Non-resident nationalism

Published : Mar 26, 2004 00:00 IST

At the consecration of a temple in Ashland, Massachusetts, United States in 1996. - THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

At the consecration of a temple in Ashland, Massachusetts, United States in 1996. - THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Members of Hindu nationalist organisations in the United States often subdue their political rhetoric, and concentrate on issues of cultural reproduction, presenting themselves as well-meaning guardians of Hindu values.

IN India, Hindu nationalism has grown prodigiously from a dormant and apparently minor communal presence to being the party of government over a short time. How does Hindutva take shape in the United States, and how has its coming to power in India affected Hindu nationalism abroad?

The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates are used to practising different strokes for different folks. In the U.S., they must reckon with a dominant culture for whom they are either pagan or quaint. Indian-Americans, as a relatively affluent minority, tend to be liberal on social issues, and view strong nationalism at arm's length. As usual, there are few accommodations the Sangh is not prepared for to advance its organisational hold. Women's rights are tolerated or discreetly encouraged, and swadeshi is nowhere in evidence as its American constituents often work for multinational corporations, the effigies of which the Swadeshi Jagran Manch may be burning at home. Indeed, aspects of the "liberal Hindutva" that the BJP now professes were anticipated in its Western branches some years ago.

In the U.S., Hindu nationalism seeks to accommodate itself to its minority status in a pluralistic but racially polarised society. Asserting the distinction of Hinduism in the lofty but sedate terms of its cultural greatness and tolerance, it takes its place in a multicultural society, and is for the most part absorbed in the internal matters of the U.S.-based Indian community. At the same time, the size and affluence of this community, as the ethnic group with among the highest household incomes, endow it with a potential influence over their mostly poorer fellow Indians at home, and Hindu nationalists have been in the forefront of attempts to tap this influence. Themselves largely immigrant or permanent resident, members of Hindu nationalist organisations for the most part subdue their political rhetoric, and concentrate on issues of cultural reproduction, presenting themselves as well-meaning guardians of Hindu values.

TWO factors highlight the changing context for Hindutva in the U.S. First, there is the demographic factor. The Indian-American population in the U.S. has more than doubled in each of the past two decades, growing to 1.7 million, or 1.9 million if those vouching for more than one race are included. Their growth during the 1990s was more than double the rate of growth of Asian Americans as a whole for the period. The population is rapidly indigenising itself in generational terms: whereas in 1990, more than three-fourths of Asian Indians were foreign-born, by 2000, the third and later generations already outnumbered the immigrants. On the whole, the population is educated and affluent, although the number of people in poverty is also fast growing, especially among female-headed households and the elderly. But overall, Asian Indians are among those with the highest education, and one of the highest median household incomes of all groups in the U.S. at $60,093 per annum, nearly a third more than non-Hispanic white families.1

In summary, the Asian Indian population is assimilating fairly well in a relatively short time. A second generation has emerged from colleges and universities, and a third generation already outnumbers the first; this is in a population whose immigration to the U.S. dates largely from 1970. The Indian-American population is thus putting out roots, in a society where the outcomes are certain to be different from those that would accrue in India. There is a concomitant fanning out of Hindu nationalist organisations themselves, reflecting this demographic diversity.

Secondly, Hindu nationalism now leads the ruling coalition in India. As BJP leader Pramod Mahajan might say, this means that in marketing terms, the product of Hindutva has moved up the value chain. Of course, "experiments" like the recent violence in Gujarat are still periodically required to keep the markets active. But the acquisition of state power has a number of effects. It both emboldens Hindutva's organisational affiliates and requires them to withdraw from undue publicity. It accentuates the use of new organisational platforms, elaborating on older themes but in a new guise. It exponentially increases the efforts to diffuse into existing social and cultural institutions and render itself part of the establishment. Educational and religious establishments in particular, have become a target of Sangh activity, with increased efforts to influence temple practice as well as academic debate and reach out to temple-goers and to students and teachers.

THE Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA) is the first branch of the Sangh to have been founded in the U.S., and was registered in 1974, in New York. Its present mission statement opens by declaring its intention: "To promote unity among Hindus through a network of chapters and likeminded organisations [and] to establish the VHP as the voice of Hindus everywhere and represent Hindu organisations and institutions on matters of Hindu interests." It shows a boldness and a not-so-veiled threat to any competitors, that was absent in the organisation's mission statements issued a decade earlier. Interestingly, it has taken on some of the aggressive and forthright rhetoric of the Hindi language publication of the VHP in India of a decade earlier. A decade ago, a degree of circumspection was still required in the Sangh Parivar's public postures in the U.S. Today Consuls-General in the U.S. are reported to call university department heads to "aggressively promote" content related to India, and to maintain links with known RSS activists and sympathisers.

The sponsorship of public events now occurs through organisations that hide rather than declare their relation to the Sangh. This was a result of a lesson well learnt. The Sangh may be able to shape its publicity amongst its cadres in India, but this is harder abroad. For instance, in 1993, immediately after the Babri Masjid demolition, the VHPA organised an international conference in Washington D.C., Global Vision 2000, and the event was publicised extensively. In some important media outlets, however, such as The Washington Post, news of the parent organisation's banned status in India was used to recast the conference as an exercise in manipulation, to the chagrin of the organisers. Thereafter, major events were organised while preserving the Sangh's "deniability", and capitalising on the mainstream U.S. media's ignorance of Indian affairs.

In 1999, after the BJP came to lead the coalition at the Centre, a yatra was taken out to 10 cities of the U.S. Named the Dharma Prasar Yatra, this was described as a means of "strengthen[ing] the Hindu community" and offering "people of the Indic traditions a chance to interface" with "revered Dharma gurus". The term is a new one; earlier VHP programmes were content to describe them as "sadhus and sants". Here, one can witness a process of branding information, together with the insinuation that gurus outside the Sangh fold are perhaps not so dharmic. More important, it indicates the increasingly corporate character of Sangh activity, transferring the charismatic power of traditional leaders to the patron firm. No doubt because the VHP avoided sponsoring the yatra, this event fell beneath the radar of much of the secularist press. Instead it was described simply as a coming together of Hindus.

By 2001, a new organisation was floated, the Hindu Leaders Forum, "formed to provide a unified global voice for the Hindu community on world issues". This is identical to the mission statement professed by other VHP subsidiaries at this time. Its more salient purpose may lie in creating networking and organisational opportunities for specific layers of social classes, in this case professionals and businesspersons. At its head is Bhupendra Kumar Modi, chairman of Modicorp, together with Anjalee Pandya, a long-time VHPA activist.

The gender composition of its leadership is striking. The Forum launched a Vishwa Dharma Prasar Yatra the very year it was founded, touching 47 cities in 38 countries and five continents. The press coverage for this event was extensive. Few reporters questioned the organisers' account that this was a spontaneous coming together of Hindus wishing to reaffirm their spiritual faith and meet more "Dharma gurus" from their homeland.

In 2002, a major scandal broke out about the diversion of charity funds raised for development purposes to RSS outfits in India. The Maryland-based India Development Relief Fund (IDRF) was proven, through activist efforts, to be sending money not for development as such but for religious conversion of tribal people and other related Sangh activity. The Campaign to Stop Funding Hate discovered, through an examination of the IDRF's tax returns, that barely two per cent of the recipients of its funds were secular. Meanwhile, in 2000 alone, $1.7 million made its way from the U.S. to the Sangh. Coming in the wake of the Gujarat carnage, this received widespread coverage. As a result, the VHPA and the Hindu Swayamsewak Sangh, the RSS's foreign arm, are visible mainly through their publications rather than as programme sponsors.

OF increasing importance is the presence of Sangh-influenced activity in universities. Sangh watchdog outfits, frustrated by their long-standing inability to win arguments within the academy or for that matter win over many intellectuals of note, have taken to mobilising campaigns under the guise of stopping "anti-Hindu defamation", inspired perhaps by Jewish groups. "Anti-Hindu bias" has been declared a major problem in the West, as if this were a concerted interest on the part of the latter. "Eurocentrist" historians and "Marxist-Indian" scholars are claimed to resort to negative stereotypes against Hindus on a systematic basis. Organisations such as the American Hindu Anti-Discrimination League have targeted specific professors whom they accuse of faulty and insulting treatment of Hindu culture. Sangh members ensure that they are on the mailing lists of university seminars and lecture series, lobbying for more pro-Hindu speakers and arriving in large numbers to heckle and catcall selected professors whom they have designated as anti-Hindu. At a recent screening of a documentary on Gujarat at Barnard College in New York last year, the campus police had to be summoned to escort Sangh activists away for disorderly conduct on private premises. Organisations such as the Infinity Foundation in Princeton, New Jersey, set up by a wealthy entrepreneur Rajiv Malhotra, are energetic in seeking to influence student perspectives on Hindu culture, both by direct outreach and by volunteering for teacher-training workshop programmes in city school districts.

In the press, reputable professors like Wendy Doniger of the University of Chicago and Paul Courtwright of Emory University have been charged with belittling Hinduism. The Sangh chooses for its public campaigns only those intellectuals who would be identified as "white", and therefore "obviously" infected by colonial and Oriental stereotypes. If scholars of Indian origin were named, and at present there are few who would adopt a pro-Sangh position, it would complicate the clear dichotomy between a beleaguered Hindu culture and white colonial oppression. Such complexities would be unlikely to interest the media abroad, and hence there is no mention of internal critiques of "Hinduism".

The contortion of critical scholarship here is interesting. The term "Eurocentrism", for example, emerged as a way of "provincialising Europe", to quote historian Dipesh Chakraborty, and asking why the world could not be re-imagined from other places, as indeed it has been. The Sangh's own absorption of Oriental stereotypes is extensive; hence it ends up attacking those on both sides of the debate, the few who retain an attachment to textualised and ahistorical categories, and the rest who critique them. Intellectually, the Sangh is thoroughly marginalised as a result. This does not however, stop it from adopting select terminology and appearing au courant with the latest scholarly buzzwords.

SUCH attacks are as a result increasingly addressed to those lacking expertise in such terminology, but able to be impressed by its use. College undergraduates are a favourite target. Of youth organisations promoted by the Sangh, the most prominent is the Hindu Students Council (HSC). Established in May 1990 and run entirely by students, the HSC claims over 50 chapters and thousands of members across college campuses in the United States and Canada. They publish a weekly bulletin across the net called `Hindu Digest' and publish a quarterly newsletter (previously a monthly), Samskar (culture). The organisation is divided more or less equally between graduate students from India, many of whom may return to India, and Indian-Americans raised in the U.S.

Senior members of the Hindu Right repeatedly spoke of the HSC as having highly dynamic members who were critical in expanding its membership. In 1993, the HSC organised a youth conference parallel to VHP's Global Vision 2000 Conference in Washington D.C. It was attended by over 2,100 youth. (More recent website inspection suggests this figure has been inflated over time.) The HSC has been instrumental in expanding the Hindu Right's presence on the Internet, creating sites for each university chapter, and as well, organising an overarching website, the Global Hindu Electronic Network, containing links to numerous other sites, including those of the various branches of the Sangh. In addition, conferences are regularly held at different universities, combining the celebration of "cultural diversity," code for American Hindu identity in this case, with carefully selected history and philosophy lessons, and ending with the obligatory garba raas and some partying.

If, as the saying goes, all politics is local, identity politics is no different. Those who champion Hindu nationalism in the U.S. have always been keenly aware of multiple constituencies. For Indians and Indian-Americans in the U.S., local and personal issues are usually pre-eminent, while politics in India often appears too complex to comprehend. Religion and cultural identity become the thematic bridges in the attempt to forge a global Hindu network. And the Sangh Parivar provides the organisational resources to encompass these differences, sending activists, designing programmes, mobilising support and, above all, coordinating diverse activities under the umbrella of a resurgent Hindu identity.

If funding is the most immediate benefit, with contributions from well-heeled but ignorant supporters in the U.S., it is the next generation that appears to be up for grabs; at any rate this is what emerges from the discernible pattern of activity. Here for all of their intellectual clumsiness, the Sangh may yet have an advantage, through the numerous Sunday schools and community centre-based workshops they are able to oversee and influence for children of all ages. The content they provide, of course, has much closer links with the cultural information already available to parents. By contrast, the scholarly material college professors produce often requires effort in assimilating, especially for laypersons. The challenge of Hindutva seeking to blend into the mainstream thus demands attention in the U.S. as well as elsewhere.

The Asian population: 2000.From Many Shores: Asians in Census 2000.Indian American Population,

Arvind Rajagopal teaches Media Studies at New York University.

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