The Scourge of Indian Islamophobia
In an age of unprecedented anti-Muslim lynching and violence against minorities in India, Islamophobic bigotry extends its arms into modern Indian State figures. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath—who stated in 2015 that he would (if given the chance) install Hindu idols in every Indian Mosque—is a key example of this. In an undated video from 2014, he stated “if [Muslims] take one Hindu girl, we’ll take 100 Muslim girls. If they kill one Hindu, we’ll kill 100 Muslim.” The first portion of his hate speech referred to “love jihad,” a concept he helped popularise in India, which dictates that male Indian Muslims secretively plot to deliberately seduce Hindu women with the aim of converting them to Islam. Such conspiratorial claims lack statistical backing but are widely accepted norms among India’s political right and far-right. Adityanath’s appointment as Chief Minister has contributed to communal tensions in Uttar Pradesh, with his followers once proclaiming their desire to exhume the graves of Muslim women and rape them at a mass rally. Even more disturbing is Adityanath’s reported promise in the run-up to the 2014 Indian election, of a Muslim-free India if the BJP were to win. These facts, in addition to others, have prompted a critical assessment of the history, ethnonationalist ideology and the fascist-expansionist nationhood of the venom that is consuming modern India: Hindu Nationalism.
On June 22, 2018, the Hindu nationalist and cow vigilante Telangana BJP MLA representative Raja Singh spread a false, racist, and Islamophobic rumor stating that Kashmiri political leader Omar Abdullah threatened to end the Amarnath Yatra (a Hindu pilgrimage to a temple in Kashmir) following the breakdown of the PDP-BJP alliance. In a Facebook video that was viewed 3 million times, Singh began the video by stating “mere dushmano” (my enemies), “The time of war has arrived and we have to see who is standing with the nation and who is not.” Singh stated, “Ek Kashmiri ku**a bhaunka, Omar Abdullah” (A Kashmiri dog barked, Omar Abdullah), and he then alleged that Abdullah would stop the Amarnath Yatra. Singh went on to recall deceased Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray’s hate speech in which he had said, “If Amarnath Yatra stops then no flight for Hajj will take off from Mumbai.” Singh then warned the Muslims of India by stating,
Till now there was the government of impotent people, now under Modi-ji’s government you can survive (only) by keeping quiet and obeying us. Otherwise, we’ll pull the carpet below your feet and you won’t even know.
In the period since, the Indian government revoked Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which granted a special administrative status to the Muslim-majority Indian-Occupied Jammu and Kashmir, illegally dividing and annexing the territory. The Hindu nationalist government is set to begin a campaign of illegal settlement in Kashmir via a new domicile law to change the demographics and cultural foundation of the region.
As of April 2020, BJP Member of Parliament Subramanian Swamy openly stated to the media organization VICE that he and his party see Muslims as “not in an equal category” to other Indian citizens under Article 14 of India’s constitution. The constitutional Article right states that the State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India. Genocidal and Islamophobic rhetoric of this caliber is the lifeblood of the Hindu Nationalist project. Indeed, this Islamophobic bigotry is even projected backwards against the backdrop of India’s Mughal history, in which Mughal emperors, namely Aurangzeb, were purported to have governed solely to tyrannize India’s Hindu majority. Historian Audrey Truschke claims that the British created the modern legacy of Aurangzeb as a cartoonish bigot, which has included false and blatant selective translations of Mughal history to highlight Aurangzeb’s alleged hatred of his majority-Hindu populace. I have addressed this elsewhere.
Aurangzeb’s legacy has haunted Muslims to the present, and are perceived by Hindu Nationalists as the existential and ideological threat to a homogeneously Hindu state. Truschke states that Hindu Nationalists are embarrassed upon reflecting on how India was ruled for so long by a Muslim minority, which is a phenomenon that can often precede the rise of ethnonationalist politics, such as the political sentiments of humiliation and degradation present in Weimar Germany following the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles.[13,14]
Fanning Communal Bigotry: COVID-19 and the Indian Media
With COVID-19 spreading across India, prominent Indian newspapers and Hindu Nationalists have created Islamophobic cartoons depicting Muslims as the deadly virus. This has included media outlets sharing images of the Muslim topi paired with a mask and in late March, the newspaper The Hindu wrote an article with an image of the COVID-19 virus dressed in cultural attire commonly worn by Muslims from Afghanistan and Pakistan (with the virus holding an AK47, holding the “earth” hostage).
Hindutva: “Mlechhas”, Discrimination, and the Nazis
While the politics of Hindutva, the RSS, and the BJP reflect 20th century ethnonationalism, the history of Hindu Nationalism itself is slightly older and expressed itself in numerous ways. The Nepalese King Maharajadhiraja Shah of the 18th century declared Nepal as the “pure land of the Hindus” and described Mughal-ruled India detestably as Mughlan (“country of Mughals”), despite the Mughals being an Indian empire. The Hinduisation of Nepal led to the creation of the Nepali civil code, the Muluki Ain. The civil code was rooted in what was considered traditional Hindu ideas and social practices, and categorized its society on the following ethnic-caste-grounds: “sacred thread bearers”, “enslavable and non-enslavable liquor drinkers” and the “untouchables.” Slavery was a key feature of this legal compendium, as all of those who belonged to castes outside of the “sacred thread bearers” and the “non-enslaveable liquor drinkers” could be enslaved under the law.
Under the Muluki Ain, Muslims (and Europeans) were classed among the impure lower castes and were described as “mlechha” (defined as “non-Vedic” or “barbarian”). They had few rights under the law. The term “mlechha” has ancient scriptural and sociological roots to the early-mid Vedic period, and was used by Indo-Aryans to designate foreign or “inferior” people. Those who have been categorized as mlechha range from the Indo-Greeks, the Scythians, the Indo-Iranian Sacae people, the Kushanas (the ancestors of the Hindu Kushan emperors) and even the Khasa people; the tribe the Nepali-Hindu king that implemented the Muluki Ain descended from. The Muluki Ain upheld the serfdom of its socially repressive social order, and at its core, represented the inherent inequality, racism, and oppression of the caste system.
As the 19th century passed, a period considered the “Hindu Renaissance” took place. Groups such as the Arya Samaj grew in popularity. The Arya Samaj, for instance, rejected idolatry, caste repression, child marriage and attributed these phenomena as consequences of “Brahmanism.” Tawheed – the monotheism at the very core of Islam – became popular among Hindu reformers, such as Vivekananda, who propagated strict monotheistic beliefs in opposition to the ideals Hindutva propagates through its many cow vigilantes and Babri Masjid attackers. However, despite Vivekananda’s “monotheism”, his spirituality was still aimed at revitalizing a Hindu Nation. A policy of “Hindu Raj” went on to be implemented upon the inhabitants of the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir under 20th century Dogra rule. Muslims were dealt with harshly by the Dogra’s simply for being Muslim. For instance, until 1934, the slaughter of a cow was a capital offense. A person convicted of killing a cow was “boiled in oil and then hung from a hook which was fixed on to a pole [impaled] in a public place.” The Dogra rulers implemented laws that permitted Kashmiri Muslims to inherit property and enjoy rights of guardianship over their children, but only if they converted to Hinduism. If a Hindu converted to Islam, they would automatically lose these rights. Dogra rulers taxed Muslims for every marriage that occurred within their families, and even converted many historical Kashmiri mosques and shrines into granaries and ammunition storehouses for the State. Hindu Dogra rule in Kashmir was so inept, discriminatory and vile that it prompted then-British Viceroy Lord Lytton to write to then-Secretary of State Lord Cranbrook with the following:
I consider that time has come when we must decisively intervene for the rescue of a perishing population, on whose behalf we certainly contracted moral obligations and responsibilities when we handed them over to the uncontrolled rule of a power alien to them in race and creed, and representing no civilization higher than theirs.
By the turn of the 20th Century, the Indian independence movement against the British Raj was waged. It created a confluence of ideas related to Hindu nationalism and Indian nationalism, including debates on the merits of an armed struggle against the British. In 1905, the Hindu Nationalist group India House openly espoused ideas of an armed struggle against the British. These were ideas espoused by many Independence-era figures, such as the Marxist-Leninist Bhagat Singh. A key difference between independence-era Hindu Nationalists and other figures were their sympathies and ties to Nazi Germany. Indian Hindu Nationalist leader Subhas Chandra Bose (d. 18 August 1945) – an Indian national hero – attempted to rid India of British rule by collaborating with the Nazis. The honorific title he is known by, “Netaji”, was bestowed upon him in Germany in 1942 by German officials and by the Indian soldiers of the Indische Legion (who were an official arm of the German Army and the Waffen-SS). Bose was crucial in the formation of this Indian arm of the Waffen-SS; they were created with the intention of a full land invasion of the western frontier of British India in the period 1941-1944. However, following Japanese victories in near south-east Asia, German priorities shifted, making this invasion of India unlikely.
As a result, Bose abandoned ship and fled India to Japanese-held Sumatra in a submarine provided by the Nazi’s and Imperial Japan. Bose went on to ally with Japan and created the “provisional Government of Free India” in the Japanese-held Andaman and Nicobar Islands. From here, he attempted to war with the British Raj to no avail. His Indische Legion and supporting Japanese forces were devastatingly halted by the British; half of the attacking Japanese force were killed along with half of the participating Legion. Instead of standing by his forces when they surrendered following the British recapture of Singapore in 1945, Bose planned to flee to China and then into the Soviet Union for amnesty. Instead, he died from third-degree burns when his plane crashed in Taiwan. While the Indian National Congress distanced themselves with Bose and his collaboration with the Nazi’s, he remains an honored figure in India. Even when the British Raj attempted to try the remaining members of the Indische Legion for treason, torture, and murder in the INA Trials, the sentences of the Court were never carried out. Bose’s arm of the Waffen-SS was so popular that the Indian Navy declared a mutiny and several British army garrisons faced revolts during the trials. There are few political movements, and countries, that idealize men who created entire wings of the Waffen-SS in the same manner as Hindu Nationalists.
Ideology: A Project of Vengeance
Hindutva depicts itself as “Sanatan Dharma”, or the “eternal way”: a cultural religion that claims to have always existed. It sees itself as the combined cultural and spiritual will of the “Dharmic” faiths of the Indian subcontinent. It is a movement that sees no difference between a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Sikh or a Jain, despite the obvious religious, historical and civilizational differences between each faith. It makes very little sense to say that Sikhs, who believe in a single god, and a Buddhist, who neither believe in a god nor the same concept of the soul as any other faith, are the same. In the same light, it makes little sense for the modern followers of Hindutva to claim they follow the religion of the Vedic period. By extension, it makes even less sense that they claimed this religion and way of life always existed. There could not be more differences between Hindutva and modern Hinduism to the practices of the Indus Valley and Vedic-era civilizations. For instance, the Vedic religion of the Vedic period (1500 BC – 500 BC) had a distinct belief in an afterlife, as opposed to the Hindu concepts of reincarnation and moksha. Adherents to the Vedic-era religion did not believe in karma. Instead, they were steeped in animism, shaman-like ancestor-worship and lived in a syncretic Indo-European and Indo-Iranian culture. The followers of the Vedic-era religion would sacrifice horses, cows, consume beef and even immolate cows every year, beliefs and practices that would anger Hindutva’s most devoted cow-vigilantes and proponents. The ethical system of the Vedic-era religion bears little similarity to the various notions of truth within modern Hinduism and whatever Hindutva claims to philosophically stand for. For example, they believed in an unclearly defined concept of truth, “ṛtá”. This term had an Avestan cognate, “aša”, which has been translated as “cosmic order” or “truth”. These terms existed within the religions of the contemporary Proto-Indo-Iranian’s and in the older, broader Bactria–Margiana Culture.
The Indo-Aryans of the Vedic period were the linguistic inheritors of these cultures – as well as the Sintasha culture – whose ancestors hailed from the Steppes. American emeritus Professor of anthropology and specialist in Indo-European languages and history at Hartwick College, David W. Anthony Ph.D argues that this exchange of language, ideas and culture were commonplace; the Vedic-era civilization even borrowed the god “Indra” from the Bactria–Margiana Culture, who has persisted as a deity in the Hindu pantheon to this day. These facts run contrary to the Hindutva re-telling of history. They would claim that the events of the Mahābhārata were factual and took place after the late Vedic-period and before the first Indian empire. This is a claim that makes little historical sense against the backdrop of the historical information available about the Vedic period, as well as the information available about the various cults and religions practiced at that time. For instance, the historicity of the Kurukshetra War within the epic poem is unclear to historians, as are many of its characters due to the scarcity of archaeological evidence. This claim is substantiated by Murthy, who states that the narrative of the war in the Mahābhārata borrows from the “nucleus” of the mythological Rigveda story of the Battle of Ten Kings. He states that the Mahābhārata expanded and modified this mythology, making the factual historicity of the Mahābhārata even more dubious. The Hindutva re-telling of the “Ramayana” as a factual account of human history follows a similar line of reasoning, with the historical epic occurring in what is known as the “Treta Yuga” period said to have been over 500,000 years ago, creating another questionable historical timeline. Indeed, the Hinduism that exists in modern India that has influenced Hindutva shares a greater similarity with the Brahmanism that developed as the Vedic period came to its end, which existed in the north-western region of India and further developed into the Gangetic plains.
While it was not completely identical to modern Hinduism, this ancient religion birthed the priestly class of Hinduism, the “Brahmins.” What cannot be denied are the civilizational achievements of the Vedic era and the earlier Indus Valley civilization. What can be coherently stated is that the religions and cults of the Vedic and pre-Vedic era were ineffably distinct from modern Hinduism and Hindutva. Hindutva provides no room for the nuances that exist between the Indic religions it groups together under its umbrella and inflates its own history with literalism tied to questionable historical events. The events known to historians of these ancient periods are the fingerprints of heritage common to North Indians, Pakistanis and many from Afghanistan. These fingerprints of history upon Allah’s earth are not the monopoly of one religion, as proponents of Hindutva would have many believe. Hindutva seeks the domination of all non-Hindutva proponents, the establishment of a “Hindu Rashtra” extending as far as Western-most Afghanistan and combines a Hero-worship of Adolf Hitler with the movement’s various political leaders, including the incumbent Prime Minister of India. One of the foundational texts of Hindutva, a “Bunch of Thoughts”, was published in 1966 by M.S. Golwalkar. In “Part two: the nation and its problems”, Golwalkar listed the “internal threats” to India and they are as follows: the Muslims, the Christians, and the Communists. These hateful sentiments are still held by many within India’s political classes, most recently expressed in the publication of anti-Muslim COVID-19 cartoons by leading Indian newspapers.
Adolf Hitler had his “Fatherland” and Golwalkar had his “Motherland” – deifying the nation-state of India in the image of a Hindu idol. Golwalkar and the proponents of Hindu Nationalism promote historical falsehood and a politics of hate; they provide no nuance to the individual beliefs of India’s religions, and view Muslims and non-Hindutva proponents as second-class citizens. Hindutva proponents share very few beliefs and practices with the Vedic era religions and conflate their national identity with a wholly inaccurate reading of South and Central Asia’s ancient history.
The Modern Nation
Bose’s sympathies with the Nazi’s are still held by the proponents of Hindutva, and Adolf Hitler is still popular as ever in India. In 2004, when now-Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, school textbooks published by the Gujarat State Board portrayed Adolf Hitler as a hero, and glorified Nazi fascism. The social studies textbook for 15-to-16-year olds had chapters entitled “Hitler, the Supremo,” and “Internal Achievements of Nazism.” The sub-chapter on the “Ideology of Nazism” reads the following:
Hitler lent dignity and prestige to the German government. He adopted the policy of opposition towards the Jewish people and advocated the supremacy of the German race.
The social studies textbook, published by the state of Tamil Nadu in 2011 (with multiple revised editions until 2017) includes chapters glorifying Hitler, praising his “inspiring leadership,” “achievements” and how the Nazis “glorified the German state” so, “to maintain a German race with Nordic elements, [Hitler] ordered the Jews to be persecuted.” This glorification of Hitler is a direct attribute of Hindutva, and it is something that many Indian politicians have politically gained from – none other than Bose and Thackeray. “It is a Hitler that is needed in India today,” said Bal Thackeray, the then-leader of the Hindu extremist outfit Shiv Sena, in 1967. “There is nothing wrong,” he said in his 1993 interview with Time magazine, “if Muslims are treated as Jews were in Nazi Germany.” He then went on to apply fascist ideology in the context of India. “If you take Mein Kampf and if you remove the word ‘Jew’ and put in the word ‘Muslim’, that is what I believe in,” he said. The popularity of Adolf Hitler in the writings and “culture” of Hindutva have even bled into the modern world of Indian small business; there are a number of “Hitler” clothing stores, ice cream stands, snooker clubs and home furnishing stores across India. With sentiments such as these popular among many in India pre- and post-Independence, the violence waged by Hindu Nationalism in the 21st century should come at no surprise to anyone.
The 2020 Delhi pogrom saw Muslim men and women murdered, elderly Muslims burned alive, and arson against mosques and madrasahs by Hindutva goons. Qur’ans were defiled and burned. Muslim shops, from bakeries to clothing stores, were looted by rioters. Delhi’s police conspired with Hindutva groups; Hindu and Muslim journalists alike were harassed or attacked for trying to report on the violence. Hindutva thugs even climbed atop a Delhi mosque as they set it ablaze and rooted a “Hanuman” flag into its spire as a mark of bloodthirsty ownership.
The systematic violence of the Delhi pogrom was sanctioned by the Delhi police and the BJP. Their inaction and deafening silence attest to this. The same deafening silence was felt by India’s Muslims during the Gujarat riots of 2002 in which 2,000 lives were taken by Hindutva mobs, the Bombay riots of 1992-1993, and during and after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 by scores of Hindutva goons. The inaction of the Indian government was felt by India’s Sikh community during and after the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984 in which (according to the Indian State) over 3,000 were killed; however, some estimate that figure to have been as high as 17,000. The inaction of the Indian government was similarly felt by India’s Christian community during and after the 2008 Orissa pogrom. Hundreds were killed, homes were set ablaze along with churches and Bibles in what was considered a pre-planned effort by Hindutva thugs. India becomes less safe for its Muslims with each passing day, and the history, beliefs, and practices of Hindutva proponents make other groups also vulnerable to being targeted. Muslim leaders around the world, and our community at large, must stop pretending that India’s Muslims will have somewhere to go. The pogroms we are witnessing will boil over into genocide.
Thawbān (May Allah be pleased with him) reported that the Prophet ﷺ said, “The nations will soon invite one another to devour you, just as diners are invited to a dish.” It was said, “Will it be because of our small number on that day?” He said, “No, rather you will be many on that day, but you will be [weightless] foam, like the foam on the river. And Allah will remove the fear of you from the hearts of your enemies and will cast weakness into your hearts.” Someone said, “O Messenger of Allah, what will this weakness be?” He said, “The love of this world, and the hatred of death.
Just as we are many upon Allah’s earth, we have become like weightless foam atop a river; hateful, filled with division, argument, and love of this world, and consumed by materialism and self-centered to a point of hating death itself. It is only through devotion to Allah and in upholding the tenets of Islam that our hearts – and indeed our body as believers – can be cured of this sickness. As Pakistan and Turkey’s landmark dual citizenship deal progresses, I argue that similar channels must be sought by other Muslim-majority states to increase bilateral relations with one another and, increasingly, to act as a path to amnesty for Muslims suffocating under the brutality of regimes such as India – as well as China, where millions of Uighur Muslims are unlawfully imprisoned in concentration camps. I argue that these citizenship channels must evolve to be accessible to Muslims on the grounds of human rights violations and in the spirit of religious solidarity. Furthermore, these channels must provide opportunities for Muslims to politically participate as citizens or as dual citizens; to freely live, move, and work. At its core, this project would endow Muslims fleeing human rights violations the ability to express the full extent of their innate dignity and human potential. We must stop pretending that this crisis of human rights will boil over. We must stop pretending that India’s Muslims will have somewhere to go when it does.
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- Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh; the Indian right-wing Hindu nationalist paramilitary organisation. Progenitor of the “Sangh Parivar” umbrella organisation of Hindu Nationalist groups, including the right-wing BJP, India’s ruling party.
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- Para, Altaf Hussain. The Making of Modern Kashmir: Sheikh Abdullah and the Politics of the State. New York, Routledge, 2018, p 17-19.
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- Hayes, Romain. Subhas Chandra Bose in Nazi Germany: Politics, Intelligence and Propaganda 1941–43. New York, Columbia University Press, 2011, p. 145.
- Ibid., p. 456.
- Ibid., p. 457.
- Ibid., p. 88.
- Wolpert, Stanley. Shameful Flight: The Last Years of the British Empire in India. 2006. Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 69-70.
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- Anthony, David W. The Horse, the Wheel, and Language. Princeton University Press 2007, p. 454-455.
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- Basham, A.L. The Wonder That Was India (Vol. 1). 1954. Sidgwick & Jackson, 2000, p.27 (Citing HC Raychaudhuri’s Political History of Ancient India).
- Goldman, Robert, and Sally Sutherland Goldman. “Rāmāyaṇa.” Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism, edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, Handbook of Oriental Studies (Brill), 2009-14, pp. 111-26.
- Heesterman, J.C. The Encyclopaedia of Religion, edited by Lindsay Jones, 2005, p. 9552–9553.
- Rao, Shrenik. “Hitler’s Hindus: The Rise and Rise of India’s Nazi-loving Nationalists.” Haaretz, 14 Dec. 2017, www.haaretz.com/opinion/hitlers-hindus-indias-nazi-loving-nationalists-on-the-rise-1.5628532.
- Barton, Naomi. “Delhi Riots: Mosque Set on Fire in Ashok Nagar, Hanuman Flag Placed on Minaret.” The Wire, 25 Feb. 2020, thewire.in/communalism/delhi-violence-mosque-set-on-fire-in-ashok-vihar-hanuman-flag-placed-on-top.
- The SAGE Encyclopedia of War: Social Science Perspectives. Edited by Paul Joseph, 11 Oct. 2016, p. 433.
- Rehman, Sheikh Mujibur. “Review of Kandhamal: Introspection of Initiative For Justice.” hindustantimes, 15 Jul. 2017, www.hindustantimes.com/books/review-of-kandhamal-introspection-of-initiative-for-justice/story-CM3NiYWWL8U6b0pTrJMjmJ.html.
- Aḥmad (22450) and Abu Dāwūd (4297); deemed jayyid (good) by al-Haythami in Majma‘ az-Zawā’id (7/290) and authenticated by al-Albāni in Ṣaḥīḥ Abu Dāwūd.
- Middle East Monitor News. “Turkey, Pakistan plan landmark deal for dual nationality.” Middle East Monitor, 31 Jan. 2020, www.middleeastmonitor.com/20200131-turkey-pakistan-plan-landmark-deal-for-dual-nationality/.
- BBC World News. “China Uighurs: One million held in political camps, UN told.” BBC, 10 Aug. 2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-45147972.
About the author: Bharath Syal is a writer for Traversing Tradition. He holds a degree in Law (LLB) from the University of Exeter. His interests range from law, history, business and economics, Islam, global politics, and theology. You can follow him on Twitter here.