Hindutva and South Asian Dance in Britain
With the Indian elections under way, Narendra Modi and the BJP seem to be in a strong position, to the dismay of those who are troubled by their Hindutva tenets. But Hindutva is not just an issue facing the Indian electorate: it has been making its presence felt in the UK; even, Jasmine Lail argues, in the context of South Asian dance.
Images: RSS volunteers gather for Founder's Day in Amritsar November 2013/ Photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images | HSS UK annual training camp, Leicester, 2000, Sang Sandesh, July-August 2000 | Narendra Modi in RSS salute, Outlook India.com, 31 Dec 2012
Hindutva and South Asian Dance in Britain
Words by Jasmine Lail
India’s parliamentary politics may not have an obvious link to Britain’s South Asian dance scene but through subtle networks and a social movement that has had a significant impact on Britain’s Hindu community, dancers and their art forms have become enmeshed in its activities. South Asian art in Britain has to a large extent been able to gain public support and funding on the basis that it contributes to social harmony, dispels racial tension and engenders a sense of pride and self-worth among UK Asians. However, this movement for equality and tolerance is undermined when these organisations promote the values of Hindutva and fund-raise for the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh).
Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat, is on track to be elected as the next Prime Minister of India. A member of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), Modi is on the one hand lauded as the architect of an economic boom in Gujarat; on the other, it has been alleged that he was complicit in the communal violence that erupted in Gujarat in 2002 following a fire which killed fifty-nine Hindu pilgrims and activists on a train returning from Ayodhya. (The Babri Masjid at Ayodhya was destroyed in 1992 by Hindu groups with the support of the BJP and others, on the grounds that it had been built upon a temple marking the birthplace of Lord Rama.) During the first three days of the Gujarat riots the police failed to protect the Muslim communities and many died. Even though in 2012 the Special Investigation Team appointed by India’s Supreme Court found no evidence against him, other members of the BJP close to Modi were convicted and this cloud hangs over him. He has repeatedly been denied a visa to visit the United States. In the UK there is an ongoing legal campaign for his arrest in connection to the murder of members of the Dawood family, British citizens on holiday in Gujarat who were caught up in the violence and murdered because they were Muslims.
“MODI'S BJP IS THE PARLIAMENTARY WING OF A MUCH WIDER IDEOLOGICAL MOVEMENT KNOW AS 'HINDUTVA'"
Modi’s BJP is the parliamentary wing of a much wider ideological movement known as ‘Hindutva’, which in turn is spearheaded by the organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS: ‘National Volunteer Party’ or ‘National Patriotic Party’).
What is Hindutva?
Hindutva and the RSS have their roots in an early-twentieth-century form of Indian nationalism. The RSS’s founding members, Keshav Hedgewar and Madhav Golwalkar, were greatly inspired by European fascism and modelled key aspects of Hindutva ideology and the structure of the RSS on German Nazism and Italian fascism. Prominent among their shared characteristics is the veneration of a mythic, utopian Aryan past and the blaming of ‘foreigners’ for a supposed degeneration of society (in Nazism this took the form of an anti-Semitic and anti-Roma genocide, while in Hindutva it scapegoats Muslims, Mughal rule and Christian British colonialism).
“PROMINENT AMONGST THEIR SHARED CHARACTERISTICS IS THE VENERATION OF A MYTHIC, UTOPIAN ARYAN PAST AND THE BLAMING OF 'FOREIGNERS' FOR A SUPPOSED DEGENERATION OF SOCIETY"
In order to remedy this apparent degradation, the founders of the RSS replicated Nazi fascism by arguing that Indian Hindus needed to become less tolerant and be prepared to violently defend a conservative vision of what India and Indians should be. (Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, had close links with the RSS.) A ‘victim mentality’ has been cultivated by the RSS among Indian Hindus, even though they make up 80 per cent of India’s population.
How does the RSS work?
A key aspect of the RSS is ‘shakhas’, daily sessions of exercise, paramilitary training, prayer to the RSS’s saffron flag and lectures on Hindutva values. Shakhas are based on Mussolini’s youth training programme and are particularly aimed at boys and young men. In the UK shakhas tend to take place weekly in many Hindu temples and are often referred to as Hindu youth groups. For parents, they seemingly offer an opportunity for children to connect with their Indian roots but the values being presented and taught are a very narrow, deeply conservative and bigoted vision of what India and Indians should be.
“IN THE UK SHAKHAS . . . ARE OFTEN REFERRED TO AS HINDU YOUTH GROUPS . . . BUT THE VALUES BEING PRESENTED AND TAUGHT ARE A VERY NARROW, DEEPLY CONSERVATIVE AND BIGOTED VERSION OF WHAT INDIA AND INDIANS SHOULD BE"
The RSS has also created many front organisations which are known as the ‘sangh parivar’. They span student groups, aid agencies, schools, political lobbying groups, trade unions, cultural groups, women’s organisations and religious orders. Through these different guises the ideas and values of Hindutva have been successfully spread, not only within Indian society but also among people of Indian descent across the world. This has happened to such an extent that the RSS and its affiliate organisations now receive a major proportion of their funding and support in kind from Indians abroad, mainly in the US but also the UK.
The RSS in the UK
The RSS was established in Britain in 1966 and uses the name Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS). Other UK front organisations (sangh parivar) include the National Hindu Students Forum, which is active in many British universities; Labour Friends of India, a lobbying group affiliated to the Labour Party; Sewa International, also known as Sewa UK and responsible for Sewa Day, which presents itself as an emergency relief and development organisation but whose main purpose is to raise funds for RSS projects in India. These groups attempt to present themselves as autonomous and independent, registering themselves as separate charities and taking pains not to link themselves on their websites. However, they are actually tightly overseen by RSS members and mirror similar RSS front organisations in India, the US and many other countries.
“THE IDEAS AND VALUES OF HINDUTVA HAVE BEEN SUCCESSFULLY SPREAD NOT ONLY WITHIN INDIAN SOCIETY BUT ALSO AMONGST PEOPLE OF INDIAN DESCENT ACROSS THE WORLD"
The HSS works in parallel with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad UK (VHP UK), the UK branch of the Indian VHP. In India the VHP is known as a Hindu supremacist religious organisation, which has been repeatedly linked to violence against India’s religious minorities. In the UK it is credited with the successful spread of Hindutva values by conflating them with Hinduism. Hindutva’s growth in the UK took off in the 1980s. Part of its success was achieved by co-opting popular religious figures as well as stars from popular culture – e.g. Bollywood playback singers – into touring the UK alongside members of the RSS (Mukta, 2000). Audiences were attracted to the sadhus and celebrities and were then exposed to the ideas and values of Hindutva. Sections of the UK’s vernacular press (in particular British Gujarati media) have also strongly promoted an RSS perspective.
The prejudices, myths and values of Hindutva have now become so pervasive among some sections of the South Asian community in the UK that they influence the world view and beliefs of people who would not necessarily regard themselves as RSS supporters.
South Asian Dance
The South Asian dance sector has not gone unaffected. To date, dance has not been explicitly targeted by the RSS but despite this its presence can still be felt. For example, garba is identified by the RSS as an authentic ‘Hindu’ dance form, when in reality it is a Gujarati folk dance performed by all religious groups (Falcone, 2012). There are also examples of children being told to learn bharatanatyam because it is a ‘Hindu’ dance and not kathak because the latter has too much Muslim influence.
On a subtler level, the Hindutva mindset has reinvigorated pre-existing communalist prejudices in Britain’s South Asian dance community. For some in the dance sector this shows itself in an unwillingness to embrace aspects of dance repertoire that are deemed to be part of a different religious tradition. I have witnessed this on a number of occasions in respect to the inclusion of ‘Muslim’ repertoire (the use of salaam, Urdu poetry and Mughal references) in the teaching and performance of kathak.
Hindutva’s invented history of India has also arguably helped to sustain the myth, prominent among Indian ‘classical’ dance, that forms such as bharatanatyam, kathak and odissi have a direct and unbroken link to the ancient dance treatise, the Natyashastra. Academic research in the 1980s (see Vatsayan, 1988) successfully showed that the artists and cultural commentators responsible for India’s dance revival in the 1920s and 30s deliberately exaggerated the significance of the Natyashastra in the creation of the ‘classical’ dance forms that we recognise today. The Natyashastra provided a respectable, ancient lineage to dance, which helped to gloss over associations with courtesans and devadasis. In reality, the codification of today’s dance forms owes much more to developments in dance over the past 100–200 years (though part of this included deliberate attempts to include things that appear in temple sculpture and the Natyashastra).
It is thirty years since this mythic history of Indian dance was debunked but it continues to be taught – and even features among the exam syllabus – of some of Britain’s South Asian dance schools. Though not created by the RSS, this false historical account complements Hindutva’s own fictitious history of India, which glorifies a supposed ancient golden age in India. The reluctance of dance schools and practitioners to move on from the Natyashastra version of dance history can be seen, in part, as the result of Hindutva’s influence.
South Asian Arts Organisations
South Asian dancers can also become unintentionally drawn into supporting Hindutva activity via some of Britain’s South Asian arts organisations, several of which are led by RSS sympathisers. They use their positions and arts platform to fund-raise on behalf of the RSS and promote the activities of its front organisations (Lail, 2013).
“SOUTH ASIAN DANCERS CAN ALSO BECOME UNINTENTIONALLY DRAWN INTO SUPPORTING HINDUTVA ACTIVITY VIA SOME OF BRITAIN'S SOUTH ASIAN ARTS ORGANISATIONS, SEVERAL OF WHICH ARE LED BY RSS SYMPATHISERS”
This ‘double-speak’, using the language of equality and diversity on the one hand and then using its rewards to promote bigotry, has sadly become a common tool of the RSS in the UK. If South Asian dance practitioners want to avoid being caught up in this, they need to be able to identify the presence of Hindutva ideology and challenge the RSS members who promote it.
AWAAZ – South Asia Watch Ltd (2004), In Bad Faith?, London.
Casolari, Marzia (2000), ‘Hindutva’s Foreign Tie-up in the 1930s: Archival Evidence’, Economic and Political Weekly, 35, no.4, January, pp.22–8.
Dawood Family Campaign http://dawoodcampaign.wordpress.com
Falcone, Jessica Marie (2012), ‘Putting the “Fun” in Fundamentalism: Religious Nationalism and the Split Self at Hindutva Summer Camps in the United States’, ETHOS, 40, no.2, pp.164–95.
Jaffrelot, Christophe (2007), Hindu Nationalism: A Reader, Delhi: Permanent Black.
Lail, Jasmine (2013), Hindu Nationalism in the UK, MA Dissertation, University of Roehampton.
Mukta, Parita (2000), ‘The Public Face of Hindu Nationalism’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 23, no.3, pp.442–66.
Therwath, Ingrid (2012), Cyber-Hindutva: Hindu Nationalism, the diaspora and the web [online], New Delhi: Centre de Sciences Humaine, available from: http://www.inter-discplinary.net/at-the-interface/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/therwathpaper.pdf [accessed 4 April 2013].
Vatsyayan, Kapila (1988), ‘Dance, Scholarship: The Complex Indian Situation’, in Au, Susan and Frank-Manual, Peter, eds, Beyond Performance: Dance Scholarship Today, Essen: Federal Republic of Germany Centre of the International Theatre Institute.