The Impact of Hindu fundamentalism and its political effect for Asians in Britain

The resurgence of Hindu nationalism and fundamentalism in India has had a
profound political and social impact on the Asian (Hindu) communities in
Britain. This contribution will try to trace some of the developments and
their political effect for Asians in Britain. I also want to touch on the
ways in which Asian women have resisted Hindu fundamentalism in Britain.

 A New Phase of Hindu Communalism

In December 1992, the world witnessed a terrifying unleashing of Hindu communal and fundamentalist violence and frenzy that culminated in the destruction of the Babri Masjid, a mosque in Ayodhya, North India. More than any other single event in recent years, it put paid to the idea that Hinduism is or can be resistant to the fundamentalsit project. The widespread assaults, killings and rapes perpetrated on Muslims in India was widely perceived by many Hindus in India and the India Diaspora, as legitimate in the ’war’ against all muslims, other minorities and anyone else who dares to display disloyalty to the notion of a Hindu rashtra (nation).

The key players in stirring up communal violence are the Vishwa Hindu party
(VHP), Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Bhartiya Janata Party
(BJP). The VHP is a rabid Hindu revivalist organisation that was mainly
responsible for the organisation that was mainly responsible for the Hindu
yatras (marches) organised all over India in the late 1980s and early
1990s. Its main objective is to forge a mass Hindu identity based on
anti-muslim hatred. The yatras were a particularly effective in stirring up
communal riots because they were carefully orchestrated to take place in
Muslim ghettos. The RSS claims to a be a cultural organisation working
mainly with boys and young men (and more recently women), but whose leaders
in the past, have aspired to emulate German nationalism under Hitler, built
on anti-Semitic and racist ideology. Its central objective is to forge a
militant Hindu identity, bu communalising the arenas of sports culture and
other extra-parliamentary spaces. The BJP is a political party whose
primary focus is to gain electoral dominance on the back of Hindu
communalism and fundamentalism.

According to many social commentators in India, the 1992 period marked a
new phase in Hindu nationalism, a particularly savage form of sectarianism
involving a specific construction of the Hindu self; a masculine,
aggressively communal self that is intolerant of other faiths and even
other conceptions of Hinduism.

 Hindus in Britain

The destruction of the Babri Masjid created schisms not only between the
Hindu and Muslim communities in Britain but also within families. It had a
deep and chilling impact on me personally and more generally on many Hindu
families living here. I found myself forced to question the open
allegiances to the right wing forces, displayed by my family and relatives.
It became clear that meny hindus, across the class divides, sympathised, if
not directly supported the cause of the Hindu right. The arguments,
quarrels, shouting matches and silences revealed a schizophrenia as
memories and feelings of partition resurfaced, even though many were not
affected by it, to justify the need to take revenge against muslims.

We have witnessed the impact that Sikh and Muslim fundamentalism has had in
this country in such communities as Southall, Bradford and Tower Hamlets,
particularly in shaping male youth identity, many of who have turned to
religion as a result of legitimate disaffection with anti-racist and left/
progressive movements. But very little is said about Hindus who are
perceived to be a homogenous group that has achieved success through
economic success and high educational achievement, which in turn has led to
a high degree of assimilation within the host community. Any attempt to
understand the rise of religious fundamentalism within Asian communities,
however, requires a careful and complex analysis of the political
development of Asian communities, their history of migration and patterns
of settlement with reference not only to the political developments in the
Indian subcontinent but also in relation to multi-cultural politics by
which the British state relates to minority communities. Muslim, Sikh and
Hindu fundamentalism have charted a similar and yet different course
leading to different configurations of economic, social and political power
at local and national levels, and, to similar and dissimilar demands.

There are two important aspects which feed into the making of the Hindu
(political) identity in Britain, the first is to do with direct events in
India and secondly, liked to this, is the impact of the rise of Muslim
political identity among muslims in Britain.

In the UK, Hindu revivalism has been quietly gathering strength — a result
of the multicultural politics, a largely de-politicising and
anti-democratic, homogenising process with the effect of co)opting certain
layers of the community, usually business and religious institutions and
individuals into the state apparatus by giving them a voice as ’authentic’
representatives of their communities. In this way, more radical progressive
voices within the asian communities are isolated. Hindu communal forces in
the guise of cultural and religious organisations have often been well
represented and funded at local and national levels. Operating within a
social and cultural milieu rather than as overt political organisations,
Hindu right wing forces often control resouces and exert power over their
constituencies in particular localities. During the period of the
destruction of the Babri Masjid, many Hindu right wing groups/
organisations flourished, some becoming ’mouthpieces’ for the Hindu right,
whilst others lay claim to hard pressed resources to meet the needs of the
’new’ Hindu community.

Hindus have always organised along caste lines in this country. Divisions
in caste and class perhaps, more marked than in other Asian communities,
coupled with prejudice against Muslims has led to fragmentation amongst
Hindus. Until recently, these divisions at least at the political level,
were often submerged under more general Asian and Black identities that
prioritised sruggles against racism. The aftermath of the Rushdie affair
and the construction of a global Muslim identity and politics, has however,
led many Hindus to forge a unity in order to achieve some measure of
political power in Britain. The politics of multi-culturalism with its
tendency to construct Asians as religiously monolithic entities, have also
entrenched and perpetuated class and caste divisions, benefiting
fundamentalist projects in Asian communtities. Muti-culturalism has
therefore successfully avoided a challenge to the divisions of class, caste
and power. In many respects, British Hindus are following the example set
by Muslim communities, demanding an end to the so called discrimination of
Hindus. This demand was one of the sriving forces behind the attempts to
unify all British Hindus over the Watford (Bhaki Vedanta Manor) Temple
affair. The temple was for a long time run by white hindus and were largely
regarded by Asian Hindus, as an alien and ’inauthentic’ development. Now,
however, demonstrations and rallies around the temple are organised by
Asian Hindus, attracting thousands of Hindu men and women from around the
country, creating a timely opportunity for the display of a daring and
militant face of hinduism. Hindu leaders have cynically used the temple as
a way of asserting the new Hindu identity. The struggle to keep the temple
from closure has become a symbol of an ’unacceptable’ threat from the
British state to Hindu cultural and religious autonomy.

When the Babri Masjid was razed to the ground, Hindus in the country made a
number of important demands through numerous press releases. The most
important of these was the demand to be recognised as ’Hindus’ rather than
as Indians or even Asians? Interestingly, whilst ’applauding’ and
’celebrating’ the carnage that was perpetrated on Muslims in India, Hindus
asserted their ’respect’ for the law as British citizens in this country.
Hindus leaders were careful not to directly attack muslims here, instead
they referred to them as fundamentalists, so differentiating between
mythical notions of Hindus as essentially non-violent and western and
Hindu constructions of Muslims as unruly and fanatical. In the face of
Muslim (imagined) provocation in India, Hindus appealed for calm and for
the right to be protected presumably from Muslim retaliation, although this
was never clearly stated.

Yet the aggressive and intolerant face of Hindu fundamentalism was clearly
visible in their attempts to censor and ban plays and films that were
deemed to have caused ’offence’ to Hindu sentiments and religious beliefs.
For example, a play by the reknowned playright, Habib Tanveer was picketed
in Leicester. Leicester council was also lobbied (unsuccessfully) in order
to enforece a ban on its staging. In the case of the film ’Bhaji on the
beach’ predominantly Hindu men actually surrounded a cinema in Nottingham,
intimidating women as they attempted to get in. Many Gujerati newspapers
refused to carry articles that voiced criticism or opposition to the Hindu
right wing in India.

 Women and Hindu Fundamentalism

In their Hindu manifesto of sorts, contained in the press releases they put
out, Hindus also reiterated their committment to family values. In India
the impact of Hindu fundamentalism has been particularly devastating for
women, for example the revival of sati practices and the attempt to
universalise the Hindu personal laws are perceived to be integral to the
new Hindu identity. The VHP has been very vociferous in demanding that the
Hindu personal code should be applicable to all. The BJP, with its eye on
electoral power, on the other hand, has been more guarded arguing for a
Hindu code under the guise of a uniform civil code. Another frightening
manifestation of patriachal control was revealed when Hindu demonstrations
took place in the city of Ahmedabad against abortion. In fact it has been
vigorously promoted by the Indian state, over the years, with very little
opposition, as part and parcel of family planning programmes. In Ahmedabad
however, the demonstrators condemned abortion as acts of ’murder’. One can
only make sense of this demand in the context of the overriding need for
Hindu nationalism to encourage all Hindus to feel a sense of belonging to a
’dominant’ community or risk becoming an oppressed minority! The
anti-abortion demonstrations also condemned working women and advocated
that women should give up their jobs in favour of unemplyed men. Whilst, in
this country, Hindus have not been as vociferous in the demand around
abortion or to be governed by personal laws as have some muslims, their
manifesto reiterates a commitment to the rule of patriachal law. The law in
Britain, in relation to marriage, divorce and child custody matters, has
become a particularly fertile ground for fundamentalists of all hues. Much
of the day to day casework of Southall Black Sisters and other Asian
women’s groups bears witness to these developments - where the law and the
welfare system have become effective arenas in which fundamentalists and
orthodox leaders attempt to assert the precedence of religious and
traditional customs over rights and remedies laid down in civil family law.
If India heads towards a thorough implementation of personal family laws,
it is very likely that this will have significant impact on Asian women in
this country.

 Resistance

The part played by Asian women, across the South Asian religions, in
resisting Hindu fundamentalism in Britain has been vital, especially in
revealing interrelations between nationalism, fundamentalism and gender and
in expoding the myth that muslims are the only fundamentalists in Asian
communities. Women, have in particular, borne the brunt of the new found
Hindu militancy and intolerance, insofar as it has been utilised to
maintainthe patriachal family and to shield women from the ’corrupt’ and
’seculr’ influences of British society. There have been numerous
confrontations between Asian women, and anti-communalist forces, and Hindu
right wing supporters and leaders. One such confrontation took place
between Asian women from Southall Black Sisters and Brent Asian Women’s
refuge and the Kutch Leva samaj, a Hindu caste community, who had organised
a mela in north London in 1993. The mela attracted thousands of Hindus and
gave the appearance of being a cultural event, although it was presided
over by religious figures, including some who openly supported the Hindutva
movement. We decided to use the occasion to distribute leaflets advertising
a forthcoming anti-communal public meeting organised by another group in
which we were actively involved , the Alliance Against Communalism and for
Democracy in South Asia. The leaflets, appealed to all Hindus to uphold a
tolerant and humane vision of Hinduism espoused by the likes of Mahatma
Ghandi.

At the mela, we were met with a hostile and aggressive response. The
stewards, including some women, hurried dignitaries and visitors in without
giving them a chance to take a leaflet from us. Some stewards became
hysterical and apologetic at the contents of our leaflet, screaming and
lurching forward to assault us. Throughout, they hurled abuse at us,
calling us ’Muslim’ whores and bitches. They even threatened to rape us and
humiliate us by publicly stripping us naked. Boys as young as 11 also
mimicked the adults, threatening rape and making lewd gestures. Men and
boys alike, distinguished us from their ’wives, mothers and sisters’ to
justify their acts of sexual aggression towards those who did not belong to
them. (This logic does not apply when disciplining women within the
family). It is not without irony that their threats of rape and
humiliation were reminiscent of the actual act of rape and humiliation
suffered by Muslim women in Surat, India, by Hindu mobs who then videoed
the event and distibuted the tapes for public viewing.

Those members of the public who did take our leaflets, were made to return
them to the stewards at the gate. If they refused, stewards simply pulled
the leaflets out of their pockets and tore them up. Very few members of the
public protested in the wake of what they perceived to be ’justifiable’
control of ’trouble makers’ by the organisers, although a few did try. The
tearing up of our leaflets took on ritualistic dimensions as they delighted
in their displays of aggression. We were told that we were causing offence
to the public, although the public were not allowed to make up their own
minds. Eventually, the stewards called the police who duly arrived in a
special riot control van and threatened to arrest us for ’breach of
peace’! The police were themselves bemused by the confrontation but were
clearly intent on upholding the rights of the organisers. Our protests then
took on a two-fold struggle as we also battled with the police for failing
to arrest or even warn the stewards who tried to assault and threaten us.

Grographically and metaphorically, we were confined to he margins of the
events and by implication, the Hindu community, by being cast as
’outsiders’ and ’whores in the pay of Muslim fundamentalists’! But the most
insidious aspect of their behaviour was the fact that they became the
’thought police’ and ’gate keepers’ of the community, guarding against any
threat to their power and control over their constituency. No one was
permitted to question the fact that, almost quietly and stealthily, using
the pretext of a ’social’ occasion, Hindu religious leaders were moulding
their identities and destinies, from which escape would be at the cost of
banishment from their communities.

We came away bruised and angered by the experience but also with resolve to
fight the rise of Hindu fundamentalism here and to support progressive
secular forces in India. With the help of younger boys who were given the
task of looking after ’visitor’ cars, our last act of defiance was to place
our leaflet on the windscreen of every parked car in the compound. There
were hundreds of cars and we had a field day.

 Conclusion

For the first time in Britain, the destruction of the Babri Masjid, led to
an articulation of ’Hindu’ interests: Right wing religious and orthodox
forces have consolidated their hegemony of so called Hindu interests.
Intellectuals and cadres alike , are fostered, either to speak on behalf of
a very class and caste ridden community as if with one voice, or to train
fodder for the ongoing ’war’ against muslims. We are witness to a militant
and political Hindu identity in the making evident in the demonstrations
around the Watford temple, the now regular Hindu marathon, organised in the
North of England or, in the confident way in which social and religious
institutions in Asian communities are policed and controlled by leaders who
are desperate to hang onto their power and authority. It remains to be seen
how the new Hindu identity will develop in the wake of resistance against
religious control particularly by women within all Asian communities on the
one hand, and against right wing and racist developments in India and in
Europe.

Pragna Patel

Postscript

L K Advani, leader of the BJP, made a very successful visit to Britain in
the summer of 1995. A move designed to win favour and funds from the Hindu
Diaspora as the Indian general election looms large. He was given a warm
reception by Asian community leaders, businessmen and politicians such as
Piara Khabra. The latter invited him to the Houses of Parliament but
claimed not to have talked politics! L K Advani was also the chief guest,
along with the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, at the opening of the
biggest Hindu temple outside India, the Swaminarayan Mission is a highly
evangelical and affluent wing of the Hindu religion — sometimes regarded
as the ’groxth religion’ in this country. It purports not to be involved in
politics. The facts speak for themselves.

References

See ’Communalism: Its causes and conseauences’ Inqualibi

Communist Sangathana (a useful source for figures)

Ratna Kapur and Brenda Crossman ’Women and Hindutva’ in WAF No 5

Khaki Shorts Saffron Flags, Orient Longman, 1993