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Hoisting the saffron flag

To be part of the wealthy Diaspora in the US means that you can assert your Hindu identity without fear of repraisal. Indian Americans are staunch supporters of the Hindu Rashtra, writes Gautam Bhatia.

india Updated: Jan 28, 2007 00:06 IST

Some of my best friends are Muslim. At the height of the American struggle for racial equality it became a badge of honour for whites to proclaim that some of their best friends were black. An unequivocal denial of racism, however stereotypical, rang a public message that eventually crept into American  consciousness. No such badge of honour resounds in the Hindu’s contentious relationship with his ‘second class’ Muslim friend. If anything, the reverse seems to be true. I am Hindu, and some of my best friends are Hindus, is the new social yardstick, an indefensible position of honour.

According to the RSS, the grand shakhas — the madrassas of Hinduism — will restore ‘first class’ status, and make Hindus proud of their ancient heritage. New curriculums can be set to ‘correct’ history under the guise of Indian culture. When the legacy of Hindu Rashtra has no direct lineage, a host of tertiary probables can be drawn into the picture: India had metallurgy and astrophysics long before the Nobel Committee in Stockholm decided on its awards; it was an advanced and settled society while the Europeans were barbarians. India was shining while the world was in darkness…In undoing historical fact, the idea is not to give you details of the metallurgical science of the time, or to state specifics of prevailing astrophysics, but only to record that they existed. Pride is in the mere statement of their existence.

Ironically, the reasoning of racial and religious purity is decidedly misplaced in a world increasingly without borders. The idea of asserting a Hindu identity in Hindu India is all the more ironic, or moronic, given that a majority population of 82 per cent should feel ‘threatened’ and ‘second class’. It matters little that the other 18 per cent are dispersed unevenly across a country of continental size and that none among them is united enough to form a cohesive political force. But nevertheless, for the sake of Hindu pride, they pose a threat.

It is easy to sense the hokey nationalism that fans this unease and paranoia in India. Yet, amongst the staunchest supporters of the Hindu Rashtra are Indian Americans — a strange breed of Indian whose allegiance to the motherland seems to get strengthened by distance. The greater the time spent abroad and the more the money earned, fills the departed with a sense of acute longing. In suburban Ohio, and downtown Milwaukee, self-styled saviours gather every week in local community centers and high school auditoria to express their love for Hindu India.

To look beyond their adopted home for a grander agenda: Save India. Nehru’s definition of secularism as an equality of religions in which the state plays no part is anathema to them. They are more at ease with the RSS idea that Hinduism incorporates all faiths, and so, all Indians are Hindus. Whether the Muslims, Sikhs and Christians like it or not, they are just another kind of Hindu.

To be part of the wealthy Diaspora in the US means that you can assert your Hindu identity without fear of repraisal. After all, your neighbour Fred is a white Anglo Saxon Protestant, whose bigotry can hardly be directed towards someone he can’t understand, nor cares to.

The nearest Muslim is in Cheltenham, 12 miles away and he is probably busy organising his own hate group. So, Hindus can meet regularly over a vegetarian Sunday barbeque and discuss Hindu rights and way of life, (polish their trishuls) over mushroom pakoras, even watch a new Bachchan flick on the DVD.

I chanced upon a meeting of the Boston branch of the HSS, the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, at the Framingham Community Center, while on a recent visit. It was a Saturday morning and I saw the devout arriving in their Chevys and Hondas. Brown Americans in a relaxed weekend mood.

But once they had walked into the hall, something changed. Like middle- aged boy scouts, they became possessed; their tan Bermudas began to resemble RSS’ khaki shorts. They were now Hindus addressing the crisis of religion far away. The main function of the American shakhas I was told, was to unite the Hindus of America and create a brotherhood of saffron. 

“Length of residence is the only measure of belonging,” the leader explained. “Hindus are the natural sons of Hindustan”. Home was a birthright by ancestory. By that reasoning, the man claiming to be the rightful owner of India, would never have rights in his adopted country, not even in the county elections. The wooden floor of the basketball court had begun to resound with recrimination and fear: factors that united these and other HSS members spread in 24 states across America.

I sat behind my host, Bimal Dasgupta, a researcher at the Harvard Medical School, and wondered what drew self-respecting people like him — teachers, bankers, businessmen —  into such mindless baby talk. Was it merely a weekend distraction, or something more sinister? Was there really a grand design, like Hitler’s, or was this just another way of grasping at a homeland that they had themselves spurned.

My own friend, before he left for the US, was only mildly religious, and a liberal who had spoken out, if only in private, against the Babri Masjid demolition and the Sikh riots. But 12 years in America had changed him. A life confined to suburban comfort needed an intellectual outlet. The Iraq war, the US support of Israel, were of little consequence to someone who still sent part of his pay to his mother in Kolkata.

Hindu activism was a better bet. Getting together every week in a gym or community centre, with a group of similarly inclined men in baggy shorts, was a form of communion, a reason to exist. By making it all happen in a suburban setting, ten thousand miles away, the issues could be discussed in their fullness, and happily resolved to perfection, away from the messy overlapping reality of India. An ideal country was being created every weekend in suburban America.

The meeting lasted two hours. Its moderator Anand Paranjpe, a youth member of the RSS in Mumbai before he got his green card and moved his family to Boston: “The shakhas also help second generation Indian Americans connect with their traditions”. I was hard pressed to find anyone younger than 50 among the 22 paunchy men. The second generation was probably on the baseball field or doing drugs. 

The meeting proceeded. Rajesh Desai of Cambridge brought up the issue of slander. Baltimore Sun had raised doubts on the Indian claim on Kashmir. The group felt that questioning the ownership of Kashmir wasn’t only un-American, but also un-Hindu. Karan Rastogi of Wellesley  suggested they sue the paper.  A member said that the Milwaukee shakha had just  elected a Punjabi motel chain owner to head it: His son, apparently was a cause of family distress having married a white American. They talked of the Muslim riots in Meerut…

In all the talk, the continual barbs against the minorities, and the perpetual references to Hindu tradition, all I could sense was the abject loneliness of the naturally gregarious Indian living the American suburban life. Hatred of the Muslims was a unifying condition; outside the trimmed lawns and manicured hedges, it gave meaning to life. As much meaning as Neo-Nazism, and the Ku Klux Klan. 

Midway through the discussions, the wives appeared with samosas, chutney and paper plates and set up the table along the sidelines of the basketball court. One of them, set a saffron flag on the table along the samosa plates, something her husband forgot to take for the military-like initiation of the meeting. As the circle broke and everyone rushed to the food, the picture focused and the HSS revealed its true self: just a bunch of kranky old farts in baggy shorts with nothing better to do than change the world every weekend.

(The writer is a renowned architect and a published author)