Spring Feature on Hindutva and South Asian Dance in Britain: Letter to the Editor

Volunteers of RSS gate for Founder's Day Amritsar November 2013 | Photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images

Pulse 124 was unusually controversial and there was room in Pulse 125  only to print abbreviated versions of the responses.  We give here the full text of the Letter to the Editor from IT consultant and dance student Bhagwat Shah (author of 'Indic Dances and Their Roots in Hindu India', Pulse 124), and the response by Jasmine Lail (author of 'Hindutva and South Asian Dance in Britain', Pulse 124).

Photo: Volunteers of RSS (Rashtriya Sevak Sangh) gather for march to mark founder's day in Amritsar, November 2013 | Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images

Dear Editor,

Having read the Spring edition of Pulse, I would like to respond to articles by Jasmine Lail and Andrée Grau ['The Artist Against the Politician: Mallika Sarbhai against Narendra Modi'].  

Why is ‘Hindutva’ used as a pejorative in these articles? Reading the articles, it looks like people with anti-BJP and anti-Hindu bias are using the Gujarat riots to vilify Modi in particular and Hindus in general. Hindutva is simply a convenient label for them.

Isn’t everyone innocent till proven guilty? Why is Ms Lail considering Narendra Modi guilty of abetting riots when he has been proved innocent by several investigations and the Supreme Court of India!

Fact is, torching of Sabarmati Express on 27th February 2002 killed fifty-eight Hindus, sparking off riots across Gujarat. Modi called in the army and by 1st March they were keeping peace in major cities. As February only has twenty-eight days, why is Ms Lail accusing Modi of ‘delay in dealing with the violence’? Of Gujarat’s 18,600 villages and 240 towns, only sixty places saw sporadic violence. In two months, 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus lost their lives. Compare this to 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Dehli, where 3000 Sikhs died in just three days with the collusion of Congress leaders. Why are Lail and Grau not holding senior Congress leaders responsible in the same way as Modi?

Ethnic cleansing in 1989 saw hundreds of Hindus killed in Kashmir, resulting in an exodus that has left 350,000 Pandits living as refugees. Do Professor Grau or Ms Lail feel the pain of the Pandits and Sikhs? Or is their sympathy reserved exclusively for Muslims of Gujarat?

Fact is, under Congress, Gujarat suffered 2938 riots in ten years. Under Modi, Gujarat has benefited from a peaceful decade with no riots since 2002. Under Modi, Gujarat has seen phenomenal improvement in infrastructure, education and jobs for all citizens, regardless of their creed.

Jasmine cites "Hindu / RSS reluctance" to promote kathak without offering any empirical data. Fact is the percentage of Hindus practicing kathak is far higher than the percentage of Muslims practicing bharatnatyam or any other Indian classical dance. Has Jamine ever sought to ask Muslims the same questions she asks the Hindus about their religious bias in supporting Asian dance styles? Has she asked why so few Muslims ever perform bharatnatyam, kathakali or odissi? Does Jasmine understand that kathak might be avoided by some people (Hindu or Muslim) because of its maligned image as a nautch, associated with courtesans and kotha-walis (prostitutes)?

Hindus are the most tolerant of all religious groups. Jews, Parsis, Muslims and Christians were welcomed by India because of its Hindu ethos of accepting and respecting everyone’s religious and political views, even dissenting views. To blame Hindus of religious intolerance is to ignore the last 3000 years of history.

Jasmine has a dig at the RSS and VHP and compares them to “Mussolini’s youth training programme” for using "exercise, prayers and saluting a flag". Does Jasmine realize that across India, the school day starts with exercise, prayers and saluting the national flag? Scouts and cadet groups around the world exercise, march and salute their flag before beginning their activities. Is Jasmine suggesting ALL of them are inspired by Mussolini? Or is that slur exclusively reserved for the RSS?

Jasmine claims that the RSS is teaching extremist views under the guise of youth and cultural training programs in temples across UK. Is she willing to say the same of Muslim groups teaching Islamic culture in mosques, colleges and universities across UK? Will Jasmine attribute increasing use of hijab and the reduction in the number of Muslims taking up Asian dance as inspired or enforced by Islamic culture? Is Jasmine willing to put Islamic groups and Mosques under the same microscope as she has put RSS, VHP, HSS and Sangh Parivar?

From reading the two articles, ‘Hindutva and South Asian Dance in Britain’ and ‘The Artist Against the Politician’, I get the feeling that Lail  and Grau have a political bias against Modi, BJP and RSS. That’s fine. It’s a democracy and they are welcome to their political views. What I find puzzling is when people use such terms as ‘secular’ and ‘communal’ to colour their politics. If they are against Hindus, then let them have the courage of their convictions and say so. I simply request them not to mix religion and politics to fudge the issue and call it Hindutva.

-----------------------

Response to Bhagwat Shah’s letter by Jasmine Lail, 26 May 2014.

"Why is ‘Hindutva’ used as a pejorative in these articles? Reading the articles, it looks like people with anti-BJP and anti-Hindu bias are using the Gujarat riots to vilify Modi in particular and Hindus in general. Hindutva is simply a convenient label for them".

I am opposed to Hindutva and those who promote it, which includes the BJP and Narendra Modi . Being opposed to Hindutva does not equate to being opposed to Hinduism and Hindus. In fact I view Hindutva as having attempted to hijack and distort Hinduism over the past ninety years (Jaffrelot, 2007). Hindutva is not Hinduism. Hinduism is a religion that has been practised for thousands of years, whereas Hindutva is a twentieth-century invention. Those who believe in Hindutva often deliberately misinterpret and manipulate the teachings of Hinduism to give the impression that Hinduism supports Hindutva’s ideas (Bhatt, 1999).

In my article the concept of Hindutva is used in a pejorative way because it is a dangerous , extremist ideology. I have come to this conclusion by looking at the writings and actions of those who invented and promote Hindutva. It was invented in the 1920s by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. In his pamphlet, Hindutva – who is a Hindu?, published in 1923, Savarkar’s description of Hindutva shows it is a very narrow, exclusionary and supremacist ideology (Bhatt, 2014). According to Savarkar, Hindutva is an identity based on someone’s race and that Hindus are people who have: ‘Vedic-Aryan’ blood, accept an upper-caste, Sanskrit-based version of Hinduism and view India as a sacred land. This discriminates against those Hindus whose ancestors were not Aryans and who follow different caste-based religious practices (contemporary historians now dispute whether Aryans were actually a distinct race of people who colonised northern India from central Asia, or whether it was just a people whose language spread to form the roots of Indo-European languages like Sanskrit, Hindi and Latin [Thaper, 2000]).

Hindutva also says that India should be an exclusively Hindu state (Hindurashtra) and not a secular democracy. Furthermore all Indians must be obedient to the ideas of Hindutva and that non-Hindus would be second-class citizens. In creating the ideology of Hindutva, Savarkar was heavily influenced by Nazism and compared India’s Muslims to Jews in Germany. In 1961 Savarkar is on record as saying India would be better off with a dictator like Hitler than being a democracy (Bhatt, 2014).

"Isn’t everyone innocent till proven guilty? Why is Ms Lail considering Narendra Modi guilty of abetting riots when he has been proved innocent by several investigations and the Supreme Court of India?!"

The case against Narendra Modi has never been argued before the Supreme Court of India, so it is nonsense of Bhagwat Shah to say Modi has been proved innocent. The legal proceedings against Modi are ongoing. The Gujarat High Court is due to hear an appeal against a decision made in the Gujarat Magistrate’s Court not to charge Modi for his actions in the 2002 riots (Appa and Hensman, 2014).

Modi is directly implicated in, at the very least, allowing the mob to riot, rape and murder innocent people for three days before ordering the Gujarat police to stop it (Amnesty International, 2005). That is why, until his election as Prime Minister of India, the US refused to grant him a visa and until recently the UK have also been hostile to him visiting Britain for the same reasons. The US and UK governments undoubtedly have their own very detailed intelligence on what really happened in the riots, and they found Modi culpable, to the extent they banned him from entering their countries.

Narendra Modi is a lifelong advocate of Hindutva and a member of the Rashtra Swayamsevek Sangh (RSS), which has Hindutva as its ideological core. What is chilling about Modi’s connections to the 2002 Gujarat riots, just like the 1992 sacking of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya by the RSS spin-off organisation the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), is they show the Hindutva ideology being put into practise in the most violent terms.

"Fact is, torching of Sabarmati Express on 27th February, 2002, killed 58 Hindus, sparking off riots across Gujarat. Modi called in the army and by 1st March they were keeping peace in major cities. As February only has twenty-eight days, why is Ms Lail accusing Modi of 'delay in dealing with the violence'? Of Gujarat’s 18,600 villages and 240 towns, only sixty places saw sporadic violence. In two months, 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus lost their lives. Compare this to 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Dehli, where 3000 Sikhs died in just three days with the collusion of Congress leaders. Why are Lail and Grau not holding senior Congress leaders responsible in the same way as Modi?"

"Ethnic cleansing in 1989 saw hundreds of Hindus killed in Kashmir, resulting in an exodus that has left 350,000 Pandits living as refugees. Does Grau or Lail feel the pain of the Pandits and Sikhs? Or is their sympathy reserved exclusively for Muslims of Gujarat? Fact is, under Congress, Gujarat suffered 2938 riots in ten years. Under Modi, Gujarat has benefited from a peaceful decade with no riots since 2002. Under Modi, Gujarat has seen phenomenal improvement in infrastructure, education and jobs for all citizens, regardless of their creed".

Bhagwat Shah does not quote any sources for the statistics he has listed regarding the Gujarat riots and there is not enough space here for me to respond to each of them, but I suggest he read Amnesty International’s 2005 report into the riots for some contrasting figures and accounts of what happened, all of which reference their sources thoroughly. (Obviously given Modi and the BJP’s desire for him to win the Indian elections and be re-branded as a politician with a respectable track record, the RSS/BJP have put together an account of the riots that tries to present him as having acted responsibly; I suspect this is what Shah is quoting from).

My article was not about the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, or any of the other episodes of communal violence that have occurred in India in recent decades. There are plenty of groups in India and the UK campaigning for justice on these issues. What differs with the violence inspired by Hindutva, compared to other flashes of communal violence, is that it is systematic and part of a long-term strategy to recast the Indian state into a non-democratic, authoritarian regime. (Obviously the Kashmir situation has its own complicated politics).

My article attempts to highlight that the Hindutva movement has become so large, that through the RSS and its front organisations (the Sangh Parivar), it has gained a strong presence not only in India but also abroad (Mukta, 2000). In particular, I refer to its growth amongst British Indians in the past 30 years, which includes fund raising for the RSS (AWAAZ- In Bad Faith?, 2004) and how it even has a presence amongst some of Britain’s South Asian arts organisations, (Lail 2013). I have done this so that South Asian artists in Britain can be alert to its possible presence in the organisations they are part of and can make an informed choice about whether they wish to be part of any Hindutva activities.

"Jasmine cites ‘Hindu / RSS reluctance’ to promote kathak without offering any empirical data."

My article does not say this. I say the RSS promotes garba as somehow being an authentic ‘Hindu’ dance form and therefore, from a Hindutva perspective, an acceptable dance form. For empirical data on this see Falcone’s 2013 article on garba. In reality garba is a regional dance form from Gujarat, originally performed by Gujaratis and not specific to any religion. I refer to this as an example of how Hindutva tries to distort India’s heritage, even in dance.

In regard to kathak, I myself have witnessed some teachers and students openly question and query whether they should learn and perform aspects of the kathak repertoire which are drawn from overtly Muslim-oriented practices/culture, eg the salaam, a mehfil setting or urdu poetry. I have found this quite disturbing and speculate in the article that the spread of Hindutva amongst British South Asians/British Indians/British Hindus in recent years, may have inspired and reinvigorated communal prejudices.

I also highlight the similarity between the presentation of today’s Indian classical dance forms as having an ancient Vedic history, with an unbroken lineage all the way back to the Natyashastra, and Hindutva’s invented history of India having had some ancient golden Vedic period 3,000 years ago. Both of these historical accounts have been over-simplified and are deeply flawed.

"Fact is, the percentage of Hindus practicing kathak is far higher than the percentage of Muslims practicing bharatnatyam or any other Indian classical dance. Has Jasmine ever sought to ask Muslims the same questions she asks the Hindus about their religious bias in supporting Asian dance styles? Has she asked why so few Muslims ever perform bhartanatyam, kathakali or odissi? Does Jasmine understand that kathak might be avoided by some people (Hindu or Muslim) because of its maligned image as a ‘natch’, associated with courtesans and kotha-walis?"

I recommend Bhagwat read Anna Morcom’s new book Courtesans, Bar Girls and Dancing Boys: Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance, for information on how and why Muslim dancers, along with hereditary Hindu dancers, were systematically excluded from India’s classical dance forms, before and after Indian independence and right up to the present day.

I do understand that some people still associate contemporary kathak with nautch and kothas; it is an interesting subject to explore (along with dancers' attitudes to the pre-cursor dance forms of bharatnatyam being performed by temple prostitutes).

"Hindus are the most tolerant of all religious groups. Jews, Parsis, Muslims and Christians were welcomed by India because of its Hindu ethos of accepting and respecting everyone’s religious and political views, even dissent views. To blame Hindus for religious intolerance is to ignore last 3000 years of history."

Hinduism, like all major religions, does include many, many teachings of tolerance and common humanity, but Hindutva and the RSS does not. In fact, one key aspect of Hindutva teachings is that Hindus have been too tolerant and this has led to them being exploited. Hindutva uses this to justify a very macho and violent vision of Hindu men and masculinity, whose role is to force Hindutvas’ intolerant ideology on to Indians (Bhatt, 1999.)

"Jasmine has a dig at RSS and VHP and compares them to 'Mussolini’s youth training programme' for using ‘exercise, prayers and saluting a flag’. Does Jasmine realize that across India, the school day starts with exercise, prayers and saluting the national flag? Scouts and cadet groups around the world exercise, march and salute their flag before beginning their activities. Is Jasmine suggesting ALL of them are inspired by Mussolini? Or is that slur exclusively reserved for RSS?"

The difference with RSS shakhas is that the children attending these receive para-military training in the form of learning to fight with sticks (Falcone, 2012). Some shakhas, in different parts of the world, do not emphasise the fighting part of the shakha curriculum, but in its original Indian form it is an essential element.

"Jasmine claims that RSS is teaching extremist views under the guise of youth and cultural training programs in temples across UK. Is she willing to say the same of Muslim groups teaching Islamic culture in mosques, colleges and universities across UK? Will Jasmine attribute the increasing use of hijab and reduction in number of Muslims taking up Asian dance as inspired or enforced by Islamic culture? Is Jasmine willing to put Islamic groups and Mosques under the same microscope as she has put RSS, VHP, HSS and Sangh Parivar?"

Muslim extremism in the UK and around the world has been one of the most widely publicised and debated issues of the past fifteen years and we are all quite familiar with it as a phenomenon. On the other hand, very few people, including many in the British South Asian/British Indian community know about the RSS, VHP, HSS and Sangh Parivar and are at risk of unwittingly taking part in their seemingly benign events and fund raising activities.

It would be interesting to study how the combined effect of the deliberate exclusion of the traditional Muslim dancers pre- and post- Indian independence has combined with the apparent spread of salafist related Islam to exclude Muslims from pursuing South Asian dance.

"From reading the two articles, ‘Hindutva and South Asian Dance in Britain’ and ‘Artists against Politician’, I get the feeling that Lail and Grau have a political bias against Modi, the BJP and RSS. That’s fine. It’s a democracy and they are welcome to their political views. What I find puzzling is when people use such terms as ‘secular’ and ‘communal’ to colour their politics. If they are against Hindus, than have the courage of their convictions to say so. I simply request them not to mix religion and politics to fudge the issue and call it Hindutva."

As I stated at the beginning I am opposed to Hindutva, Modi, the BJP and the RSS. Fortunately Britain like India is still a secular democracy and I am free to state my political opinions (this would not be the case if Hindutva were implemented in India and it was no longer a secular democracy). ‘Secular’ and ‘communal’ are political concepts and are only relevant when discussing political issues. I am not against Hindus. I am concerned about what is happening to contemporary Hinduism in the face of the pressure and distortions Hindutva is putting on it. Hindutva, in its very essence has mixed religion and politics together in order to advance its political and social agenda for the Indian state and those within it.

References and further reading:

Amnesty International (2005) India: Justice, the victim – Gujarat state fails to protect women from violence.

Appa, Gautam and Hensman, Savitri (2014) ‘A Clean Chit? Has Narendra Modi been Absolved by the Supreme Court?’ in Narendra Modi Exposed, London: AWAAZ Network & The Monitoring Group. Awaaz-UK.org/categories/publications

AWAAZ (2004) In Bad Faith? London: Awaaz-UK.org/categories/publications

Bhatt, Chetan (1999) Hindu Nationalism: Origins, Ideologies and Modern Myths, Oxford: Berg

Bhatt, Chetan (2014) ‘Hindutva, RSS and the Sangh Parivar’ in Narendra Modi Exposed, London: AWAAZ Network & The Monitoring Group. Awaaz-UK.org/categories/publications.

Falcone, Jessica Marie (2012) ‘Putting the “Fun” into Fundamentalism: Religious Nationalism and the Split Self at Hindutva Summer Camps in the United States’, Ethos, 40, no.2, pp.164-95

Falcone, Jessica Marie (2013) ‘Garba With Attitude: Creating Tradition and Creative Nostalgia in Competitive Collegiate Gujarati American Folk Dancing.’ Journal of Asian American Studies. Vol 16 No 1: 57-89.

Jaffrelot, Christophe (2007) Hindu Nationalism: A Reader Delhi: Permanent Black.

Morcom, Anna (2013) Courtesans, Bar Girls and Dancing Boys: Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance, Hurst & Co.

Mukta, Parita (2000) ‘The Public Face of Hindu Nationalism’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 23, no.3, pp.442-66.

Savarkar, V.D. (1989) Hindutva, Bombay: Veer Savarkar Prakashan.

Thapar, Romilla (2000) ‘On historical scholarship and the uses of the past (interview with Parita Mukta),’ Ethnic and Racial Studies 23 no.3, 594-616.