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Last Updated: Monday, 26 January, 2004, 08:31 GMT
Fallout from Gujarat reaches US

By Rahul Sarnaik
BBC correspondent in the eastern United States

In the second of his reports on the fears of Hindu extremism, Rahul Sarnaik talks to members of the Indian diaspora in the US.

A group of teenagers play basketball in New York City. The players trace their roots back to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and belong to several religious backgrounds.

Muslims in US
Many US Muslims complain that they are ignored

They insist that tensions in their parents' homelands do not affect their day-to-day lives.

But it is a very different story among older South Asians attending the Westbury Mosque and Islamic Centre in suburban Long Island.

A large contingent of the worshippers is from Gujarat - the state in western India that was engulfed by sectarian riots early in 2002.

Up to 2,000 people were killed - most of them Muslims.

Hesitation

The aftermath of that violence is still felt as far away as the US.

Habib Ahmed, vice-president of the Westbury Islamic Centre, says there's a growing rift between local Hindus and Muslims.

"I have been actively involved in meeting Hindus," he says, "but I don't think that lately many Muslims are doing that.

"I see hesitation on both sides."

Hindus in US
Hindu temples in the US have large congregations

There is also concern about the rise of 'Hindutva', a word that has different meanings for different people.

Organisations that describe themselves as pro-Hindutva say they simply want to return India to its true identity - which for them means giving Hindu culture and values prime place in Indian life.

But many members of India's religious minorities fear that it would mean them being relegated to second-class status.

The argument is raging among the fast-growing Indian community within the United States.

American or Indian?

Nearly two-million people of Indian origin live in the US. They include 40,000 doctors. One third of America's hotels and motels are run by US Indians.

They are widely regarded as hard-working, law-abiding and success-oriented.

Hindu priest in US
Many US Hindus want to distinguish themselves from Muslims

Evidence of this can be seen at a huge Hindu temple in the centre of Edison, New Jersey.

Many of the young devotees are generally positive about their lives in the US.

"There is a great combination between being an American and being an Indian," says 21-one-year-old Sanjay Patel.

"I would like to be as Indian as possible - but at the same time I would like to be as American as possible."

Many of his friends agree, arguing that the Gujarat riots have in fact brought local Hindus and Muslims closer together.

"I think there's a new-found respect among us," says 27-year-old Siddarth Dubal, "and a realisation that we need to figure out how to get this thing solved."

Special ambassador

One organisation that's built up growing support among America's Indian community is the Vishwa Hindu Parishad - or VHP.

Active worldwide, it describes itself as working for the greater cultural unity of all Hindus - but critics accuse it of promoting Hindu chauvinism, which it strenuously denies.

Gujarat religious riots
The Gujarat riots left some 2,000 dead - mostly Muslims

The VHP's US headquarters are near the temple in Edison.

Its National Secretary, Gaurang Vaishnav, says that after the 11 September al-Qaeda attacks, Hindus in the US are speaking out positively as a community.

"To an average American, whether a person is a Muslim or a Hindu makes no difference," Mr Vaishnav says.

"Therefore it is important that we stand up and say that we are Hindus who believe in peace and in everybody living together amicably."

The Indian Government - which is led by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - has appointed a special 'Ambassador-at-large' to interact with the global Indian diaspora.

His appointment reflects a growing desire among the Indian community to translate their numbers and affluence into political clout - as so many other ethnic minority groups have done here.

But there are fears in some quarters that extreme and shadowy Hindu-nationalist groups are gradually building up support in the US.

Hate mail

Allegations have been made that money donated by Indian-Americans for welfare and educational projects in India could have ended up in the hands of organisations that are accused of stirring up sectarian hatred and violence.

These claims have been made by Indian Muslims, as well as leftists and secularists.

We believe in peace... in everybody living together amicably. We are not the ones who are Jihadis.
US VHP National Secretary Gaurang Vaishnav

They have been angrily and repeatedly denied by pro-Hindutva groups.

Robert Hathaway, the director of the Asia programme at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre in Washington DC, is a prominent academic who has publicly called on the US authorities to look into these allegations - and he has received hate-mail as a result.

He admits there is great uncertainty as to whether the allegations about funding are true - but feels they deserve official scrutiny.

"Many other very serious and well-informed scholars and researchers have raised the same sorts of concerns," Mr Hathaway says.

"Moreover, a number of very large US corporations also have those concerns, so this is not simply the crackpot idea of one scholar," he said.

The overall picture that emerges is mixed.

Among Hindus, there is a clear sense of optimism, and a feeling of being able to contribute to the development of their homeland.

But among Muslims, there is a sense that they are not being heard - particularly in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots.

And overshadowing all this, the ongoing accusations that some of the money donated by American Hindus is being channelled towards extreme activities in India.

Rahul Sarnaik's final report on Hinduism will come from the Indian state of Rajasthan.



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