Dr. Zahid Shahab Ahmed is based Deakin University in Australia and studies peace and security in South Asia and the Middle East.
This article focuses on how Australian civil society has reacted to Hindu nationalism.
The rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power in 2014 is largely attributed to Narendra Modi’s populism which has been largely shaped by Hindu nationalism. The BJP represents a collection of Hindu nationalist organisations called the Sangh Parivar, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). RSS is an Indian extremist paramilitary organisation that has been involved in attacks on religious minorities across India. Many BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Modi, have been lifelong RSS members.
While the BJP or the Sangh continues to expand its influence within India, Modi has made his intentions clear that he wants to influence 25 million strong Indian diaspora to achieve India’s national interests. It however seems that a part of this strategy is to promote Hindu nationalism among India diaspora and indications of this are already available in the United States and Australia.
Australia is home to 700,000 Indian diaspora. This number is likely to grow with more and more Indians coming to Australia as students, job seekers and migrants. Considering the devastating impacts of Hindu nationalism in India it is not surprising that its impacts have been felt in Australia. The BJP government’s three farm acts triggered protests, mainly in Indian Punjab, during 2020-2021. The government in India labelled those protests as a Sikh separatist plot triggering anti-Sikh sentiments in India and beyond. Following this, the Sikh community in Australia experienced a sudden increase in threats from Hindu nationalists who labelled them as anti-national. In February 2021, there was an attack on Sikh men in Sydney. The Australian authorities arrested several people of Indian origin who were involved in this attack, including an international student Vishal Jood who was deported in 2021. Upon his return in India, Jood received a heroic welcome from hundreds who came to welcome him as a patriot.
Within this context, now let us look at how civil society groups in Australia are reacting to other manifestations of rising Hindu nationalist influence in Australia. The first of such prominent episodes was of 13 fellows quitting Melbourne University’s Australia-India Institute. They raised the concern that the Indian High Commissioner to Australia had intervened in the Institute’s affairs repeatedly “where research or views that are unflattering to the image of India had been blanked”. This is a way New Delhi has been trying to control the anti-India narrative abroad by not just promoting its official nationalist propaganda but also by not allowing any commentary that is critical of India.
Prior to resigning from the Australia-India Institute, many of its fellows had written a letter to the University of Melbourne’s Vice Chancellor in December to raise concerns vis-à-vis academic freedom. In that letter, prominent scholars of India in Australia wrote that the current BJP’s “majoritarian government had used sedition laws to curtail freedom of speech and has incarcerated academics and journalists as well as social workers with little evidence, due to process or access to bail”. With reference to the Australia-India Institute, they also shared several concerns that the Indian High Commissioner to Australia’s influence had “led to some events relating to India being discouraged, or not supported, on the grounds that they were likely to be controversial”.
The ongoing controversy in Australia is regarding an event organised by the Australia India Youth Dialogue (AIYD) in which the organisers have invited Tejasvi Surya, a member of parliament in India. Surya is a BJP member and a prominent RSS swayamsevak. What has made his participation in the event schedule for 31 May to 2 June 2022 controversial is the fact that he follows deeply divisive and exclusionary ideology and promotes that through whatever means available to him, including Twitter. On 19 February 2019, he tweeted, “I am all the more convinced that we must unapologetically agitate for a Hindu rashtra”. Converting a secular India to a Hindi India is prominent on the agenda of the Sangh. In December 2021, he called for “the conversion of Muslims and Christians into Hindus on a ‘war footing’.”
In reaction to an invitation extended to Surya by AIYD, civil society groups in Australia have been protesting. There are many organisations involved in this protest, including the Humanism Project, Hindus for Human Rights-Australia and New Zealand, and the Australian Federation of Islamic Council. They have been demanding the Australian government cancel Surya’s visa and urging AIYD’s partners to not support this event. As of the end of May 2022, some of the partners mentioned at the AIYD’s website had stated that they were not supporting this event. In fact, the University of Melbourne and KPMG said that their logo was placed on the AIYD’s website by mistake. The author looked on the AIYD website on 30 May 2022 and found that the following institutions were still mentioned as the organisation’s partners: Deakin University, The University of Sydney, Macquarie University and Monash University. Like the case of the University of Melbourne, it is quite likely that AIYD has mentioned the names of these institutions without any formal agreement with these Australian universities. Still, civil society groups have sent letters to vice chancellors of relevant universities to do not support the event in which Surya is invited as an Indian delegate.
As examined in this article, Hindu nationalist and Indian state influence in growing in Australia. While this has led to hate speech and violent attacks against the Sikh community, the Indian government has tried to curtail academic freedom in connection to the Australia-India Institute. There are however dozens of civil society organisations – mainly represented by the South Asian diaspora – who have reacted strongly to Hindu nationalist influence in Australia. This clearly shows that there are thousands who do not want any Hindu nationalist influence that can disturb their peaceful lives in Australia.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are of the author and do not necessarily represent the institute’s policy.