Rallying religious revival

An Early Article in India Today about HSC Traces the History of HinduNet and AHAD

Title: Rallying religious revival
Author: Arthur J. Pais (New York)
Publication: India Today
Date: November 15, 1997

Kanchan Banerjee was prevented from performing Ganesh puja on the campus of
Boston University nine years ago. He was stopped not by American rednecks
or the KKK but the India Club-on the plea that the celebration of Diwali
went against India’s secular constitution.

It was probably similar complaints from fellow students at other American
schools that led to the birth of the Hindu Students Council (HSC). The aim
is unambiguous and untempered-to establish Hindu identify. “There are those
who speak for Indian Americans or Canadian Americans. We speak for Hindu
Americans and Hindu Canadians, and we want the younger generation to take
pride in their Hindu roots-and challenge anyone, including their apathetic
parents, who want to hide their Hindu identity.” says Banerjee, a national
co-ordinator of the council.

Since its inception in 1990. the HSC has grown dynamically. In November.
the 50th branch is slated to open with three groups vying for the honour.
Among the existing branches are those at elite universities like MIT,
Harvard, University of Chicago. University of Michigan at Arm Arbor, the
University of California at Berkeley, and Temple University. In addition.
several high schools. including those at the nationally-acclaimed Phillips
Academy in Andover. New Hampshire. are getting ready to open branches.

“We have witnessed a dramatic growth in the last 18 months and now have
13.000 members.” says San Diego-based Ajay Shah, who is in charge of the
electronic services of HSC. There is no doubt that the council has grown in
the last three years after it decided to go on its own following the
centenary celebrations of Swami Vivekananda’s Chicago visit held in
Washington D.C. by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). attended by over 1
0.000 people including 2.000 youths.

Despite this, many of the its leaders still keep in close contact with the
VHP. About six of them attended a VHP leadership conference held in New
Hampshire last week. In addition, a dozen camps in different parts of the
US and Canada have been organised where VHP leaders like Acharya Sushil
Muni and Swami Dayananda Saraswati have addressed the gathering. The
council counts among its staunch supporters Bhishm Agnihotri, the
vice-chancellor of Southern Law School near New Orleans. and jurist Ved
Nanda, Distinguished Professor at the University of Colorado in Denver.

In a typical week, HSC holds prayer meetings. conducts study of scriptures
and discussions on Indian history on more than 40 campuses. The HSC
recently held a youth festival in Boston attended by more than 600 college
and high school students, where every activity including a jeopardy-type
pop quiz sought to reinforce the tenets of Hinduism.

Writing letters to newspapers and news organisations to protest against
what members feel is distorted presentation about India is one of the key
activities carried out by the HSC. It is carried out through the Hindu
Anti-Defamation League, part of the Hindu Universe
(http://www.hindunet.org), the council’s home page on the Internet.
Recently. members sent over three dozen letters to Reuters to protest
against stories it carried about the Shivlinga. News reports on Kashmir
receive constant criticism from the HSC for not mentioning the plight of
Kashmiri pundits. “A few of these letters are published.” says Chandan
Bhandopadhyaya, one of the leaders at Boston University. “But even when
they are not, we hope we have raised some doubts in the minds of editors.”

The Hindu Universe also has pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses. the
legends that are attached to them, prayers. articles on Indian history, and
a news update. Six HSC volunteers spend about 40 hours a week updating the
material. “on an average day, there are about 5,000 hits. But when there
is a political crisis or religious conflict, -we have seen more than 1
0,000 hits in a single day.” says Shah. “Being students. and among the
first ones to know about the cutting edge of technology, we were able to
seize on cyberspace opportunities.”

Religion is the primary. but not the only preoccupation of the group, It
also organises social activities. Recently. members in three states
adopted stretches of national highways. and spend ii few days in a month
cleaning them. Several times a year, HSC groups join Americans in
providing food to soup kitchens.

Notably, a substantial number ofthe council’s members, are born and brought
up in the US and probably that is why they are curious about their culture.
Says Sheetal Patel, a New York high school student: “Often my American
classmates would make fun of Indian traditions. about holy cows. about
bindis and about the Shivlinga. And I could not talk to them in the idiom
they understood. I believe I am going to learn a lot from HSC’s Hindu
Universe and from attending the camps.”

“HSC members seek to understand their religion. history and culture without
stiffness and without being aggressive.” says Ralph Williams. professor of
religion at the University of Michigan. Arm Arbor. But not everyone
agrees. The council is often dubbed as a group of fundamentalists. The
Indian Progressive Students Group (IPSG), a leftist group active on about
two dozen campuses, lead the pack of those who think that the HSC is just
another obscure Indian group. “They just don’t know enough about the VHP
and the RSS and are letting themselves be subtly brainwashed.” says S.
Sridhar, a former Columbia University student.

Others too question the HSC brand of’ student activism. There is the
underlying fear that the HSC could be controlled by the VHP-which could
give a unidimensional view of Hinduism and India. “They say that they
became independent of the VHP.” says S.P. Bose, a documentary filmmaker who
graduated from the University of Southern Illinois. “I think it is a ploy.”

Adds Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. a novelist: “One is wary of student groups
that have ties to political organisations and talk about religious issues.”
The opposition to the group is bound to increase in coming years. Warns
Raymond William. a scholar of Hinduism in Wabash. Indiana: “There could be
a lot of challenges from fundamentalist Christian groups.”

Ironically, the members of the Sangh Parivar are also not completely happy.
“I would say the HSC has gained a full Hindu outlook when they abandon the
current history books they are using,” says S. Venkat, an RSS activist. “I
am surprised that they are using textbooks like The Wonder That Was India
by A.L. Basham.”

However. the members are not worried. “It helps us to be on our toes. and
ready for any criticism.” says Shah.