Meena Natarajan speaks during a meeting on hate and violence in India and America in Minneapolis, MN on August 20, 2022. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

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A group of diverse Indian community members met on a recent afternoon in a colorful meeting room in the lower level of an office building in St. Anthony. Their mission: track the troubling politics of their home country and compel Americans to help stem a growing tide of hate against South Asian Muslims.

They formed the India Coalition to promote coexistence in the Twin Cities’ Indian community and to curb bigotry spreading through the United States as a result of a form of Hindu nationalism–Hindutva–that is pitting Hindus against Muslims.

“I see an inexonerable wave of hate, bigotry, and fascism taking over India,” said attendee Zafar Siddiqui, an activist and board member of several local nonprofits. “And if there is no pushback, however small that is, it’s going to consume us.”

Siddiqui started the group by bringing together a network of friends and acquaintances from a variety of faith, cultural, linguistic, and professional backgrounds.

“I have to make a deliberate effort to reach out to other people of Indian origin—Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians—and form more alliances,” he said.

The group of about 31 hopes to draw attention to political issues that have cost lives in India but have gone largely unnoticed by the general public in the United States.

Muslims suffer under new regime

Members of the India Coalition, many of whom grew up in different parts of India and the diaspora, remembered an upbringing very different from the India they see on the news today. People of all religions cared for one another, they said, and they didn’t see hate emboldened by the government.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014, succeeding Manhoman Singh, the nation’s first Sikh prime minister. The right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party advocates making India a Hindu state. The rise of the Hindu nationalist sentiment in India, often referred to as “Hindutva” and not a sect of the religion, follows a global trend of political groups that are anti-political establishment, anti-globalization, and anti-immigration coming to power.

India is a religiously, culturally, and linguistically diverse country. The conflict between Hindus, Muslims, and other minorities is a long and complicated history driven by imperialism and British colonization. More recently, the Bharatiya Janata Party has made controversial moves targeting Muslims and minorities throughout the country.

For example, a law passed in India in 2020 outlines a pathway to Indian citizenship for persecuted religious minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. However, all Muslims were excluded from eligibility. Hindus make up about 80 percent of India’s population in a country of nearly 1.2 billion. Muslims make up the second largest faith group, totaling more than 200 million.

“What has really troubled me is the non-reaction,” Siddiqui said of the local Indian community. “The enormity of the things happening in India should have at least made Indian people here sit up and take notice and do something about it.”

The India Coalition held a potluck lunch prior to its first meeting in Minneapolis, MN on August 20, 2022. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

The government also published a registry of citizens in 2019 in the northeastern Indian state of Assam. The registry excluded two million people, many of whom were migrants, and roughly 600,000 Muslims. Those who were excluded had to prove their citizenship at state service centers and risked detention if they could not.

Ajay Skaria, a professor of South Asian politics and history at the University of Minnesota, hopes the India Coalition will reach out beyond their group to the larger Hindu community in the Twin Cities and discuss the current government in India.

The developments in India haven’t gone completely unnoticed by local politicians. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar introduced a House resolution in June to designate India as “a country of particular concern,” due to “human rights violations and violations of international religious freedom in India” of Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, as well as indigenous groups, and Dalits, members of the lowest castes in India. Omar declined to comment on the resolution, which is currently sitting in the House.

The St. Paul City Council passed a similar measure in 2020, condemning Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party. 

“This resolution is not a personal attack on any individual, but a way for us to move forward our values and protecting our religions and all folks,” then-Council Member Dai Thao said in May 2020.

Resolutions like these not only denounce bigotry abroad, but they are also meant to oppose discrimination at home, too. Most recently, a bulldozer used during an Indian Independence Day rally in New Jersey on August 14 sparked outrage across the United States.

U.S. activists said bulldozers have become a problematic symbol after Indian politicians used them to demolish Muslim homes in India. Photos and videos of the New Jersey bulldozer circulated widely on social media, making a deep impression on India Coalition members in Minnesota. The bulldozer was decorated with posters of Prime Minister Modi and another party leader.

Members of the India Coalition fear something similar could occur in the Twin Cities, which hasn’t experienced any public or overt Hindu-Muslim clashes. According to the U.S. Census, there are nearly 40,000 foreign-born and U.S.-born Indians living in Minnesota. There’s no reliable data on the population’s religious breakdown.

In January 2020, roughly 400 people took to the Minnesota State Capitol to protest India’s citizenship law that excluded Muslims.

Charanjeet Guron speaks during a meeting on hate and violence in India and America in Minneapolis, MN on August 20, 2022. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

‘What happens globally always affects us locally’

One of the India Coalition’s first tasks will be to share a recent opinion piece published in the Pioneer Press that was written by several contributors. The op-ed was authored by: Ellen Kennedy, executive director of World Without Genocide and a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law; Archbishop Bernard Hebda; Debra Rappaport, co-chair of the Minnesota Rabbinical Association; and Anantanand Rambachan, a professor of religion at St. Olaf College. Coalition members plan to share the piece with their local and state elected officials and invite them to future coalition meetings.

“We urge U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, and our eight members of the U.S. House of Representatives, to designate India a ‘country of concern,’” the op-ed said.

Kennedy has spoken at congressional briefings about the persecution of Muslims in India. World Without Genocide is a nonprofit that works to prevent genocide and to combat racism and prejudice worldwide. It is based at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

“I’m enormously worried. And I’m worried not just in India,” Kennedy said in an interview with Sahan Journal. “Once the hate has been sanctioned, it escalates.”

According to the op-ed, outbreaks of anti-Muslim violence have occurred in at least six states in India, “With Hindu nationalists beating and murdering Muslims in public places, including mosques, while police watch. There are open calls for compulsory sterilizations, murder, and outright genocide of Muslims.”

“Outside of the South Asian community, there’s almost no awareness of the issues in India and … there is a sense that it has no impact on issues of American foreign policy,” Kennedy said. “I feel quite differently. What happens globally always affects us locally.

At the India Coalition’s recent meeting, Dipankar Mukherjee, co-director of the Pangea World Theater in Minneapolis, wrapped up the gathering on an inspirational note about spreading the group’s mission.

“We choose to focus on stitching our relationships with authentic threads of steel,” Mukherjee said. “We are so committed that the ripples of this room increases so that we are the ocean and they are just a few leaves that have fallen on top of the water.”

The India Coalition plans to meet monthly. The meetings are closed to the public, but they hope to plan outreach events in the future. To learn more about the organization, email the coalition at indiacoalition@gmail.com.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.