Volume 5: Number 2, July 21 2002.
Organizing against Extremism: Finding an Idiom
by Ashwini Tambe and Aparna Devare
Desis in DC do not have a reputation for progressive activism. There are approximately 100,000 Asian Indians in the metro DC area according to the census, and many belong to numerous regional and professional groups. However, the dry official air of the city seems to pervade their organizing activities, with events often centered around the latest visiting Indian dignitary, and a premium placed on maintaining good relations with the Indian embassy. The spring of 2002, however, has seen many surprises for anyone looking for a new face of South Asian politics in the DC area. This is a report of recent organizing efforts against religious fundamentalism, and a discussion of some of the questions that have arisen around coalition-building on this issue.
When news stories from Gujarat first hit our screens in late February, we had just finished organizing a screening of Anand Patwardhan's film 'Jung aur Aman' (War and Peace). Unlike some other Patwardhan film shows which have been sabotaged by vitriolic Hindutvavadis, the DC event had a highly sympathetic audience, and provided an opportunity for us to connect with each other. The email addresses exchanged helped mobilize an immediate response four days later, as the horror of state ministers condoning killings and police inaction unfolded. About seven of us, from organizations such as FOIL (Forum of Indian Leftists), ASHA for Education-DC, and AID (Association for India's Development) met, finalized a date for a peace rally and a meeting with the ambassador, made posters and agreed on the text of a petition. We mobilized every media outlet at our means, including local desi newspapers; publicized the petition on the internet; and distributed flyers at public events, including desi film screenings. Three days later, the petition denouncing the state's complicity and inaction had been signed by 600 signatories.
Our meeting with the Indian Ambassador to present the petition had many predictable and some ludicrous moments. We set the tone with our opening demands for President's rule in Gujarat, prosecution of all perpetrators of violence, and equal compensation for all victims of violence. In response, we found ourselves being asked to "look at the bright side" and "take pride in the fact that the violence had been contained within a few days and had not spread to other parts of the country." The ambassador made the standard complaint of media bias in covering the violence, and, not surprisingly, did not acknowledge the state's culpability. A bafflingly callous aspect of his response was his repeated hope that we "move on," and "put this incident behind us." Perhaps the most disappointing feature of events in Gujarat is the utter capitulation of civil servants (the few notable exceptions notwithstanding) to Hindutva forces and we were witness to the foreign service face of this phenomenon.
Our rally outside the Embassy, however, was heart-lifting. For a weekday 5pm event in downtown DC, the turnout was astonishing. Some braved the rush hour traffic to come in from Baltimore. Nearly 150 people--of a range of faiths, communities and professions--walked with placards and chanted slogans and songs. Most signs were for peace and religious harmony, but a few were notably pointed, calling for a freezing of VHP-A assets and banning the RSS. Mahatma Gandhi's statue across from the embassy resonated in multiple ways with those who had gathered, and the rally ended with a candle light vigil for victims of violence. Some individuals and members of groups such as ASHA for Education and the Hyderabadi Association also undertook relay fasts that week by the Gandhi statue, calling for an end to the violence. A candlelight vigil was held to break the week-long fasts at the same venue. Several newspaper reports (Deccan Herald, India Abroad, Washington Post) spread word of this unexpected face of NRI politics in the USA.
The success of the rally has prompted the establishing of a DC collective to deal with issues of concern in South Asia. We have held three meetings, with the objective of creating a loose and broad-based coalition of groups such as FOIL, AID, AAA (Aligarh Alumni Association), Association of Indian Muslims of America, ASHA for Education, and concerned individuals. The aim is to support each other's activities in the DC area, as well as to work on a few specific combined activities such as fund-raising for Gujarat victims and tracking civil liberties violations. The network of groups and individuals will cross-publicize efforts on themes such as fundamentalism, liberalization, and nuclearization in South Asia.
Coalition-building inevitably has its points of friction. An initial one in this case was about whether to explicitly target the VHP-A in our chants and petition. One person who had seen his students physically assaulted by the VHP-A at a Ram ke Naam screening a few years ago felt strongly that framing the event in broadly non-violent terms--as a peace rally--would be strategically preferable to making it an anti-VHP demonstration. This view had its merits; our large turnout was probably attributable to the rally's positive message. Nevertheless, our decision also underscores the widespread perception of the threat posed by VHP-A forces in the DC area. In effect, they already forestall efforts at dissent.
A major troubling question is the role of a religious idiom in such organizing efforts. The night before the rally, FOILers had made the request that we not sing bhajans such as Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram among our group chants. There were some from other organizations on the day of the rally who disagreed and felt that this position displayed the problem with 'standard secularism': an inability to formulate an idiom which accomodated religion. While this problem may be very real, the particular bhajan in question is symbolic of a wider problem: the easy dominance of Hindu idioms. The bhajan is exclusively Hindu in form, complimenting itself by extending the 'generous' gesture of referring to Islam. Although those involved in anti-communalism efforts often turn to the appeal of syncretic religious traditions, the question should still be posed, which religious idiom prevails? In the name of 'bringing religion back in,' it is often Hinduism alone which is uncritically assumed to provide an effective framing discourse. The discussion of this question continues in our coalition: while we agree that an idiom which does not alienate believers and celebrates religious appeals to ethical behavior would be a good thing, we disagree over whether such an idiom is already available to us.
Several anti-communalism efforts possess a very romantic notion of Hinduism in their condemnation of violence. Many have responded to events in Gujarat with claims that Hinduism is an inherently non-violent religion, and that what the Bajrang Dal and VHP goondas did is not 'Hindu,' and that they should be ashamed to call themselves Hindu. Such sentiments imply, untenably, that no Hindu texts condone violence. While it is important to critique crimes done in the name of Hinduism, the question should also be posed, why is it so difficult to conceive of intolerance as arising from within Hinduism? And, as a corollary, why is it so easy to shrug off the perpetrators of the Godhra train killings? Are we implying that such violence is, as the stereotype goes, 'expected from Muslims'? Coalitions such as ours need to guard against self-referential exercises in rescuing the reputation of Hinduism and reinforcing stereotypes about Muslims. In terms of agendas, an exclusive focus on activism countering the VHP of America can also run the danger of becoming self-referential. As Mohammad Thahir from the Association of Indian Muslims pointed out in our first meeting, "we need to address religious extremism from all groups in South Asia and not just one religion. By focusing on one particular group, the objective of our activism will be questioned." By focusing on Hindu fundamentalists alone, the activism remains all about Hindus.
Given the difficulty of resolving this question of idioms and representations of religion, the compromise that anti-fundamentalism efforts often turn to is a shared nationalist discourse. But the 'safe' idiom of 'patriotic nationalism' can be disturbing from our feminist, leftist, and post-colonial perspectives. The several calls to 'restore national unity' after Gujarat, are not equipped, for instance, to critique the Indian government's position that the carnage is an 'internal affair,' since their own object is saving the country's reputation. Nor can nationalist tacks even begin to apprehend the horrific crimes against women in Gujarat, when they are themselves couched in the fulsome language of honor and shame. Besides, many expressions of patriotism have become indistinguishable from Hindutva discourse--for instance the phrase 'Jai Hind'--and are, we believe, unnecessary to reclaim. Furthermore, coalitions such as ours in the United States are neither Indian nor exclusively of Indian origin and the idiom of patriotism simply becomes exclusionary. Without decentering Hindu idioms and Indian nationalism, we will remain only nominally, not genuinely, a South Asian group.
The dilemmas of coalition-building discussed here are not confined to the issue of Gujarat. Activism surrounding the Palestinian question provides some parallels. When a group of Israeli reservists who refuse to serve in the IDF presented their moving justifications recently at a Georgetown University panel, there was a tremendous sense of goodwill among the many Arab audience members. Nonetheless, onlookers could have still left the event with the lingering sense that it was more the beleaguered reputations of Judaism and Israel which were the main concern of the panelists, and less the situation of Palestinians. The alienating effect of religious idioms was also on display at the April 20 Washington D.C. rally for Palestine. A 75,000 strong crowd marched to the Capitol, comprising very diverse contingents. Pockets of protesters used the chant 'Allah-o- Akbar,' troubling the hundreds of non-believers by reducing the Palestinian question to one of religious conflict. Most disturbing were banners that equated the star of David with the swastika, held by several protesters even against the urging of the organizers. Many of us (we marched as a South Asian coalition for peace and justice) protesting next to such groups felt uncomfortable but unable to prevent the exclusionary religious chants and inflammatory symbols.
It is clear that there is an enormous reserve of energy among desi progressives, and much can be gained from building links between groups on the topic of religious fundamentalism. However, there are large challenges ahead in coalition building: avoiding a majoritarian Hindu idiom and an uncritical nationalism, and scrutinizing closely the available language of 'harmony.'
[Ashwini lives in DC and teaches in Georgetown University. Aparna studies at American University, and is currently in Pune, 'enjoying' her fieldwork.]