Why Hindutva’s foreign-born cheerleaders are so popular

As the BJP government, flush with recent electoral successes, consolidates its political supremacy, it is being cheered on by a set of foreign-bred Hindutva activists. (Representative photo)
As the BJP government, flush with recent electoral successes, consolidates its political supremacy, it is bein… Read More
“A new Ram Rajya is arising slowly, but steadily in India today. Dharma is once more being brought in to social and cultural discourse.” These are not the words of some ancient sage, it is a tweet by Vedic teacher and Padma Bhushan awardee Dr David Frawley, who also goes by the name Pandit Vamadeva Shastri. He also told Twitter how the combination of PM Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath+ brought a “powerful yoga shakti to transform Uttar Pradesh. A new era dawns.”

As the BJP government, flush with recent electoral successes, consolidates its political supremacy, it is being cheered on by a set of foreign-bred Hindutvaactivists, whose ideology and writing help shore up its narrative. Indologists like Frawley and Koenraad Elst, journalist Francois Gautier and Pakistan-born Canadian Tarek Fatah are bringing ammunition against the left-liberal discourse and legitimising the Hindutva version of nationalism, on matters like cow protection+ , triple talaq and the Ram Mandir+ .

Francois Gautier: A Delhi-based French journalist who, along with his wife Namrita, founded FACT-India, which commissions films documenting human rights abuses in South Asia.

In their view, India has been held back by the Nehruvian approach and Congress governments that played to minority votebanks, and undermined the country’s yogic, dharmic and spiritual traditions.

Explaining why he felt that India was on the path to dharmic traditions, Frawley, founder of the American Institute of Vedic Studies in Sante Fe, told Sunday TOI: “I think the failure of the Nehruvian approach and Congress governments up to 2014 set the stage. They tried to downplay India’s profound dharmic heritage, and ended up in massive corruption, causing people to lose their faith in the government. In contrast, the Modi government has given a new importance to yoga and India’s dharmic values and traditions both in the country and as a matter of foreign policy. That politics should be karma yoga is becoming better acknowledged.”

David Frawley: Describes himself as a American Hindu teacher. Married to Yogini Shambhavi Chopra and runs a web-based education centre on ayurveda, yoga-vedanta and vedic astrology from Santa Fe, US

Some, like French journalist Francois Gautier, are open in their admiration for PM Narendra Modi. Gautier claimed recently that the French seer Nostradamus had named Modi in his predictions. He recalls how he met Modi for some work related to his non-profit, which bowled him over. “What particularly impressed me was that when I first went to his office, there were no hangers-on, only people who came for work. I found that Mr Modi was a great ecologist who wanted to make Gujarat the greenest, most investor-friendly state of India. So I started praising him in my articles,” he says. Gautier’s admiration is so fervent that in a recent blog, he identified 50 enemies of Hindus, which included Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, Aamir and Shah Rukh Khan and the Pope.

Meanwhile, Belgian Orientalist and Indologist Koenraad Elst has many admirers in the current establishment with his study that claims the irrefutable presence of a temple in Ayodhya where the Babri Masjid stood. Another enfant terrible and recent entrant to the club is Pakistan-born Canadian Tarek Fatah who hosts a controversial TV show on Islam. Fatah describes himself as an “Indian born in Pakistan and a Muslim whose ancestors were Hindus.” He has grabbed headlines for supporting the renaming of Aurangzeb road, taking offence to actors Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor naming their son Taimur, and opposing the consumption of beef.

Tarek Fatah: Pakistan-born Canadian who hosts a TV show on social issues plaguing Islam. Has a Facebook following of over 2 lakh. Takes stands on issues like renaming of roads, beef consumption etc

These personalities can’t be taken lightly. At a time when social media has become a strong tool for communication and propaganda, people like Frawley and Fatah enjoy considerable popularity. Fatah has over 282,000 followers, Frawley 33,000 followers, while Gautier has over 29,000 on Twitter. Their blogs and columns are widely read, and they have been feted by think-tanks in India and the West.

In a 2015 article, Elst said that the power of this cause was undeniable, and that “the arteries of new communities” could be seen on the internet. “VijayVaani, India Facts, Hindu Human Rights, Swaraj, Bharat-Bharati, the India Inspires Foundation — these people have no power yet, but they have ideas. More up-to-date than the gerontocratic Sangh, their thought is more interesting. It is more rooted, more Hindu than the Hindutva current, which is stuck in the 1920s borrowed nationalist paradigm. If “debate” with the Hindu side is what you want, it is they who are the ones to talk to,” he says.

Koenraad Elst: Belgian Orientalist who is popular on the think-tank circuit. Was recently part of the Swadeshi Indologist conference in Delhi

Not everyone agrees. Mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik has ascribed the popularity of Indologists like Frawley and Elst to the “vast latent need of privileged Hindus to feel good about themselves”. “Outsourcing the job to white men is an easy alternative, particularly those who manage to establish credibility,” says Pattanaik. In his view, Frawley does this by declaring himself as a Hindu, with the evocative title of Pandit Vamadeva Shastri, portraying himself as a Brahmin in Hindu eyes and backed by his vast knowledge of the Vedic scriptures, and his long practice of ayurveda and jyotisha. “Elst, by contrast, insists that he is not a Hindu, for he is well aware that no one can be converted to Hinduism, that it is linked to birth, and that Hinduism is deeply linked to geography,” says Pattanaik.Their credentials are also questioned. by some Historian S Irfan Habib dismisses them as “Hindutva activists” rather than scholars of any merit. They have got legitimacy because of “state-sponsored nationalism”, rather than the rigour or depth of their work. “Frawley and others merely telescope the past to serve the present. History is subjective, but one can’t use prejudice to distort facts. What is happening in Pakistan, is happening here too — from appropriating icons of the freedom struggle to rewriting history books,” he says.