Long Distance Sectarianism

In 1997 I spent a summer doing research in a camp conducted by the Rashtriya Sevika Samiti, the female counterpart to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a militant Hindu nationalist organization of Hindu men. This camp was conducted by the Samiti for its diasporic branch, the Hindu Sevika Samiti (Group of Hindu Women Volunteers), and was attended by HSS members from Germany, England, Burma, South Africa and Kenya. I was the only woman there from the U.S. Although I was in the camp as a researcher, I participated in all the activities just like the HSS members. My journal entries are a record of the power struggles between right-wing Hindu nationalism in India and the varying kinds of long-distance nationalism of Hindu diaspora communities.

July 27, 1997

Today we began a grueling eight-hour bus ride from Mumbai to Pune (the ride ordinarily does not take more than three hours). The bus ride provided a chance for all of us to become better acquainted with each other. I discovered how strongly those who attended the camp believed in RSS/HSS ideologies. As the bus ride became longer and longer and we all became more tired and irate, someone suggested that we sing songs to dissipate our boredom.

While I expected these songs to be western songs that would be known to all of us natives of England, Germany, the U.S. and urban South Africa, or even popular Hindi film songs, I found myself listening to thirty young women singing Hindu nationalist and religious songs. Most of the songs involved call and response and revolved around themes of Hindu unity and Hindu strength. The group sang with such unity and fervency that I felt compelled to join, though I was ideologically opposed to what its members were saying. To support their statements would be to support all the anti-Muslim rhetoric that the RSS and other fundamentalist organizations have espoused since their inception. These organizations claim that India has always been a unified Hindu nation that, though once great, has fallen due to repeated invasions: first by the Muslims, and then by the British. Hindu nationalists who worship India as Bharat Mata (Mother India), consider Muslims the enemy of this goddess. The Muslims had cut off her arms by creating Pakistan and Bangladesh. Hindu nationalists believe that India should be declared a Hindu nation and that Muslims should be allowed to remain in India only if they agree to be subordinate to the Hindu community. Riots between Hindus and Muslims have been occurring in India for years, but in the last two decades, tensions have heightened, particularly in Kashmir. The Muslim majority in Kashmir wishes to secede from India, while Hindus insist that Kashmir has been, and shall forever be part of India. These tensions have led the RSS to send large numbers of Hindu guerrillas to the region, and also led to the creation of a chant I

heard the women shout with great zeal after we stopped singing: "Kashmir kis ka hai? Kashmir hamara hai!" (Kashmir is whose? Kashmir is ours!).

While I had heard these ideas expressed by countless Indians native to India, I was surprised to find women my age expressing these same sentiments. Most of the women ranged in age from 12 to 26, though there was also an older group in their 40s. The younger women were like me in that they were at least second generation Indians. They were born and brought up in Western countries. Though I too had some sense that India is in some way a part of me, my feelings were certainly not strong enough for me to be militant about them. Even more astonishingly, the young women from South Africa were five and six generations removed from India. Their ancestors left the land so long ago; I could not understand what drew them to the camp. They sat there, all of them singing anti-Muslim songs. The pressure that I felt to join in was a result, perhaps, of the fact that I saw people glancing at my closed mouth with some disapproval. I feared that the bus ride only foreshadowed what my life would be for the next two and a half weeks.

When we finally arrived in Pune, our bus stopped at a hotel-like building. Over the gravel driveway hung an enormous banner that said "Swagatam," the Sanskrit/Hindi word for "Welcome," in Devanagari script. Underneath, in smaller type, was written "Ma ki pavan gode mein" (In the blessed lap of mother). This was the name of the camp, strongly emphasizing the idea that our presence in India was a return to a place to which we belonged, and which would accept us completely, as a mother did a child. Outside the building stood a number of women who greeted us with exceeding warmth. We were not permitted to carry our own luggage off the bus; rather, the women working at the camp took care of it for us. We were taken into a large hall where we would eat, sing, and exercise for the next two weeks. As we walked into the hall, we were greeted by two rows of women. We were directed to walk between the two rows, and as we did so, various women put tikkas (auspicious marks) on us, threw flower petals at our heads, worshipped us with a diya (auspicious flame), and then gave us each a flower to pin on to our kurtas and shirts. This warm reception carried contradictory messages. The title of the camp claimed that this trip to India was part of a return to the lap of our mother, to, in some sense, a natal home that we had left years ago. The reception however, resembled one that would be done for a woman entering her in-laws' house, a house that is not really her home, a house where she is often an outsider. It was also one that would be given to important visitors, but in all likelihood, not to a family member. Pinning flowers onto our blouses seemed to be a western touch slightly out of place in the middle of this very "traditional" Indian welcome.

July 28th

Morning activities on the first full day of camp, and everyday thereafter, began at 5 am. In small groups of twos and threes, we wandered in, sleep still in our eyes. Once the whistle blew however, all lethargy disappeared and we entered into a line formation, ready to begin Pratah Smaran and Shakha. Pratah Smaran are morning prayers and shakha are the exercises that are basic to RSS ideology. Apparently, they are done the same way, regardless of when and where they are done. Each woman, regardless of her nationality, knew exactly how to perform the prayers.

The whole experience was quite intimidating. We all (with the exception of me, because I am still learning) moved as if we were part of a larger organism. We moved in the same direction at the same time. We sat down together; we all sang the morning prayers in unison; we all rose together after prayers were done. This unity, however, eventually fell apart. When the agrasarika shouted "Dhwaj pranaam, ek dvi, tri" (salute the flag, one two, three), chaos ensued. The HSS women raised both hands and joined them, the RSS women raised their left hand to their chest, and some just looked around in confusion.

This early experience in shakha in many ways epitomized my experiences at the camp. Though it often seemed as though women in HSS and RSS were in complete agreement with one another, there were moments in which it became apparent that this appearance of continuity between the two organizations was a facade. The fact that women all over the world wake up early in the morning at least once a week to perform a series of military exercises and pay respects to a saffron flag, regardless of where they are, suggests that their physical locations are of little significance. Yet this vast sense of community disappeared during the salute to the flag.

After this initial confusion, camp trainers declared that the RSS salute was to be used. That evening and the next day, however, HSS members continued doing their own salute. Ultimately, the disorder was quelled when women from the RSS at the camp began doing the HSS salute. They had lost in the struggle with the Indian periphery; the diaspora would dictate the form of the salute.

July 30th

Geet Abhyas (song practice) is from 10:15 to 10:45. The songs are all in Sanskrit, so although they've been written in the last ten years, they have a sense of antiquity about them. The use of Sanskrit also suggests a shared ancient glorious past that transcends the differences between the RSS and the HSS. There is something very catchy about the songs and I find myself singing them in my head frequently. As I walked back from the main hall to our bedroom, I ran into someone humming the same song as me. She is a woman from Pune with whom I rarely speak, yet because we caught ourselves singing the same song, we smiled warmly at each other -- for that moment, we had a connection.

Ghosh practice, from 2:30 to 3:30, during which we practice marching instruments, is another instance in which music serves to unify us. This is one of the few times in the day when I am able to forget what an outsider I am, and when (I think) the others forget as well. We all just sit together and drum on the floor, hoping to get the rhythm right.

However, I have noticed that music cannot completely unify us, as seen when we sing the Samiti prayer. Looking around the room today as we sang, I noticed that not all of the trainers were singing all of the time. They seemed not to know the song, while the women from the HSS seemed completely confident in their knowledge of it. I asked Komal, one of the women from the U.K., about it, and she told me that since HSS and RSS are in two different places, the song changes according to the context. "It wouldn't make sense to sing about the Rashtra or Bharat in England. There are whole lines that are completely different."

As with the salute, the RSS members at the camp had begun using the HSS version. The fact that the RSS was willing to abandon its own salute and songs for those of the HSS suggests that the HSS is integral to the RSS understanding of the Indian Hindu national identity. It is because of this sense of unified identity that they can take the grievances of the HSS members and their alleged suffering at the hands of Muslims to heart.

August 1st

Charcha (discussion), one of the important events of the day, was fascinating today. It consisted of a discussion of the expectations HSS women had of the camp, and if any of these expectations had been met, or were likely not to be met. The whole session was highly complimentary. Madhavi, a member of the HSS, was the first to speak, "I was really surprised and happy to find beds and hot water. I thought we would have to sleep on the floor. The food is also tasty and not very spicy, I really like it."

Everyone else at the HSS who spoke expressed variations of the same theme. In response, the RSS trainers talked about how they realized we would have a hard time adjusting to an Indian life here, so they had gone out of their way to try and find a good comfortable place to hold the camp, a place with beds and semi-western style toilets. They also told us that they had arranged to have ice cream served on certain days and cold drinks on others.

I talked to Shevanti, one of the trainers, about this generosity. She mentioned that this would never happen in an Indian camp, because Indian women did not need such luxuries.

In Shevanti's eyes, we were receiving extravagant treatment. The British-Indian women also felt we were being treated extraordinarily well. Their opinions of this extravagance, however, were hugely different. The diaspora women had few expectations of India because they thought her a backward, corrupt country whose glory was in the past, but not in the present. For this reason, they considered beds an extravagance. Shevanti did not consider a bed itself extravagant, but she thought it extravagant for a camp for hardened, strong, militant women. She herself insisted on sleeping on the floor. She seemed to view the women who were attending the camp as weaker, in some ways, than the native inhabitants of India.

August 4th

Bauddhik (philosophical discourse) is everyday from 4 to 5:15 pm. Though I have been the only one bothered by the fascist ideas in the song krunvanto viswamaryan (let us make the world Aryan), I think a lot of people were bothered by bauddhik today. It was about Subhash Chandra Bose and the Indian struggle for independence. The speaker was arguing against histories that overplayed the role of Gandhi and the non-violent struggle in gaining independence. He instead chose to emphasize figures like Shivaji who, in the 1800s had begun armed protest against the British, Savarkar who "was not an ardent follower of non-violence," and Subhash Chandra Bose, who also engaged in armed struggle. Indeed, Bose had at one time, allied himself with Hitler and "was really trying for Indian independence ... unfortunately Hitler lost World War Two, and so we had to wait two more years for independence

Obviously, I was very disturbed when I heard this. As I walked out, Priya and I did our usual critical review of the session. The only problem is that she is not very critical. "I am sure he did not really mean that, Anita," she said when I told her that I found the comment a bit disturbing. "Nobody could want World War Two to end differently from the way it did." Others thankfully took issue with that statement, yet nobody really questioned the speaker. We all left dissatisfied, but not one of us had the courage to question the speaker.

August 5th

Today's bauddhik was almost as bad as the last one. We listened to the ways in which Hindutva is to be spread throughout the world. Essentially, India, or Bharat, is to be the base of operations, the mecca, of sorts, to which Hindus all over the world must turn as we spread Hinduism throughout the world. Bharat has been invested by destiny to give the world this thought of world peace. In a war, there is a base of operations that makes things happen. The firmness of this camp is directly related to how well this is carried out. The first goal is to secure Bharat as a Hindu rashtra. Then, we must point out to other communities the error of their ways and ensure that all people of Indian origin remain Hindu. The Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions all believe that they practice the only correct ways of reaching god. We must teach them the incorrectness of this and show them the tolerance and acceptance that makes Hinduism great. Hinduism believes that all religions can lead to god. They must see this, and we must show them.

At this point, somebody (I'm not sure who), let out a chuckle. This lecture was seeking to make us all Hindu missionaries. I had never thought of India as an imperialist nation, but the RSS was certainly making her one. As women growing up in the west, knowing that our ancestors had lived in a colonized space, and knowing that we also had been colonized in our places of origin, the idea of going forth and colonizing others was purely unfathomable.

As we left bauddhik hall to do our swayamshakha (personal exercises), I heard a number of displeased comments. Madhavi said to me, "this is Hinduism without boundaries. It is not accepting or tolerant. This isn't like what we teach back home."

While the RSS agenda is inextricably linked to the issues of the political structure in India, the HSS is more concerned with their problems as Indians living in non-Indian communities. To that extent, they are not as comfortable as the RSS with the ideology of Hindu imperialism. The unwillingness of the HSS women to worship Bharat Mata is highly significant and reflected one of the deepest divisions in the camp; it's no coincidence that this division was based on the issue of territory. Most of the HSS women said they felt "a really strong emphasis on the Rashtra, an emphasis you just don't find" in HSS camps abroad. A woman from South Africa said, "They make you feel like a bad Hindu if you don't feel a kinship to India." Others made statements that were less strong, but certainly very telling. One of the four women from the U.K. with whom I spoke at length said she "respected Bharat for being the land on which Hinduism developed... but felt no connection to modern India." "I'm actually quite disgusted with it," said a twenty-one year old from the U.K.

August 8th

After dinner at 9, we have another discussion group. During this time, we often play games that involve group quizzes on the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Sometimes, we are put in a dark room with a candle and have to repeat Sanskrit chants that nobody understands. Today, we had a discussion, a discussion I found hugely disturbing.

During the discussion, I found myself listening to RSS and HSS members tell each other stories of conversion. Pramilatai started by speaking about Kashmir and the active role played by the RSS in the region. "Muslims are uneducated and excessively lustful, and their population has proliferated at a higher rate than Hindus. Their high numbers in Kashmir are driving Hindus away in fear of their lives, while evil Muslim men are convincing Hindu women to marry them, and kidnapping them when the women refuse. Members of the RSS are taking them back and marrying them to good swayamsevaks who are willing to accept these women." Pramilatai implied that this acceptance was a huge sacrifice, because these women were generally defiled (no longer virgins). They were also engaged in settling Hindu families in Kashmir to match the number of Muslims. She then asked about any parallel incidents occurring abroad.

Discussion had never been so animated. I heard story after story of the conversion of Hindu college women. One woman stated, "I know of mosques in England that pay Muslim boys to marry our Hindu girls. The two get married and the boy will get her pregnant and then leave her and marry someone else. She won't be accepted in a Hindu family any more, and so, she remains converted, and so does the child. That is how their numbers go up. These boys get paid about 50 pounds."

Another stated, " A really good friend of mine was dating a Muslim boy. They were very serious and he convinced her to convert. She got pregnant, and he left her. She has nowhere to go, and no Hindu community will accept her."

There was an anger and a passion in the room that I had not seen yet at the camp, and that never occurred again. Each woman seemed more moved and more angered at each story she heard. Pramilatai tried to corral this anger and use it productively. After we had heard such stories for 20 or 30 minutes, she said shaking her head, "It is terrible that such things are happening to our community, but what can we do? How should we help our girls?"

The group returned to a theme that has been very prominent -- making the 21st century the Hindu century. "We have to educate our girls. We need to make sure that they are confident in their identities." A number of women suggested distributing pamphlets on Hinduism so that these women knew who they were, holding Hindu functions to which they would come etc.

The next voice that spoke out offered a different solution. "But you know, it is not just in the hands of our girls. We have to make Hindu boys understand that they should marry Hindu girls. We have to make sure they protect us from Muslim men. They have to confront Muslim men and protect us from them."

After this discussion had ended at 10 pm, we all sang Vande Mataram. The feelings of anger were still there, but Pramilatai had been extraordinarily successful in channeling the energy. These women appeared to feel that they now had the appropriate tools to deal with the Muslim encroachment. We sang Vande Mataram as if it were a prayer, in soft, solemn, hymn-like tones, hands clasped, eyes closed. (Were we praying to Bharat Mata, perhaps? The anthem has become a prayer). We then adjourned for the night.

The bonds that were created in that one night were rarely, if ever, recreated at any other points during the camp. While both organizations rely on the same assumptions about Muslims, and feel the need to cross national boundaries and create a "Hindu nation" of sorts, their members ultimately remain confined by issues specific to their territorial location.


Well, this is a problem that has confronted the government a long time already. Resolution to this issue has not yet been reached. - James Stuckey

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