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No Place Like Home
Hindu nationalism draws strength from U.S. supporters


By Sadanand Dhume in Washington DC and New York
Far Eastern Economic Review
Feb. 25, 1999

For Dr. Mukund Mody of New York City, the 1998 general election in India
did not occur half a world away. In the run-up to the polls, the
unassuming paediatrician packed his bags and shut his practice to camp
out in the northern Indian city of Lucknow. His reason: to help ensure
the re-election of Atal Behari Vajpayee of the Bharatiya Janata Party
(BJP).

To those familiar with the Indian community in the United States, Mody's
efforts on behalf of the BJP were no surprise. He is the founding
president of the Overseas Friends of the BJP, an eight-year-old
organization that promotes the politics and policies of the BJP. Mody
was one of about 25 U.S.-based Overseas Friends volunteers who fanned
out across India to help BJP candidates. Others urged friends and family
in India, to vote for the party while yet others met newspaper editors
to protest about an alleged tilt toward the rival Congress Party.

The Friends group is among a clutch of interlinked, Hindu-nationalist
organizations in the U.S that are gaining influence among the Indian
immigrant population. Though their appeal is largely cultural--the
promotion of Hinduism and its traditions--the Overseas Friends is trying
to make their impact political, both in India and in the U.S. Most of
its leaders are first-generation immigrants with ties to the Rashtriya
Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu-nationalist organization which gives
the BJP its Hindu-first philosophy.

"The key issue is to make the Indian-American community understand what
the BJP stands for," says Mody. "There is overwhelming support among
Indian-Americans for the BJP."

So says Mody, but others in the community don't agree. Indeed, many are
seriously concerned about the group's overtly political stance. "We have
been avoiding divisions within the community for 30 years," says Thomas
Abraham, president of the Global Organization of People of Indian
Origin. "We want a united Indian community, not one divided along
political lines."

The Friends won much of their support among the prosperous and rapidly
growing 1.2 million-strong Indian community in the U.S has been won by
appealing to religious and nationalist sentiments. In the years since it
was founded in New York City, the Friends has grown to 14 chapters with
around 350 active members. Like-minded groups, which work closely with
the Friends, have also taken root. The Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh has 40
branches and over 800 active members. The nine-year-old Hindu Students
Council is active on more than 50 campuses in North America and leaders
of Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America point out that over 5,000
American-born youngsters have taken part in its training camps. And
since 1980,VHP America has sent over $2 million to India to fund
charities such as schools, and schemes to prevent Indian tribespeople
from converting to Christianity or Islam.

"A significant number of new immigrants feel loyalty to the BJP through
Hinduism," says Vijay Prashad a professor at Trinity College in
Connecticut who has written about Hindu-nationalist groups in the United
States. "These groups are good at playing to the gallery."

With their emphasis on the propagation of Hindu culture and values,
groups such as the Friends have a powerful appeal for many Indian
immigrants. They offer protection against a melting pot that seems alien
and threatening to some. Last year, in an attempt to create a unified
code of conduct for Hindus in the West, the VHP invited Hindu priests
from all over North America to a dharam sansad (religious conclave) in
Pennsylvania. Students at Hindu Student Council meetings often discuss
the Gita and other Hindu religious texts.

"The first challenge is to maintain the Hindu-American identity," says
Dr. Yash Pal Lakra, president of VHP America.

The collision of Western mores with an ideology imported from India is
evident in Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh meetings, loosely based on RSS drills
in India. Every Sunday morning in Queens, New York, a group of about 15
boys and girls and a handful of parents assemble in a small, unheated
basement plastered with posters of RSS leaders and Hindu and Sikh
warriors. Unlike their khaki-shorted counterparts in India, the children
here dress casually, some in baggy Tommy Hilfiger jeans and baseball
worn backwards. They salute the swallow-tailed saffron flag that
symbolizes Hinduism before spending the morning exercising, playing
traditional Indian games and discussing Hindu culture. At times the
blare of pop music from a passing car drowns their sharp, short cries of
"Bharat Mata ki jai" (Victory to Mother India.)

Apart from building ties with Indians through Hindu groups, the Friends
has won support by staking out an aggressively nationalistic position on
issues such as India's nuclear tests. Strongly pro-India rhetoric plays
well with Indian-Americans, about three-fourths of whom were born in
India. Analysts say that unlike older immigrant groups, which are more
likely to see their interests as distinct from those of their ancestral
homeland, Indian-Americans remain more concerned with politics in India
than with those of the U.S. Many Indian-Americans are highly paid
professionals who work as doctors, engineers and software developers.
They have close family in India and their disposable incomes allow them
to visit frequently. Thanks to the Internet they have no difficulty in
keeping abreast of events in India. Moreover, the urban, educated and
upper-caste demographics of the Indian community in the U.S. is similar
that of the BJP's supporters in India.

Though the Friends talks of uniting Indians in America and building a
bridge between the world's two largest democracies, opponents accuse
them of hiding their seamier side. They allege that the Friends
cultivates a sober image in the U.S. while remaining committed to
divisive issues such as the building of a temple on the site of a mosque
destroyed by a pro-BJP mob in 1992 and the persecution of religious
minorities. The recent spate of church burnings in Gujarat, and the
brutal killing in Orrissa of an Australian missionary and his two young
sons by people believed to have links with the VHP, has only underlined
these suspicions.

In terms of influencing policy, the Friends has found more sympathetic
ears in New Delhi than in Washington . The BJP is the only Indian party
that has promised to grant dual citizenship to people of Indian origin.
In January, in what it called a first step toward this, the Indian
cabinet cleared the introduction of Person of Indian Origin cards that
will allow ethnic Indians who have given up Indian citizenship to travel
to India without visas. Insurance reform proposed by the BJP-led
government includes quotas for overseas Indians. In addition, the
Friends is hoping that the government of India creates a ministry to
look after the needs of overseas Indians.

"The BJP is the only Indian party that has taken the initiative to court
overseas Indians," says Abraham. "The other parties don't care."

Part of the reason for the BJP's receptiveness toward overseas Indians
is ideological. Since its birth in the 1920s, Hindu-nationalist thought
has defined Indianness by primordial ties of blood and religion rather
than by civic ideals of citizenship. Apart from this, the BJP realizes
that overseas Indians are a potential source of funds both for the party
and for the cash-strapped government. In August, faced with
post-nuclear-test economic sanctions, the government turned to overseas
Indians to bolster its foreign reserves, mopping up $4.1 billion by
issuing Resurgent India Bonds.

Even though it seeks common ground with other Indian groups, the Friends
has had little success in its attempt to influence American policy
toward India. Indian lobbying in the U.S. is still in its infancy. The
group's leaders speak of organizing an India lobby on the lines of the
famed American Israeli Political Affairs Committee, but Indians in the
U.S. lack the numbers, the political experience and the organizational
muscle to make a significant impact on American policy. Their attempts
to influence Congress to lift economic sanctions against India, to have
Pakistan declared a terrorist state and to get the administration to
crack down on China for aiding Pakistan's nuclear weapons and missile
programmes have all failed.

"I don't think they are any kind of force in American politics," says
Kumar Barve a delegate in Maryland's House of delegates and the first
Indian-American elected to a state legislature. "American foreign policy
is not easily influenced by a minority group."

With the BJP-led government in India actively courting overseas Indians,
Hindu-nationalist groups in the U.S. hope to broaden their support base.
How successful they will be in uniting Indians into an effective
political lobby remains uncertain. For now it looks like the success of
the Friends in influencing government policy is likely to be confined to
New Delhi. Extending this to Capitol Hill or the White House remains a
distant dream.

Ends

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Last updated: February 23, 2000 .