Gautam: Speaking out against Hinduphobia

Sparsh Gautam, Op-Ed Contributor

It has been nearly four years since I first arrived in America. I consider it my good fortune to have pursued my higher education in the Chicago area, which was once addressed by one of the greatest Hindu leaders of modern times: Swami Vivekananda. Vivekananda educated the world on Hinduism in his address at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893, which was hosted in Chicago. He also changed many preconceived notions of Hinduism while enlightening the masses on its contributions to world peace and universal acceptance. My pride in my Hindu identity stems from the fact that I come from one of the oldest existing civilizations and am one of the estimated 1.2 billion globally who practice Hinduism. 

My journey as a proud, practicing Hindu was untraditional. Being born and brought up in the Southern African country of Botswana, and being raised in a Hindu household in a country with such a small Hindu population, sparked my thirst to learn more about our scriptures and practices. I continue to cherish my childhood memories of visiting Mandirs, or temples, in my area for ceremonies and festivals. I fondly remember visiting the local Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) Shri Swaminarayan Mandir for their weekly sabhas, or meetings, which would be engaging sessions of spiritual discourse, devotion and prayer. Since we weren’t a large Hindu community, we were a very tight-knit one. 

I set out for the U.S. in September 2019 to pursue a higher education at the McCormick School of Engineering. There was an obvious culture shock for the first few weeks, but that changed when I was introduced to BAPS Shri Swaminarayan devotees in the Chicago area upon my first visit at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Chicago. Connecting with these devotees allowed me to continue visiting Hindu Mandirs in the area, participate in large-scale festivities, engage in community service events and, most importantly, feel a sense of belonging. Without a single temple in Northwestern’s proximity, I began realizing there was a similar longing by others on NU’s campus to engage in Hindu practices and team building activities. Though I really enjoyed weekend temple trips with friends, I felt it was high time a similar community was also fostered on campus. That is why a few Hindu students and I started the NU Chapter of Hindu Youth for Unity, Virtues & Action to create a space for our dynamic Hindu student population at NU. 

Hindu YUVA has become an integral part of my college experience and something I hold very dearly. It has been a strong community for me at the University while allowing me to practice my faith. Some recent examples are our events during Wildcat Diwali and the more recent MahaShivratri celebrations. Due to the huge success of our events, we were a recipient of the Wildcat Diversity Impact Award in Winter 2023. Our team put up great events to provide avenues for practicing Hindus on campus while educating non-Hindus on important festivals and traditions in Hinduism. 

However, despite all the recognized great work Hindu YUVA is doing, I find it concerning and rather unfortunate that select individuals and groups on our campus have targeted me and Hindu groups because of affiliations with Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, a social and cultural organization that aims to promote Hindu values. In February, The Daily published an article where members of The Subcontinent Project and even individuals unassociated with NU give remarks critical of Hindu-centric clubs. TSP markets itself as a political group and its targeting of Hindu groups on campus is questionable, to say the least. In fact, this select group of individuals went on to make baseless allegations against Hindu YUVA  by referring to it as “Hindu supremacist,” “Islamophobic” and even saying our organization has links with groups that “fund terror.”

This is appalling. Such statements are offensive and hurtful. They call for outrage. How does celebrating a University-backed Diwali event make us Islamophobic? How does visiting local Hindu temples in our area make us Hindu supremacists? In a world where Hinduphobia is a real threat, how does creating a safe space for all Hindus on campus make us supporters of terrorism? 

In the U.S., Hindus constitute less than 1% of the population. We are attacked time and again as we are perceived as “soft targets.” In July 2022, a report titled “Anti-Hindu Disinformation: A case study of Hinduphobia in Social Media” was published by the Network Contagion Research Institute at Rutgers University. The report’s finding showed a significant increase in anti-Hindu hate speech across social media platforms. When the obvious effects of outright Hinduphobia are so visible in the society around us, harmful stereotypes against Hindus perpetuate a culture of hate and division. Yet in the published article, these individuals are dangerously seen trivializing the seriousness of Hinduphobia.

What’s even worse is that the article goes on to link my Hindu identity (and the Hindu identity of all members in Hindu YUVA and OM at NU) with the political landscape in India by linking us to the Hindu majority in India. I have never even lived in India. The basis for such claims is nonexistent. Living in Botswana has allowed me to engage with the Hindu community back home, not with the political discourse in India. The only issue here, it seems for them, is that I am an unapologetic, proud Hindu.

There have undoubtedly been some important milestones during my four years here at such a renowned academic institution. NU officially welcomed its first-ever Hindu Chaplain. We formed the much-demanded club of Hindu YUVA with the unwavering support of the University. Hindu students came together to celebrate festivals at scales never before seen in NU’s history. All of this makes me very proud. 

Nevertheless, in attempts to sideline the positive impact we are creating, there have been consistent malign efforts made to push forward an obviously Hinduphobic narrative. It is high time that Hinduphobia is officially recognized by the University. I believe my life background of having been brought up in a Hindu household of Indian origin while growing up in Botswana prior to pursuing higher education in the U.S. emphasizes how I, along with all Hindus, appreciate diversity according to the Hindu framework of universal acceptance. With Hindus being attacked for their identity, senior University leadership certainly has a responsibility to make us feel more protected. NU’s firm commitment toward diversity, equity and inclusion also rests upon how safe and self-confident its Hindu student populace feels. 

And finally, to all my fellow Hindu students. Be proud of your Hindu identity. We belong to such a vast and ancient civilization that continues to thrive. Our people have given so much to the world. Be unapologetic!

Sparsh Gautam is a McCormick senior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.