The Subcontinent Project sparks discussions on topic of Hindu nationalism at Northwestern


Illustration by Ziye Wang

The Subcontinent Project is a graduate student organization aiming to engage with the Northwestern community about South Asian politics and culture.

Michelle Sheen, Reporter

Content warning: This article contains discussions of Islamophobia.

India’s right-wing, pro-Hindu ruling party — the Bharatiya Janata Party — passed the Citizen Amendment Act in 2019, easing the path to citizenship for Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Parsi and Sikh immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

However, the policy does not grant the same benefits to Muslim immigrants.

Hindu cultural nationalism sanctifies India as intrinsically Hindu and marks the non-Hindu as its adversary,” Angana Chatterji, a scholar at the Center for Race and Gender at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in an email to The Daily.

Chatterji said laws like the CAA privilege Hindus while putting religious minorities’ rights and privileges — particularly those of Muslims — at “grave risk.” She said the ascent of Hindu nationalism that has occurred since the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election and re-election to the government in 2014 and 2019, respectively, has amplified the majoritarian state of the country. 

Opposition to the CAA has resulted in a series of protests worldwide, including in the Chicago area.

Several South Asian graduate students from Northwestern — along with students from the University of Illinois Chicago and Loyola University Chicago — protested the CAA at the Consulate General of India in downtown Chicago in 2019. The group hoped to raise awareness of international opposition to nationalist elements of Indian politics.

These protest efforts sparked the formation of The Subcontinent Project in 2020, a graduate student organization aiming to engage with the NU community about South Asian politics and culture.

“I think it’s especially important that there is such a space on campus given the rise — especially in the last year and a half — of very explicitly Hindu supremacist organizations on campus,” said Raina Bhagat, a fourth-year comparative literature Ph.D. student and former TSP president.

Hindu YUVA is a NU religious student organization with the aim of bringing Hindu and non-Hindu students together. According to the official website, the group is a student program of Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, a social and cultural organization which aims to promote Hindu values.

However, Bhagat said she believes the HSS funds terror in India. She said HSS has connections to India’s Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh paramilitary, which some religious minorities in India criticized for fostering intolerance and hate towards minority groups. 

HSS media director Vikas Deshpande wrote to The Daily stating that all accusations of the organization being a supremacist group are “blatant lies.” He added that accusations by TSP are attempts to defame HSS’ works.

“HSS does not fund anyone or anything outside of the U.S.,” Deshpande said. “We reject terrorism and intolerance.”

Deshpande also referenced increases in Hinduphobia in the United States and said allegations made against HSS are examples of intolerance against Hindu Americans and Hindu-based organizations. 

However, Chatterji said Hinduphobia in the U.S., as a movement, is not a rising concern in the same way Islamophobia is. 

While individuals can be subject to discrimination for practicing Hinduism, Hinduphobia is not systemic in nature, fourth-year communication studies graduate student Bipin Sebastian said. 

Hindu YUVA president and McCormick senior Sparsh Gautam said the organization plans most of its own events and activities independently — even though its work occasionally overlaps with that of HSS.

The organization hosted the “Ramleela” musical last October as a Diwali celebration. Gautam said this event was one example of those the group hosts mostly independently of HSS. Although Hindu YUVA received volunteer help from HSS to set up, the student organization was the main organizer of the event, Gautam said. 

“I think it’s very, very unexpected for someone to just come up and say HSS is a Hindu supremacist or Hindu nationalist organization,” Gautam said. “It definitely isn’t the case. We don’t believe so.”

Gautam said there has been no attempt from TSP to understand Hindu YUVA’s plan or vision, making him believe the group’s intentions are “malign and Hinduphobic.” 

As a founding member of TSP, Sebastian said OM at Northwestern, a spiritual group on campus, also has ties to Hindu majoritarian groups operating in the U.S. 

However, Weinberg sophomore and OM at Northwestern co-President Kushal Mungee said the organization does not have any affiliations “of the sort.”

Sebastian said though he understands students’ desires to foster a cultural connection through clubs like Hindu YUVA, they should remain aware of these religious organizations’ affiliations with HSS. 

In 2020, members of TSP petitioned the University to stop supporting Hindu YUVA because of this tie. Sebastian said though members of TSP met with NU to discuss the petition in the summer of 2022, no changes have occurred.

“Our only request is that Northwestern University, which claims to be very liberal, progressive and uplifting for minorities, cannot platform or give resources to organizations like (Hindu YUVA),” Sebastian said. “That’s our only demand — that Northwestern should stop platforming them.”

TSP also aims to raise awareness of caste-related discrimination by encouraging the implementation of caste as a protected category in Title IX at NU, Sebastian said. 

Other colleges across the nation, such as California State University, have already taken this step.

To spread awareness of casteism, TSP and the Ambedkar Du Bois Society painted The Rock in November to kickstart the formation of ADBS. Sebastian said this organization primarily focuses on anti-caste efforts.

The Ambedkar Du Bois Society filed a petition in November to make caste a protected category. Though the University responded to the organization and thanked them for bringing the case to their attention, there have been no formal changes to the policy, Sebastian said. 

TSP is a space free for anyone — regardless of caste, religion and any other forms of discrimination — to share in conversation, Bhagat said.

TSP President and fourth-year comparative literature graduate student Ishan Mehandru said though graduate students run the organizations, all NU community members are welcome to participate in conversations and events the project holds.

“The idea is to have a critical space to have progressive conversations about the subcontinent, across politics and culture, and that should include literally everybody, whether they consider themselves to be South Asian or not,” Mehandru said. 

Clarification: This article has been updated to better reflect which organizations painted The Rock in November 2022.

Related Stories: 

Hindu YUVA celebrates Diwali with ‘Ramleela’ musical

Hindu YUVA at Northwestern creates community around shared values

Captured: OM at Northwestern exhibits traditional Hindu performing arts at its 2022 Classical Arts Showcase