The Saffron Dollar

Pehle Paisa, Phir Bhagwan Yankee Hindutva responds to the non-resident Indian's identity problem. Its rapid spread among NRIs is full of implications for society back home.
by Biju Mathew and Vijay Prashad

From its marginal and obscure origins in Nagpur in 1925, Hindutva has become fairly “attractive” to large sections of the Hindu population (and its attendant “minority” Úleves). Whether in New Delhi or New York, the global Hindu bourgeoisie has in the past two decades accepted Hindutva ideology as an acceptable part of its world-view. That is, whether one is actually a follower of Hindutva or not, one tends to acknowledge its presence in terms of its electoral strength in India (via the Bharatiya Janata Party and Shiv Sena) and the “relevance” of its overall politico-cultural arguments.

There appears to be a fairly universal agreement that the outfits of Hindutva are manned by two sorts of people: the moderate (exemplified by Vajpayee despite his own tight links with the RSS hot-heads) and the fanatic (exemplified by B. L. Sharma ‘Prem’ and the foot soldiers who destroyed Mir Baqi’s mosque at Ayodhya). While the Hindutva fellow-travellers find themselves ill at ease with the rabidity of ‘Prem,’ they have no compunction about Vajpayee and hence, the project of Hindutva.

The importance of the distinction is this: not only has the Hindutva project been able to gain electoral support in specific regions in India, but in the United States it has grown silently and steadily to become a significant determinant in the lives and fashions of the Hindu community. The support for the Hindutva ensemble in the US comes for very different reasons than in India and these distinctions bear investigation.

Asians and American Racism

In 1996, Anu Goyal released a CD entitled Pehle Paisa, Phir Bhagwan (First Money, Then God). The title functions adequately as the slogan of the Non-Resident Indian (NRI). The 30-year career of the Non-Resident Indian in the United States has been notable for its silent pursuit of money alongside an apparently ‘apolitical’ and cultural social life. Three components of American ideology provide, in broad strokes, those ways of being for the NRI which are authorised by American society—the Asian as Scientist, the Asian as Citizen and the Asian as Cultured.

Scientist Asian. In 1957, the Soviets launched two Sputnik rockets and four years later, Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth: the managers of the American state panicked, and their principal worry was that their youth cared little for science which was, after all, the basis for world domination. They, therefore, reconsidered the ban on immigration from Asia (whose socialist nations were spending much from the public exchequer to train their young to be competent scientists).

In 1965, Washington DC opened the doors to Asian migrants who came with advanced degrees in the technical sciences. The American state and society welcomed the migrants on strict terms: we want your labour, but we don’t want your lives. In other words, the migrants came to work, not to offer alternative cultures and dreams to American society. When they tried to decorate their new lives with cultural artefacts, they were chastised for failing to culturally assimilate (and blindly conform to the Protestant values of the American state).

Citizen Asian. In 1965, Black America sent a strong message to its oppressors: the rebellion launched in Watts, California reminded America that its responses to the civil rights movement was tardy. The racist inertia propelled a political insurrection which was institutionalised in the various Black leftist groups such as the Black Panthers. One of the American state’s responses, among others, was to decide on a policy of substituting the Black working-class with migrants from the Third World.

In 1965, two mainstream magazines underscored the ideological position of American racism with articles describing Asians as a hardworking and loyal population (who did not require state support), in contrast to the Blacks, described as a lazy and rebellious population. The articles failed to mention that the Asians were state-selected: their indicators looked good because only educated migrants were welcomed. Regardless, an enduring myth was created which continues to have currency in contemporary America: that the Asians are a “model minority”. Before long, Asians themselves were retailing this myth.

Cultural Asian. Even a “model minority” (scientist/citizen) requires some components of a personality, and these the Asians found in their cultures (elements of which had already been substantially valorised by the discipline of Orientalism). And so the NRIs present themselves as a cultural commodity even though they themselves came to the US without extensive training in the arts of their own culture (that is, during their narrow-minded and extensive education in the post-colonial educational system of India, they never gained the nuanced idea of their cultural history).

The NRI, therefore, turns to those purveyors of ‘culture’ such as Orientalist textbooks and its authors as well as the organisers of the Hindu Right. The American establishment, for its part, accepts the cultural traits of the NRI, particularly since these are deemed to be the reasons for the NRI’s ‘superiority’ over Blacks. This is how American racism helps in valorising the forces of Hindutva by both the Hindu bourgeoisie and by an American society which is superficially impressed by the antiquity of the Subcontinent (and its philosophical heritage—notably the monotheism of the Upanishads and of Buddhism).

These three components provide the narrow space for the NRI to negotiate a life and livelihood. Between them, the Hindutva ensemble utilises the everyday contradictions of American life to draw support from amongst the NRIs.

Tactics and Strategies

Initially, the migrants lived disorganised lives with their main locus of social interaction being the long-distance call and their local regional organisations (such as the Tamil Sangam, the Gujarat Samaj, etc). Early liberal-bourgeois organisers deployed the national label (Indo-American) to gather the disparate people together to lobby for the spoils America (such as the 1977 inclusion of South Asians into a category which allowed them to benefit from the State’s largesse) and for the aggrandisement of the leaders themselves (as a result of the community’s demonstration of its demographic- financial power to the mandarins of the electoral system). These urges are also present in Yankee Hindutva.

Yankee Hindutva operates through multiple organisational forms, including Gita-reading groups, mahila sabhas, temple-based functions and pujas, informal baby-sitting groups, cultural events of various kinds and summer camps. Its success, however, is the result of two principal organisations, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA) and the Hindu Students Council (HSC). A study of these two groups allows us to understand the strategic machinations of the global Hindu Right whose designs pose an enormous danger to the idea of a secular society in South Asia.

The VHPA, founded in 1970, registered its first office in New York State in 1974 as a “cultural organisation” with the aim of adding “cultural enrichment and cultural awareness to American society, based on time-tested Eternal Hindu values”. A former VHPA President, Mahesh Mehta, writing in a VHPA brochure correctly locates the initial growth of the organisation within the dynamic of Indian immigration to North America:

“The first generation of Indians who settled in the USA in the 1960s were mainly students...or immigrants who received visas based on their professional status....Thus, the earlier [sic] Hindu community in the USA consisted primarily of highly educated people, mostly young....By the late 1970s the composition started changing due to the arrival of dependent immigrants who started small businesses. Although this group had disadvantages of language and lack of higher education, they have generally been hard-working....”

The NRI wave from the 1960s is made up of professionals, products of elite educational institutions, relatively adept at interfacing with the dominant American society. The petty-bourgeois component (small businessmen, traders) that arrived in the late 1970s was different: not only did this class suffer the inequity of a hard passage into Anglo-Saxon America, but the nature of its profession meant that it remained distant from its professional brethren. While the professional community is dispersed in universities and corporations all over the US, the small businessmen often adjoin each other in metropolitan areas or in the immediate suburbs.

The physical and cultural ghettoisation of the petty-bourgeoisie supported the VHPA’s early growth. However, this group experienced an early road-block: isolated and immobile as well as culturally disadvantaged, the committed petty-bourgeoisie could not reach out to the broader community. In the 1970s, the VHPA grew slowly and opened only two certified offices, in Connecticut and Illinois. Between 1980 and 1990, however, it established ten new offices, and the real growth came in the late 1980s, when the movement devised a new strategy.

Hindu Homepage

The Hindu Students Council, as the VHPA’s student wing, and its members’ facility with the electronic networks emerged as a unique solution to the problem of growth and expansion. This forms the sensational aspect of Hindutva’s North American story. The first HSC was formed in 1987 at North-Eastern University (Boston) and by 1995, HSCs accounted for 45 chapters across the US and Canada. To gather a dispersed population, the VHPA relied upon the university network built by the HSC and by the use of the internet. The turn to the university meant that the leadership of Yankee Hindutva incorporated the professional bourgeois elements alongside the petty-bourgeois veterans.

The typical HSC is organised and run by an immigrant graduate male student who has some Sangh Parivar connections. However, in what is a growing trend, many new HSCs are now being organised and run by second generation Indian-Americans, either male or female, who have 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 who, in turn, reports to the National Council of Chapters at HSC HQ in Needham, Massachussets. The insistence on hierarchy reveals much, or, as a disillusioned second generation Indian-American who once held local leadership at Ann Arbor, Michigan said: “The top leadership of HSC has long ceased being students....But they run the show and work in close cooperation with their ‘superiors’ in VHPA.”

The VHPA, therefore, functions as the primary organisation which is run by an older generation of petty-bourgeois and professional Indian men who control all the resources and give ideological direction to the complex; the HSC, with some ideologically committed members at the helm, works towards the presentation and further propagation of the complex. The professional bourgeoisie are both mobile and widely dispersed and its ranks offer two types of VHPA workers: the immigrant students and the second generation Indian-Americans. Both have different reasons for their activity which falls within the broad ideological objectives of the Hindutva movement.

Why does this dual organisational form work so well (as is indicated by the exponential growth of the HSC)? This requires exploring the HSC’s ideological formations as well as the internal dynamics of the NRI community. In the 1990s, the VHPA has adopted a low-profile existence: it offers leadership, but rarely takes the limelight. Instead, the VHPA innovatively utilised HSCs at university campuses and the electronic nets as a communicative strategy to further its programme. The logic of these two tactics bear extended explication.

The NRIs are caught in a contradiction. At one level they yearn to be well-integrated into American society, for it is, after all, the American Dream of a two car garage and house (a dream monopolised by White Americans) that brought them to this land. At another level, they seek to retain their identity, a need that is heightened by the contradictions of integration. The NRI’s relation to nationalism and identity is not just a product of the nationalist construction of India by Hindutva ideologues, but also continuously mediated by the NRI’s link to the American Dream.

From within such a configuration of social desire, the NRIs are forced to accommodate their nationalism and identity in such a fashion that it always remain contained within the sphere of Anglo-Saxon cultural hegemony. In the context of this contradiction, the electronic networks become an important medium. The internet and its web sites, newsgroups, mailing lists and discussion groups provide a ‘safe’ space for expressions of nationalism and identity that have no place in corporate America.

While the nets are often heralded as ‘free’ spaces, they are also spaces of isolation. An India-related newsgroup rarely attracts a non-Indian (or non-South Asian); a Hinduism-related site attracts only those interested in Hinduism or for that matter a Gujarati Samaj mailing list only occasionally contains non-Gujaratis. Thus, these isolated sites become spawning grounds for the technocrats who need to re-invent their identity each night after having sold their souls to corporate America during the day.

In the days immediately before and after the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the nets were abuzz with discussions on Vivekananda. A few committed ideologues flooded the nets day after day with selective serialisations of Vivekananda and many who were, at least then, not necessarily part of the Hindutva project in any direct sense participated with gusto. The slow process of interpellation draws the participant into a dynamic whereby the messages and idioms begin “talking to you” (to the person on the net for a weekly identity fix). At your computer, you are an Indian, escaping the homogeneity of corporate America and talking through Vivekananda to other faceless people who seem to encounter a similar problem.

The discussions around Vivekananda, incidentally, inaugurated the VHPA/HSC’s most sustained road-show so far in North America—the post-Babri Masjid celebration, the "GV2000" conference in Washington DC, followed by the centenary celebrations of Vivekananda’s 1893 Chicago address.

Combat the racist conditions of American society. It theorises the NRI’s travails in terms of its effects (cultural crises, the glass ceiling at work) and not in terms of its causes (racism, an extended crisis of monopoly capitalism). This is an old strategy of the Hindu Right, which sent its missionaries to the Caribbean, Africa and Fiji at the start of this century to enjoin the rebellious indentured workers to turn to culture (religion) rather than political solidarity to solve their concrete dilemmas. Yankee Hindutva’s difference is merely in its use of the electronic media, not in its philosophy.

A significant component of the HSC members come from the second generation Indian-American population whose own crisis of identity forces the Council to adopt an alternative ideological frame. Second-generation Indian-Americans are trying to come to terms with their hyphenated identity, and the discovery of roots forms the basis for the entry of the HSC into the youths’ lives.

Reaganite racism rejected the idea of a diverse civilisation and enforced a mono-chromatic vision of America (with Europe as its centre). In response, American liberalism offered the philosophy of multi-culturalism which proposed that each group’s culture must be accorded equal respect.

The HSC draws from multi-culturalism to champion Hindutva ideology as the neglected culture of the Hindu-Americans. Simultaneously, the HSC subtly dissociates itself from the sectarianism of its parent organisations in order to emerge in the liberal academy as benign and beloved. The HSC and Hindutva flourish in American liberal universities, which offer such sectarian outfits the liberty to promote what the liberals consider the verities of a neglected civilisation.

One component of the neglected culture is the idea that women are the embodiment of tradition: the Hindutva ensemble deploys such unreconstructed sexist ideas with the ‘allowance’ that women should have a career. These unbalanced and uneven notions led the HSC to inaugurate a project on the Status of Hindu Women whose first outcome (a conference at MIT in 1996) ended in confusion and rhetorical declarations (“The Hindu system suggests not only equal rights for women but gives more respect and reverence”).

Eager to be ‘relevant’, the HSC/VHPA uses the question of women’s liberation to obscure its own conservative agenda towards women. In the US, Yankee Hindutva understands ‘women’ as a resource by which the community might increase its earning capacity and its power: this is the motivation, rather than any feminist ideal, for the difference in the agendas of Yankee and Desi Hindutva. When the HSC was challenged in a debate on the Internet to dissociate itself from the statements by Swami Muktananda Saraswati and Mridula Sharma (the Hindu Right is “opposed to women’s liberation...we tell women to be more adjusting”), there was no response.

Money Talks

Besides the electronic networks and university campuses, Yankee Hindutva draws upon traditional organising sites such as temples, conferences and regional economic and cultural institutions. The busloads of young Indian-Americans arriving at the GV2000 conference for a dose of the spiritual offers evidence for traditional mass mobilisation; the T-shirts distributed by ISKCON (“Be Udderly Cool”, “Save a Cow”) and the blue baseball caps with VHPA embossed in white, offer evidence of the traditional forms of propaganda.

Yankee Hindutva is not an anachronistic project which will be worn out by the sands of time; if that were so, its growth should not cause fear. The ensemble is strongly linked with the movement in India and its strategies reveal the virtuoso techniques by which it draws the youth (by acknowledging their crises, even if its own offer of a solution is far from adequate). The Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Memorandum of Association clearly demonstrates the global strategies of what is a dynamic, global project:

(a) The Trustees may open or may help to establish Associations in countries outside Bharat having similar aims and objects or affiliate such associations with the Parishad. (b) The Board of Trustees shall have the power to collect funds and donations from Hindus residing outside Bharat or from the Associations established or affiliated as mentioned in sub-rule (a) of this rule to hold such funds and spend them for the objects of the Parishad. For this purpose the Trustees may appoint any bank or person to act as their authorised agent.

The Hindutva project is engineered by the bourgeois-technocrat, who forms part of the new trans-national elite in our recent phase of global capitalism. This elite is able to conduct its political work in two nations. The Hindujas, for example, both welcome the BJP as a positive force in Indian politics and simultaneously donate millions of dollars to Columbia University to start a Vedic Studies program. A management consultant in Maryland posts two letters addressed to him on the internet to demonstrate his sympathies for the Hindutva project: one from Ashok Singhal on Goverment of India letterhead (Singhal was Home Minister for 14 days this year) and the other from Jay Dubashi, the BJP’s economic wizard.

How does this ‘obscure’ consultant get such access to power? As a member of the trans-national elite, he is perhaps not altogether ‘obscure’, for his American location makes him powerful in India. The financial clout of the Hindutva forces in the US can be understood if one looks at the growth in its income figures over the last five years. Between 1990-92 the average income of the VHPA was $385,462. By 1993, its income had gone up to $1,057,147.

Over the years, the VHPA has discreetly transferred money into India. It is common knowledge that during the wave of Shilapujan ceremonies across the globe, millions of dollars in cash and kind reached India. It is also common knowledge that VHP and BJP functionaries carry back huge sums of money in cash or kind after each visit to the US. We do not know the sums involved.

One aspect of the financial relations of the VHPA to the Subcontinent can be documented: the VHPA runs two programmes, the Vanvasi Seva and Support a Child, which transfer money to non-governmental front organisations in South Asia. Compared to the volume of industrial investment flowing into India, the figures of half a million under the Seva programme appear to be insignificant. However, that half million enters the country in a sector which draws money from neither the Indian State nor multi-national capital. This sector is made up of organisations which battle for the spoils of the liberal elements in the advanced industrial countries as well as the domestic bourgeoisie.

The Hindutva groups are immediately among the elite of these groups given their pipeline of funds and these groups are, therefore, able to exert their influence among subaltern populations. In addition to the financial significance of the American groups, the NRIs offer their Indian allies legitimacy. Imperial domination began a tradition in India of valorising anything ‘foreign’; the BJP frequently refers to its American allies in order to reaffirm its legitimacy as the party that appeals to even those who live overseas.

Hindu Wave In the post-Ayodhya period, Indian-American groups in North America fought a defensive battle to reconstitute secularism on a firm footing: groups from New York to California held discussions, hosted speakers from India and exhibitions from the activist group SAHMAT, and organised the tour of the play Tumhari Amrita (with Shabana Azmi and Farooq Shaikh). In a flurry of activity, the various secular and democratic groups overturned the notification of VHPA as a “cultural organisation” for charity purposes by the telephone company AT& T, and travelled to Washington DC for a successful protest against the intolerance represented by GV2000.

The secular groups conducted these actions with inadequate resources, for which an endless supply of energy substituted. They challenged the Hindutva Wave and drove many Indian-Americans towards a reconsideration of their previously unreconstructed allegiance to the ensemble of the Hindu Right. At the time of the Latur earthquake, it was the Left among Indian-Americans who raised money, and during the entire Narmada Bachao Andolan struggle, it was again the Left which offered its support to the activists on the ground. Such actions bespeak a noble struggle to preserve the best of the Subcontinent.

However, the secular groups are confined to major cities and university towns. They are run by deracinated elements of the diaspora (graduate students and faculty) or by unrepresentative members of the petty-bourgeoisie (who carry memories of work with the Left parties in India). If the isolation of the groups is one problem, a second problem is their inability to respond to the genuine crises among the NRIs, which is what enables the Yankee Hindu Right to flourish. The Hindutva Wave can only be overcome if combat is waged against the conditions which sustain it as much as against its own inadequate approach to those conditions.

B. Mathew and V. Prashad teach at Rider College, New Jersey and Trinity College, Connecticut, respectively.

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