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The Vishwa Hindu Parishad in America, the flagship organisation of Hindutva in North America, works silently in the shadows of multi-culturalism, rarely, if ever, emerging into public spotlight.

The VHPA began operations in the US in 1970. It registered its first office in New York in 1974 as a cultural organisation with the goal of adding 'cultural enrichment' and 'awareness to American society', based on the time-tested 'eternal Hindu values'. It claims to have active 'member families' in 40 states.

The largely professional Indian immigrant wave that started in the 1960s continues to contribute to the VHPA's power. Even today, the most significant component of immigration to the US is from India. Products of elite and, more recently, semi-elite urban institutions, these immigrants are themselves students of Nehruvian modernism and thus relatively adept at interfacing with the dominant white society.

However, the petit-bourgeois element (small businessmen, traders) that entered the immigration channels in the late 1970s was different not only in that it did not enjoy the same easy passage into Anglo-Saxon America and its corporate cultural, but also because of the nature of its profession, it remained far more ghettoised than the professional community.

While the professional community was dispersed all over the USA, the small businessmen were often located at close quarters to each other in metropolitan areas or immediate suburbs. Their physical and cultural ghettoisation were the early basis for the VHPA's growth.

The 1970s saw its slow growth with two more certified offices in Connecticut and Illinois. Between 1980 and 1990, the VHPA established 10 more offices.

The early VHPA documents written in the 1980s show evidence indicative of the petit-bourgeois basis of its initial formation. The nature of the English used in some of these documents, for instance, indicate that these may have been produced by the non-elite small businessmen who had 'disadvantages of language.'

Apart from this extensive network of certified offices, the VHPA has its student wing -- the Hindu Students Council -- that functions in many ways as the most visible flagship organisation of Hindutva.

The oldest HSC in North Eastern University dates back to 1987. By 1995 it had grown to have 45 chapters spread all across the US and Canada. The typical HSC is organised and run in most cases by a first generation immigrant graduate male student who has direct connection with the Sangh Parivar in India -- either a parent who is part of the RSS or BJP, or a family that has a historical link with one of these organisations or its earlier incarnations such as the Jan Sangh. However, in what is the growing trend, many new HSCs are now being organised and run by second generation Indian-Americans, either male or female, who has immediate family connections in VHPA.

Each HSC is organised along strictly hierarchical lines with a president and general secretary at the local level who report directly to a regional coordinator. The regional co-ordinator, normally the president of the larger HSC chapter in an area, report to the National Council of Chapters that works from the HSC headquarters in Needham, Massachusetts. The insistence on hierarchy means the second generation students have to revert back to their 'superiors' for every decision.

Though in nomenclatural terms these are two distinct organisations, it is far more correct to read the VHPA as the primary organisation which is run by an older generation of petit-bourgeois Indian men who give the ideological direction to the complex. The HSCs, with some ideologically committed members at the helm, work towards the presentation and propagation of the complex.

In addition to these two main organisations, the VHPA operates through multiple other fronts. Some of these are constituted for a purpose and then allowed to fade away; others have a long-term functional utility. Such organisations include the Concerned Non-Resident Indians -- a group formed immediately after the Babri Masjid destruction for damage control exercise.

Long-standing organisations include the Friends of the BJP which often plays host to the many visiting political figures from India. It is also active during other special occasions such as elections, and helps organise small town Mahila Samajs in conjunction with the local VHP chapter for 'dealing' with problems of women -- primarily, 'rearing children with traditional values.'

With such an extensive organisation, one would expect the VHPA to be a far more public institution, at least within spaces that are marked by a preponderance of South Asians. This, however, is not true.

Though it has a registered office in New York and a working office in Berlin, Connecticut, the VHPA does not figure in the telephone books of either city. But if one were to take the alternate route and investigate via the Net, one would find both the telephone numbers and addresses for VHPA in each city. However, these would lead us not to an office in the cultural or commercial districts of the town, but to a suburban mansion -- buried away and isolated.

Even at the most obvious moments, the VHPA takes care to make itself as unnoticeable as possible. L McKean, one of the few scholars to study the VHPA in some depth, agrees. In 1993-94, the centenary year of Vivekananda's much-publicised address to the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, the VHPA made a concerted effort to appropriate him as its patron saint.

And yet, McKean says, "The VHPA was listed on the programme as a cosponsor and its delegation marched in the opening procession. However, the programme neither listed any sessions as sponsored by the VHP nor indicated that the Hindu Host Committee had members who are its supporters."

The Net was however abuzz with Vivekananda. Alt. Hindu, recently converted to Soc.Religion.Hindu, a newsgroup started by one of the oldest and most dedicated HSC workers, selectively serialised Vivekananda from the beginning of 1993 till well after the centenary parliament. Soc.Culture.Indian, another newsgroup on which Hindutvavadis are a vocal presence, was a site for a three-month long barrage of continuous discussions on the relevance of Vivekananda to modern Hinduism.

SCI also saw the emergence in the year preceding 1992, long and extended discussions on such topics as 'Why are Muslim men bad in bed?' and 'Are Muslims dirty?' -- questions that can be read in the context of a resurgent Hindu nationalism in India that revolved around notions of Hindu purity and its violation by Islam, and the central icon of the post 1980s wave of Hindu nationalism: Hindu manhood.

In the months that followed December 6, 1992, Vivekananda was liberally mixed with discussions on 'Eating beef and sexuality,' 'Muslim rates of procreation' and 'Have we taught them a lesson?' (referring to the the VHP leaders's battlecry in India that they were out to teach 'Muslims a lesson.') These discussions continue to this day sporadically.

Outside of the Net, the VHPA organised its World Vision 2000 conference of 1993. The razing of the Masjid itself elicited only a strong silence from it. However, many of its front organisations were active during this phase.

On January 16, 1993, a group euphemistically called Concerned NRIs published an advertisement in the Indian Express in India claiming to represent '900,000 of the 1 million NRIs living in the US' who 'call Bharat their mother'. They called upon 'brothers and sisters in India' to pressurise the government to lift the ban that had been imposed on 'nationalistic organisations' such as the VHP and RSS.

Similarly, the World Vision 2000 event was publicised by the HSCs and other front organisations. There was nothing to indicate the VHPA connection except the sponsorship line in the announcements.

Growing Up Extreme:
On th Peculiarly Vicious Fanatacism of Expatriates

By Shashi Tharoor

[ FromWashington Post ]


ON AUG. 6, 1994 some 15,000 mostly Indian expatriates will assemble at the
Washington Hilton and the Omni Shoreham Hotel for a "global conference"
grandly titled "World Vision 2000." A glossy brochure promoting the
conference describes it as "a grand effort to bring (together) youths from
across the USA and around the world" to "deliberate on the Vision of
Wholeness for the future of life on our planet."

Under the blazing headline "Look Who Is Comming (sic) to the Global
Conference!" one finds, in bold, the names of President Clinton and the
Dalai Lama and, in more modest type, Bill Moyers and Carl Sagan. Careful
scrutiny, however, reveals that these luminaries have not yet accepted their
invitations. And that those "dignitaries and spiritual leaders" who have
agreed to "guide the Global Conference" represent most of the pantheon of
India's Hindu extremist fringe.

The "Global Conference" is timed for the centenary of the appearance at
Chicago's World Parliament of Religions of the brilliant Hindu humanist
Swami Vivekananda, and its breathless blurbs seek to appropriate his luster.
But its organizers have no claim to the all- embracing tolerance and wisdom
of the late sage. They are the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, whose "Vision" extends
most famously so far to the destruction of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya in
northern India last December, an act that unleashed violence and rioting on
a scale not seen in India since independence.

The VHP, which enjoys the rare distinction of being considered more
extremist than the RSS, the party of Mahatma Gandhi's assassin, has made
something of a specialty of incitements to hatred. Under its auspices during
the recent Bombay programs, Muslims have been abused, attacked, turned out
of their homes, deprived of their livelihoods, butchered in the streets. Its
more articulate sympathizers have expressed admiration for Hitler's way with
inconvenient minorities. This is the happy crew of moral and spiritual
guides to whom 15,000 Indian emigre youngsters, some no doubt inveigled by
the prospect of hearing the Dalai Lama and the president,will entrust their
Washington weekend. When the brochure declares that "this celebration will
include a variety of high-quality programs to raise the awareness of human
beings about their future direction," one's natural tendency to yawn is
replaced by a shudder down a slowly chilling spine. Washington seems an
unlikely setting for a celebration of Hindu fanaticism. And yet it is not
such an improbable venue after all. For there seems to be something about
expatriation that breeds extremism.

The American ethnic mosaic is full of imported bigotry, from the Muslim
fundamentalists who have been trying with commendable ineptitude to blow up
New York to Miami's many Cuban votaries of vicious virtue. Indian Americans
have done their best to compete with these Fidelios of the foreign fringe. A
coven of well-heeled Hindu professionals from Southern California recently
swamped newspapers in India with a post-Ayodhya advertising campaign
designed to counteract the bleeding-heart "pseudosecularism" of appalled
liberals like myself who published denunciations of the destruction of the
mosque and its aftermath. The ads - a farrago of ahistorical half-truths
calling upon Indians in India to "awake," for otherwise "India and Hindus
are doomed" - were merely the latest evidence that exile nurtures extremism.
The "Global Conference" continues in this tradition.

The strident chauvinism of these American Hindus is, after all, only one
more installment in a long saga of zeal abroad for radicalism at home. We
have already had expatriate Sikhs pouring money, weapons and organizational
skills into the cause of a "pure" (tobacco-free and barberless) "Khalistan";
Irish Americans supporting, willfully or otherwise, IRA terrorism in
Northern Ireland; Jaffna Tamils in England financing the murderous drive for
Eelam in Sri Lanka; and lobbying groups of American Jewry propounding
positions on Palestinian issues that are far less accommodating than those
of the Israeli government itself.

The irony of political extremism being advocated from distant aeries of
bourgeois moderation is only the most obvious of the contradictions of this
phenomenon. The more visible Khalistanis of North America may have carefully
regroomed their beards and thrown away their cigarettes as enjoined upon
them by the Sikh scriptures, but they derive sustenance almost entirely from
clean-shaven expatriate co-religionists largely unfamiliar with the
prohibitions and injunctions of their faith. And the Hindu chauvinists of
Southern California flourish in a pluralist melting-pot whose every
quotidian experience is a direct contradiction of the sectarianism they
trumpet in the advertisement pages of newspapers in India.

The explanation for this evident paradox may lie in the very nature of
expatriation. Most of the contemporary world's emigrants are people in quest
of material improvement, looking for financial security and professional
opportunities that, for one reason or another, they could not attain in
their own countries. Many of them left intending to return: A few years
abroad, a few more dollars in the bank, they told themselves, and they would
come back to their own hearths, triumphant over the adversity that had led
them to leave.

But the years kept stretching on, and the dollars were never quite enough,
or their needs mounted with their acquisitions, or they developed new ties
(career, wife, children, schooling) to their new land, and then gradually
the realization seeped in that they would never go back. And with this
realization, often only half-acknowledg ed, came a welter of emotions:
guilt, at the abandonment of the motherland, mixed with rage that the
motherland had somehow - through its own failings, political, economic,
social - forced them into this abandonment. The attitude of the expatriate
to his homeland is that of the faithless lover who blames the woman he has
spurned for not having sufficiently merited his fidelity. That is why the
support of extremism is doubly gratifying: It appeases the expatriate's
sense of guilt at not being involved in his homeland, and it vindicates his
decision to abandon it. (If the homeland he has left did not have the faults
he detests, he tells himself,he would not have had to leave it)

But that is not all. The expatriate also desperately needs to define himself
in his new society. He is reminded by his mirror, if not by the nationals of
his new land, that he is not entirely like them. In the midst of racism and
alienation, second-class citizenship and self- hatred, he needs an identity
to assert - a label of which he can be proud, yet which does not undermine
his choice of exile. He has rejected the reality of his country but not, he
declares fervently, the essential values he has derived from his roots. As
his children grow up "American" or "British," as they slough off the
assumptions, prejudices and fears of his own childhood, he becomes even more
assertive about them.

But his nostalgia is based on the selectiveness of memory; it is a
simplified, idealized recollection of his roots, often reduced to their most
elemental - family, caste, region, religion. In exile amongst foreigners, he
clings to a vision of what he really is that admits no foreignness.

But the tragedy is that the culture he remembers, with both nostalgia and
rejection, has itself evolved - in interaction with others - on its national
soil. His perspective distorted by exile, the expatriate knows nothing of
this. His view of what used to be home is divorced from the experience of
home. Expatriates are no longer an organic part of the culture, but severed
digits that, in their yearning for the hand, can only twist themselves into
a clenched fist.


Shashi Tharoor is the author of The Great Indian Novel and Show Business.
His collection of short stories, The Five-Dollar Smile, is published by
Arcade in 1995.

 

Why does the VHPA operate from the shadows?

Why, we may ask, does an organisation like the VHPA prefer to remain in the shadows, especially in a time when the right fringe of the white society has gone more and more mainstream? Why does the VHPA prefer to operate on the Net? Why does it need a student organisation as its public face? And finally, how successful has it been in expanding base in the US?

To answer these questions of visibility/invisibility (the electronic media as the medium of choice and student politics as mode of growth), one needs to look at the specifics of how the Indian immigrant class is positioned in the US. In other words, one needs to look precisely at the nexus of the politics of race, class and diaspora.

If one were to follow a 'few discussion threads' on newsgroups such as AH, SCI or SRH, we would immediately realise that these networks provide a historical discourse on 'Hindu' cultural forms. We must note, at the outset, that the Indian English educated professional, especially those from elite/semi elite engineering, medical or business schools in India, are a fundamentally dispossessed lot. They often arrive with an extremely sketchy knowledge of the complexity of the social relations that constitute India today.

Products of their own uniquely narrow family prejudices, they are thrown into residential institutions at an early age and remain 'protected' from the social world outside. Yet, they have been instructed by the Nehruvian dream that to be technically competent is to be part of building the nation. This package of narrow social consciousness and technical arrogance is what the US imports every year from India.

However, arriving as they do from the IITs, RECs and IIMs, they have no basis for meeting either the alienation felt in entering a different cultural space nor the demand placed on them to produce their difference for the market. Further, the spatial dispersion of the diaporic community ensures that the Net is their only real mode of renegotiating this problems of identity, produced from both within and without.

The VHPA responds to such a need. If one looks at the web pages of HSC and VHPA, it offers a series of cultural information packages, from a database of Hindu names to a collection of articles and nuggets which all answer the question 'Who is a Hindu?' from such ideologues as Golwalkar and Dattopant Thengadi and an English version of the Gita to selected writings of Vivekananda.

Apart from such 'packaged' information, the 'open' discussions that ensure on the Net are equally instructive. They often unfold as a series of notes that work out the details of one small aspect of a larger issue. Rarely does a discussion stay focused on the larger issue that may have been the starting point of a 'thread.' For instance, an article that analysed caste politics in India would be very quickly subjected to a series of positivist tests on its 'truth claims' and also produce a series of peripherally connected discussions on topics as wide and varied as 'the origins of caste,' (most often explained through the Aryan-Dravidian race theory or a sketchy sociology of social division of labour), 'the Mandal Commission' (which would proceed through multiple stages of the 'end of merit' argument), or how Indians abroad should not talk about caste as it is divisive.

Most, if not all, of these responses would be suffused with references to hypothesis, assumptions, axioms and logic. This mode of conversation in which a text is fragmented into a set of hypothesis, axioms, assumptions and 'facts', and only those aspects which are 'convenient' picked up for discussion and the rest abandoned, is discussed by Janki Nair (1994) in her essay Questions of a Historian Reading E-mail: 'Popular challenges to questions of history, judging from just a sample of assertions on e-mail in the USA, are increasingly being mounted by Indian professionals of a science and technology background, who express open distrust for the methods of historians, and who are convinced they are better equipped by the positivist traditions of science to make decisive assertions about Indian history.' 'The new positivist knights rescuing history from its practitioners produce a version of history that bears curious resemblance to a balance sheet.'

Not only is this mode to be understood as simply positivist, but it also deploys a particular discursive strategy of fragmenting texts that finally produces a historical picture and gives an inventory of isolated cultural packets that work successfully as symbolic capital -- the items in the 'balance sheet' that Nair points to is precisely that.

Further, the question of bad history is elaborated by Nair: 'Such assertions wear a cloak of spurious scientifically flourishing 'evidence' from discredited colonial sources or making extrapolations from thin bits of linguistic evidence. The recent claim that Hindu Kush means 'Hindu killer' and refers to a period of genocide of Hindus by Muslim invaders is a case in point.'

While Nair suggests that 'discredited' or 'thin' evidence is used, the mastery of the Hindutva lobby must be understood in that it also constructs evidence. In the same article about the Hindu Kush mountains, references that the article 'used' were found to be non-existent on close scrutiny.

Thus, the packaged 'knowledge', positivist and fragmentary history and outright incorrect history that the Hindutvavadi doles out on the Net gives to the immigrant both modes of dealing with his/her own alienation and the cultural capital they need to work within the market of multiculturalism. This mode of resolution to the problem of cultural authenticity is what I often call the marginal efficiency of the Net.

Indian immigrants to the US, both the professional bourgeois and the petitbourgeois, arrive already sold to the Great White American Dream. Their relation to nationalism and questions of identity is therefore not just a product of the nationalist construction of India but also continuously mediated by their link to the American dream.

From within such a configuration of social desire, the immigrant Indian is forced to accommodate his/her nationalism and identity in such a fashion that it always remains contained within the sphere of 'white' cultural hegemony. It is this contradiction that produces the discourse of model minority.

We must here note that the model minority is as much a construction of the dominant white society as it is an understanding of the self that Asians deploy constantly. From within the landscape of race politics, the dominant white society, without doubt, seeks out the Asian as a model against the black who stands condemned by the 'success' of the recently-arrived immigrant.

For the Asians, to be a model minority means not just to distance oneself from the black American, but, far more importantly, that he/she must integrate him/herself with the model 'white.' How successful would an organisation like the VHPA that speaks in the name of 'all' Hindus in a Christian land be at remaining 'unnamed?' No organisation that claims to be Hindu without paying attention to how this Hindu can be both distinct from the black American and be part of the white liberal structure of value can hope to work effectively.

It, therefore, projects itself through the HSCs and electronic space where the individual can read back into different discourses of universalism -- professional or engineer or scientist -- as marked so often in the electronic spaces by headers (att.com; intel.com; columbia.edu) or footers (elaborate plan files which often include quotes from some 'great' thinker on questions of truth and falsity) or by the general structure of his/her argumentation (the scientific/positivist structure).

The HSCs are organisations uniquely suited to the task of ex-nomination by virtue of its capacity to integrate itself into the liberal ideology of multi-culturalism. The liberal academy in the US is the stronghold of multi-culturalism. It is into this liberal universalism of multi-culturalism that Hindutva vanishes in the liberal academy. It is important to note here that HSCs and Hindutva have flourished most notably in the most liberal of universities in the US.

Their primary sites of growth in the early 1990s were not the hundreds of universities that dot the American landscape and cater to middle America, but the ivy league institutions and other super-elite ones such as the Harvard, MIT, Columbia, Tufts, Boston University, Carnegie-Mellon and Princeton. It is only after this initial burst wherein it established itself in nearly all of the elite eastern seaboard institutions that it spread.

On numerous occasions the HSCs have made full use of multi-culturalism to draw in a diverse body of people and thus legitimise itself. On nearly every campus, the HSCs begin their activities with a 'ethnic food festival' or a popular film screening. These events draw in an audience and the HSCs emerge legitimised by such interactions. Simultaneously, Gita reading sessions are also planned which initiate the uninitiated and remain an 'event of learning' within the framework of multi-culturalism to its advantage.

The services offered include a pre-prepared 'Statement of Objectives' or 'Constitution' from the National Council of Chapters, advice on how to choose a faculty adviser, warnings on how not to sign any modifications to the Constitution unless cleared by the NCC and modes of circumventing the minimum number of signatories required clause on the grounds of being a minority.

The awareness that this document exhibits of multi-culturalism's definitions within liberal academy is illuminating. The HSC's Mission statement has multi-culturalism framed as one of its central principles.

And so the saffron stays in the shadow and the VHPA melts away into the inaccessibility of the suburb. The HSC arrives in public, not with its ideological label written across its forehead like a caste sign, but more appropriately painted in the shades of multi-culturism.

The VHPA, we can be sure, will stay in the shadow universalism into which it can fade. On the margins, one can see efforts to find such universalism. The most recent effort is to produce the Hindu as the most oppressed community in humanity's history. Stories of the holocaust have been steadily constructed, including the one that Nair mentions of the Hindu Kush mountains.

During 1996, the HSCs sponsored a long Net discussion on the number of Hindus killed in the 1971 war that created a separate Bangladesh, quoting in the process everything from US intelligence reports to RSS literature and producing figures of dead Hindus as high as eight million.

Around the same time, there was a proposal voiced in private circles to begin lobbying for a space in the Holocaust museum in DC or, if not that, a similar space in the national capital. Maybe the campaign will fall by the wayside, but we can be sure the effort will be continued.

 

 

By arrangement with Communalism Combat- Rediff Biju Mathew

 

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Last updated: February 23, 2000 .