Chandrani Banerjee has studied at the Columbia Journalism School, and covered the US elections, 2016. She has also filed an experience report for UN office of Drug and Crime about the Indian migrant workers, and worked with Outlook
In the middle of New York, in an Ivy League institute, Columbia University, a group of Indian students is organising regular weekly meetings with a specific purpose - to protect the religion under the banner of Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS).
The students meet every week. Each member receives an email from the coordinators. The mail informs the students about the schedules and programmes that are supposed to take place in the meetings.
The mail usually reads like this:
“I hope you are all doing well and enjoying the somewhat better weather! We will be having shakha tomorrow (March 31st) at 12:00 PM in Shapiro/CESPR 414.
Hope to see you all there!
What: Hindu Yuva Weekly Shakha
When: Saturday (March 31st) 12 PM - 1 PM
Where: Shapiro/CEPSR 414 (Sindeband)
Description: Shakha refers to weekly meetings held by Hindu Yuva Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), and includes quick games, intellectual discussions, geets, amritvachan (thought of the day), yoga, pranayam and much more! Join us for a fun filled one hour of self and group development activities”.
There are 140 HSS centres across the US, and the parent body, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has branches in 39 countries across the world. The website of Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), USA, says it is a voluntary, non-profit, social and cultural organisation, which is a staple argument for the RSS outfits. Sangh, as the organisation is popularly known, aims to organise the Hindu community to preserve, practice and promote Hindu ideals and values. HSS conducts structured programmes of regular athletic and academic activities to develop strong character and leadership skills in its members (known as swayamsevaks for men and sevikas for women), emphasising values such as self-discipline, self-confidence and a spirit of selfless service (seva) for humanity. “We encourage maintaining Hindu cultural identity in harmony with the larger community,” the HSS website states.
Interestingly, the wily RSS has worked out the basic strategy of capturing the insecurities of thousands of Indian parents living abroad. Girish Bagmar comes from a family of Congress supporters. Though he was fed up of UPA’s scams in 2014, says a report in a national English daily, he’s more inclined towards centrist politics than the right-wing BJP. Yet, Bagmar, now based in Boston, sends both his sons to shakhas run by HSS. “I’ve never attended HSS shakhas. I send my children there so they can socialise with other Indian children and learn about Indian culture. Growing up in India, we learnt of our culture from our grandparents’ stories. I feel my children may be deprived of this; my mother cannot visit the US frequently,” Bagmar has been quoted. So, fresh, young minds attend the shakhas due to the universal worry in the Indian diaspora that the generations born there will lose touch with their origins, and hence, ‘catch-em-young’. “We don’t call it Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh overseas. It’s not on Indian soil so we can’t use the word ‘Rashtriya’. We call it Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh as it unites Hindus worldwide,” says Ramesh Subramaniam, a top RSS leader.
Sharing all these information with Parliamentarian Priya Chokshi, a student of Columbia University and member of HSS-USA, said, “Our shakhas take place every week at Columbia University, and it is organised with the purpose of bringing students together and creating a community. It gives students a chance to relax and get to know one another. We have games, intellectual discussions, pranayam, yoga and geets (melodies or songs of Indian origin). There is no fee. Shakha refers students-in-need to resources that can help them. I don’t have much information about coordination for students in different countries.” On the question of link with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the students deny any connection with them. They claim that HSS USA is actively working to gather like-minded students and people to form a community. However, the first page of HSS-USA has prominently placed the RSS patriarch Dr KB Hedgewar’s quote: “Sangh is of all of us. No caste has any superiority, no individual has any superiority, no one’s place has any superiority.” Commenting on the RSS–HSS connection, another member student of HSS, pursuing PhD from Columbia, denied it. In reply to an email, the student who passed out from one of the IITs and is pursuing higher studies in Columbia, said, “So, the thing is that Hindu YUVA is part of HSS USA, which is a non-profit organisation, and not RSS. The best way to get more information about HSS would be through the website’s Contact Us page. For information about RSS, it might be best to directly go through the RSS website.” The students claim: “There is a small Indian community in Columbia that showcases the best of Indian brains in the world, (and) believes in the uniqueness of Hindu Dharma. The HSS-USA claims that they believe that Hindu Dharma and the culture, as practiced by the Hindu community, have a significant contribution to make for the benefit of humanity. It is therefore essential for Hindus living in America to develop unity and harmony in their community to effectively promote these salient features,” the website propagates.
While the kids enjoy learning in the Balagokulam, the youth and adults also participate in activities such as games, songs, discussions, and lectures on Hindu culture. “We strongly emphasise on the physical, intellectual and spiritual growth of each individual. It also promotes a sense of discipline,” student members aver. The HSS-USA has ‘Balagokulam’ for children; a women’s wing called ‘Sakhi’, and HSS organises ‘Sakhi Sammelan’, or events for women associated with HSS. The website has details of Sakhi Sammelan that was celebrated earlier. It says: “90 women came for the event. This is the third year of Sakhi Sammelan. Every year HSS arranges this event especially for women to enjoy, learn, and get together with common interest of keeping great Indian culture and heritage alive. This year’s theme was ‘Arogyam Mahabhagyam’ meaning ‘Health is Wealth’.” The programme includes shloka chanting, yoga session, arts and crafts, Warli painting, recipe writing competition, and salad decoration competition. And along with all these hobbies, the HSS-USA gives sessions to Indian parents about parenting in the US. The website says, “Sangh is inspired by the idea that the whole world is one family and conducts activities across the United States to spread this message widely. Sangh in the United States started in 1989 and today has over 140 weekly meeting centres (shakhas) across the country.”
But not every Indian agrees with this nefarious plan of using educational platforms for spreading Hindutva. Dr Amit Ranjan, a research associate at Florida International University, said, “Ideally there should be no connection between education and religion. Caste, dharma - all these are an individual’s personal choice and faith. So why to bring it out of your system? For ages, the Hindu dharma was protected and promoted even when there was no HSS. Dharma is humanity; loving every living being on this earth and contributing positively towards the growth of the society. Why does a child need to attend such shakhas? Let him explore his own world and decide whether he would want to be a part of such shakhas or not! I would say it is not an ideal practice and this only creates indifference towards other practices of faith.” “If Sangh believes in one world, they should not create communities, but instead create a beautiful world involving everyone, popularising every culture,” added Dr Ranjan. The website says, “Dharma is not sustained by Power, especially organised religious or political power. Dharma asserts itself periodically through the actions of good people. A trend of troubling Hindu spiritual leaders, who have come forward to serve the society, is being seen. Hindus worldwide should arise and awaken themselves to fight against these narrow agendas.”
The views put up on the website, however, are different from the ground reality. All this culture camouflage is easily peeled off, not merely by pointing to the highly prominent place given to RSS founder Dr Hegdewar, but also by commentaries on political developments in India. The HSS website also talks about issues that, according to them, have not been tackled well back in India. One of the press releases points out annoyance in the arrest of senior Pontiff - Jayendra Saraswathi. “Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), USA, Inc. vehemently protests the treatment meted to SriJayendra Saraswathi, , senior Pontiff of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham, Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu. The way the senior Swami was arrested, flown to Chennai during the night, shows utter apathy to the sensitivities of Hindus across the world and personally to the Swamiji himself. “Sri Saraswathi is a well known personality, being the head of an ancient and revered Mutt. There is no question of his avoiding or evading the process of law. Also, the fact that the Kanchi Sankara Mutt is a highly respected institution, HSS views the arrest as an extreme measure. Surely requirements of law and justice, if any, could have been met with a more considerate and benign approach by the law enforcement agencies. “Millions of devotees from all over the world are deeply shocked and hurt by this highly questionable action. HSS appeals to the authorities to immediately release Sri Swamiji. The HSS also appeals to the Tamil Nadu State (India) government to ensure that normal religious rituals, including puja at the Mutt, go on uninterrupted and the premises, properties and the devotees of the Mutt are protected against disturbance by anti-social elements. “The HSS appeals to Hindu organisations across United States to join hands in condemning the forces working overtly and covertly to weaken the Hindu society. The HSS also appeals to the Hindu society, and the Hindu organisations and institutions to stand by the Kanchi Mutt and help the great institution to overcome this crisis and challenge.”
But there is no countering the HSS/RSS in the western climes; for one, the perpetual insecurities of parents of their children losing their roots. Besides, the programme of Sakhi Sammelan, where a recipe competition is held, feeds into another yawning gap in the diaspora: Indians are forgetting their grandmothers’ recipes. Indian mothers are worried about the fast food culture and growing obesity epidemic among their children, and the only way they can wean them off is by cooking great food at home, which is what the RSS is helping them with. So most women would, given an opportunity, like to attend the Sammelan out of such truly secular and personal concerns. But once the innocents are lured in, the constant hammering of rabid Hindutva gradually alters every mind. Worryingly, the groups of liberal parents do not have any such formation that they can use to keep their families rooted to Indian-ism, which has been a long-standing failure of the leftists, who are merely immersed in political polemics.