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The most effective Hindutva movement abroad developed in America. Hinduism has been practised in the United Kingdom for a long time, but it was essentially fragmented along regional lines reflecting the diverse regions in India with different languages and religious practices. The same trend started in the United States as well, when the first wave of immigration began after 1965 with the dramatic relaxation of immigration rules for people of non-European origin. This group consisted mostly of engineers, scientists and other professionals, and they were brought up in a milieu where the Gandhi-Nehru ethos prevailed. They were happy to observe their regional religious festivals and gather together to teach their children rudiments of their own languages. I had personal experience of this period in Los Angeles.
The second wave, from 1980 to 1995, consisted primarily of entrepreneurial and corporate management professionals. They included migrants from Africa of Indian origin. These migrants were wealthy and highly religious. They started constructing temples in large cities, originally devoted to deities specific to their regions in India. This was also the period of resurgence in Hindutva politics in India. Due to lack of choice, Hindus in America coming from all regions of India started flocking to those temples for pujas, just as their counterparts do in pan-Indian places of pilgrimage back home. This fit well with the ideal Hindutva ideology of forming a united Hindu community without any regional bias. I had direct experience of this development during my sabbaticals and professional visits to the US during summers. The third group of immigrants from 1995 onwards were IT professionals, and they used these temples for their religious needs. This period also saw a large increase in relatives of already settled Indian Americans migrating to the US under the family reunion schemes, which only increased the popularity of those temples.
With the resurgence of Hindutva politics in India, the Sangh Parivar made significant efforts to increase its footprint in America. Of course, the RSS went global on a modest scale decades ago when it set up branches in Africa to satisfy the demand among the Indian trading communities there. This received a new impulse with the setting up of the HSS (Hindu Swangsewak Sangha) in the UK in 1966 and subsequently in the US in 1973. Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the religious/ cultural offshoot of the RSS, also opened its UK and US branches, VHP-UK and VHPA, respectively, around the same period. America provided a fertile ground for the rapid expansion of VHPA. They could use the social and economic homogeneity of the upper caste Indians that largely formed the Indian diaspora there. Many new Hindutva organisations sprang up in course of time, with no declared connections with one another. Scholars have now discovered, through detailed studies of their cyber-activities, that they are all parts of the Sangh Parivar. The most intriguing among them is HMEC (Hindu Mandir Executives’ Conference), a yearly get together of community leaders who control the temples in North America. This seemingly innocent organisation provides a significant forum for propagating the Hindutva ideology in North America. James McCallum Wiker, in his Masters thesis at the University of Washington, made a detailed study of their activities.
The first joint activity of the Hindutva brigades in India and abroad was ingeniously devised by the VHP at the start of the Ram Janmabhoomi Andolon in 1990. They came up with the idea of collecting Ram shila from everywhere to be used for building the planned Ram temple after the destruction of the Babri Masjid. These were consecrated bricks, to be collected from all corners of India, but in which the Hindutva advocates in diaspora participated with full vigour. Once a common purpose was identified, it was a small step for the diaspora to start actively helping in the political campaign of the BJP in national and state elections. They contributed financially, and used their knowledge of the election process in the United States to provide voluntary services to the BJP candidates in India. All these started slowly during the 1990s and took a massive form during the 2014 parliamentary election that brought Narendra Modi to power. The most obvious sign of their contribution, besides the financial one, was to transform our parliamentary election into a US presidential one.
Sangh Parivar activities in America, to be relevant to the diaspora there, have some specific features with no direct counterpart in India. Two such critical areas are ‘proper’ history of Hindus and practical descriptions of sanskaras; or, more specifically, the rites of marriage and death. State boards of education in the US, in keeping with the changing demographics with increasing non-Christian population of students, are paying some attention to other world religions. VHP associates are actively advocating more ‘Hindu’ accounts in the school history lessons. This is in line with the efforts of the previous BJP administration under Atal Behari Vajpayee to ‘adjust’ school textbooks in India to reflect their viewpoint about our unblemished glorious past. HMEC fought hard to ‘adjust’ the curriculum of the California State Board of Education. Reputed American scholars of Indian history, as well as Indian historians and anthropologists there, have largely thwarted their efforts. However, on some points of contention they did have their say. Meanwhile they are distributing their view of our history to the guardians of Indian students for additional reading. Rewriting history by ‘experts’ is now in full swing with the advent of the latest BJP dispensation in Delhi. This is sure to make the job of Hindutva advocates in America considerably easier. Regarding sankskaras, VHP associates are writing simple tracts explaining the procedures to be followed during the marriage ceremony and cremation rituals in regional languages, as well as in English. They come very handy with the Indian diaspora who feel helpless on such occasions. Providing these indispensable services reinforces their support among the Indian migrants. The liberal Indian intellectuals in the US are alarmed with these developments, but are too fragmented and too high-browed to have much impact among most of the migrants.
The Hindutva advocates in America are increasingly behaving like the Jewish interest groups there. The negative perception of Muslims after 9/11 is making their efforts somewhat easier. One has to be careful, however. Americans are largely Christian and highly religious. In fact, as far as religion is concerned, the country does not seem to have progressed much beyond the state of affairs in late nineteenth century Europe, as Bertrand Russell often pointed out. The yoga hype and weird followers of Indian babas notwithstanding, Americans are not really interested in Hinduism. Judaism is an altogether different matter. Pushing Hindutva too far in America may backfire with intensified anti-Indian attitude among the common people there.
***The writer is former Dean and Emeritus Professor of Applied Mathematics, University of Twente, The Netherlands.
__Courtesy: The Statesman, Kolkata.