In my earlier essay, I described how three sets of lies and half-truths about Hindus were built by academia, media and other interest groups since the 1980s.
In the first phase (1989-2002), Hindu revivalism was equated with religious supremacism and any views comparing Ayodhya with indigenous struggles to reclaim sacred lands elsewhere were ignored. In the second phase, soon after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the US-UK Iraq invasion of 2003, the Western liberal establishment decided to atone for their sins of Islamophobia by elevating the threat level of “Hindu Nationalism” to “more dangerous than Al Qaeda” even as Hindus and bystanders were getting blown up or shot up all over India by Jihadists. The third phase began around 2015, on the back foot at first. Propaganda had to adjust to reality, but only briefly. Then, it became darker, nastier, and deadlier than before.
In this article, I will describe in some depth how the organised lying against Hindus, India, and the Modi government (which are separate things but often lumped together), escalated year by year since 2015, and how well (if at all) the Modi government, BJP, and sometimes Hindu organisations did in dealing with this sophisticated communications war. This is my assessment after studying propaganda and disinformation campaigns of the past (the Crusades, World War 1, Advertising and PR, the Cold War, the Gulf War, etc).
Before we begin though, we should keep in mind two ground realities for context:
One, even though many of us might use the word “propaganda” or “lies” here, the story about Hinduism/Hindutva circulating in the media is simply the “truth” for thousands of people in very influential positions in MNCs, think-tanks, governments, NGOs, universities, media houses, and so on. It is also the “truth” I think for many in the younger generations presently in schools and colleges. Finally, the present narrative, however false it may be to us, is also imposed behaviourally on millions of people who may doubt it but are forced to go along anyway.
Two, my assessment of communication hits and misses in the past few years approaches it objectively from the point of view of audiences described above, rather than that of Hindus who are already convinced a problem exists. If we can’t imagine how Hindus have been made to appear to onlookers around the world by now, we are fighting a losing battle. We have to look at our image honestly, without delusions.
Given this reality, how has the Hindu (or GoI, or BJP) narrative since 2014 looked like to the unconverted? Are all those ‘befitting replies’ really working? And if communication battles are seen as efforts to secure compliance (rather than just a matter of representing the truth, as academics and journalists, one subset of communication professionals, are expected to do), then who’s getting their way more in real life after the last eight years? A popular, democratically-strong government backed up by a prosperous economy, or its opponents?
Key communication moments assessed 2014-22
2014: Madison Square Garden, New York. Assessment: Missed Opportunity.
Thousands of screaming fans filled the stadium to welcome Prime Minister Modi to New York. Many US politicians also came to witness the rising Indian-American vote- (or throat-) power. Yet, the aftermath of this spectacle did not change the story that had already been built. A high-level diplomatic, academic, business, and media conference with the power to reach into the institutions where India-stories are produced ought to have been organised alongside the visit. Narendra Modi’s fans should have bought full-page ads not simply showering praises, but actually addressing his critics and fence-sitters with facts and refutations (a relevant point even now after the recent New York Times ad on Gandhi Jayanti accusing India of human rights violations). There was a window for change in the mainstream media narrative in 2014. Hard critics wouldn’t have changed but others would have felt equipped with the right information to resist for sure. But on the whole, this was only a missed opportunity, not yet a communication disaster.
2015: Cows, ‘Intolerance’, PM Modi’s Silicon Valley Events. Assessment: More Missed Opportunities.
The Modi government went through its first year with a “safe” communication face, talking about Vikas/development, Gandhi, and so on. The propaganda ecosystem probably felt lonely because there really wasn’t much proof of the “Hindutva Fascism” they had predicted. Could at least some reasonable scholars and writers have adjusted their past views? I don’t know. But there were errors of “omissions” and “commissions” as they say. The omission: this was the time when the ruling party could have invested in a serious, rigorous story that transcended the Vikas OR Hindutva dichotomy (or “temples versus toilets” to put it crudely).
The cow issue, raked up, if I recall correctly in May 2015 in Maharashtra, could have actually been the ideal issue to go global with in these “green is cool” times. Instead, the emerging “RW” secular-technocrats did the opposite. I was told by a friend who later joined the government “not to be seen in the company of the cow issue.” Global Go-Raksha was a missed communication opportunity (and of course, by the time social media Hindus attacked PETA, the opportunity for positioning Hindutva as the great green global alternative to dominionist religions causing climate change and animal extinction was lost).
In late 2015, Prime Minister Modi returned to America, this time to California to meet Mark Zuckerberg and others, and fill another stadium event. Now the pushback against him was a bit stronger. Someone paid for anti-Modi billboards. My colleagues in academia, who had been silent since the election, rebounded with a group letter to Silicon Valley leaders calling for a boycott. Hindu groups though decided to abandon an attempt to get a debate going inside academia by instead writing a “welcome patram” to the PM. These were the “omissions.” The “commission”? Well, in late 2015 the posh lit fest crowd, which had been hesitant and wondering if they should be changing with the times, got some mysterious energy to double down on its old lies. I found it fascinating that one lit fest (not Jaipur) where the whole NYT / Guardian/ South Asia crowd gathered, actually had evening soirees for the participants hosted by foreign embassies! They probably love literature very much. In any case, “intolerance” and “go rakshaks” quickly took over the “India story” in the world press.
2016. The ‘South Asia’ Campaign in California History Textbooks. Assessment: Won the battle, lost ground in the war.
While the struggle over how Hinduism was depicted in California’s history textbooks started years before, the 2016 controversy marked what in retrospect seems to me a very brazen, and yet very normal in America, kind of propaganda intervention. From the Native American forced boarding school project in the 1890s, to the eugenics-inspired mass schooling system funded by wealthy foundations in the 1920s, to more recent controversies about race, gender and sexuality pedagogy in schools, the sad truth is that American schools have been a playground for vast ideological and behavioural experiments on innocent children. Immigrant Hindu parents who’d never fought anything before somehow mobilized and spoke up.
Hindu groups and community leaders played a big role in the process, sometimes positively, sometimes less so. I had hoped at this time to encourage more people in academia to challenge the status quo inside. While some of our efforts were successful, to the extent that the proposed plan to replace all mentions of “India” before 1947 with “South Asia” was walked back, I think the South Asia paradigm won a lot more ground since this time than its opponents. Since then, its proponents secured prestigious platforms, serious funding, and worked quickly to mainstream extremely false claims about Hinduism into behaviour-control projects (like encouraging college students to wear black on Holi because according to them Holi is about “Brahmins burning a Dalit-Bahujan woman”).
The hundreds of brave Hindu children who spoke out in Sacramento against the bizarre things they were being made to do in their Ancient India/Caste System lessons disappeared from the record. Not one documentary film, not one peer-reviewed article, not one proof exists as far as I know about how these children were smeared and attacked by the South Asianist lobby in Sacramento. Once again, Hindus failed to document atrocities against them.
One more relevant point: because the textbook controversy had grown from being mainly about “Hinduism” to being more about “India” (whose existence and history were being denied now), I thought it would be apt for the Indian consulate to write a letter. Unfortunately, I was told that the MEA believed this was an “internal affair” of a foreign country. Diplomats of other countries, though, spoke at the textbook hearings. The whole “South Asia” version of history being pushed was anyway the same version that informed the demand for partition in the 1940s as I eventually learned.
2018 Chicago World Hindu Congress. Assessment: Communication fiasco.
I mean no disrespect to anyone who went, but this was more than just an opportunity lost. There was no recognition from the organizers that this event was being watched by hostile forces, and in the absence of any outward-messaging, the gathering turned into a blank slate, a mere collection of bodies over which even a handful of college kids were able to write their own message (the protestors who disrupted the event calling the speakers fascists and so on).
The messaging was weak and contradictory, and aimed at self-esteem boosting at best. The website for the event had two main themes: a) Hindus are very wealthy and successful b) Hindus are awesome people, but they need to reform themselves. There was no mention of Hinduphobia either. Hindus simply talked to each other, but not to America or the world, very different from what the conference’s inspiration, Swami Vivekananda, did a hundred years ago.
2019 Elections. Assessment: ‘Hindu party’ wins elections, but Hindus lose narratives.
In 2014, a respected academician friend predicted that the Left-Liar brigade in academia-journalism would change its tune in 2019 if Prime Minister Modi got re-elected. This, of course, did not happen. The “ecosystem” has doubled down on its lies rather than admit even small concessions to reality. I do not know why the strength of a renewed mandate in 2019 did not inspire the GOI to study the severe communication war raging against Hindus, India, and their party, and set up proper responses to it. Was it a domestic political assessment? Did they think that the more global forces demonize Hindus, the more people will see the danger and turn to one party as their saviours? Was it indifference? Complacence? An extreme form of self-congratulation perhaps — after all, from right from about the time of the gau rakshak/ intolerance campaigns in 2015, the BJP ecosystem’s response to escalating hate was to dismiss it as the rantings of frustrated losers. Whatever the reasons, truth lost a lot of ground in the narrative battles from 2019 onwards.
2019 Kashmir/Article 370. Assessment: No major loss or gain in narrative.
Article 370 was a bold step and led to an angry backlash from the expected quarters. Their anger though did not translate into an undue advantage to them. Typical pro-Pakistan media like the New York Times continued to frame the event as an ongoing occupation of Kashmir by “Hindu Nationalist” India and such. But it wasn’t a narrative loss for India in the sense that no new claims were advanced into the minds of the credulous (unlike CAA, farm bill, etc, see below). Commendably, Kashmiri Hindu scholars and activists were also platformed in Indian media and in some important American forums so that the story of their genocide could be told.
One opportunity lost though by the Hindu American community was with getting media houses to address Hinduphobia as part of their diversity training requirements. An NPR reporter in India shattered the myth of their liberal values and objectivity (a myth quite prevalent among the educated Indian American lot) by calling on Hindus to convert from their “piss and dung worshipping religion.” NPR announced she had resigned, but did not go further. Hindu community leaders too dropped the ball. I happened to meet NPR CEO John Lansing in my college earlier this year and reminded him of this incident. He heard me most politely but it was clear nothing would change since Hindus aren’t seen as serious about such things.
2019-2020. CAA Protests, Trump Visit, Delhi violence. Assessment: Narrative lost./em>
The opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Act was a communications triumph. Objectively speaking, its impact can be measured in at least two fronts: one, this was the moment a lot of educated, middle/upper class Indians who had brushed off their anti-Modi friends to vote for him 2014 and maybe even in 2019, found themselves overwhelmed and forced into ideological compliance. In my school WhatsApp group for instance, old friends went all out, sharing Nazi Germany memes and accusing Hindus of being silently complicit as Muslims were about to be sent to concentration camps. The second, and rather worryingly concrete consequence was a political one: the replacement of Indian electoral democracy as an institution by the power of the “street veto.”
This period marked a major loss of power by the government and ruling party. It should have been a lesson in how propaganda isn’t just about perception but about leveraging perception into becoming a tool of power. We saw this trend in full form later when Prime Minister Modi had to withdraw the farm laws. A minor refugee processing time rule got played as a piece of xenophobic, genocidal legislation, and after this, reality became a free for all. The Trump visit too, did not help. I don’t know if it earned goodwill for NRIs from the American Right, but it certainly dented Prime Minister Modi’s image in the US and burdened the many liberal, Democrat-voting Hindu Americans who had tried for years to convince their critics that BJP wasn’t really right-wing or Islamophobic. Could simply naming it as a “Refugee Bill” instead of “Citizenship Amendment” have averted much damage? Perhaps.
2020-21. Farm Bill Protest/Withdrawal. Assessment: Loss of narrative, loss of face./em>>Self-explanatory.
2022. Accepting False Accusations from Qatar, etc. Assessment: Lethal-level loss.
British documentary maker Adam Curtis is an astute commentator on propaganda. In his epic series, , he examines the deceit leading to the death of Libyan leader Muhammar Gaddafi. Gaddafi had long been accused by the West of bombing an America passenger plane, and he, in turn, had denied Libyan involvement with the tragedy. Curtis argues in his film that in time, Gaddafi was persuaded by his seemingly friendly Western interlocutors to agree, even if it was untrue, to these false accusations, so he could now be elevated by the West as a redeemed statesman leading the Islamic world (to offset their fiasco with Iraq and Saddam Hussein). We know what happened to him afterwards, and to his country.
I share this story because it is a fitting finale, and a grave enough lesson, for Hindus facing organised lying around the world in addition to the usual bouts of killing and temple desecrating.
The “plea bargain” approach to truth and justice is a peculiar Western phenomenon that doesn’t work with parties who are fundamentally dishonest. Yet, when the governments of Qatar and a host of other Islamic nations made serious charges with life and death consequences against a ruling party official, the Indian government’s instant response was to agree that those charges were true without the slightest effort to set the record straight. Given the need to protect Indian lives in Muslim-majority countries, perhaps the diplomats felt compelled to distance the government from any controversial statements. A distancing, and a word to assuage hurt feelings would have sufficed just as well. But this ought to have been done in a way that would have also put the real sequence of events on the record (hundreds of Hinduphobes had been mocking Hindus with bad Shiva Lingam jokes for their pain at finding a desecrated deity in a mosque/razed temple, a Muslim spokesman mocked Hindu gods on TV, and then, the BJP spokesperson responded with what she had hoped would be understood as a hypothetical reciprocal scenario).
If diplomacy demanded she be removed from her position, it could have still been done without the ignominious retreat into the lie that took place. It’s both loss of face (pretending that your own party’s prime time face is a “fringe” element as the MEA statement put it), and a loss of whatever lines may have been in the sand before. It signalled to groups that survive through organised lying that there is no resistance anymore. No wonder Islamist operatives in UK are trafficking in lies about Hindu extremism with impunity. The new expectation of Hindus is that, like the MEA statement about the ruling party spokesperson, like the framed patsies of foreign psy-ops, everyone agrees to whatever lies are hurled from now on. No wonder it looks so unconvincing and sad when British Hindu leaders are made to read out statements flanked by scowling Muslim leaders accepting the tenuous conspiracy theories about imported Hindutva extremism. It is not a real inter-faith gesture, but a “hostage situation,” as someone joked on Twitter.
What have we learned? What can we do?
One: a well-organised forceful, persuasion-primed, story has been built about Hindus since 2015 or which produces feelings of disgust and revulsion (‘cow-piss’, etc) as well as fear and concern (‘concentration camps for Muslims’, ‘too much privilege,’ ‘innate casteist supremacism that makes Hindus a threat too poor people, minorities, women, etc.”
Two: a less persuasive, partially-organised, but fairly widespread story has been built, on the fly as it were, by the Indian government, ruling party, and associated Hindu organisations, in response to One. This story basically says One is caused by Hindu economic success in America (Hinduphobia is just a case of economic envy) and by India, or PM Modi’s growing stature and economic clout (again, economic envy combined with political uncertainty among others).
he two stories together have had several negative effects for Hindu safety around the world. To a casual outside observer Story One and Story Two actually complement each other. In the next article, I will discuss Hindu image and self-image today so we can understand what we look like to others and also work on our communication strategies in a more informed way.
Postscript: On 2 October, the ew York Times published an advertisement featuring an open letter alleging severe human rights atrocities by the Indian government. As of now, the only responses to it have not been from the Indian government, but from diasporic Hindu organisations on Twitter. Net result: the average outsider now thinks Hindus in the diaspora are supporting atrocities against minorities in India and attacking their homes and temples as revenge is okay, or at the very least, that Hindu American groups are just propagandists for a political party back in India, and there’s no truth to their occasional “Hinduphobia” claims. It is the GoI which should be setting the records straight, and in the world press, where the battle is raging, not on some small individual Twitter accounts.
This is Part 2 of a three-part series. Click here to read Part 1
The writer is Professor of Media Studies, University of San Francisco. He has authored several books, including ‘Rearming Hinduism: Nature, Hinduphobia and the Return of Indian Intelligence’ (Westland, 2015). Views expressed are personal.
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