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[“Here is an opinion piece on the current state of Indians in NZ and the role of government/bodies. I know this is going to unleash a lot of debate, and rightly so. If anyone has any comments I would prefer they be made in the public arena since I have chosen to comment very publicly. I will not entertain and respond to arguments in private. I know some of you have a tendency to do that.” — Dr Sapna Samant]

[Dr Sapna Samant is originally from Bombay and now works in the field of print and audio-visual media in New Zealand. ]

The State of India in New Zealand

Saffron flags emblazoned with Aum fluttered in the afternoon sunlight as I made my way towards the venue of 1st Hindu Conference in New Zealand on 12 May. The alarm bells in my head rang loud and clear. This was fundamentalist territory. The Hindu Conference was organised by The Hindu Council. A sophisticated arm of the Hindu extremist parties like the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad). Its cousins being the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and the militant Bajrang Dal. The alarm bells had triggered off ever since I got the press release that invited participants and said that this was not a religious or philosophical conference. Delegates would be vetted and allowed only if they had any contributions to make (read no troublemakers).

Of course I registered. I wanted to know what these Hindu fundamentalists were doing in New Zealand; whether they were still pursuing their divisive agenda and distorting the picture of the Indian community. Now, let me make it clear that I do not have an issue with their form of worship or interpretation of Hinduism. In my democratic world people can practice any religion they want. What bothered me was the tone of the press release and the theme. The contribution of Hindu community to the national life of New Zealand“. I was afraid of misrepresentation and misappropriation of the stories of the Indian community to the mainstream as if ‘other’ Indians are not really Indian.

Hindu fundamentalists have two classic strategies for propagating their agenda. The first is to sway the masses with thunderous oratory of unsubstantiated statements. The second is insidious and more dangerous-to obfuscate facts, appropriate anything of value in pre-Islamic India as ‘Hindu’, obliterate human complexities and the plurality of Indians and project a homogenous, Hindu, pan-Indian.

So the alarm bells became louder as I went in and got my delegate pack. I had missed the morning session because of some work. The prime minister had come and gone. Apparently she had given an excellent speech in which she used the word Indian only once. The rest of time she called the organisers and delegates Hindu. The workshops were almost over. I sat at the back listening to a round up of the day’s events. Most of the men and women had a saffron scarf around the neck. The glorious Ganga flowed on a picture in the background. It was all about the greatness of Hinduism. Then came the Bharatiya (Hindu) sports. A ragtag bunch of unfit boys shouting Vande Mataram and Har Har Mahadev (both slogans appropriated and misused by the fundamentalists) and playing some games that, any boys anywhere might have played before Playstation and Xbox invaded.

The next day, 13 May, was even more interesting. Apart from the academics and organisations like NZ Police, CYF and OEA who spoke to the point, the rest of it was Hindu patriarchs and saffron robed swamis blubbering on about Hinduism, Hindu philosophy, Hindu temples, Hindu sports, Hindu business and more. ‘Garv Se Kaho Hum Hindu Hai’ one moderator proclaimed-the cry of the militant Hindus who marched towards the Babri Masjid and demolished it. Not a religious seminar eh? Then there were statements like ‘Women were treated well in India before Islam came there’; ‘I will not talk about the troublesome period of Islam in India’; ‘Sania Mirza (Indian ‘Muslim’ tennis player) is more popular because she wears shabby clothes’? What does Hinduism have anything to do with sports and business? Aren’t the qualities required to excel in both universal? Not according to the Hindutva brigade. It has more to do with being ‘Hindu’. People tried to ask questions which was actively discouraged. Topics like dowry, domestic violence, the polluted Ganga were expertly swept aside. Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, the world is one family, the Hindutva brigade stated but there was no place for non-Hindu Indians. I will not even go into the caste issues.

Of course I stirred the pot a bit-just a bit. Enough for a saffron clad swami to ask me why I hated Hindus. Aapko Hinduon se ghrina kyo hai? As a rule I never invoke my religion. I don’t need to. I am comfortable with my religion and unshakeable in my faith. It is my faith that gives me the strength to ask questions. My faith teaches me truth, integrity and to fight for justice. My religion teaches me to be flexible, fluid and inclusive; that the divinity is inside of me and everyone else. My religion teaches me universal love not hatred. So inko sawaalon se ghrina hai, dar hai-it is these people who hate and fear questions. Just because there are people out there who do not follow ‘the Hindu way’ as prescribed by these right-wing pseudo gurus and patriarchs. There is no prescribed ‘Hindu way’. From atheism to pantheism, from materialism to altruism it is all accepted. But that is not what the saffronites preach.

It is a pity. In the sixtieth anniversary of India’s independence when the Western world had not given her democracy one chance in hell she has lived through external and internal problems. Multiethnic, multilingual and multicultural India can lead the world in understanding pluralism and tolerance. Instead these Hindu fundamentalists constantly hark back to a mythical golden land and with their blinkered view are stuck in a 5000-year-old time zone. How does that help with living in present day New Zealand? When concepts like national identity and national life are problematic in themselves and require critical discussion, projections of a singular Hindu Indian identity in New Zealand is harmful to the Indian and mainstream community. It does not help with creating intercultural spaces and harmony nor does it assist policy-makers and government officials in any way. And politicians either don’t seem to understand or prefer to fudge contexts. Sir Barry Curtis called Manukau City the ‘Hindu capital of New Zealand’ at the opening ceremony. What did he mean by that? Did the Prime Minister mix up the ‘Hindoos’, the old Indian immigrants with the fundamentalist Hindus or was it deliberate to please Labour constituents? No wonder the stereotypes keep perpetuating.

Then there is the Asia:NZ Foundation which was, surprisingly, a silver sponsor for this conference. I emailed Charles Mabbett, their media advisor to find out more. I asked him:

  • Can you tell me how much money Asia:NZ gave towards this conference and under which funding category was it given?
  • Were you aware of the Hindu religious fundamentalist roots of the organisers or the propaganda they do?
  • Why was there no Asia:NZ representative at the seminar as you would have one, say at the Banana conferences and similar events considering that this was being touted as a major programme for the ‘Indian’ community?

He did not reply for two days so I phoned him. He said I should ask Jennifer King (who is on leave until 5 June) because she gave the money and in any case he was too busy with other things before he left for China! I am just articulating what the larger South Asian community feels-Asia:NZ Foundation is China-biased. There is only lip service towards India and the Indian community here (and South Asia). That names like Hindu Council and Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh did not turn up the red alert is proof enough of the lack of knowledge about and engagement with India; that there was no one to attend the conference shows their interest and that Charles Mabbett did not see the need for damage control thinking I am merely a pesky member of the general public says a lot too. After all what can I do?

And finally there is the lack of leadership within the Indian community. None of those pompous patriarchs going on with their theoretical blah and how the youth are going astray paused to think that the youth might have an opinion and should be given space to express it. There was no thought to capacity building only how to attract youth to religious practice through sports and such. Indians are a diverse lot and a hard group to bring together but someone has to take charge. If there is no one to make hard decisions amongst the elders; no one to lobby for the greater good of the community without feeling too important, no one to stop others from twisting the long history of Indians in New Zealand and no one to talk to the youth then the Indian community is going to languish here. No point in lamenting about anything then. Stay stereotyped, be passive and happy. Let the divisive forces make a mess. We have only ourselves to blame.

§

[In response to Dr Samant’s article some personal emails were sent to her which she made public. These emails illustrate the mindset that seeks to be the sole speaker on behalf of the whole Hindu community. Most of the Hindu community is opposed to these efforts of RSS and its affiliates. We reproduce these emails below. ]
From Satya Duggal:

Hi Sapna Samant,
I commend and appreciate the efforts put in by Dr Magesan and his associates in VHP and HSS for the impressive “1st Hindu Conference in New Zealand”. Our Prime Minister, our local Mayor and the invited Maori elder praised the contributions of Hindus in New Zealand in their speeches. I find you to be an odd person who was not happy.

I would like to make a brief comment on your article which was freely emailed by Dr Magesan yesterday. You seem to be very confused and ignorant, while writing that long article without much substance. Making a “noise” or “stir” does not help anybody including you.

Opinions are never facts. Those who make their opinions on the opinions of others are not intelligent people. You were already prejudiced against anything called “Hindu” before reaching the venue. It was unbearable for you to witness such an impressive and successful conference of Hindus. If you are suffering from envy, jealousy or frustration, it is your problem and only you can solve it.

You have insulted the “youth” when you described: “A ragtag bunch of unfit boys shouting Vande Mataram and Har Har Mahadev”. From my personal knowledge I can tell you that they are not ragtags. Some of them are university students. They come from good Hindu families. They will be “selfless” leaders of our society. They are disciplined and bear an upright moral character.

You wrote: “Indians are a diverse lot and a hard group to bring together but someone has to take charge.” Will you be interested to take charge or you are only interested in making a noise?

I have been living in a small town (Te Awamutu) for the last 32 years. This is about 30 km south of Hamilton. If you wish to discuss any issue of your interest, you are welcome to visit me and we both will explore “problems and their solutions” as friends with open mind.

With love,
Satya Duggal

Dr Samant’s reply:
Hello Mr Duggal,
Thanks for your email. As I mentioned at the head of my posting on AEN I prefer to have a discussion within the public realm which is why this is being posted to AEN. I do not mind at all that Guna emailed my article freely because I had suggested as much too. It is necessary to debate issues that are of importance to all of us, even if we have differing views because dialogue is always beneficial in the long run. It is good to talk.

I see that you have called me a jealous, unhappy person and made several assumptions about me. Is that a counter-argument or an opinion?

Please do clarify because it does not add anything to the discourse. As you may notice there are no personal remarks or assumptions about anyone made in the article except the event because it really takes away from the dignity of a healthy conversation. And as we are all homo sapiens, the highest in the order of living beings, we must strive to maintain that at all times.

So my request is that in order prevent deterioration of what can be an interesting, informative dialogue we try and stick to the topic.

I hope you agree with that.

Looking forward to hearing from you 🙂
Sapna

Dr Sapna Samant, in response to some questions raised to her:

Thanks for the debate so far. This is very healthy and interesting as far as I am concerned. Your questions Tze Ming are very pertinent and good exercise in trying to dissect the religious, cultural, political and social complexions of India and her diaspora. While I do not claim to be a know-it-all I shall endeavour to answer your queries to the best of my knowledge of India .

Let me emphasise again that one strategy of the Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) brigade is to constantly blur the picture, facts and history, to make tenuous connections between Hinduism and everything else and appropriate all the ancient knowledge and spirituality of India as originated from religious superiority of Hinduism.

The word Hindu comes from the river Sindhu ( Indus ) and for the Persians on the west of the Sindhu, all those living on the other side were ‘Hindus’. Nothing to do with religion. Many customs and daily practices happen simply because they have been passed on for centuries and have some logic (non-religious) behind them. Many scriptures, sciences, arts etc came out of this region. But it was not an isolated part of the world. Traders, travellers, nomadic people, invaders etc have come to the land from times unknown and have influenced life in many ways. Nothing to do with specific religious practice but as people pick up customs and make them their own so did the ‘Hindus’. But time passed on and Islam and Christianity came to India . Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism originated in India and India came to be known as India (from the Indus ). Those who followed the loose ‘Hindu way’ of life came to be known as Hindus. So I am a Hindu. But do I follow the religious ideology of Hindutva?

The Hindu religious ideology began to take shape in the early twentieth century as a concept to fight against the British and the influences of Islam, Christianity and then socialism and communism. In 1923, Veer Savarkar coined the word Hindutva. Veer Savarkar was a freedom fighter and fought against the British but also wanted a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ or Hindu Nation as opposed to a secular nation. In 1925 Hedgewar started the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) which inculcated the Hindu religious ideology. This is when the business of obfuscation began. The old meaning of ‘Hindu’ was mixed with being a Hindu and Indian. The wisdom of scriptures, the ancient knowledge of ayurveda, the yogas, the epics and myths all became religious and Hindu instead of the legacy of all Indians. Varied influences from different cultures, Sanskrit, the Indus Valley Civilisation all became Hindu. (Urdu-a wonderful language that came out of India-post Islam has not been appropriated because of the script and obvious Persian influence. Why?)

Hinduism became the means to an end-the suppression of Islam and Christianity and perpetuation of the patriarchy, Brahminism and all that goes with maintenance of power structures. But it was and is insidious. Except with the Bajrang Dal which is specifically militant.

RSS soon created the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Jana Sangh (which became the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 1980s) and then the Bajrang Dal. As Indians started moving overseas the VHP morphed into the World Hindu Council and the RSS became the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh. The latter two bodies carry out their activities of perpetuating Hindutva and Hindu religious ideology outside of India only. All these affiliated bodies also have their fingers in student unions (Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad-ABVP), labour unions (I forget the names) and assorted bodies like the Hindu Jagran Manch (translated as Hindu Awakening Body).

The reality of Indian politics is that most political parties have student unions and labour unions but none have bodies like the Hindu Council or HSS overseas. All these affiliated Hindutva bodies help each other with fund raising and buying land for the purpose of Hindu development (whatever that means).

How is this connected to mass violence against non-Hindus? I just give a few examples-the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1992-93 starting with the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992 to the bomb blasts in Bombay on 12 March 1993; the Godhra riots in 2001 and its subsequent legacy including the false encounter killing episode of a Muslim criminal by policeman D.G. Vanzara who is now being hailed as a ‘hero’ by the VHP/BJP/Bajrang Dal etc. For more information on other mass violence I recommend a book called ‘Riot After Riot’ by Indian journalist MJ Akbar. Penguin publication.

Now I am not saying that other divisive forces do not send money to India for the purpose of creating mayhem but are their activities funded by government agencies of those countries? Even if it is a conference? Asia :NZ funded a student to study the methodologies of the Hindutva brigade and how it affects secular India . Do they read the reports or is anything ‘Indian’ good enough because then the right boxes can be ticked?

‘Garv Se Kaho Hum Hindu Hai’ as a slogan is not used on a daily basis and is specifically chanted to raise the spectre of a singular Hindu identity; of Hindutva and to create fear in the minds of non-Hindus and Hindus as well. It is as if all Hindus should endorse activities to ‘save’ Hinduism or you are really not a Hindu.

Once an ideology is indoctrinated inside of you it is hard to undo. Especially hardline, fundamentalist stuff. Once you have blurred the lines between Indian and Hindu and begun to believe that other ‘Indians’ are incidental and not really Indian, then Hindu=Indian. There is no need to say Indian any more.

There were Hindus of Indian origin from other countries like Fiji and Australia and those who came here from South Africa and one can argue that they are the Hindu community and so why invoke the word or concept Indian? On one level that is right. But to the point to note is that they are all of Indian origin and so connected to Indian culture and her ways even if several generations removed. And what does an outsider think when she sees only Indian faces at a Hindu conference?

If the conference was about the contribution of Hindus to the national life of New Zealand where were the people who have contributed? I spoke to some friends and intellectuals about attending-Hindus, one can call them, who wanted nothing to do with the conference because they knew what the kaupapa would be. To propagate Hindutva.

If not a ‘religious or philosophical’ conference to deliberate theology then it was definitely to push the Hindu religious ideology via the greatness of the Hindu Rashtra as opposed to a secular nation.

If it was meant to focus only on the Hindu community here then why make statements disparaging Islam in India ?

I once again reiterate that various agencies and academics spoke to the point and did challenge some notions on one level. It did not achieve anything because it is a superficial dent. India has recently passed a bill against domestic violence which was brought up during one presentation. An invitee from India immediately said that the bill actually has a lot of opposition! Where is the place to feel uplifted? Stories about domestic violence within the Indian community here were countered by the story of Westerners causing grief to a young family who thought a husband patting his wife was domestic violence! Living in a state of denial? Or Hindus are so great that we only contribute to the national life?

My fears are real. I have lived through riots, turmoil and mass hysteria. I know the intricate modus operandi of the fundamentalists. It is mostly covert. COVERT. Nothing meaty has to be said at the meeting. The symbols say it all. New Zealand , fortunately, does have a moderating effect enough to prevent the thunderous oratory that the Hindutva brigade is famous for.

The word Hindoo was derogatory to the old Indian migrants and was used to mean all Indians. These migrants turned the word on its head and were united against the Europeans and bodies like the White New Zealand League. It was the women who maintained culture and religious practices and the harmony. What is the guarantee this unique history will not be turned around to be a triumphalist episode in the greatness of Hinduism? It has been done before.

Next year it is going to be ‘Sustaining NZ Communities through Yoga, Meditation and Ayurveda’. A good idea. But what is Hindu (religious) about it? This is the legacy of all Indians. Too ancient to be appropriated by religious fundamentalists.

I hope I have cleared some doubts and confusion.
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