Hinduism and the caste system constitute the central components of the discussion on India in the modern-day discourse even if some sections of academia have been assertive that these are colonial constructs. These components have survived as though they are the social scientific discourses on the ills of Hindu society even today. The comparison of ‘Hinduism’ with religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) have led to severe ill-informed criticisms of the diverse practices and traditions that are supposed to constitute it. Misunderstanding of the Indian traditions has also led to the generation of stereotypes which are used in bullying and abusing Indian people in the West especially in academic institutions. The incidents which went unrecognised are today labelled as anti-Hindu crimes and the phenomenon is broadly termed Hinduphobia, though it is vague and does not account for the mentioned issues. In this background, Dr. Shah analyses the situation of Hindus in England in the context of the recently published Anti-Hindu Hate in Schools report.
Earlier this month the report, Anti-Hindu Hate in Schools, written by Charlotte Littlewood was published on behalf of the Centre on Social and Political Risk of the Henry Jackson Society (HJS). The report makes concerning reading and provides some results of the kind that haven’t been produced in earlier research in England. It points to the large gulf in the incidents of prejudice, discrimination and hate-speech that Hindu parents report their children having experienced in state schools on the one hand and those that schools in England have been recording on the other. A report’s school survey conducted through freedom of information requests showed that of the 24.2% of schools that responded, 71.49% recorded zero incidents of bullying, harassment or similar events connected to the child being Hindu, and 0.41% recorded one incident. The remainder of schools responded but gave no data. Of the Hindu parents surveyed, some 51% reported incidents of anti-Hindu bullying against their children. The gap indicates the ill-preparedness of schools to recognise harms Hindu pupils are exposed to but the report also points to the contribution of schools to sustaining the harms.
The data concerns recent incidents occurring over the last five years. Littlewood prefers to bring the variety of anti-Hindu slurs, discrimination, prejudice and bullying under the umbrella of anti-Hindu hate. While she finds it helpful in understanding anti-Hindu hate, she stops short of endorsing the Rutgers University definition of Hinduphobia. Either with or without the Hinduphobia definition, we remain in an area of some conceptual vagueness which the report does not allow to become a distraction, although it won’t go away as an issue. The report tries to establish an overlap between types anti-Hindu hate and extremism which again underlines the vague nature of all these concepts. Given that vagueness it remains unclear how schools and authorities ought to respond to them.
In some ways, the report confirms suspicions that one may have already had, particularly with respect to the targeting of Hindu pupils by Muslims pupils, which measurably comes out as the most significant source of anti-Hindu hate. Anecdotally, incidents of bullying including on religious grounds are known to happen, although their frequency might not have been appreciated prior to this report. Littlewood has already written another report on the Leicester incidents of last autumn, where anti-Hindu hate became visible with an intensity greater than the usually lower-level forms of harassment that are suspected to occur. In fact, this report draws parallels with the findings of the Leicester report confirming that the pattern of learning to abuse Hindus probably starts during the earlier socialisation of Muslims. Predictably, the influence of anti-India propaganda emanating from Pakistan and circulating within Britain’s Muslim communities is also a factor in generating a pattern of abuse directed at Hindu pupils. That was a factor in Leicester where it became a pretext for outright violence against Hindus. While the press and academics, such as Tariq Modood and Gurharpal Singh laid the blame at the door of Hindu nationalism, as did former HJS research fellow Rakib Ehsan, Littlewood’s report on Leicester confirmed that the Hindutva slur became a pretext to commit and cover up violence against Hindus.
The source of the bullying is also betrayed by the fact that a large number of incidents are reported as based on slurs about cows, idol-worshipping and polytheism. These chime into the Islamic antipathy to idol worship of which Hindus constitute an epitome. The report allocates all those slurs into the basket of extremism. It is not not clear, however, whether we are really speaking of an extreme wing of Muslims or whether these are indeed standard prejudices based on theological commonplaces within Islam. It may not be unjustified to observe that the dominant strain of Islam represented in Britain has been observably taken a strident tone and many other events other than those that took place in Leicester in 2022 point in that direction. In some ways these are chickens coming home to roost because the Anglo-American alliance has long-encouraged the extreme wings to become normalised not merely in Britain, but all over the globe.
While the comments with respect to Islam in Littlewood’s schools report have been picked up both in the UK and in India, other aspects are also worthy of notice. Much of the focus is on the lack of appropriate teaching of Hinduism, including that such teaching picks out caste, polytheism, and the practice of sati, the ill-preparedness of teachers to tackle Hinduism in the classroom, and that an ‘Abrahamic’ perspective tends to shape the delivery of teaching on Hinduism. Factors such as the underrepresentation of Hinduism in religious education (RE) teaching, the lack of preparedness of schools and teachers, and the negative portrayals of Hinduism have been previously flagged in a report by INSIGHT in 2021. Littlewood’s report links the problems in teaching to the experience of bullying in schools, suggesting cause and effect. Research by the Hindu American Foundation supports the claim that teaching about caste leads to the abuse of Hindu pupils.
Littlewood understandably stops short of saying just what sort of teaching on Hinduism is appropriate, although there are several quotes in the report by parents suggesting where the teaching goes wrong or could be better done. One specific suggestion is to end mention of caste in primary and secondary schools of caste with support from Sanskrit teacher, Rishi Handa, who argues that caste is so complex that it is not fit for teaching in primary or secondary schools. It is doubtful, however, whether a remedy lies in the report’s recommendation that a centralised syllabus be formulated by experts, away from the currently divergent solutions devised at the level of the local Standing Advisory Councils of Religious Education (SACREs). Although the move could curtail some of the influence of the churches and Muslim representatives, who are far keener to get their doctrines reflected in RE and inflict violence on RE teachers such as the one in the West Yorkshire town of Batley on mere suspicion of blasphemy, it would not solve much deeper problems. RE is only mandatory in state schools because of an 80-year-old compromise with the churches when they ceded power to the state in education. One ought to question its place in the curriculum today, especially because it is used to push the softer doctrines of Semitic religions while disparaging Hinduism, if it is taught at all.
One of the biggest difficulties in the report is the very idea of Hinduism itself. Indeed, the difficulty would come up in the context of any activity which involves consideration of the framework of teaching Hinduism. There are several points at which parents and the author herself suggest that the Abrahamic lens in teaching Hinduism is the problem and that is what leads to inappropriate, inaccurate, or misconceived ideas of Hinduism. The accompanying suggestion is that if only that can be corrected by experts with the involvement of parents, then it would ameliorate the bullying issues, at least in so far as the teaching of the subject is a proximate source of bullying. However, this is where the core difficulty of the report lies.
That difficulty is that the very conception of Hinduism is itself Abrahamic or Semitic, and specifically Protestant. It is in the writings of the Protestant missionaries of the 19th century that we get the crystallization not only of the idea of Hinduism as the dominant religion of India but also of the caste system as its basic social structure. From that point on, the idea has spread as though it were a scientific fact about India and has become a sort of common sense about what India is. In the Protestant writings the antipathy towards Hinduism as a false religion propagated by the Brahmin priesthood was quite express and that continues today in the polemics of contemporary missionaries. The report speaks of one incident where Hindu pupil was told, “Jesus will send your Gods to hell.” Although the report puts this sort of slur under the heading of ‘Far right/Xenophobia’ it is actually pretty standard Christian fare. Over time, as Hinduism and the caste system have become the standard story about India, the Christian polemic has become attenuated at least in public discourse and in the social sciences. However, the basic elements of the Protestant diatribes against Hinduism have remained in secularised form.
It is for these reasons that any discussion of Hinduism is bound to involve elements such as the caste system and the polytheism of the Hindus. This is not a story that has been developed by Indians but by westerners about India. It is no good looking around for experts or parents to solve the problem this creates. The experts almost completely buy into the same story and do not grasp what the problem with their framework is. We get people as far apart politically as Douglas Murray, a former associate director of the HJS, who is convinced about the depravity of the caste system, and Cambridge Professor, Priyamvada Gopal, who thinks that Brahmins are the whites of India, a species of race-oppressor who created the caste system. It is no wonder that the textbooks teachers use in schools contain such references. There have been intermittent battles led by Hindu parents in the United States also on the content of school books. Remember that the British parliament was persuaded to add a clause on caste to the Equality Act on exactly such understandings of the Indian traditions, and that clause remains in place today. A similar move is being made right now in California. These facts underline that the problems with Indian traditions which have passed into the wider western culture find their basis in one or other of the Semitic religions.
Neither parents nor pandits would be of much help here because the expectation from them would be that they provide a sanitised account of Hinduism but one that is nonetheless based on the assumption of some doctrinal core. Littlewood’s report bemoans the “incorrect commentary on central Hindu principles and beliefs” but a simple discussion would reveal that no such beliefs or principles exist. Were they to be sought, innumerable answers would spring forth leading to even greater confusion. Indeed, one of the slurs the report documents is, “You don’t know about your own religion.” The reason is that the Indian traditions are simply not structured in the way the Semitic religions are. No core beliefs or doctrines exist. Scholarship pioneered by S.N. Balagangadhara theorizes that India (and Asia) does not have native religions.
This view, to which I subscribe, means that there is a case for bringing ‘Hinduism’ or better, the Indian traditions, outside the box of religion altogether. Why cannot India’s traditions be taught as part of philosophy or better still as part of newly thought-out syllabi on ‘Tradition Studies’. This solution departs from the one advocated in the INSIGHT report where Hinduism teaching would still be tied to the framework of RE. would enable students of various Asian backgrounds be they formally classified as Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain or whatever else to finally reflect on the nature of their traditions, which do not require any set of core beliefs, but which have yet sustained through millennia using mechanisms other than the transmission of core doctrines or beliefs, and which have been receptive to a kind of pluralism that the Semitic religions have simply failed to sustain.