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Foreign Direct Investment In Hatred

By Kalpana Wilson

The Hindu
26 July, 2003

On a bitterly cold and rapidly darkening evening in central London, a crowd has gathered for a candlelight vigil to "Remember Gujarat". The banners and placards of the protestors, mainly Indians from different communities, read "2,000 murdered ... 200,000 dispossessed, still no justice! And "Gujarat genocide — never again". But the vigil, which is taking place outside the head offices of Britain's Charity Commission, the body which monitors the activities of all registered charities in this country, is also demanding action against the pro-Hindutva organisations whose fund-raising activities in the United Kingdom finance the "foreign direct investment" in communal hatred. Because, ironically, it is the Sangh Parivar, with its constant evocation of a (fabricated) Indian "tradition", which constitutes the most globalised political force India has yet seen. Today, the Sangh Parivar has come to rely on the moral — and more importantly, material — support of the Indian diaspora which, as has been well-documented, runs into millions of dollars.

Some of the most direct routes by which donations in Britain reach the hands of killer gangs in Gujarat were exposed on a Channel 4 News Report broadcast here on December 12, 2002. The programme revealed how one organisation funded by British charity Sewa International — the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram in Gujarat — is directly implicated in the February-March 2002 pogrom. Forensic evidence implicates a leading member, currently absconding, as "leading a mob of 2,000 tribal people" in an attack on Muslim minorities.

The programme also reported that a Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram leader "threatened the villagers saying that if they didn't join in provoking the Muslims and burning them, they would also be treated like Muslims and burnt", while another activist told the reporter: "the Christians have made a church in our village. We have thought several times of destroying it. One day we will definitely break it down". But while the British Charity Commissioners have been investigating the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's (RSS) international wing, the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh or HSS (a registered charity in Britain and the founders of Sewa International), since last September, there are little signs of action. The commissioners privately admit that nothing will be done to stem the flow of funds without the go-ahead of the Foreign Office.

So where does this money come from? While the Gujarat earthquake provided an opportunity for Sewa International and other Sangh Parivar groups to fundraise on a massive scale from the general public, (with Sewa International winning the praise of Prince Charles and other prominent figures), the major long-term source of funding is Britain's Gujarati communities. Many people, particularly women, are unwittingly, drawn into the Sangh Parivar networks through the latter's "social work" activities, and via temples. But the Sangh Parivar has also succeeded in putting down strong ideological roots in these communities in Britain.

In contrast to the situation in the United States, Gujaratis in Britain are still predominantly working class or petty bourgeois. In the 1970s, factory workers from these communities, particularly women workers, waged some of the most militant industrial actions including the well-known Grunwick's strike led by Jayaben Desai, in the process forcing the racist trade union establishment to take up the demands of Asian and other black workers. However in the 1990s, with most such factories closed down, and many Gujaratis entering family-run small businesses (mainly shops), the Sangh Parivar has established a strong presence, channelising experiences of racism and alienation into virulent Hindu chauvinism.

The fact that Gujarati Hindu communities are dominated by those who migrated to Britain from East Africa has also been an important factor in this process. First, this community's role as "middlemen" under British colonial rule in East Africa gave it a particular susceptibility to fascist ideology. At the same time, there is a strong sense of Gujarati pride — and Gujarat is invariably conflated with India (in fact, in Britain, Indian has become synonymous with Gujarati in many areas). Second, the community has from the outset been organised along caste lines, with migration to Britain itself taking place through caste linkages. There is, therefore, an established pattern of people in Britain donating money to be sent back to Gujarat for welfare purposes, via caste associations. But during the last decade, the Sangh Parivar groups have usefully incorporated many of these caste organisations into their own networks and effectively taken control of this flow of funds.

The ideas of Hindutva have also slotted in comfortably with the repackaging of Indian culture for NRIs as something globalised and "modern" in terms of consumption patterns, and "traditional", patriarchal and implicitly communal in terms of values. Bollywood hits like "Hum Aapke Hain Kaun" and "Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham'' not only epitomise this repackaging and commoditisation of culture, but are also notable for their targeting of British and North American NRIs as both subject matter — whose perceived lifestyles are glamourised and simultaneously ridiculed — and an important potential audience. And when British Asian primary school girls in West London are taught dance routines from "Kabhi Khushi Gham" in school as an example of Indian culture (and in the name of multicultural education), this process appears to have come full circle.

But the British State's multicultural policies have also played a more direct role in the rise of the Sangh Parivar in this country. A number of Sangh Parivar organisations across the country receive large grants from local government, ostensibly for their "community work" activities. The funding of pro-Hindutva groups by the government is a direct result of New Labour's approach towards "ethnic minorities". This has its roots in the attempts of the British state to undermine the anti-racist struggles of its black population which began in the 1970s — State funding for community organisations was used to successively divide these communities firstly between those of Asian and African-Caribbean origin, then according to linguistic group (Punjabi, Gujarati, Bengali, etc) and finally, since the late 1990s, according to religion or what New Labour terms "faith communities". This promotion by the British government of the notion of "faith communities" has strengthened a variety of right-wing religious forces, giving them legitimacy as self-styled "community leaders". In the case of Hindutva, it has meant that by setting up local groups, claiming to represent Hindu "faith communities", the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and HSS have direct access to British government funding for their activities.

At the same time, since the end of the 1980s we have seen Islam come to be identified as the primary enemy of the U.S. and its allies. The demonisation of Islam in the discourse of America's global strategy fed into existing images of "ethnic minority communities" in Britain to generate a specifically anti-Muslim racism, promoted and intensified by the state and the media. Key events in this process were the Rushdie Affair, and the Gulf War in 1991. The construction of the "Muslim" as fanatical, fundamentalist, violent, and, crucially, owing allegiance to political forces external — and hostile — to Europe has thus come to the forefront of racist imagery. Today state racism and its anti-Muslim aspect have gained new legitimacy in the context of September 11 and the "war on terror".

One effect of this is to further deepen the divisions among South Asian communities, as the discourses of the state, the media and the Sangh Parivar "community leaders" intersect. In Bradford for example, where Asian youth, mainly of Pakistani and Kashmiri origin, fought pitched battles with the police in riots caused by years of poverty, unemployment and racism, a recognised "leader" of the "Hindu community", Hasmukh Shah, is also a VHP leader. Early on, Shah attempted to project the disturbances as having a communal character, while he later actually aligned himself with the white supremacist British National Party.

On a day-to-day level too, communal divisions have intensified. As ever, these divisions are sought to be reinforced by controlling and policing the behaviour of women. A group of Indian schoolgirls in North London explained that their fathers' rule about boys they associated with, was "No BMWs — No blacks, Muslims or Whites — but a Muslim would probably be the worst". Meanwhile, Indian boys in their (state) school attended HSS shakha meeting which were held regularly and rent-free in the school premises. As in India, the Sangh Parivar's youth organisations, which include a network of student groups, the National Hindu Students Federation, have focused on "protecting" Hindu women from relationships with Muslim men.

South Asian women's groups in Britain have always organised along secular lines bringing together women from different communities in campaigns against violence and oppression in the home, the community and in wider British society. Today more than ever, their struggles against patriarchy involve confronting communalism within their own communities. This year's International Women's Day on March 8 saw the first national South Asian women's conference to be held in Britain. Along with domestic violence, State racism and the impending war, the participants discussed ways forward in an ongoing battle against communalism — including an increasingly globalised Hindutva.

Kalpana Wilson is a research fellow in the Department of Development Studies at SOAS, University of London.