The March 15 Christchurch terror attack showed how easily violent Islamophobia penetrated into Aotearoa. Now, the Indian community fears that Hindutva, a far-right ideology which targets India’s Muslim minority, could reach them here.
Re: News spoke to four Indian New Zealanders about their experiences of Islamophobia, how it could grow to violent extremism, and why it’s a global issue.
‘I don’t mind Muslims, I just don’t want to be friends with one’
Photo by Vivien Beduya. Aakifa working in her design studio.
Aakifa Chida pauses for a moment as she recalls the day she and her best friend travelled to help with the burials after the Christchurch terror attacks in March 2019.
She remembers this day not only because of its significance to Aotearoa New Zealand, but because of the discrimination she experienced as a Muslim.
The pair boarded the bus dressed in their hijab to go between the sermon at Hagley Park and the burials at Memorial Park Cemetery.
“The bus driver talks to us, and says what had happened was a tragedy. He then says,’I do not condone what happened. I don’t mind Muslims but I just wouldn’t be friends with one.’”
This is just one of the Islamophobic comments 22-year-old Aakifa has been forced to navigate growing up in Aotearoa.
Photo by Vivien Beduya. Aakifa’s Art Exhibition “Will you change?” shows confronting Islamophobic slurs her community face.
She’d always thought violent Islamophobia was a “far-away concept” and that it would never happen here. The Christchurch mosque attack was a reality check for their community.
Microaggressions like she experienced on the bus might seem small, but Aakifa says this line of thinking needs to be stopped at the root because it can grow into extremist behaviour.
But she says it’s too late for India, the place she calls her second home. A home she can’t return to.
“I want to go back to India so bad. But my dad tells me we can’t go back there because it’s not safe for us [Muslims] anymore,” Aakifa says.
It’s become so unsafe for Muslims in India that the founder of Genocide Watch Group, Gregory Stanton, said during the US Congressional briefing in January that India could be on the brink of Muslim genocide.
Since India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, there has been a rise in support for extremist Hindu nationalist groups - and an increase in hate crimes against minority groups in India, especially against India’s Muslim communities.
On the back of this growing movement in India, Hindutva-aligned groups around the world have started to gather support and tensions and violence between communities has arisen in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia.
The New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) is aware of Hindutva. A 2021 NZSIS Threat Insight report says there is a small number of Hindutva-aligned groups in Aotearoa.
The report also says there is a possibility that offshore intercommunal tensions could influence them to conduct acts of violence here, but it is unlikely to manifest as acts of terrorism in the short-medium term.
But with the international rise of Hindutva, there is concern for a growing divide within Aotearoa’s Indian diaspora.
Remembering secular India
The BJP started to adopt the Hindu supremacy ideology, Hindutva, in 1989.
The Hindutva ideology advocates for India to be a Hindu-only nation and extremist priests have called for the killing of Muslims.
Because of the rise in Islamophobia, more than a decade has passed since Aakifa and her siblings returned to India for what used to be a yearly visit.
Before Aakifa was born, her family made the decision to leave India and had visa applications approved for Aotearoa, Canada, and the United States. They chose Aotearoa as a place they hoped would be safe and have made it their home since 1995.
Photo by Vivien Beduya. One of Aakifa’s design projects dedicated to the March 15 Christchurch attack.
Aakifa’s father, Kamran, has fond memories of the secular India he believed in and loved.
“I come from a family of freedom fighters. My grandfather opposed the British regime and led the Gandhian movement in the part of South India where we came from,” the 62-year-old says.
“You never thought of the religion, you thought of the person.”
But in the 1990s, India’s politics on Hindu nationalism started to change. The demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, and the subsequent riots became a defining moment in the country’s political shift.
An estimated 2,000 Muslims died in the Babri Masjid, when over 10,000 Hindu militants used sledgehammers and their bare hands to demolish the mosque.
India’s supreme court ruled that senior leaders of BJP go to trial for criminal conspiracy over the Babri Masjid destruction but they were later acquitted.
“It really disillusioned people like me,” Kamran says.
Photo by Vivien Beduya. Kamran Chida and his family chose Aotearoa as a place they hoped would be safe and welcoming.
Islamophobia is taught
The Babri Masjid demolition was “a black day in the history of India”, Auckland GP Dr Sapna Samant says.
An Indian-born Hindu, she says “people were burned alive. They shut a taxi and they burned Muslim women inside. All of the Muslim businesses were set on fire”.
Sapna says she saw the build up to that day.
Photo by Vivien Beduya. Sapna Samant says Hindutva has found its way into Aotearoa’s Indian diaspora.
Behind the building she grew up in Mumbai, a group of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) members, which she describes as a “paramilitary organisation modelled on the German nationalist party”, would have their early morning exercises, she says.
“My first memory of them was when I was 12 or 13, but they were probably [in our backyard] my whole life.”
Sapna compares the fervent gathering of the RSS to the Nazi rallies.
“They would do fake military mock-up exercises with whatever weapons they [had].”
Being that young, she did not understand “why the RSS hated the Muslims”.
“I didn’t have the word for it, but at some level, it would make me really uncomfortable, and I had no means to understand how this would pan out.”
Later in life, she realised the word she was looking for is Islamophobia.
“It was deep inside the RSS indoctrination and the BJP political party,” she says.
She believes Hindutva has started to find its way into Aotearoa’s Indian diaspora and she worries about what this could mean not just for the Indian community, but Aotearoa as well.
“This is supposed to be a place where we’re meant to give up our cultural baggage and start fresh,” she says.
Being Indian is not just about being Hindu
Photo by Vivien Beduya. Sapna’s hallway is rich with Hindu art.
A practising Hindu herself, she says Hindutva and Hinduism are not the same.
“Hindutva is a fascist ideology about power, singularity, and authoritarianism with no place for dissent. Hinduism, the religion, is the vast opposite of that. It’s a pantheon religion where everybody practises in any way they want.”
Photo by Vivien Beduya. Sapna’s shrine of Hindu gods, religious artifacts and personal trinkets.
Learning more about the Hindutva has made her even more curious about Hinduism, and in turn made her faith stronger.
“Hinduism doesn’t teach any of these things that these people are doing. I can argue on these philosophies now, and I can talk about what is okay and what isn’t okay,” she says.
“It’s made me firmer in my belief that these people absolutely need to be stopped.”
Western concept of human rights
Photo by Vivien Beduya. Afshan has asked to not show her face for safety reasons.
Graduate law clerk Afshan Afzaly has not stepped foot in India in over a decade. This disconnection with her home is a sad reality of the current environment in her homeland.
“My parents don’t think it’s safe. It makes me feel sad, but it’s been so long that I’ve come to accept it,” says the 24-year-old.
Afshan laughs when she talks about why she initially pursued law. She first wanted to be a human rights lawyer and embody the “Amal Clooney, bad bitch, kinda vibes”.
But once she started studying law, she learned about state sovereignty, and how it gets abused in less economically developed countries. She says the human rights of people of colour were “on the floor” and that there is nothing being done about it.
“[It became] very apparent as I was studying law that I didn’t want to have anything to do with this Western concept of human rights.”
She contrasts how several Western countries have sanctioned Russia for the war in Ukraine, (which she says is also important), while the foreign trade agreements with India remain strong.
Photo by Vivien Beduya. Aakifa’s mood board in her design studio.
Diversity in Islam
While the umbrella term for the believers of Islam is Muslim, Afshan wants to break the stereotype that they’re all the same.
Muslims come from a vast number of different countries all over the world with varied cultural elements that influence how they practice their faith.
“While I love being part of that community, responding to the needs of Muslims is when you need to factor in that there is diversity within the community,” she says.
She believes that if we want to prioritise diversity and the safety of Muslims in Aotearoa we need to take the time to listen to the varying needs of their community.
“And it’s a beautiful diversity. But unfortunately, one response may not be the only answer.”
How far have we really come since March 15?
“I was brought up on a story about my country that wasn’t true.”
When I was a kid, I never doubted. Recently, I have found myself far more comfortable with it.