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VHP(A) wants space for Hindus in Holocaust museum

Biju Mathew

The VHPA, the flagship organisation of Hindutva in North America works silently in the shadows of multi-culturalism in the US, rarely, if ever, emerging into public spotlight. On the rare occasion that the VHPA emerges in public spaces it appears appropriately dressed in the garb of a 'cultural" organisation that "opposes all violence' and is only involved in the peaceful celebration of the 'beauty of tolerant Hinduism.' This invisibility and then momentary appearances, where beautiful young brown children dressed in their traditional silks stand in for them-in a parade, for instance, works successfully to mask
the well worked out engine of violence that they are part of.

The VHPA began operations in the US in 1970 and registered its first office in New York state in 1974 as a cultural organisation with the goals of "add[ing] cultural enrichment and cultural awareness to American society, based on time-tested "Eternal Hindu values". It claims to have active "member families" in forty states of the USA, a base it has built up over a decade of work.

The largely professional Indian immigrant wave that started in the 1960s continues to contribute, even today, the most significant component of immigration into the US from India. Products of elite and more recently semi-elite urban institutions, these immigrants are themselves products 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 form 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 within universities and corporations based on the spread of such institutions, the small businessmen were often located at close quarters of each other in metropolitan areas or in the immediate
suburbs. Their physical and cultural ghettoisation were the early basis for the growth of the VHPA.

The 1970s thus saw its slow growth with two more certified offices in Connecticut and Illinois. However the 1980s saw an enormous proliferation with ten offices established between the years 1980 and 1990. The early VHPA documents, written in the 1980s show some evidence indicative of the petit-bourgeois basis of VHPA's initial formation. The nature of the English used in some of these VHPA 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 (HSC) that functions in many ways as the most visible flagship organisation of Hindutva in US. It can be seen as a novel solution to the problem of a small and committed leadership that was not mobile and culturally at a disadvantage.

The oldest HSC in North Eastern University dates back to 1987 and by 1995 they 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, in significant number of cases some real connections to 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 a growing trend, many new HSCs are now being organised and run by a second generation Indian-American, 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 co-ordinator. The regional coordinators, normally also the presidents of the largest HSC chapter in an area, report to the National Council of Chapters (NCC) that runs out of the HSC HQ in Needham, MA. The insistence on hierarchy reveals much, as it often translates to local HSC leaders,
especially the second generation students reverting back to their "superiors" for any decision that involves directing the organisation.

While, 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 control all the, resources and give the ideological direction to the complex, while the HSCs with some ideologically committed members at the helm, work towards the presentation and further propagation of the complex.

In addition to these two main organisations, the VHPA operates through multiple other front organisations - some of which are produced for a purpose and then allowed to fade away while others have a long term functional utility. Such organisations include the Concerned Non-Resident Indians - a group formed immediately after the destruction of the Babri Masjid by a set of VHPA activists essentially to take care of urgent public relations work needed for damage 'control immediately after the incident.

Other more long standing organisations include the Friends of the BJP which often plays host to the many visiting political figures >from India and plays a role during other special occasions such as elections; and small town Mahila Samaj organisations
("women's" support groups) that are organised in conjunction with the local chapter of the VHP for "dealing" with problems of women  - primarily defined as "rearing children with traditional values."

With such an extensive organisation, one would expect that the VHPA would be a far more public institution if not in the general space of white Civil society at least within spaces that are marked by a preponderance of South Asians - South Asian neighbourhoods, temples, conferences, commercial district's etc. This is however not true at all.

With a registered office in New York city and with a working office in Berlin, Connecticut, the VHPA does not figure in the telephone books of either; not even as an unpublished number. It simply does not exist. If one were to take the alternate route and investigate via the Nets, surely one finds both telephone numbers and addresses for VHPA in each city.

However, these phone numbers and addresses would lead us not to an office, however small, in the cultural or commercial districts of the town but to a suburban mansion - buried away and isolated - not easily accessible for more than simple reasons of being in the suburbia but also because you go to a door step of a suburban house only on being invited.

Even at the most obvious moments the VHPA takes care to make itself as unnoticeable as is possible. L. McKean (1 994) one of the few scholars to study the VHPA in some depth, arrives at a similar conclusion. In 1993-94, the "centenary year" of Vivekananda's much publicised address to the Parliament of World Religion in Chicago in 1893, the VHPA made a concerted effort to appropriate Vivekananda as their patron saint.

And yet as McKean reporting on the 1993 parliament says: "The VHP of America was listed on the program as a co-sponsor and its delegation marched in the opening procession. However, the program neither listed any sessions as sponsored by the VHP nor indicated that the Hindu Host Committee had members who are VHP supporters. For those unfamiliar with the way that the Hindu nationalists construct and disseminate propaganda, the VHP's presence would have been far more subtle."

The electronic nets were however abuzz with Vivekananda. Alt.Hindu (AH) (recently converted to Soc.Religion.Hindu (SRH)), a newsgroup started by one of the oldest and most dedicated HSC
workers on the Net in Cincinnati selectively serialized Vivekananda from the beginning of 1993 till well after the centenary parliament. Soc.culture.indian (SCI) 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 Dec 6 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 Dec. 6,1992, Vivekananda was liberally mixed with discussions on "Eating beef and the sexuality," "Muslim rates of procreation" and "Have we taught them a lesson?' referring to the battle cry of the VHP leaders in India that they were out to teach "Muslims a lesson.' These discussions continue to this day sporadically on the nets.

Outside of the nets that season of death and carnage following December 6, was celebrated by the VHPA with their World Vision 2000 conference of 1993. The razing of the Masjid itself elicited only a strong silence from VHPA. 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 NRI's living in the US' who "call Bharat their mother." They called "brothers and sisters in India" to pressurise the Indian government to lift the  ban that had been imposed on "nationalistic organisations" such as the VHP and RSS.

Similarly the numerous announcements for the World Vision 2000 event were publicised by HSCs and other front organisations and rarely by the VHPA itself, except for the sponsorship line in the announcements themselves.

Why, we may ask, does an organisation like the VHPA prefer to remain in the shadow, especially in a time when the right fringe of the white society has itself gone more and more mainstream? Apart from the straight forward organisational imperative of growth, why does the VHPA prefer to operate on the Nets? Why and how does a student organisation namely the HSC become the public face of the VHPA? And finally how successful has the VHPA been in expanding its 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 step out of a simple analysis of what happens on the nets and look at the specifics of how the Indian immigrant class is positioned in the US. In other words one
needs to look precisely at that nexus of the politics of race, class and diaspora in the US.

If one were to follow a "few discussion threads" on newsgroups such as AH, SCI or Soc.religion.hindu (SRH) more recently, we would immediately realise that these networks provide the most efficient but fundamentally ahistorical 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 times arrive with an extremely sketchy knowledge of the history and cultural forms and thus the complexity of the social relations that constitute India today.

Products of their own uniquely narrow family prejudices, and thrown into residential institutions at an early age, they remain "protected" from the social world outside and yet have been instructed through 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 diasporic community ensures that the nets are
their only real mode of renegotiating this problem of identity, produced from both within and without.

The VHPA/HSC responds to such a need. If one looks at the Web pages of the HSC and the 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 Thengady and an English version of the Gita to selected writings of Vivekananda.

Apart from such "packaged" information the "open" discus-sions that ensue on the nets 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, a seed 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 only peripherally connected discussions on topics as wide and varied as "the origins of caste" (most often explained through
the Aryan-Dravidian-race theory or through 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 for 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" immediately after it is put up and only those aspects which are "convenient" picked up for discussion and the rest abandoned is discussed by Janaki 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 that 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 as Nair points out (which it is) but also it deploys a particular discursive strategy of fragmenting texts that finally produces not only an ahistorical picture but also gives them an inventory of isolated cultural packets that work successfully as symbolic
capital -the items in the "balance sheet" that Nair points to being precisely that. Further, the question of bad history is elaborated by Nair: Such assertions wear a cloak of spurious scientificity, 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 that Nair refers to above on the Hindu Kush mountains and its name referring to a genocide of Hindus many, references that the article "used" were found not to exist on close scrutiny.

Thus, the packaged "knowledge," positivist and fragmentary history and outright incorrect history that the Hindutvavadi doles out on the nets 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 multi-culturalism. This mode
of resolution to the problem of cultural authenticity is what I often call the marginal efficiency of the nets.

Indian immigrants to the US, both the professional bourgeois and the petit-bourgeois, arrive in the US 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 also and far more importantly, he/she must integrate him/herself with the model "white" itself. 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 on the one hand through HSCs and on the other through individuals in electronic space where the individual can be 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 footer, (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 an organisation 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 interestingly in the ivy league institutions and other super-elite institutions such as 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 not only draw in an audience but in as
much as the white establishment can participate in this consumption of culture, HSCs emerge legitimised by such interactions. Simultaneously, however, Gita reading sessions are also planned which initiate the uninitiated and remain an "event of learning" within the framework of multi-culturalism.

The VHPA/HSC's clarity on how multi-culturalism can be used as an effective tool in its propagation is exemplified best by a document called "Opening a Chapter of HSC" circulated on the nets by VHPA activists to any interested party who shows some willingness to open a HSC chapter on their campus. This five page document takes the interested individual, through a step- by-step procedure on how to go about opening a chapter - in other words, how best to use the structure of liberal multi-culturalism to its advantage.

The services offered include a pre-prepared "Statement of Objectives" or "Constitution" from the National Council of Chapters (NCC) of the HSC that meets the multi-cultural definition of a religious student group, 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 melds away into the inaccessibility of the suburb to emerge primarily through the HSC. The HSC arrives in public not with its ideological label written across its forehead like a caste sign but more appropriately painted in the multiple shades of multi-cultural red, white and blue.

The VHPA, we can be sure, will stay in the shadow of the HSCs till it finds an universalism into which it can fade. At the margins, one can see the efforts constantly to find such an universalism. The most recent effort is to produce the Hindu as the most oppressed community in humanity's history. Stories of holocaust have been steadily constructed, the one that Nair mentions of the Hindu Khush mountains being only one of the many. During 1996, the HSCs sponsored a long discussion on SCI and other nets on the number of Hindus killed in the 1971 war that created a separate Bangladesh, quoting in the process every-thing

>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 this one too may fall by the wayside, but the effort, one can be sure, will continue.

(Excerpted from, Byte Sized Nationalism: The Saffron Dollar and Murder as Foreign Exchange, presented by Biju Mathew at the Columbia University, New York). (The writer teaches at Rider University and is active in the anti-communal movement in the U. S.)

Source: Communalism Combat
Date: December 1997


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