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Story Publication logo June 10, 2024

Saffron in the Rainbow Nation: Hindu Nationalism’s Presence in South Africa

Hindu temple in South Africa

This project looks into political and religious tensions in Africa’s largest Indian community.

Hindu community new Ashram. South Africa, 2024.

DURBAN, South Africa — This past March 23, an interfaith prayer meeting was held at the Phoenix Settlement near Durban, established by Mahatma Gandhi in 1904. Organized by Ela Gandhi, founder and chair of the Gandhi Development Trust, the meeting featured remarks from Christian, Muslim, Baha’i, Shembe and other speakers calling for “peaceful, free, and fair elections in South Africa.”

Within days, the event began to receive backlash on social media. The reason? No Hindu religious leader offered a prayer. Social media posts argued that this was an intentional act of “mass indoctrination … going on 120 years later in the name of Gandhi,” committed by “the Gandhi family” with the intention of “disdain” and “disrespect to Hindus.” Other posts took on an anti-Muslim tone, accusing Ela Gandhi and Mahatma Gandhi of being partial to Muslims.

In a telephone conversation, Ela Gandhi dismissed the backlash as “some people trying to make mischief.” Nonetheless, she felt compelled to write a 1,600-word rebuttal in The Post, clarifying that although she invited several Hindu organizations, none of them were able to send a representative that day.

How did religious tensions from India get mixed up with an event focused on South Africa’s recently-concluded elections?

Although it may seem surprising, these incidents are on the rise in South Africa’s Indian community. Over the last decade, under the Modi government (which has retained power following the recent Indian elections), Hindu nationalism has become the dominant political ideology in India. Proponents of Hindu nationalism argue that being Indian should be synonymous with being Hindu, which has led to increased religious and political tensions in the Indian diaspora — including in South Africa.

Historical Context

South African Indians make up around 2.7 percent of the country’s population (just under 1.7 million people). Data shows that around 41 percent of South African Indians are Hindu, 25 percent Muslim and 24 percent Christian.

Most South African Indians are descended from indentured workers who arrived between 1860 and 1911. Although there were small Christian and Muslim minorities, most workers were South Indian Hindus, with a smaller proportion coming from northern India. In addition, there were “passenger Indians,” primarily traders from western India. Muslims made up a larger percentage of this business class. In recent years, there has also been a steady flow of immigrants from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

The experience of apartheid, particularly the Group Areas Act, played a key role in shaping a “South African Indian” identity among a community stratified by class, religion, and language. According to Faizal Dawjee, communications advisor and former media director of the South African government, “in a very bizarre way, apartheid consolidated these communities. It put us all to live together in townships where only Indians could live together.”

Additionally, Indians across religious identities collaborated in the anti-apartheid struggle; Maulana Ebrahim Bham, secretary of the Jamiatul Ulama South Africa, a Muslim organization, said that “apartheid taught us that there was a common enemy.”

During apartheid, direct contact between India and South Africa was limited. For Selvan Naidoo, director of the 1860 Heritage Centre in Durban, this distance served as a way of “shielding” South African Indians from religious tensions in India.

These dynamics began changing in post-apartheid South Africa. In 1994 and 1995, overseas affiliates of India’s largest Hindu nationalist organizations were established in South Africa, namely the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) (neither organization responded to requests for interviews). However, these groups failed to gain significant traction. Overall, interfaith relations in the South African Indian community remained largely stable.

Over the last decade, this situation has begun to change. The primary reason? The meteoric rise of Hindu nationalism in India under the Modi government.

Growth in Recent Years

Since Modi took power in 2014, his government has made extensive efforts to cultivate goodwill among the global Indian diaspora, including in South Africa. In 2016, Modi visited South Africa, and addressed a Johannesburg stadium packed with 11,000 people. Many people I spoke to, particularly Hindus, saw Modi as representing a strong, assertive India that is on the rise globally. At the same time, the rise of Hindu nationalism under Modi has unleashed a wave of religious polarization across the global Indian diaspora.

According to Dr. Lubna Nadvi at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, “it’s really after Modi's government that all of this started to become more prominent” in South Africa. Maulana Bham of the Jamiatul Ulama South Africa says that in terms of Hindu-Muslim relations, “the relationship hasn't been what it used to be. There's an underlying apprehension.” Dr. Saths Cooper, an anti-apartheid activist who was jailed alongside Nelson Mandela, shares that “we didn't have those iron walls, iron curtains, between us. They're becoming more pronounced. And that's a direct relationship to what's happening in India.”

Social media is a major site for these tensions. Ela Gandhi described seeing a speech given by Nathuram Godse, the Hindu extremist who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, shared on WhatsApp by “Hindus who see themselves as opponents of Muslims.” A recent viral infographic accused prominent South African Muslim leaders (and some Hindus) of being anti-Hindu and anti-Indian.

In 2022, Naidoo made a post on the 1860 Heritage Centre’s Facebook page in support of Muslim students in India who were protesting for their right to wear the hijab in school, but took it down after “an avalanche of comments and negative feedback.”

Dr. Faisal Suliman, head of the South African Muslim Network, is part of a WhatsApp group in which “Modi can't come up” because “it's too touchy a subject … [for] a lot of people;” even group members who were anti-apartheid activists “won't entertain any, any, any, any, any, criticism of Modi.” 

These tensions are also showing up offline. Rajish Lutchman, who works with Hindvani, a Hindi radio station in Durban, has received feedback that if the station is truly committed to promoting “the Hindi language and Hindu culture,” it should stop broadcasting ghazals, a musical genre that some associate with Muslims. According to Suliman, “self-censorship has certainly been very powerful” for imams who are concerned that if they speak out against the Indian government, “they may not get their visas” to visit India.

Even in matters not directly related to India, divisive attitudes are showing up. In Durban, Dr. Suren Lutchminarayan and his family received backlash when they organized a fundraiser through the Umhlanga Business Society for victims of the February 2023 Syria-Turkey earthquake. He was told, “you’re a Hindu, why don’t you target the Hindus who are suffering?” For Dr. Lutchminarayan, they were “just targeting this one [fundraiser] in particular because Muslims are involved.”

After the April issue of the Arya Samaj South Africa magazine included a pro-Palestinian article, Karuna Mohan, an Arya Samaj member, shared WhatsApp messages that accused the Hindu organization of being a “new terrorist base for ISIS in SA” and speculating that “maybe Arya Samaj now has a Moulana as leader.”

The Role of Community Institutions

In South Africa, Hindu nationalist groups like the HSS and VHP have a limited footprint, and are primarily active among recent Indian immigrants and some middle-class South African Indians. However, the messaging spread by these groups is putting pressure on mainstream organizations, such as the South African Hindu Maha Sabha, the country’s national Hindu body. 

In a 1996 letter in The Leader, the Maha Sabha (no relation to the Hindu Mahasabha in India) declared that “it is important that the politics of India are not imported to South Africa. The VHP and RSS are virulently anti-Muslim. There is no place for racial and religious bigotry in the new South Africa.”

However, the Maha Sabha now faces increasing pressure from its over 130 affiliate groups, some of which have become sympathetic to Hindu nationalist ideas. In the organization’s recent elections, a presidential candidate who has been outspoken against Hindu nationalism was compelled to remove themselves from consideration due to backlash from affiliate groups.

For decades, the Maha Sabha has maintained that their focus is on domestic issues. In the past, the organization has occasionally commented on international issues, calling for a ceasefire in Gaza in October 2023. When it comes to India, the Maha Sabha’s stance has become increasingly selective.

In 2020, President Ashwin Trikamjee declined to comment on a discriminatory citizenship law that was passed in India. However, the Maha Sabha recently organised a public celebration directly connected to an Indian event: the inauguration of a controversial temple in the city of Ayodhya in January 2024.

This temple, the Ram Mandir, was built over the Babri Masjid, a medieval mosque illegally demolished by a Hindu nationalist mob in 1992, who claimed the mosque was built on the birthplace of the god Rama. The inauguration of the temple three decades later, a key campaign promise of Modi’s party, was a massive victory for Hindu nationalists worldwide.

The Maha Sabha’s celebration was not unique. Hindu temples across South Africa held events, with some even branding their celebrations as “early Diwali” and “Diwali in January.” However, unlike these other organizations, the Maha Sabha had previously condemned the Babri Masjid’s demolition.

In 1996, the Maha Sabha argued that “any organisation whose claim to fame is support for and participation in the destruction of a mosque, has no place in our democratic society.” In 2024, the Maha Sabha celebrated the inauguration of a temple built over the very same mosque.

In conversations with the Maha Sabha’s leadership, representatives insisted that their celebration was apolitical — even though Modi himself participated in the rituals for the inauguration.

According to Neeshan Balton of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, the Maha Sabha’s decision was made partly because “there are new formations that are threatening their existence,” alluding to Hindu groups who are more aligned to Hindu nationalism.

“They [the Maha Sabha] were not going to open their mouths [on Ayodhya]. They would not say anything. If they had said anything negative about that, they would have been finished,” said Balton.

Some members of the South African Indian community were critical of these celebrations. Cooper described them as “outrageous.” Dr. Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie, professor emeritus at the University of the Western Cape, said, “Personally, I could not celebrate that day. … In the name of Hinduism, they destroyed a mosque. And that is quite a heinous act.” Others believed that many who attended these celebrations were simply unaware of the temple’s history.

The Arya Samaj South Africa was one Hindu organization that did not organize a celebration, for reasons that were both theological (the Arya Samaj does not believe in image worship) and political. The organization’s president, Arthi Shanand, shared her view: “for me, it's not Ram coming back [to Ayodhya]. It's Modi putting him there—and playing on people's emotions.”

Future Implications

Shanand is one of many South African Indians who are concerned about the growing presence of Hindu nationalist groups in South Africa, which she described as “very much anti-Muslim, they're anti-Christian, they're anti-everything, they're only pro-Hindu. They are indoctrinating the Hindus here.”

Interfaith relations among South African Indians have not deteriorated to the levels seen in other parts of the Indian diaspora, such as in the United Kingdom, where violence broke out between Hindus and Muslims in the city of Leicester in 2022. The community leaders I spoke to emphasized that Hindu nationalists make up a small proportion of the South African Indian community.

Although these groups remain limited in their numbers, their message has the potential to grow in South Africa. Many South African Hindus I talked to expressed concerns about growing numbers of Hindus converting to Christianity and Islam — a concern that is shared by Hindu nationalists in India. The increasing popularity of Indian news channels and social media is another way that divisive attitudes could travel from India to South Africa.

In the meantime, many South African Indians are committed to maintaining the interfaith harmony that they grew up with.

As Nadvi put it, “we've seen those trends here in South Africa, and we're trying very hard to fight it. Because we're not going to let that kind of thing seep into our space and our community.”


teal halftone illustration of praying hands




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