Tuesday, November 18, 2008

"Yankee Hindutva": What is it?

Though I was an early and vocal participant in the Great Sonal Shah Internet Debate of 2008, I am done arguing about it. This post is not about that directly.

Instead, I'd like to focus on some of the bigger issues behind the controversy, specifically issues like: 1) how South Asian religious youth camps work and what they do, and 2) whether Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu organizations in the U.S. send large amounts of money to South Asia to support communalist organizations over there.

As always, I would love to hear personal testimony from people who went to religious youth camps, or who have been involved in any of the organizations I'm going to be mentioning. An ounce of personal testimony is better than a pound of theorizing, generalizing, and blah blah blah argument.

1. What's at issue

These two issues are the central themes of a chapter in Vijay Prashad's book, The Karma of Brown Folk, called "Of Yankee Hindutva." They also feature in Prashad's essay in Sulekha, "Letter to a Young American Hindu."

The reason Prashad is so focused on Sonal Shah is pretty clear: to him, she seems to represent exactly the "Yankee Hindutva" he has been talking about for years. As I see it, the major things Sonal Shah is accused of are 1) being a part of the leadership of an organization called the VHP-A, which has a clear communal bias (no one seriously disputes this), and 2) speaking at HSS-US youth camps like this one (from the website, HSS-US appears to be considerably less extreme than VHP-A, though they do prominently advertise a new book they've published on M.S. Golwalkar). Ennis has also suggested that what is really worse than this might be 3) the fact that she waited so long to clarify her former affiliation: the cover-up is worse than the crime. I do not agree with him on that, but I do agree with people like Mira Kamdar that (1) and (2) are concerning.

But what exactly does an association with the American branch of a Hindu nationalist organization tell us about a person? How much do we really know about the American branches of these organizations? How bad are they really?

Below, I'll raise some questions about the accounts Vijay Prashad has given of VHPA and the Hindu Students Council in his book, The Karma of Brown Folk. For now, let's start with a personal testimony, from a person who actually disagrees with me overall on this issue. As I was browsing people's various blog posts relating to Sonal Shah, I came across a great post and discussion thread by a blogger named Anasuya. In the comments to Anasuya's post is another person named Anasuya (Anasuya Sanyal), who attended VHP camps years ago, and had this to say about her experience of them:

I too remember attending VHP conferences as a teenager growing up in the US and I had no idea of the political affiliations until I lived for a bit in India around age 17. Naturally, I was not in any kind of agreement with the VHP platforms, philosophy or actions and I even wrote a small piece about the American “face” of the VHP for The Telegraph!

And as a second generation Indian American, Indian politics were not a topic in the home and VHP conferences were a parentally-approved weekend outing since we were with other Indian friends. The fun part was our more responsible friends would drive us all to the place and we’d take over a cheap motel and party. Otherwise at that age, a weekend away would have been strictly forbidden.

I don’t remember too much about the conferences themselves–there were a few interesting group discussions/breakout sessions. I didn’t see any political content. If anything, the parents saw it as a way to participate in a big somewhat religious gathering, seeing as how more established religions in the US had youth events, whereas Hindus did not. (link)

As I say, Anasuya Sanyal disagrees with me overall, so this account shouldn't be taken as a tailor-made version of what happened to support the "pro Sonal Shah" side of things.

Anasuya (the blogger) also has a great string of questions that follow from this:

Why is our analysis not able to convey the slippery slope between VHP summer schools and the genocide in Gujarat? Have we, as activists for a progressive world, so denounced a middle ground of faith, religiosity and associated ‘culture’, that we have ended up allowing the fascist right to take over that space? Is a VHP summer school the only option that a young Hindu growing up in America has for learning about her heritage, whatever this might mean? How far are we committed to having ‘youth camps’ about syncreticism, pluralism, and that most particular aspect of Indian heritage: secularism as both the church-state separation, as well as a respect for all faiths? With histories that include Hindu and Muslim worship at Baba Budangiri, or the Hindu and Christian celebrations at Velankinni? (link)

These seem like great questions, and unfortunately I don't think there are any solid answers. Things like "Diwali Against Communalism" come off as a little weak. Inter-faith conferences and events are also great, but groups that are targeted by people like Prashad (like HSS-US) regularly particpate in them, so how much work does the "Inter-Faith" movement really do?

2. Looking at Prashad's "Yankee Hindutva"

The only person I know of who has spent any energy investigating the American branches of South Asian religious organizations and youth camps is Vijay Prashad, and I don't find his account to be sufficient. I don't say that he's wrong, per se, but rather that I wish there were other people investigating these groups and filling out the gaps in our knowledge of them.

My first problem is with the narrow way Prashad defines his subject. Prashad explicitly states that he's not going to look at Sikh or Muslim camps or organizations, because in his view the "VHPA is far more powerful (demographically and financially) and is far more able to create divisions within the desi community than to draw us toward an engagement with our location as desis in the United States" (KoBF 134).

In fact, I don't think that's true even on the face of it. Khalistani groups (now mostly defunct) and conservative Muslim groups historically have done as much to encourage self-segregation within second generation desi communities as the VHP-A. It may be true that the VHPA is more "powerful," but without seeing membership numbers or financial statements, I don't see why we should assume that. With his exclusive focus on Hindu organizations, Prashad seems to be employing a double standard.

I'm also disappointed in Prashad's narrow focus on the VHP-A because, as a moderate Sikh, I'm curious to know more about how he sees Sikh youth camps and Sikh American organizations. (I attended Sikh youth camps as a child, and was even a counselor/teacher at a now-defunct Sikh youth camp in central Pennsylvania, in 1998.)

Prashad's chapter has many long paragraphs of political commentary, as well as several pages on a figure from the 1920s, named Taraknath Das. He gets to the topic at hand about 10 pages into the chapter, when he connects the VHPA to the Hindu Students Council:

The VHPA acts multiculturally through its student wing, the Hindu Students Council (HSC), which champions a syndicated Brahmanical Hinduism (of Hindutva) as the neglected culture of the Hindu Americans. The HSC subtly moves away from the violence and sectarianism of related organizations in India and vanishes into the multicultural space opened up in the liberal academy. The HSCs and Hindutva flourish in the most liberal universities in the United States, which offer such sectarian outfits the liberty to promote what some consider to be the neglected verities of an ancient civilization.

Notice something familiar here? It's the exact same rhetorical move that's been made with Sonal Shah: though HSC appears to be more tolerant, accepting, and reasonable than the VHPA, that is only a front -- in fact, they are really just the smiley, tolerant-looking face of a Global Hindutva Conspiracy. Actually, I am far from convinced, by either Prashad or the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate, that the HSC is a problematic organization at all. They insist that they have been an independent organization since 1993, and I have seen no real evidence to doubt that.

[UPDATE/CORRECTION: Several people have suggested to me that the links between VHPA and HSC probably were more sustained than this. I have also been told that some HSC groups — Cornell especially, before 2002 — and some of the leadership have said things with a communal bent. Those are important qualifications, but it doesn’t really alter my basic point, that HSC for its members is primarily a social organization for second generation college students, while VHPA has a firmer communalist focus, and remains more oriented to, and driven by, politics in India.]

Another problematic assertion arises a few pages later in Prashad's chapter, when he finally starts to talk about money:

Between 1990 and 1992, the average annual income of the VHPA was $385,462. By 1993 its income had gone up to $1,057,147. An allied group of the VHPA, the India Development and Relief Fund, raised almost $2 million in the 1990s (some of it via the United Way). This money is discreetly transferred into India. It is common knowledge that during the way of Shilapujan ceremonies across the globe toward the erection of a Ram temple at Ayodhya, millions of dollars in cash and kind reached India. It is also common knowledge that VHP and BJP functionaries carry huge sums of money in cash or kind from the United States to India.

First, it's nice to see some dollar amounts here, though it would be even nicer if a source for those dollar amounts was given. Second, it may well be true that the VHPA has sent money to the Indian VHP, which was used for nefarious purposes. As I hope is clear, I have no interest in defending the VHPA or (and this should go without saying) the VHP/RSS in India. But it is simply not enough to say "it is common knowledge that X is occurring." Some direct evidence is important. Again, if we don't have it, it doesn't mean a progressive ought to write these organizations off as harmless.

But what that lack of direct evidence does require is a different tone -- we don't know how much money is involved, so it's misleading to write as if we do. It could be a lot, or it could be very little. It is a real possibility that the supposed financial might of "Yankee Hindutva" might be, in the end, somewhat overblown. The Indian branches of these organizations are huge structures, with plenty of independent ability to raise money.

Towards the end of the "Yankee Hindutva" chapter in The Karma of Brown Folk, Prashad makes a point that I think is very valid -- the way in which second generation South Asian youth are taught their religious traditions via religious organizations and youth camps is often rather distorted. He quotes the great C.M. Naim quite appositely along these lines:

[C.M. Naim:] "The religious heritage that is being projected here and sought to be preserved and passed on to the next generation . . . is closer to an ideology than a faith or culture. IT has more certainties than doubts, more pride than humility; it is more concerned with power than salvation; and it would rather exclude and isolate than accommodate and include." [Prashad:] In the United States there are mosques and temples but no dargahs (shrines), "not the kind where a South Asian Muslim and a South Asian Hindu would go together to obtain that special pleasure of communion or that equally special comfort of a personal intercession with god." [C.M Naim, quoted in Prashad, 149]

I completely agree with this, though it seems necessary to also point out that this process of religious consolidation that occurs in the diaspora has also been occurring in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The utopian vision of religious syncretism and blending is largely, now, a vision of the past. It is important to remember it and understand its legacy (Amitav Ghosh has often done that beautifully in his writings), but "strong" religion has largely displaced it in the Indian subcontinent in the present day.

As a Sikh growing up in the U.S., I have first-hand experience of the religious consolidation Naim is talking about. What we were taught about the Sikh tradition at Gurdwara and Sikh youth camps was often very different from what my cousins were learning back in Delhi and Chandigarh. Even the way it's practiced -- the actual ritual of visiting the Gurdwara -- is a little different. (In the diaspora, most people go once a week, and spend several hours. It's "like going to Church." In India, the devout tend to visit the Gurdwara every day, but they only stay a few minutes. Religious practices are more concentrated here in the U.S., and also more isolated from everyday life. Ironically, through subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways, this process of Westernizing means that the relationship to religion can become more intense, and perhaps more extreme, than it is for most people in the Indian subcontinent.)

Of course, all this is a bit beside the point -- as it's a phenomenon that is interesting sociologically, but it isn't really evidence of a rising tide of "Yankee Hindutva." The first wave of second generation children who were raised with this uniquely diasporic version of South Asian religions are now in the their 30s and 40s, and for the most part they outgrew what they were taught in those religious camps as teenagers.

Some quick conclusions:

1) Not everyone who attends or speaks at an HSS youth camp is a fanatic, as evidenced by the example of the blog comment I quoted above.

2) It would still be nice if there were more options for exposure to moderate forms of South Asian religion in the diaspora.

3) Prashad's decision to focus only on Hindu organizations and youth camps is overly limiting. It's not just because it produces a political slant and a double-standard; it's also analytically limiting, because there might be parallels and patterns among Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims (and Christians? Jains?) that this limited scope doesn't allow.

4) I am not convinced that the HSC should be lumped in with the VHPA. The former seem to very clearly by oriented to ABDs on college campuses -- and serve primarily a social function. The VHPA is, by contrast, clearly tied to a communalist concept of Hinduism.

5) I agree that second generation South Asian Americans often get a somewhat distorted (more monoculturalist) image of South Asian religions because of what is taught by religious organizations and summer camps. But I am not sure this is really our most pressing problem.

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