Why Hindu nationalists have embraced Donald Trump

Donald Trump speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Credit: Greg Skidmore.

Much media attention was given to a small gathering in Delhi earlier this month by a group called the Hindu Sena (Hindu Army) who were performing a havan puja, or a fire ceremony where mantras are chanted to invoke gods. The subject—a blown up photo of Donald Trump, adorned with vermilion.

Assembled in front of a large banner displaying the text read ‘he is hope for humanity against Islamic terror’, the Hindu Sena prayed for a favourable outcome for the US Republican presidential nominee.

Drawing media coverage, leader Vishnu Gupta, who has been previously arrested for assault and protests, stated ‘the way in which Donald Trump has grasped people’s thoughts and directly targeted Islamist terrorism has inspired us. The whole world is screaming against Islamist terrorism and even India is not safe from it’.

In a rallying call, the group proclaims Jindabad (Long live), often spoken at politically motivated meetings such as hartals (strikes) or trade union meetings, and which first gained popularity during the Indian independence movement.

As expected, the social media response, especially on Twitter, was overwhelmingly negative.

The Guardian published an opinion piece on how Trump’s Islamophobic platform appeals to the far-right across borders. It compared the Hindu Sena’s support of the demagogue to those of European ‘populists’ in Greece, France, the Netherlands, and Italy, as well as more mainstream conservatives.

Another response by India-based outlet DailyO questioned whether or not Trump or Prime Minister Narendra Modi are actually that different given the similarities between the former’s campaign rhetoric and the latter’s drive to victory in 2014.

But clumping together all the above as Islamophobic movements can be misguiding and dangerous. It is not enough to attribute hate towards a one-dimensional narrative.

We need to break it down even further to understand dissatisfaction in line with common global grievances. More importantly, we need to take into account how local context interacts to shape these outcomes.

The Hindu Sena share three fundamental ideological characteristics with its global far-right contemporaries, albeit an India-centred narrative.

First, it makes a territorial claim, which is often manifested with national security and anti-immigrant discourse. The ultimate goal of the Hindu Sena is to establish the Hindu Rashtra (or Hindu nation) through Akhand Hindustan (Undivided India). This refers to the Partition mandated divide of Hindu-dominated India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan.

The Hindu Sena thus describes India as ‘the land of Hindus since time. As such, Hindus have the right to live their lives in peace according to Hindu philosophy and ideals. In addition, Hindus have the right to their homeland in the form of a sovereign Hindu state guided by Hindu ideology and way of life to promote Hindu culture’ .

Trump’s proposal to build a wall on the US-Mexico border is therefore met with enthusiasm for a similar policy with Bangladesh’s border. It reflects the Hindu Sena’s nativist backlash against Muslim ‘foreigners’.

The second shared element concerns authoritarianism. Vishnu Gupta remarked that ‘every leader should be faithful to his own people’. This idolisation of a strong figure devoted to protecting ‘his own’ has strong links to fascism, which seeks to maintain law and order.

By forging national unity along exclusive boundaries of belonging, Trump occupies a patriarchal image of stability. This is attractive at a time when, despite a Hindu nationalist party in power, there is much parliamentary gridlock from the opposition. And while Modi continues to enjoy high approval ratings, the optimism surrounding his election has considerably died down.

Thirdly, the Hindu Sena takes a distinctly anti-establishment perspective. It often denounces the government and mainstream media as complicit towards Muslims, showcasing sensationalist stories of sexual grooming (echoing European far right anti-Muslim anxiety). Stories of political corruption are also abundant.

Modi’s campaign certainly disrupted the Indian political establishment and increased the visibility of Islamophobia in the media since he assumed office. But significantly, Modi himself has refrained from explicitly targeting Indian Muslims in his rhetoric.

For the Hindu Sena, this is viewed as a cowardly move and a sign of political weakness. The group believes Modi’s government has not done enough to prevent Islamic extremism, preferring an outsider like Trump who makes brash claims that capitalise on these fears.

It’s crucial to note, however, that the Hindu Sena is a minority within India’s far-right. Even Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the paramilitary wing of the now sitting Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), avoids any association.

Whilst the Hindu Sena’s views are not actually that different from the RSS or BJP, it has a highly visible history of violence and appropriation of sacred religious ritual for political gain. The RSS and BJP tend to moderate their message by taking a more ‘culture’-based platform of Hindu identity rather than explicit religiosity.

What we should be focusing on instead is the statistically small, but growing base of Hindu Americans that support Trump. According to their Facebook page, ‘American Hindus are model citizens, educated and industrious. We want a responsible nation where Americans are both safe and free’. This security and freedom entails taking a tough stance against Islamic extremism, and by virtue of, Muslims.

The group’s profile photo is of Trump sitting in a meditative yoga position in a red, white and blue lotus, similar to depictions of Brahma and Vishnu. They similarly compare Trump to Modi as the voice of an outsider that challenges ‘liberal media political correctness’.

Hinduism is quickly rising as the fourth largest religious group in the United States, whilst Hindus are one of the most educated demographic and hold one of the highest average household incomes. The power of ultra-conservative Hindu Americans should not be underestimated.

So while the Hindu Sena may be politically insignificant compared to its more strategic siblings, ridicule can only take us so far. We need to recognise that this fringe group constitutes part of a much larger and influential Hindutva movement that is making inroads within Indian politics and beyond.

Eviane Leidig holds an MSc in Ethnicity and Multiculturalism from the University of Bristol, where her dissertation compared far right and Islamic extremist networks online. She received an undergraduate degree in postcolonial studies from the University of California, Berkeley. Eviane is currently Social Media Editor for the journal Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism. She tweets @evianeleidig