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David Seymour and melissa lee in indian dress
(Screenshots from David Seymour’s Instagram/ Melissa Lee on ANI. Design by Tina Tiller)

PoliticsJanuary 24, 2024

Why government ministers’ presence at a Hindu nationalist rally is causing concern

David Seymour and melissa lee in indian dress
(Screenshots from David Seymour’s Instagram/ Melissa Lee on ANI. Design by Tina Tiller)

David Seymour and Melissa Lee were among attendees of a rally celebrating the opening of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, a city in North India, this weekend. It was more than just another community event. 

A prominent Indian researcher is among activists raising the alarm about New Zealand politicians engaging with the rightwing Hindutva movement at a time when charged Indian politics are having an impact around the world. 

This controversy is many decades old, with multiple components. Here’s a simplified explainer of why it matters in Aotearoa today. 

What did Melissa Lee and David Seymour do? 

Both Lee, the National MP and minister for economic development and ethnic communities, and Seymour, the Act leader, minister for regulation and future deputy prime minister, attended an event at Auckland’s Eden Park on Sunday to mark the opening of a highly controversial temple in North India which many people see as a marker of the Indian government’s pro-Hindu, anti-minority agenda. 

Lee was interviewed congratulating Indian prime minister Narendra Modi specifically and saying “he does very well for the people of India” as she celebrated the temple. Seymour posted about the event on Instagram, saying that the opening of the temple aligned with the Act Party’s values of “fairness, inclusivity and accountability” and declared “Jai Sri Ram”, which means “victory to Lord Ram”, in an interview. Both Lee and Seymour’s interviews were with ANI, an Indian news agency that has been accused of being a propaganda tool for the Hindu nationalist Indian government.

While the minister for ethnic communities and the minister for regulation attending a local event might seem innocuous enough, Hindu nationalism – and this temple in particular – is hugely politically loaded in India. New Zealand-based commenters have accused both ministers of not understanding the implications of attending this event – and of alienating many of their constituents. 

Commenters on Seymour’s Instagram said he didn’t understand what the event was about (Image: Instagram/Screenshot)

Why did Lee and Seymour go to this event? 

Lee and Seymour have both supported Hindutva in the past, including advocating for the widespread release of The Kashmir Files, a 2022 film about Hindu oppression in the disputed Muslim-majority territory of Kashmir that has been called ahistorical. There are more than 100,000 Hindus in New Zealand, a not insignificant political and financial base. Attending this event is a way to appeal to many of the Hindutva-aligned Indians who may support National and Act’s policy in government. 

The Spinoff asked Lee why she attended this event and if she supports Modi’s actions towards Muslims. “As minister I attended in support of New Zealand’s ethnic communities,” was the entirety of her statement in response.

Mohan Dutta, a professor of communication at Massey who has studied the Hindu rightwing movement in New Zealand, notes that there is also resistance to Hindutva narratives in Indian communities. “Which part of the Indian diaspora community is the minister for ethnic communities engaging with?” he says. “Many Indian Muslims in the diaspora are rightly concerned; this celebration sends the message that since the Christchurch terror attacks, things haven’t changed.” 

What’s the deal with the Indian government and Hindu nationalism?

Hindu nationalism, also known as Hindutva, is a rightwing movement that has become increasingly popular in India, especially since Modi’s pro-Hindu BJP party came to power in 2014. It’s a political and belief system that claims that following Hinduism and being Indian are the same thing. Not all Hindus support these beliefs but many do, and Modi is widely expected to win a third five-year term in the Indian election this year. 

Hindutva has been used to attack and disenfranchise India’s 204 million Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, low-caste and tribal people, and migrants. This has taken many forms, including offering amnesty only to non-Muslim migrants and cow protection laws that encourage community violence against those accused of harming Hinduism’s sacred animal. 

modi's face on fire
Students in Pakistan protesting against India’s move to remove autonomy from Muslim-majority disputed region Kashmir, August 2019 (Photo: Getty Images)

What is the Ram Mandir/Babri Masjid? 

The Ram Mandir, which opened on Monday, is a temple in Ayodhya, a city famous for its mention in the Ramayana, an ancient Hindu epic. The temple was built on the site of the Babri Masjid, a mosque named after Babur, a Muslim Mughal emperor, centuries earlier. 

Many Hindus, including Modi, say the mosque was built over the birthplace of Ram, the hero of the Ramayana. This is highly disputed

In 1992, following a years-long push from rightwing Hindu group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Hindu paramilitary organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a riot of Hindu protesters demolished the mosque, sparking riots throughout India. After a protracted court case, construction for the current temple began in 2020. 

Symbolically, the temple is important; the current Indian government is seen as very pro-Hindu at the expense of Muslims and other minorities, although India is supposedly a secular state. “The idea is to turn India from a plural, secular, multicultural democracy to a Hindu theocracy,” Dutta says. “It’s a fundamental threat to the fabric of Indian society.” Modi consecrated an idol at the temple at its inauguration on Monday; many Indian states declared public holidays, and spent millions of dollars on public celebrations. 

Live broadcasts and public celebrations were held around the world, with thousands of people attending, including at the event at Eden Park in Auckland on Sunday. 

Former prime minister Chris Hipkins meets Narendra Modi (Photo: Pool)

Why are there so many rightwing Hindu networks outside of India? 

Dutta says Hindu groups outside of India have been a key source of legitimacy, volunteers and money for Indian rightwing groups like the VHP and RSS for decades. The RSS has many branches outside of India, including in Kenya, the US, the UK and as a registered charity to promote Hindu culture in New Zealand. 

“There’s a lot of support from the diaspora to uphold the values of India as a Hindu nation,” he says. Many cultural spaces, such as Hindi learning classes or temples, become ways to reinforce Indian identity as being the same as Hinduism – even though India is a multicultural country with people from many faith and language backgrounds. 

It’s a dilemma Dutta has encountered personally. As he and his partner raise their children in New Zealand, he wants to offer them the opportunity to connect with Hinduism’s spiritual practices and holy places, but also to know that being Indian goes beyond a religious identity, and that there are other forms of national inheritance too – like the ideals of India’s secular constitution. “Hindutva co-opts diaspora Indian identity to serve its purposes,” he says.

a screenshot of youtube comments
Some YouTube comments celebrated Seymour’s use of the “Jai Shree Ram” slogan (Image: screenshot)

What does ‘Jai Shri Ram’ mean? 

“Jai Shri Ram” is a slogan that has been associated with violence against Muslims all over the world – including in the UK in 2022. “Jai Shri Ram is a slogan of violence; when Muslims are lynched in India, Jai Sri Ram is chanted,” Dutta says. “I don’t know if Seymour was coaxed into it or if he thought it was appropriate.” 

Asked about his use of the phrase by The Spinoff, Seymour said that he actually said another version of the phrase – “Jai Sai Ram” – even though he clearly says “Shri” in the video. Despite the phrase’s well documented links to anti-Muslim attacks, Seymour said he had no concerns about using it. “While some academics might interpret it as a political greeting, I used it to show respect for the customs and traditions of the group hosting me. This is common practice for attending any religious event.”

What does this mean for the New Zealand government’s relationship with India? 

In the clip from pro-Hindu Indian news site ANI, Melissa Lee says she is hopeful that Modi will visit New Zealand in 2024, and that prime minister Chris Luxon will be able to visit India. The latter, at least, looks nearly certain; reaching a free trade agreement with India was one of Luxon’s key election promises

India, and its population of nearly 1.5 billion people, also have an election in the first half of 2024 (the date hasn’t been set yet). “With the election coming up you will see various performances of Hindutva,” Dutta says. “There is tremendous resistance to this, including in the diaspora, but there are also efforts to silence that resistance. I hope we can listen to diverse members of the Indian community to respond to the disinformation and hate.”

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