Hindutva Hollowing Out

With the rise of right wing Hindu Nationalism (also known as Hindutva) in India and Canada, there has been a marked increase in intimidation, censorship, and hate acts aimed at Canadian artists who are seen as critical of Hindutva. In 2021, Toronto-based Indian filmmaker, poet and actor Leena Manimekalai, who was facing multiple censorship-related court cases in India for her political art and started to experience harassment and death threats in Canada from right-wing Hindutva groups. In subsequent months, it became clear that her experience is emblematic of larger trends in censorship of artists’ works in India and Canada.

In response, a group of artists and cultural workers who wished to deepen their understanding and capacities to address this issue came together. We compiled a cursory reading/watch list to deepen our understanding and fuel our discussion to deal with what we see as a threat to artistic freedom. To add to these texts, we also brought in speakers with a range of political positions to share their experiences of doing this kind of work.

Reflections on Myriad Intimacies
by Lata Mani

Myriad Intimacies alternates between text and video, poetry and prose. It tells the reader to stop and take a breath. It is written in a way that makes sense to Lata, after meeting with a terrible accident that affected her brain, and from which she recovered by using aspects of tantra. As a reader, however, it offers a visceral experience – reading, watching and contemplating. Her passages on caste draw from her background as a feminist/Marxist scholar.

It is unfortunate that I had never come across Lata Mani’s work until I joined this reading group. What a delight it was to discover her work! The book is deceptively thin. But within those pages, there’s so much richness – which I suppose comes from life lived fully after a tragedy. Myriad Intimacies alternates between text and video, poetry and prose. It tells the reader to stop and take a breath. It is written in a way that makes sense to Lata, after meeting with a terrible accident that affected her brain, and from which she recovered by using aspects of tantra. As a reader, however, it offers a visceral experience – reading, watching and contemplating. Her passages on caste draw from her background as a feminist/Marxist scholar, highlighting “socially produced differences.” Through the book, Lata asks us to consider how our lives are made up of myriad intimacies. “And yet we approach them as estrangements.” It was such a powerful, and seemingly simple, observance that I was compelled to pause. 

We were fortunate that as part of the book club, Lata spoke with us. She even presented a paper! She spoke to our current political climate and how considering Sufi poets like Kabir – who was Dalit, and presented life’s quandaries in such simple language, versus the scholarly Sanskrit text – might offer us a way to think. I was deeply moved by her provocations, and hope to carry her words with me forward.

To recenter interrelationality and mutuality would be to pivot political practice. For it would dissolve the self-other binary (a secondary misperception) to lay bare the primary misperception: the disavowal of interrelationship in the production of difference as Otherness. To work from this basis is to restore the intimacy to politics. There is no absolute Other separable from oneself. Both continually constitute each other

 – Myriad Intimacies, Lata Mani, p. 61

The way Lata speaks about interrelationality is connected in the way that solidarity operates; where the divide between self and other are firm yet porous. In her work, Dr. Natalie Kouri-Towe discusses that the foundation of solidarity is understanding another beyond shared identification. It requires us to have a particular relationship to ourselves at the same time that it requires us to have differences with another, as well as a way to bridge that difference. She states that solidarity is about more than your own liberation, it is about the liberation of another.

At the core of this group, through readings, conversations and uncomfortable silences, I am continuing to learn and unlearn how to be in solidarity with others. This includes creating capacity for myself and others – specifically working in the cultural sector in Canada – to create supports to stand up against the rampant censorship we are witnessing, through Hindutva and Zionist forces.

[Tantra] would mean opening ourselves cognitively, sensorially, to discovering the “isness” of everything that exists, its specific vibration, vibrancy and form of aliveness. It would mean opening ourselves to discovering the isness of our own existence. It would mean honouring process. It would mean embracing the body. It would mean asking, among other questions, how the facts of my densely interconnected existence remained opaque to me? How might I live if I accepted interdependence as a fact of life? What does it mean to be responsible? How might I cultivate my response abilities?

– Lata Mani, Myriad Intimacies, p. 12

Lata Mani opens her book with this set of questions which I think of as a guide, to ask oneself how one wants to be in the world. As I write this on December 12, 2023, where we are watching a genocide unfold before our eyes of the Palestinian people. Language and words are being debated so that people might shy away from the responsibility of witnessing, and even imagining that our existences are interconnected.

Throughout her book, Lata continues to remind us of the duality of language – simultaneously limited and expansive in its potential.

Yet language can serve to estrange us further. The very act of rendering something into existence requires stepping out and taking apart. Naming is a double-edge operation: Something is x because it is not y, or else not quite y but rather xy or yx or maybe even zy appearing as other than itself. It is via difference – through making distinctions – that we make meaning. Language stabilizes the complex and continuous dance of energy and molecules into nameable forms. Our conceptual categories and linguistic conventions attempt to tame the near-infinite pluralities in which we exist.

– Myriad Intimacies, Lata Mani, p. 18

Two opposing things being the same is a thought provoking and uncomfortable exercise for me, because it always resists easy answers. One of my favourite quotes from one of my favourite writers, Dionne Brand states in her book The Blue Clerk, in Verso 15.1.

You always have to distrust the comfort of solutions. It is incumbent upon me to keep being unsettled… Is it possible to reshape all kinds of understanding and how would you do it?

– Myriad Intimacies, Lata Mani, p. 83

Reflections on
In Sensorium: Notes For My People
By Tanaïs

In Sensorium is an offering and an invitation to understand history, experience and the felt sense together. Tanais uses scent conceptually, materially and as memory to delve into the complexity of South Asia, the silk route, intermingled with colonialism and caste consciousness. This book is a non-linear composition into what constitutes ‘self’.

“…a curious researcher who wants to tell the story of South Asia from the survivors’ point of view, the notes are all written in pencil. Impermanent. Easy to erase. Most documented narratives of the birangona are anonymous, or they are named by pseudonyms, to protect their privacy and safety from more violence. Archiving the lost stories of the birangona, undertaken by artists, academics, and activists who preserve their memories, includes sensory details, though that isn’t often their focus. I read the text for vasanas to build a sensorium of this history that I’ve inherited. Pieces of poetry, plays, films, and interviews with women whom I will never meet myself become the precious threads of a loom- a tantra — of their memories and stories of survival. 

– In Sensorium,Tanaïs, p. 236

The book In Sensorium was full of details and intricate histories which reminded me of the well-researched historical novels I have read in the past. Something about giving flesh and blood to numbers in dusty ledgers which mark passages of wars, migrations, and other historical events make history feel like you do the same. Searching for meaning in the senseless. I was drawn to this passage because it made me grapple with the uncomfortable realization of being a descendant of histories, inherited and lived, which makes me a benefactor of caste privilege in the diaspora. I often wonder what betrayals happened, and the ancestors who rebelled against oppressions, and which this group and others are still fighting against – the Hindutva being one of many. 

Another reason why this passage finds resonance is to treat one’s history with care. I felt called to stay with the details and witness them. I ponder if this reading group will be seen as a small contribution towards the resistance against Hindutva in the future? I wonder what will happen at the climax of global and virulent extremisms. What happens to the people caught in the torrents of colonialism and still fighting to have their rights respected and voices heard? I don’t have any insights to offer as much as that this passage gave me pause to consider who was being left out of conversations in the diaspora. Whose activism against Hindutva will remain invisible?

It’s curious how sandalwood trees are parasites. They need host trees like whistling pines and acacia to draw nutrients and water from their roots. Just as royalty inflicted their rule upon the people, without their hosts, sandalwood would never survive. 

– In Sensorium,Tanaïs, p. 112

…their bark stripped in the pattern of camouflage, almost like birch, but deeper in color- they were agarwood- from which oud oil is extracted. Agar, like the agarbatti, or incense. When the trees are infected with fungi, they respond by producing a thich, resinous heartwood. Its scent is woodsy, animalic, with a touch of kalamata olive and stone fruit 

– In Sensorium,Tanaïs, p. 123

Reflections on
The Trauma of Caste
A Dalit Feminist Meditation on Survivorship, Healing, and Abolition
By Thenmozhi Soundararajan

I’ve been following Thenmozhi’s work in the United States for a while. I had read some of her other writings in media publications, and watched one of her presentations. I had not gotten around to reading her book. For those who may not be that aware of just how central a role the caste system plays within Indian society, Thenmozhi’s book is a good introduction to a Dalit perspective. By weaving in elements of memoir along with facts and figures from human rights organizations as well as dives into historical and religious texts, Thenmozhi offers a layered look at the caste plays out in the US and other diasporas. Astonishingly, the book is written with great equanimity. However, you can say that the matter-of-fact way in which she talks about the discrimination she’s endured as a child is deeply troubling. Thenmozhi offers various ways in which savarna folk can engage with caste, and I found these suggestions a welcome beginning to my own questions around how do I approach caste given my own privilege.

Reflections on
Approaching Gridlock
by Arundhati Roy

If we lock ourselves into the prison cells of the very labels and identities that we have been given by those who have always had power over us, we can at best stage a prison revolt. Not a revolution. And the prison guards will appear soon enough to restore order. In fact, they’re already on their way. When we buy into a culture of proscription and censorship, eventually it is always the Right, and usually the status quo, that benefits disproportionately. Sealing ourselves into communities, religious and caste groups, ethnicities and genders, reducing and flattening our identities and pressing them into silos precludes solidarity. Ironically, that was and is the ultimate goal of the Hindu caste system in India. Divide a people into a hierarchy of unbreachable compartments, and no one community will be able to feel the pain of another, because they are in constant conflict. It works like a self-operating, intricate administrative/surveillance machine in which society administers/surveils itself, and in the process ensures that the overarching structures of oppression remain in place. Everyone except those at the very top and the very bottom—and these categories are minutely graded, too—is oppressed by someone and has someone to be oppressed by.

– Approaching Gridlock, Arundhati Roy

 I found this piece compelling enough to return to it several times. Roy weaves together the way that the public imagination of itself and others are put into a vice by the rise of fascism, failing democracy and technology. This very lack of imagination, or state of intellectual paralysis comes from a fear of messy relationality as Roy puts it another way “solidarity is not pristine.”

Overall Reflections by group 

I have to work through a lot of discomfort talking about Hindu Nationalism, as though I’m talking behind someone’s back. Not being a good friend. Not being a very good daughter.

I don’t want to reject my birth culture because I have internalized racism. I also don’t want to put it on a pedestal and assert its supposed inherent, timeless wisdom as a way to build a fortress against xenophobia.

I want to build a practice of inquiry that enables me to acknowledge, address, dismantle what is harmful, oppressive, colonizing, genocidal about ideas, actions, politics, arts coming out of India, the land of my birth and Hinduism, a major force that has shaped me – while also disentangling, engaging, embodying what connects, frees and enlightens me to appreciate life.

In her book, Trauma of Caste, Thenmozhi Soundarajan writes about the institution of caste in Hinduism, the long-standing backbone of Hindu Nationalism: “Your faith is bound to violence it sanctions. For practitioners of a Brahminical traditions, this reckoning may be painful; it is hard to admit the gulf between your values and the history of our spiritual practice. But if you do not wish to be complicit in the suffering of others, then you must confront these truths.”

Although the relationship between the confronting and complicity feels more muddy and circular for me, I really appreciate this framing, because confrontation requires engagement. It necessitates a practice of interrogation, reflection and exchange. This reading group, for me, was a beginning towards cultivating such a practice.

As I move forward, there are two ideas that I have found particularly helpful. The first is somatics – an idea Thenmozhi opens her book with – asking her readers to pay attention to their body, and what it tells you
about your own relationship with deeply held ideas. In doing so, I discovered that my journey into this practice was not compiling facts to make my points. But, instead, in working through my own resistance to challenging perspectives, blockages that allow me to process ideas that threaten my sense of self, even though, theoretically, I agree with

The second idea was introduced by Lata Mani, in her book Myriad Intimacies, where she writes about living in the “don’t know.” I have often found myself overwhelmed and paralyzed by all that I don’t know, and the impossibility of doing anything when there is so much still to know. Mani’s concept helped me move through this paralysis, compelling me to work with what I have – in fragments, rooted in my positionality, cultivating curiosity and fueling agency. I wonder if living in the “don’t know” can be a strength not only because it gets one to move while also making room to be messy and engage with disorder and the unknown.

Finally, the reading group has been an act of community building itself. It has opened up moments of joy, building stamina and capacity for working through the necessary discomfort in addressing Hindu Nationalism within myself and beyond.

I joined this group because the project was led by someone I know and admire for her curiosity, empathy and work with marginalized communities. The prospect she came up with – to interrogate Hindu fundamentalism in Canada and come up with ways to challenge that thought process – was similar to my own questioning of the subject. I joined the group knowing that it would be a safe space to have this conversation, where we could admit our shortcomings and lack of
knowledge, while helping each other think through some thorny issues.

I knew some people in the group, had been acquainted with others in a professional capacity, and did not know a few participants prior to the sessions. Over the course of our meetings, we had deliberate and open discussions on our experiences, which were disparate. We didn’t always agree on every issue but were always open to exploring where
our thought processes originated.

I was struck by how generous everyone was with their feedback. There was no calling out, not even overt nudges in any direction. Just by attending the sessions and understanding how other people are reacting to discussions, I had several occasions to rethink my own approach. For example, I was trying to be deliberately quiet at first, since I have a propensity to talk more than listen. However, it came up in one discussion that the idea of “making space” can also be thought of as a lack of initiative taken or actual work done. Although my intention had been to actively listen, my lack of participation meant that others were picking up the slack in conversation. As a result, I am now constantly trying to understand and negotiate the line between listening and speaking, by trying to figure out how best I can contribute
to the dialogue.

I was also deeply appreciative of the ability to ramble. There were several instances where participants literally spoke what was on their mind – tangential ideas that came up or questions that were at first seemingly off-topic. However, the resultant conversations always had some sort of learning for me. As someone who wants to be more careful when speaking, this was such a luxury! More than once, the diversions either had me laughing or thoughtful, which was very
helpful given the gravity of our topics of conversation.

I am not sure that we came up with any concrete solutions when it came to the principle matter – how do we address the Hindu nationalist agenda in the diaspora. But I don’t think that was the point of the group. There’s no easy fix. These are ongoing conversations that need to be had to understand the roots of dissatisfaction that can lead to the rise of a fundamentalist rhetoric. However, I was glad of the community and conversations, and the many resources that were shared as part of the reading exercises.

Some of the reading material was familiar to me, or I at least knew the authors. I also discovered new authors such as Lata Mani and Tanais. I appreciated how approachable the texts were, not weighted down by theoretical concepts. These texts have also given me an extensive bibliography of other texts I can look into, especially some of the
classics such as B. R. Ambedakar’s Annihilation of Caste.

I was skeptical about being invited to this reading group because the rise of Hindutva had coincided with the increasing global spread of extreme conservative ideals for the past decade already. Being worried has become a default state of being. Feeling removed and isolated from certain issues in South Asia is a privilege and curse of living in the diaspora. What parts of my culture do I keep disentangling in the hopes of avoiding difficult conversations?

I ultimately joined the group because in this tired practice of avoidance (as a way to cope with the repercussions on mental health), I came to realize this is how dangerous ideals take root in faraway places. It would be a mistake to view the epicentre to the Hindutva movement as the place to provide the greatest resistance or advocacy work. Again, I was wrong. The rise of hate happens when things are accepted as is or quietly left to proliferate in the hopes that it goes away. Avoiding the topic which ties so closely to caste and has led to active censorship and death threats in the diaspora
was no longer an option.

It helped that the person who invited me is a trusted community organizer. Despite the seriousness of the topic – having intellectual conversations and reading books on the topic got me through dreary days of weathering through news of genocides and wars. The setting of each session being firmly grounded in intentional listening, gentle guidance through dense materials, and vulnerable conversations (the kind that one avoids) allowed for thoughts to be held and others
released as these had served their purpose. I appreciated the disagreements and discussions as they helped rehearse some of the conversations I would later have in other circles. The group meetings reminded me to remain with curiosity and even find inspiration that seeped into other parts of my life. I felt better equipped to have conversations about the concerns I have about Hindutva with people outside the group who I would have previously avoided or hesitated in
having discussions with.

I haven’t been part of a reading group ever, and this particular focus was compelling to me as one in which we are all parsing through the challenges of our diasporic experiences, which are myriad, and through understanding how to think about the inherited castes or structures we each come from. This was a beautiful space developed together, discussing the readings, but also trying to work out how to register an ancient system of slavery that the Brahaminic patriarchal order has established. Thenmozhi Soundarajan’s The Trauma of Caste has shifted me…her writing induces a somatic understanding, a somatic response. I had never thought of how my body – or generations prior – received the oppression of caste hierarchy…and how the violence of that oppression exists in all of us, and how we pass it
on. This has made me look at everyone differently.

In Arundhati Roy’s Approaching Gridlock, she speaks about India as a country that was full of utopian potential. I felt it in 2008-2009: anything was truly possible…there was a sense of play, exploration, joy…the atmosphere feels entirely different now, as though the air is being is ever-so-slowly sucked out by this Hindutva-run government, what Roy says has the illusion of a democracy but is actually an autocracy. India for all practical purposes has become a corporate, theocratic Hindu state, a highly policed state, a fearsome state.” – Roy

As an artist, I have always been interested in Tantra as a methodology to think about image-making. I’ve been shying away from Tantra because of its binaries and because its origins are Hindu. I haven’t quite reconciled how to compute it now even though I love how colours have direct meaning. Lata Mani’s Myriad Intimacies helped me to rethink an approach to Tantra because she reveals it as a sense of interconnectedness. This is profound. Can this offer us a method of encounter with all beings, all matter…can this give us the potential for deep empathy?

Hindutva Hollowing Out Booklet

Hindutva Hollowing Out Booklet