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Profile/Biju Mathew

Why does the VHPA operate from the shadows?

Why, we may ask, does an organisation like the VHPA prefer to remain in the shadows, especially in a time when the right fringe of the white society has gone more and more mainstream? Why does the VHPA prefer to operate on the Net? Why does it need a student organisation as its public face? And finally, how successful has it been in expanding base in the US?

To answer these questions of visibility/invisibility (the electronic media as the medium of choice and student politics as mode of growth), one needs to look at the specifics of how the Indian immigrant class is positioned in the US. In other words, one needs to look precisely at the nexus of the politics of race, class and diaspora.

If one were to follow a 'few discussion threads' on newsgroups such as AH, SCI or SRH, we would immediately realise that these networks provide a historical discourse on 'Hindu' cultural forms. We must note, at the outset, that the Indian English educated professional, especially those from elite/semi elite engineering, medical or business schools in India, are a fundamentally dispossessed lot. They often arrive with an extremely sketchy knowledge of the complexity of the social relations that constitute India today.

Products of their own uniquely narrow family prejudices, they are thrown into residential institutions at an early age and remain 'protected' from the social world outside. Yet, they have been instructed by the Nehruvian dream that to be technically competent is to be part of building the nation. This package of narrow social consciousness and technical arrogance is what the US imports every year from India.

However, arriving as they do from the IITs, RECs and IIMs, they have no basis for meeting either the alienation felt in entering a different cultural space nor the demand placed on them to produce their difference for the market. Further, the spatial dispersion of the diaporic community ensures that the Net is their only real mode of renegotiating this problems of identity, produced from both within and without.

The VHPA responds to such a need. If one looks at the web pages of HSC and VHPA, it offers a series of cultural information packages, from a database of Hindu names to a collection of articles and nuggets which all answer the question 'Who is a Hindu?' from such ideologues as Golwalkar and Dattopant Thengadi and an English version of the Gita to selected writings of Vivekananda.

Apart from such 'packaged' information, the 'open' discussions that ensure on the Net are equally instructive. They often unfold as a series of notes that work out the details of one small aspect of a larger issue. Rarely does a discussion stay focused on the larger issue that may have been the starting point of a 'thread.' For instance, an article that analysed caste politics in India would be very quickly subjected to a series of positivist tests on its 'truth claims' and also produce a series of peripherally connected discussions on topics as wide and varied as 'the origins of caste,' (most often explained through the Aryan-Dravidian race theory or a sketchy sociology of social division of labour), 'the Mandal Commission' (which would proceed through multiple stages of the 'end of merit' argument), or how Indians abroad should not talk about caste as it is divisive.

Most, if not all, of these responses would be suffused with references to hypothesis, assumptions, axioms and logic. This mode of conversation in which a text is fragmented into a set of hypothesis, axioms, assumptions and 'facts', and only those aspects which are 'convenient' picked up for discussion and the rest abandoned, is discussed by Janki Nair (1994) in her essay Questions of a Historian Reading E-mail: 'Popular challenges to questions of history, judging from just a sample of assertions on e-mail in the USA, are increasingly being mounted by Indian professionals of a science and technology background, who express open distrust for the methods of historians, and who are convinced they are better equipped by the positivist traditions of science to make decisive assertions about Indian history.' 'The new positivist knights rescuing history from its practitioners produce a version of history that bears curious resemblance to a balance sheet.'

Not only is this mode to be understood as simply positivist, but it also deploys a particular discursive strategy of fragmenting texts that finally produces a historical picture and gives an inventory of isolated cultural packets that work successfully as symbolic capital -- the items in the 'balance sheet' that Nair points to is precisely that.

Further, the question of bad history is elaborated by Nair: 'Such assertions wear a cloak of spurious scientifically flourishing 'evidence' from discredited colonial sources or making extrapolations from thin bits of linguistic evidence. The recent claim that Hindu Kush means 'Hindu killer' and refers to a period of genocide of Hindus by Muslim invaders is a case in point.'

While Nair suggests that 'discredited' or 'thin' evidence is used, the mastery of the Hindutva lobby must be understood in that it also constructs evidence. In the same article about the Hindu Kush mountains, references that the article 'used' were found to be non-existent on close scrutiny.

Thus, the packaged 'knowledge', positivist and fragmentary history and outright incorrect history that the Hindutvavadi doles out on the Net gives to the immigrant both modes of dealing with his/her own alienation and the cultural capital they need to work within the market of multiculturalism. This mode of resolution to the problem of cultural authenticity is what I often call the marginal efficiency of the Net.

Indian immigrants to the US, both the professional bourgeois and the petitbourgeois, arrive already sold to the Great White American Dream. Their relation to nationalism and questions of identity is therefore not just a product of the nationalist construction of India but also continuously mediated by their link to the American dream.

From within such a configuration of social desire, the immigrant Indian is forced to accommodate his/her nationalism and identity in such a fashion that it always remains contained within the sphere of 'white' cultural hegemony. It is this contradiction that produces the discourse of model minority.

We must here note that the model minority is as much a construction of the dominant white society as it is an understanding of the self that Asians deploy constantly. From within the landscape of race politics, the dominant white society, without doubt, seeks out the Asian as a model against the black who stands condemned by the 'success' of the recently-arrived immigrant.

For the Asians, to be a model minority means not just to distance oneself from the black American, but, far more importantly, that he/she must integrate him/herself with the model 'white.' How successful would an organisation like the VHPA that speaks in the name of 'all' Hindus in a Christian land be at remaining 'unnamed?' No organisation that claims to be Hindu without paying attention to how this Hindu can be both distinct from the black American and be part of the white liberal structure of value can hope to work effectively.

It, therefore, projects itself through the HSCs and electronic space where the individual can read back into different discourses of universalism -- professional or engineer or scientist -- as marked so often in the electronic spaces by headers (;; or footers (elaborate plan files which often include quotes from some 'great' thinker on questions of truth and falsity) or by the general structure of his/her argumentation (the scientific/positivist structure).

The HSCs are organisations uniquely suited to the task of ex-nomination by virtue of its capacity to integrate itself into the liberal ideology of multi-culturalism. The liberal academy in the US is the stronghold of multi-culturalism. It is into this liberal universalism of multi-culturalism that Hindutva vanishes in the liberal academy. It is important to note here that HSCs and Hindutva have flourished most notably in the most liberal of universities in the US.

Their primary sites of growth in the early 1990s were not the hundreds of universities that dot the American landscape and cater to middle America, but the ivy league institutions and other super-elite ones such as the Harvard, MIT, Columbia, Tufts, Boston University, Carnegie-Mellon and Princeton. It is only after this initial burst wherein it established itself in nearly all of the elite eastern seaboard institutions that it spread.

On numerous occasions the HSCs have made full use of multi-culturalism to draw in a diverse body of people and thus legitimise itself. On nearly every campus, the HSCs begin their activities with a 'ethnic food festival' or a popular film screening. These events draw in an audience and the HSCs emerge legitimised by such interactions. Simultaneously, Gita reading sessions are also planned which initiate the uninitiated and remain an 'event of learning' within the framework of multi-culturalism to its advantage.

The services offered include a pre-prepared 'Statement of Objectives' or 'Constitution' from the National Council of Chapters, advice on how to choose a faculty adviser, warnings on how not to sign any modifications to the Constitution unless cleared by the NCC and modes of circumventing the minimum number of signatories required clause on the grounds of being a minority.

The awareness that this document exhibits of multi-culturalism's definitions within liberal academy is illuminating. The HSC's Mission statement has multi-culturalism framed as one of its central principles.

And so the saffron stays in the shadow and the VHPA melts away into the inaccessibility of the suburb. The HSC arrives in public, not with its ideological label written across its forehead like a caste sign, but more appropriately painted in the shades of multi-culturism.

The VHPA, we can be sure, will stay in the shadow universalism into which it can fade. On the margins, one can see efforts to find such universalism. The most recent effort is to produce the Hindu as the most oppressed community in humanity's history. Stories of the holocaust have been steadily constructed, including the one that Nair mentions of the Hindu Kush mountains.

During 1996, the HSCs sponsored a long Net discussion on the number of Hindus killed in the 1971 war that created a separate Bangladesh, quoting in the process everything from US intelligence reports to RSS literature and producing figures of dead Hindus as high as eight million.

Around the same time, there was a proposal voiced in private circles to begin lobbying for a space in the Holocaust museum in DC or, if not that, a similar space in the national capital. Maybe the campaign will fall by the wayside, but we can be sure the effort will be continued.

By arrangement with Communalism Combat

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