too pervasive now to be excluded altogether by any major political movement. Hindus for Trump wasn’t quite an elegant start, but in the end it appears that the election, and worldwide democratic impulses, are favoring those rooted in their historic identities rather than concocted confectionery coalitions that were no less exclusivist despite their sweet coating (post election, Hindus for Trump still remains visible with its founder Shalabh Kumar sharing video clips of Republican leaders expressing their support for India and for Hindu Americans). The main lesson from this election is that in the future Hindus in America will matter only if they learn to be unafraid and unashamed to speak as Hindus, whether they support Democrats or Republicans.
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