Ethnography of an HSC Chapter: "Western University"

In a comment here last year, Desi Italiana referred to an article in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography by sociologist Prema A. Kurien of Syracuse University. The article, "Being Young, Brown, and Hindu: The Identity Struggles of Second-Generation Indian Americans" (e-mail me for the full text) is an ethnography of a chapter of the Hindu Students Council (HSC) at an unnamed university in California.

I selected the HSC at Western University since it met regularly and was discussion oriented. I chose a chapter of the HSC rather than an independent campus organization both because the HSC was a national organization and because it was linked with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America. Some scholars have argued that many of the Hindu American youth who attended the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America’s youth camps or were part of the HSC were drawn to the organization in their search for “roots” and were unaware of its political agenda (Mathew and Prashad 2000; Mckean 1993; Rajagopal 2000). My goal was to see what Hinduism meant for the second generation and what if any influence the Hindutva movement had on them (pg. 443).

Kurien asked several of the students why they'd founded or joined an HSC chapter, and got responses like these (names made up):

Mukunda, a young man in the HSC who had come up to me after the first meeting to declare that “Hinduism is my passion,” stated that there was a need for a group like the HSC that emphasized pride in Hinduism.“ Many Indian Americans have an inferiority complex and are ashamed or scared to manifest a Hindu identity because they feel that there is a stigma associated with being Hindu. You know how in this society, Hinduism is associated with twelve armed gods and such.” Chandan, the graduate student from India, made a similar point, saying that in his opinion, “Non-Christians in the U.S. are forced to act and behave as if they are white Christians. Because that is the only way you can get accepted in the society here. These people, all their lives, have never had the opportunity to think in public, in school, that they are Hindus. So this is a terrific forum for the resurgence of Hindu pride in them. Now a lot of these people go out and say, hey, you know, I am Hindu. And you can do whatever you want to do about it. I don’t give a f***” (pg. 449).

Most students seemed to be attracted to HSC because of the alienation they felt growing up as members of a minority religion in a society dominated by whiteness and Judeo-Christian values and traditions, and the desire to learn more about Hinduism and their roots without the Judeo-Christian lens. Fair enough.

However, group discussions took on a political edge, and this created two factions within the organization.

Group A:

referred to variously as “hard core,” “extremist,” and “anti-Muslim,” or as “pro-Hindu,” and “pro-tradition,” depending on which side was characterizing it (pg. 450).

Group B:

described as “moderate,” “silent majority,” “we should all get along,” “wishy washy,” or “passive,” again, depending on whether the person describing the group was a sympathizer or opponent (pg. 450).

An example of a posting on their internet group from someone in Group A:

I think that it’s ridiculous how there are so many supporters of Islam and Christianity on the HSC forum, while on any of the Internet Islamic sites there are NO supporters of Hinduism or any other indigenous culture. I think that many of you self-hating Hindus should recognize that the other groups you want to emulate (white people, Christians, etc) often reject you! . . . I refuse to merely be a reject in the sociopolitical arena! Instead of hearing the true voice of your own pristine being, you listen to the tattered and homeless voice of the politically correct upper class academic establishment that sees you as a commercial commodity! Instead of listening to what your South Asian studies textbooks preach, why not listen to what your inner, primal being is SCREAMING at you! . . . All you Hindus wearing green [a color identified with Muslims], you betray your yellow belly, your whitewashed exterior, and your emptiness within! I refuse to any longer be a leader of Philistines. Is there anybody out there to join my hand and alongside me, accept the bounty of creativity, expression, art and poetry which is our culture (pg. 461)?

A response from someone in Group B:

I think you have *grossly* misunderstood some of us. We (or let’s say me) are not supporting Islam and Christianity. We are saying that Hinduism not only tolerates but acknowledges other religions and beliefs. Ravi, you are one of the people, who keeps showing up at the meetings with the banner which says, “God is one, sages call him by different names.” It is important to understand this subtle point. Christianity, Islam and many other religions may beat up on all other religions; however, that doesn’t mean we Hindus need to do the same with them. It is against the beliefs of Hinduism to not tolerate other religions. . . . An important part of our heritage and our people are Muslims and Christians. Some of our best music, culture, food, poets, writers, scientists, etc, etc. come from these religions. Despite whatever Hindu Nationalist groups may lead you to believe, India is no longer “Hindustan;” it is now Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Sikh-Jain-many Others-Stan (“stan” means place in Hindi) (pg. 461-2).

Kurien writes that most of the HSC chapters aren't as politicized as the one at Western University, but she did seem to find a positive correlation between political chapters and close ties with the national organization:

Certainly, not all or even most of the HSC chapters are as politicized or conflict ridden as the Western University HSC. The other HSC chapter that I studied was small, relatively cohesive, and strongly against involvement in politics. Judging from the Web sites, many other chapters also seemed to be apolitical, it appeared that how closely the particular Chapter was tied into the national organization (the second, apolitical chapter that I studied had hardly any connection with the latter). The independent Hindu student organization that I studied also steered clear of politics (as seemed to be the case with many other such campus specific organizations that I knew or heard about). Even within the Western University HSC, there was a diversity of opinions, and it was only a minority who were militantly Hindu-centric (pg. 465).

It's very easy for proponents of Hindutva to capitalize on the feelings of alienation and shame which Hindu youth face growing up in white, Judeo-Christian societies because the identity of the oppressed minority falls in line quite conveniently with the false construction of the oppressed majority upon which Hindutva history relies so heavily.

The rhetoric invariably goes something like this: India was all good back in the Golden Age, then the Muslims came and messed it up and oppressed us, then the British came and messed it up and oppressed us, and now it's high time that we downtrodden Hindus woke up and realized that the only way to save ourselves is to make India into a Hindu state! This can be found on the HSC website.

No one should have to feel ashamed or shy about their religion, but to look at this alienation/exclusion in a purely religious context is, I think, to miss the larger point: religion is just a part of the larger alienation and exclusion which brown people face in the US.

Dot-or-feather, Gandhi, Apu, Muslim, Indian, Paki, idol-worshipper, terrorist, etc. etc... these are terms which all of us face because of the way we look - our religion and national origin have nothing to do with how the dominant culture perceives us on a daily basis. So if one wants to join an organization with other people as a response to the alienation and exclusion one faces on a daily basis, why join a religious organization when members of other religions are facing the same problems?

There should, by all means, be Hindu student organizations for Hindu American students, but once these religious organizations take on political leanings, it's only a matter of time before they are appropriated into the Hindutva agenda.

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Comments

There are times when I think

There are times when I think that it's impossible to have religion be free of politics and politicization; most religions are a form of governance, whether they are regulating social relations, behavior, and habits. Social relations, behavior, and adherence to a certain set of rules are all tied to politics in various ways; some aspects/rules of each religion justify, validate, and perpetuate inequalities, tribalism, etc.

I'm hesitant to say that arguably, religion is inherently political/politicized, but...

One thing I left out of the

One thing I left out of the post was the way gender worked in the dynamics between Groups A and B. Group A consisted primarily of men, with one woman who tended to disagree with some of the things the men said, while the men all generally agreed and supported each other. Group B consisted primarily of women.

From what I understand from talking to people who've been to HSC national retreats, reading their programs, etc., the organizers and leaders tend to primarily be men in their early-mid 30s, while the participants are mostly college-aged women.

One thing that Kurien points

One thing that Kurien points out in this article is the notion and usage of "multiculturalism," and how it provides a place to nurture and foster these types of ideologies.

The article is a good read.

Dot-or-feather, Gandhi, Apu,

Dot-or-feather, Gandhi, Apu, Muslim, Indian, Paki, idol-worshipper, terrorist, etc. etc… these are terms which all of us face because of the way we look - our religion and national origin have nothing to do with how the dominant culture perceives us on a daily basis. So if one wants to join an organization with other people as a response to the alienation and exclusion one faces on a daily basis, why join a religious organization when members of other religions are facing the same problems?

There should, by all means, be Hindu student organizations for Hindu American students, but once these religious organizations take on political leanings, it’s only a matter of time before they are appropriated into the Hindutva agenda.

Some people are religious. They should have organizations (freedom to associate and whatnot).

While I see your point about an a priori benefit to religious organizations being apolitical, It's possible (though I'm not sure if I believe this) that the trouble lies not just in politicization but in the particular type of politicization. It's also arguable whether it's possible to truly be "apolitical." (again, another contentious discussion) on a community-wide level, particularly when the community is about a set of beliefs, ideologies, etc.

Otherwise, one could very well raise the argument that South Asian-American spaces ought not be politicized since there's frequently and perhaps inevitably a class bias to South Asian-American spaces.

(I would be more likely to make the latter point than the one you raised).

Here's a piece by Prema

Here's a piece by Prema Kurien which borrows heavily from the paper I've cited above:

Hindu Student Organizations

Nothing is free of politics,

Nothing is free of politics, least of all religion.

My point is that groups like the HSC are taking the "Hindu American" religious identity and explicitly politicizing it in a way that says Hindus all over the world are horribly oppressed and need to unite throw off their chains, and this is incredibly problematic.

Yes, it IS true that Hindu youth growing up in the US have a rough time reconciling their backgrounds and beliefs with an often unaccepting dominant culture, but this doesn't mean that all Hindus face the same problems.

Vivek: My point is that

Vivek:

My point is that groups like the HSC are taking the “Hindu American” religious identity and explicitly politicizing it in a way that says Hindus all over the world are horribly oppressed and need to unite throw off their chains, and this is incredibly problematic.

Yes, it IS true that Hindu youth growing up in the US have a rough time reconciling their backgrounds and beliefs with an often unaccepting dominant culture, but this doesn’t mean that all Hindus face the same problems.

Totally agree with you on both points.

Regarding point #1, check out more articles by "popular writers" on HSC websites. There is an article written by a British woman who writes about how we need to "unite" transnationally. I hope it is still there (I read it more than a year ago).

I still think it's weird to

I still think it's weird to hear the term "Hindu American." It would have never occured to me to identify myself as such. I find it curiously interesting, as I do when I hear the term "Muslim American," "Sikh American," etc.

Re: a "progressive" "Hindu American" polity/agenda, etc. I find this somewhat contradictory. I mean, "progressive" would imply (to me, at least) that you go beyond exclusivity and group politics, and religion often has the tendency to do the exact oppposite.

But then again, the same argument could be made for "progressive" "South Asian American" political movements/agendas as well. Like, someone could very well ask, "Why limit your solidarity and activities to only South Asian Americans instead of all Americans?" On the other hand, one could argue

1. Affiliation and mobilization with a certain ethnic and/or religious group does not preclude solidarity with others

2. "South Asian American" is a larger umbrella which involves people of various backgrounds (nationality, country of origin, religion, language, and so on) which can arguably be more inclusive than religious group politics.

**********

In Kurien's essay, what I got out of it was that race=religion in a couple of ways. One, because of racial antagonism that these kids faced, they used religion as a marker of pride and identity; and two, race and religion are conflated. Meaning, "Indian" means "Hindu" and the two are converged.

different, but not

different, but not contradictory: I would advocate against a "progressive" Hindu-American political identity as well: it's just as exclusive as a Hindutva-leaning Hindu-American political identity.

To spell it out, it's the question of race, not religion: brown Hindu youth growing up in the US have a rough time reconciling their backgrounds and beliefs with an often unaccepting dominant culture. So too do brown Muslim youth.

This has more, I would argue, with the fact that they are BROWN, and less to do with the fact that they are Hindu or Muslim (though of course these play a role as well).

So I'm asking why, if the point is to confront and overcome (or at the very least to react with confidence to) the dynamics between themselves and the dominant culture, should brown youth mobilize based on religious identity, when they could mobilize based on a more inclusive regional identity?

It's late, I've had an awful day, and I'm feeling impatient with my phrasing, so here:

When it comes to growing up brown in the US, in terms of how we are perceived by the dominant culture:

RACE > RELIGION

My point is that groups like

My point is that groups like the HSC are taking the “Hindu American” religious identity and explicitly politicizing it in a way that says Hindus all over the world are horribly oppressed and need to unite throw off their chains, and this is incredibly problematic.

Yes, it IS true that Hindu youth growing up in the US have a rough time reconciling their backgrounds and beliefs with an often unaccepting dominant culture, but this doesn’t mean that all Hindus face the same problems.

This is different than what you said above:

So if one wants to join an organization with other people as a response to the alienation and exclusion one faces on a daily basis, why join a religious organization when members of other religions are facing the same problems?

There should, by all means, be Hindu student organizations for Hindu American students, but once these religious organizations take on political leanings, it’s only a matter of time before they are appropriated into the Hindutva agenda.

Arguably, one could advocate a "progressive" Hindu-American identity as a response the way that South Asian-Americans advocate a "progressive" South Asian american identity. In other words, I think there's a bit of a double standard being applied, though, in terms of the bigger picture you're talking about, I might be inclined to agree with you.

But you could make the same

But you could make the same argument for the term “India” in the US.

I assume you mean Indian, and I'd argue that at, at one point (maybe not anymore), it was more descriptive than an aspirational term like South Asian.

Aspirations have been reached!!! Hurrah!!! But whose aspirations? ;)

Why do you say it’s an

Why do you say it’s an inherently classist space?

Sorry--speaking specifically in a U.S. context here and largely but not entirely from personal experience.

Well, terms shift in meaning over time, but, my understanding is that in the recent past, South Asian (or brown or desi vs. Indian) has been primarily promoted by activists and academics in the U.S. Many of the people I have met in these groups tend be either middle class or above in origin or upwardly mobile working class people, and there's little consultation of the working class or otherwise abused South Asian people about whether they identify as "South Asian."

They also can and are pushed into using the label to be selectively "minority" or "people of color," which inevitably results with them, who are closer to the top of the racial hierarchy in the U.S. than Black people and nonWhite Latinos, being put into what are probably a disproportionate number of positions of influence in places like the media than are those other groups. In other words, the racial hierarcy can use South Asians to reinforce itself and at the same time appear to be more benevolent than it is.

Now the term is extending to people who don't even have the minimal consciousness that activists and academics do, which is where the demographics of South Asians in the United States overall. People who described themselves as Indian in the United States have a very high median income by the 1990 census. While I don't know if wealthy or uppermiddle class Indians outnumber the rest of the people that might be called "South Asian", they make up a more sizable proportion of the South Asian population in the U.S. than they probably do anywhere else in the world, including in South Asia itself. There are also more wealthy people in the South Asian-American population than in many other ethnic populations, and since politics is racialized in the U.S., if they acted as a block, it would be for a higher-income set of priorities.

So my use of "inherently" was a little noxious, but a more specific way to say what I think would be: in the United States right now, given the social context of "South Asian" it often promotes classism. I think a solution is not necessarily that people should spend their mental energy trying to avoid it, because you can't just wish away a racial hierarchy, but that they should use it carefully, selectively, and, if at all possible, intersectionally.

There are probably other problems with it too, but in an American context, these are some of the ones that I can conjecture off the top of my head. I think the hegemony of Indians (as well as Hindi/Urdu-speakers, people from the north of the subcontinent, etc.) is less of a concern for me than the role it plays in terms of class in an American context. I also don't think it necessarily matters all that much whether you use South Asian or brown or desi if what you're describing (or imagining) is the same social space.

I still don’t buy the defense

I still don’t buy the defense of “South Asian” identity though. I think it’s an inherently classist space, but I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.

That's interesting. When I think of problems with the South Asian identity, I think of what kettikili so articulately stated here:

The making of “South Asia” within the sets of power relations I mentioned above– this is one of the reasons why I feel especially uncomfortable identifying with the term. We can all proclaim awareness of India’s hegemonic presence in the region, but that doesn’t change the fact that most uses of the term still collapse one nation-state within the region with a term that claims to represent the entire region. Not to mention that particular states within come to stand-in for the entire nation-state.

Why do you say it's an inherently classist space?

So in that sense, “India” is

So in that sense, “India” is just as aspirational as “South Asian”.

Yeah, I mean of course it's aspirational--it's a national identity. My point was simply that Indian, both as the term the racial hierarchy used as well as as a self-descriptor, was common in the 1980s and maybe through the 1990s in the United States, to the exclusion of much else in interactions between the racial hierarchy and "Indians."

Now there's the space for a little more variety (there are more people like us who might say -- I'm not Indian I'm x.), but Indian had/has? a lot of currency in an American society.

Baloo: While much is made of

Baloo:

While much is made of the location of desi youth within the U.S. and the pressures of racial/cultural identification, it is also important to recognize that the current push for Hindu exceptionalist identity has everything to do with the post-1990s rise of middle-class Indian nationalism and Hindutva, both invariably tied to the neoliberal turn.

The increasing buying power and an assertive consumerist turn within this section of the Indian population has shaped the discourse of Indian greatness, Hindu exceptionalism, superpower dreams (militarism), partnership within the imperialist club. This combined shift directly feeds into the increasing assertiveness along nationalist/Hindutva lines of the immigrant middle class as well. This is why it is hard for many middle class Indians of Hindu cultural background to take a strong stand against the sangh parivar - because the latter in some ways speak to their own dreams of an assertive identity politics.

I definately agree with you here that neo-liberal dreams and aspirations have definately played a part in the rise of and adherence to Hindutva politics in India. But while the most of the underlying currents speaks to the current global order, I think this type of analysis misses another mark: the contributions and activism of Partition refugees. In Maharashtra- which seems to be a hotbed of these type of virulent Hindu politics- a large number of the prime movers and shakers are Sindhi Hindu refugees, for whom direct or hereditary experiences of Partition have played a large role that I think needs to be observed more. So it's not only about capitalist, imperialist, and chauvenistic tones that color Hindutva politics; it has to also do with nationalism, nation states, and identities to some degree.

So in short, friends, especially those engaging critically with the HSC/VHPA/RSS coterie, recognize the Indian and transnational class politics underlying the rise of Hindu identity politics in the U.S. American multiculturalism and racialization is no doubt one aspect shaping this but whats going on in India is the motor force behind this change.

I would be careful to describe Hindutva politics in the US as a direct extension of Hindutva politics in India. When I read this paragraph above, what came to my mind instantly was the first generation. Certainly, they have in some ways transported that ideology from India to here. And according to Vinay Lal and Arvind Rajagopal, these people are middle class and upper middle class. Rajagopal wrote about his study that most of the RSS activists he met in the US were software engineers. But for the second generation? Few have direct and constant contact and exposure to India itself. They were born and raised here; and in this American configuration, they have to find a space; not in the Indian configuration.

What is key when we think about the second generation is what I boldfaced in your quote: US multiculturalism. If you go to the VHPA sites, you'll see that multiculturalism is touted. Same for the Hindu American Foundation. My friend's kids attend Bal Vihar classes, and there too US multiculturalism is the stage where Hinduism can be played out. My observations have led me to agree with Arvind Rajagopal who after his own study in his book "The Television of Politics," concluded that these Hindu organizations- for all of the influence of India based notions- practice a sort of "genteel US multiculturalism." At the same time, I'd argue that it's a genteel multiculturalism that allows the nourishment of an Indian American nationalism- one that argues that both India and America are "democracies," both India and the US are "multicultural societies," pride in being "Hindu American," save India from the threat of Muslims and Christians, help the plight of Kashmiri Hindus from Muslim fundamentalists, and India is poised to be a superpower equivalent to the US. But this multiculturalism is married with middle class status in the US.

In short, I do think that there are some underlying influences that come from India, particularly when the people who lead, set up, and run these organizations are first generation folks. But I also think that they too have had to mold their messages so as to make it palatable for kids that have been born and raised here, who need to somehow still be a part of this society and also feel that the Hindu politics they practice is tangible to their own experiences and environment.

So I’m asking why, if the

So I’m asking why, if the point is to confront and overcome (or at the very least to react with confidence to) the dynamics between themselves and the dominant culture, should brown youth mobilize based on religious identity, when they could mobilize based on a more inclusive regional identity?

This makes sense to me, given that I agree that American politics is still more racialized than it is sectarian on religious grounds. I think also I was conflating the use of religious ideas and, more, sentiments, to promote particular ends with actually organizing on the basis of religious identity.

I still don't buy the defense of "South Asian" identity though. I think it's an inherently classist space, but I'm willing to be convinced otherwise.

While much is made of the

While much is made of the location of desi youth within the U.S. and the pressures of racial/cultural identification, it is also important to recognize that the current push for Hindu exceptionalist identity has everything to do with the post-1990s rise of middle-class Indian nationalism and Hindutva, both invariably tied to the neoliberal turn. The increasing buying power and an assertive consumerist turn within this section of the Indian population has shaped the discourse of Indian greatness, Hindu exceptionalism, superpower dreams (militarism), partnership within the imperialist club. This combined shift directly feeds into the increasing assertiveness along nationalist/Hindutva lines of the immigrant middle class as well. This is why it is hard for many middle class Indians of Hindu cultural background to take a strong stand against the sangh parivar - because the latter in some ways speak to their own dreams of an assertive identity politics. So in short, friends, especially those engaging critically with the HSC/VHPA/RSS coterie, recognize the Indian and transnational class politics underlying the rise of Hindu identity politics in the U.S. American multiculturalism and racialization is no doubt one aspect shaping this but whats going on in India is the motor force behind this change. Note how Sangh interventions within the U.S. is always referring to India - and not to the immigrant experience, as the compass of its politics.

The making of “South Asia”

The making of “South Asia” within the sets of power relations I mentioned above– this is one of the reasons why I feel especially uncomfortable identifying with the term. We can all proclaim awareness of India’s hegemonic presence in the region, but that doesn’t change the fact that most uses of the term still collapse one nation-state within the region with a term that claims to represent the entire region. Not to mention that particular states within come to stand-in for the entire nation-state.

But you could make the same argument for the term "India" in the US. Look at what "Indian" food in the US is: Punjabi cuisine. Look at all of the "India" studies, which mostly heavily focuses on Punjabi, Bengali, and Tamil. Religion wise, "India" is mostly Hindu, Muslim and Sikh.

What I mean to say is that you can go on and on, unravelling all of the problems in identity labels as you go down the ladder.

I assume you mean Indian, and

I assume you mean Indian, and I’d argue that at, at one point (maybe not anymore), it was more descriptive than an aspirational term like South Asian.

I don't know about that... all terms claim to be descriptive, yet they are aspirational at the same time. Take for instance the term "Indian" which didn't arguably exist prior to the British Empire (though "Hindustani" probably did to some extent). And following "Independence", there was definately a contention about who was "Indian"- witness the creation of East (Bangladesh) and West Pakistan and India. Who was "Indian"? There are many competing definitions, of which the Hindutva interpretation is not the only one. Even now, isn't there a sense of who is and isn't "Indian"? Some claim that "Indian" is Hindu; some argue that "Indian" is actually north Indian, and that is why you have resistance from southern parties who at some point pushed for separation.

Furthermore, from my experience, most people first and foremost feel an affiliation that is regional and linguistic: a person sees him/herself as Gujarati/Bengali/Punjabi first, and then "Indian". Regional identities seem to play a huge part.

So in that sense, "India" is just as aspirational as "South Asian".

New Age peeps. Yoga

New Age peeps.
Yoga peeps.
Metaphysical peeps.

These are the people Hindus in America need to be mixing with if they want to feel "accepted".

Every city and every major town has dozens of such type centers. The market is flooded with dharma books and eastern this and that. Unless one is living in the middle of Utah or something, I don't see how people from a Hindu background, in this day and (new) age, are feeling left out or "otherized".

I think it's a matter of mingling. Google all the yoga and new age centers, book stores etc in your town and to to some meetings and make some friends.

Sheesh! It's not that hard.

I do it all the time and I'm a member of a really obscure minority Hindu cult.

[...] Hindu Students Council

[...] Hindu Students Council is Another Arm of Sangh Parivar Ethnography of an HSC Chapter: “Western University” Letter to a Young American Hindu, by Vijay Prashad Look, Ma, [...]

New Age peeps. Yoga

New Age peeps.
Yoga peeps.
Metaphysical peeps.

These are the people Hindus in America need to be mixing with if they want to feel “accepted”.

Oy.

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