Letter from America: Hindutva in Chicago
By Slok Gyawali
26 October 2018
The World Hindu Congress in Chicago and the Hindu right’s plans to rebrand their ideology.
Were it not for the statuette of a cow outside the adjoining Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse, it would be impossible to distinguish the Westin Hotel in Lombard from other high-rises across Chicago’s suburban sprawl. But between 7 and 9 September 2018, this hotel was a bazaar of people in saffron robes, sarees and suits. The second World Hindu Congress was in town; the Windy City was selected to mark the anniversary of Swami Vivekananda’s speech at the 1893 Parliament of World Religions held in downtown Chicago.
In the 125 years since Swami Vivekananda popularised Hindu dharma in the United States, the Indian Hindu community here has seen much prosperity and growth. And yet, misrepresentations of Hinduism – necessitating that passionate introduction to Hindu philosophy – still fuels the angst of many in the community, as it did of the gathered faithful in Chicago. Unflattering portrayals of Hindus and Hinduism as the faith of “caste, cow, and curry” was an often-heard grievance at the Congress, which was organised by the World Hindu Foundation. The major narrative that emerged at the symposium was of the need to collectively respond to an external world, which is hostile to Bharat (using the anglicised variant ‘India’ was frowned upon), Hindu dharma and Indic culture, despite “digesting” ideas originating from that tradition.
Diverse issues affecting Hindus – their persecution in Afghanistan, growing conversion away from the faith or prejudice against Indic philosophy of science within academia – all stem from disunity within the community, the argument went. It is a crisis that could be solved by a collective Hindu resurgence: one that generates confidence among Hindus, and whose values of universal peace and tolerance would benefit the world.
Plans for resurgence
Held with the theme of Sumantrite Suvikrante – Think Collectively, Achieve Valiantly – the World Hindu Congress’ organisers had predetermined the strategy for a Hindu revival: Hindus need to link values to action if resurgence is to be made a reality. The Congress was therefore an elaborate exercise in tactical development, keeping in mind the revivalist strategy. Divided into parallel conferences on seven themes – one each on economics, education, media, organisation, politics, women, and youth – these were “strategic areas” where Hindus must expend tan, man and dhan – body, mind and wealth – to ease the resurgence. Or, as the chief of the India’s premier Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Mohan Bhagwat summed it, “We have stopped our descent. Now we are contemplating how to ascent.” He added after an applause, “We are not a defeated society. We are not an enslaved society.”
This new confidence seen in Hindutva activists within and beyond India is predicated on the ability of Hindus to inject Hindutva into economics and politics. Auxillary issues, including media and education, are tools to facilitate and showcase this ascent. Hindus at the Congress who felt disconnected from the media’s portrayal of Hinduism and Hindus were told to be creative in subverting the status quo. One such front involves projects that rebrand Hindu culture as ‘cool’, popularising their ideology and values through avenues such as fantasy fiction, mythology-driven TV and cinema; think mythological fantasy writer Amish, producer of TV shows like Mahabharat and Mahakaali, Siddharth Kumar Tewary, and filmmaker Madhur Bhandarkar. Then there are projects within the media to aggressively counter its “anti-Hindu, anti-India” bias, as one popular Indian media personality put it. Suresh Chavhanke, chairperson and editor-in-chief of Sudarshan News – who was booked in April 2017 for inciting communal hatred over his TV channel – said that Hindus need to put their money into news channels, such as the one he owns, “just like Christians” who have invested in the media to propagate their agenda. His channel, he assured, will only show the pro-Hindu, pro-Indian viewpoint.
A key piece in this is taking the fight to what Hindutva activists deem ‘anti-Hindu’ scholars in academia. At the education conference, author Rajiv Malhotra argued that the only way to improve the Hindu presence in education was for young scholars to earn scars – like he had – by battling the supposedly entrenched Hinduphobia in academia. A frequent name in America’s Hindutva circuits, Malhotra’s books on Indology and his YouTube videos on Hindutva and its ‘enemies’ have made him an avuncular figure popular in young Hindutva circles around the world. The battle over education is generational, and Malhotra was convinced that Hindus needed to prepare “intellectual kshatriyas”. The Congress also planned to incentivise the study of Hinduism and create an international network of Hindu scholars.
All this needs money. And although many Indian-origin Hindus in the West have done well for themselves, their consciousness and responsibility towards the community was found lacking, according to some at the conference. Organisers of the WHC, therefore, see the success of the World Hindu Economic Forum as one of the most crucial tracks that constitute the Congress; it’s the only one to be held annually since 2012.
Although advertised as a Hindu Economic Forum, the realities of corporate branding limited the organisers’ ability to highlight the forum’s ‘Hinduness’; it seemed a discomforting thing for executives of leading billion-dollar companies to speak about their religiosity, even if at the WHC. Rather, they settled to speak of Bharat-US economic relations, and how growing up in a milieu of tolerance and need for resource optimisation has helped produce an extraordinary number of C-suite executives from the motherland.
Of all events at the symposium, the plenary session titled ‘Hindu Society: Glory of the Past, Pain of Present and Dream for Future’ best capsulated the diversity and ambition of the Congress. It brought together academic Subhash Kak, performance artist Sonal Mansingh, businessman Mohandas Pai and historian R Nagaswamy, who spoke of the journey of the Hindu community so far, and what it can contribute – after what seemed to be a mandatory exercise in introspection – to global progress in the future.
Even here, Pai, chairperson of Manipal Global Education and former board member of Infosys, and Nagaswamy, former director of the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, typified ongoing disagreements among the delegates. When Nagaswamy spent over fifteen minutes lauding the Manu Dharma Shashtra – an ancient legal text better known as the Manusmriti, which codifies the caste hierarchy – for being the first constitution and legal code, one could sense Pai’s discomfort. Indeed, when asked what Pai thought of India’s reservation system, he replied that the quota system was needed if Bharat was to uplift people discriminated though history. The answer received a lukewarm appreciation from the crowd.
Centrality of 2019
Even though Hindutva activists are among the louder voices in the politically active sections of the Indian diaspora in the US, they are not the only one. Reports from India of mob lynching, ghar wapsi (controversial conversion of non-Hindus to Hindusim), arbitrary arrests of political dissenters, and an emboldened Hindu right have galvanised the opposition in diaspora-led organisations in the US.
One day before the World Hindu Congress, organisers of the #StopHinduFacism protest gathered at the Center of Gender Studies at the University of Chicago campus. In front of a small, sympathetic audience, three groups – Organization for Minorities in India (OFMI), Indian American Muslim Council, and Dalit American Foundation – described the violence against religious minorities and Dalits under the rule of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Their strategy mirrored a broad coalition between Muslims, Dalits and other minorities in India, to protest “Sanghi facists” at the event, as well as for what they see as the main battle ahead: the 2019 parliamentary elections in India.
“There is a need to get the troops ready for the main battle in 2019. Given the oppression our brothers and sisters are facing in India, this election is very important for us,” said Dalit activist and journalist Thenmozhi Soundararajan. One of their strategies is to use the political lexicon of the American left to frame anti-Hindutva resistance in India. As Pieter Friedrich of the OFMI says, there is a need to oppose the RSS, because they are the “Indian version of KKK”.
Comparisons like this have allowed such opposition groups to use the upcoming 2018 US congressional elections as a stage against the Sangh. After Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu member of the US Congress (she is not of Indian origin) pulled out of the WHC citing the presence of Indian politicians, another Democratic Congressman, Raja Krishnamoorthi of Chicago, was under pressure to boycott the WHC. The optics of sharing a stage with what some in his mostly Democratic constituency of Chicago’s northwestern suburbs were calling “Hindu fascists” was incongruent with the anti-fascism, anti-racism message of the US Democrats ahead of the elections. Krishnamoorthi chose instead to deliver a speech where he reaffirmed the highest and only form of Hinduism he knew – “the teachings of Swami Vivekananda”. For the WHC audience, this was not a chastising of the RSS, but a reaffirmation of what they believed was the focus of Sangh’s work. The standing ovation at the end of his speech perhaps surprised Krishnamoorthi who left the room before Bhagwat came in.
The RSS’s politics of Hindu unity and its strategic rhetoric of inter-faith harmony is not crass like the ‘white power’ sloganeering of white supremacist groups, and caricaturing them as such is delusional. The RSS is also deeply entrenched in Indian social life in a way no organised white-supremacist movement can hope to be in contemporary America. Yet the analogy is powerful enough to create unease amongst the 84 percent of US-born Indian Americans who are under 30, who see the world through the prism of US national politics. Soundararajan and her anti-Hindutva allies claim that the Brahmanical control over Hindu spiritual spaces, especially in the US, means that all forms of Hinduism are radicalised, even that of Vivekananda. As such, they feel, little worth saving remains.
But such a position leads to certain strategic dilemmas, which surfaced but remained unexplored during the #StopHinduFascism meeting. Could minorities and Dalits in the US trust the Indian National Congress given that it too is “tainted by the inescapable Brahminism”? How do they reconcile Dalit-Muslim conflicts in key Indian states? How do they interact with Hindus in the diaspora who are for progressive struggles in the US, while supporting Hindu nationalism in India? And how do they respond to the calls by the Hindus to stand-up against the targeted killings of Indian workers in the US, or of Rohingya Hindus, or Kashmiri pandits, or even bullying of Hindus in schools for believing in “weird looking deities”?
Hindu and Hindutva
Speaking at the meeting, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat was aware of protests against WHC. He was simultaneously threatening – “we know how to handle the opposition” – and reassuring – that RSS’s commitment is to the nation and not a party. Bhagwat’s analogy of Hindu society as a lion surrounded by wild dogs received a flurry of media coverage. What most missed were statements by the other delegates on the dais. It was Swami Paramatmananda Saraswati of the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha – a forum comprising of over a hundred Hindu religious leaders in India – who raised the rallying call for supporting the BJP in 2019, enthusiastically cheered on by other, supposedly non-political Hindu leaders.
This solidarity towards the BJP as harbinger and heir of Hindu resurgence among various organisations – not all of them within the official fold of the Sangh Parivar, the large family of Hindu nationalist organisations which includes RSS and its affiliates – is the greatest upshot of events like WHC for Hindutva activists. Politics, it seems, allows the Sangh to position itself as the only valid coordinator of diverse voices among Hindus, and frame them in accordance to its strategy. As Bhagwat put it in the RSS outreach conclave in New Delhi on September 19, “RSS doesn’t want to be another organization of Hindus, it wants to be the organization to coordinate all efforts of Hindus.”
Given that around 95 percent of the world’s Hindus live in India, the global political ambition of Hindutva is somewhat restricted. But at the Congress, even sincere debates about the future of Hinduism were beset by the lurking anti-intellectualism of sectarian politicking. At one point during Saraswati’s speech, protestors disrupted the proceedings, yelling “RSS turn around, we don’t want you in our town!” Most delegates were confused. Some cussed at the two protestors, others did what they always do when flustered: shout bharat mata ki jai – “victory to mother India”. In the end, the Congress remained flawed by how little it engaged with ideas with which it disagreed.
~ Slok Gyawali is a writer based in Chicago.
More readings on Hindu nationalism in India:
Patrick McCartney on the revived interest in Sanskrit study in India.
Atreyee Sen reviews a book on the motivations of women involved in rightwing politics in India.