By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Ten years ago, in a small town in north India, Ashok Singhal spearheaded the destruction of a 16th-century mosque, sparking the worst religious riots since the country won independence. His supporters tore down the Babri Masjid brick by brick.
A week ago, in a basement in suburban New Jersey, Singhal courted the hearts and pocketbooks of Hindu immigrants to the United States. This American visit and dozens before it, critics say, are part of a campaign to tear down India’s secular political structure – not brick by brick, but dollar by dollar.
The movement Singhal belongs to – Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva – is rising in India. And some say it has risen with the sometimes unwitting help of Indian Americans who have contributed millions to charities in their native country, particularly schools in tribal areas that the Hindu right views as key to its agenda.
Singhal’s visit coincided with the end of an unprecedented government-sponsored conference in New Delhi of prominent Indians living abroad. The country is trying to tap into the guilt, nostalgia and financial resources of its diaspora.
That strategy explains the unlikely spectacle of the silver-haired leader of the World Hindu Council holding forth in the basement of a Voorhees physician last Friday night. Sixty people listened to a man one called “a saint in street clothes.”
Two police officers stood sentinel, since there are some for whom Singhal, whose group has reshaped Indian politics in the last decade, conjures Hitler more than he does a saint.
The 77-year-old – an ally of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee – spoke of the ongoing effort to build a temple over the ruins of the Babri mosque, where Hindus believe the warrior god Ram was born.
“We need the Hindus to unite throughout the world,” Singhal said in an interview, “… because there is a cultural onslaught against the Hindus.”
“People can understand more because of Sept. 11,” he said. “America has suffered the first onslaught by the jihadis. We have been suffering this onslaught for the last 1,000 years.”
According to Human Rights Watch, Singhal’s group helped stoke religious riots in Gujurat state last spring that claimed 2,000 lives, as well as attacks on Christians in 1998 and 1999.
After Singhal’s speech, his host, gynecologist Veena Gandhi, made a pitch: “$365 a year for one school. A dollar a day, for which we can’t even buy a Coke in New York. Talk to your friends. This is our debt to our country where we were born.”
Gandhi is a leader in the U.S. offshoot of the World Hindu Council and a coordinator for a group devoted to starting tribal schools, the Houston-based Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of USA.
Since the group began, Indians in the Northeast have raised about $500,000 for 1,400 schools, most of it from the Philadelphia region, said Sanjeev Jindal, a coordinator and a Merck scientist from Lansdale.
He says the schools’ main purpose is to combat illiteracy. Critics say more is at stake.
“The schools… help to create a cadre of foot soldiers to fight against the constructed enemies of Hindutva, in this case Muslims and Christians,” said Smita Narula, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
She said more tribal people took part in last year’s Gujurat riots than ever before in the state’s history of religious tensions – a fact viewed by many as a sign of Hindutva’s success in areas where Christian missionaries once held sway.
Gandhi dismissed critics of the schools, saying, “They find this an obstacle to the spreading of their own religion.”
She said the Hindutva agenda was not meant to exclude Muslims, Christians, or other religious minorities: “Hindus have always taken a beating because we are supposed to forgive… . You cannot be tolerant to the point of being a coward.”
A report last year by a group of activists – the Foreign Exchange of Hate – revealed that the bulk of $5 million raised by one U.S.-based charity for relief and development projects in India went to a network of Hindu nationalist groups – including the Ekal Vidyalaya schools.
It came largely from unsuspecting workers with origins in India and from U.S. employers providing matching funds.
Just as many contributors did not realize how their dollars were being used, members of Hindutva groups here seem to join for reasons different from their counterparts in India.
“There’s a whole generation of people who emigrated out – sort of ‘brain drain’ types – who feel guilty for having left India,” said Gautam Ghosh, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.
The dozens gathered in Gandhi’s basement are battling cultural loss in a nation where they are a minority. The World Hindu Council hooks them on heritage, with 14 U.S. chapters that run summer camps, cultural centers and temples.
That was how Jindal, the Merck employee, got involved.
“I thought it was a neat project, and I wanted to volunteer my time,” he said. “It would be a shock to me that these kids are being taught to hate Muslims or Christians – and to the extent that they should go and become soldiers. Nothing would shock me more if that would be the case.”
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