Representing British Hindus

John Zavos

This article is featured in Public Spirit’s special theme on Who speaks for us? The ‘who’ and ‘how’ of faith representation

ZavosThe first national Hindu representative body was set up 1978 with the modest aim of helping British Hindus set up temples. But with growing emphasis being placed on the role of ‘faith communities’ in public life, new organisations have begun to emerge, offering advice to government and developing a public response to crises affecting the British Hindu population.

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Hindu communities have been represented in local political environments in the UK by multiple organizations, from caste groups to temple committees. This diversity reflects the many different groups of people present in the UK who are in one way or another associated with the notion of being Hindu. In this article, I will focus on the ways in which these groups are represented in national arenas, where the diversity apparent in localities necessarily gives way to a projected ‘Hindu community’, a meta-group with a recognizable set of collective interests.  Analyses of ethnic communities have for many years recognized the cultural, social and political work that needs to be done to bring these communities into being and sustain them as resonant phenomena within particular social environments.[1] Religious studies scholars have also recognized the ways in which religious communities are constituted and reconstituted in a similarly dynamic fashion.[2] This is particularly evident in multicultural environments, where minority communities are frequently identified variously and sometimes simultaneously as ethnic, religious and/or racial.

RH JZ 2In the UK, a striking feature of the politics of multiculturalism in the 21st century has been a shift towards the identification of ethnic communities by religion. To a certain extent, this shift reflects the emergence of dominant voices within different communities, and the dynamics of intercommunity relations in a pluralist environment like Britain. At the same time, it also reflects a new interest in religious identity within agencies of the state. For a variety of reasons, the UK state has increasingly invoked Britain as a multifaith society, as much as a multiethnic or multiracial one. The census in Britain has operated both as an affirmation of and a critical agent in the development of this tendency. Since 2001 the census has included figures on religious identity. This has enabled us to develop some accuracy in understanding how many people identify themselves as Hindus in Britain, and who they are. In 2011 the census recorded 817,000 people as Hindu in England and Wales, about 1.45 per cent of the population, showing a rise of 0.4 per cent since 2001.[3] The Hindu population is young compared with the Christian population (but not in comparison to the Muslim population), with 31.5 per cent in the 0-24 age bracket (for Christians the figure is 25.5 per cent, while for Muslims it is 48.4 per cent). Like most South Asian communities, Hindus are an overwhelmingly urban population, with more than 50 per cent living in London. The figures of the 2001 census enable us to see that, in comparison to Sikh and Muslim groups, a high proportion of Hindu males are employed in professional or managerial positions, and a very low proportion are unemployed. Similarly, a comparatively high number of Hindus between the ages of 16 and 30 hold a degree, and nearly three quarters of households own their own home.[4]

800px-Gordon_Brown_at_Diwali_in_House_of_Commons
Official welcome: Gordon Brown and Keith Vaz at the 2008 House of Commons Diwali celebrations

What these figures show is that the Hindu population of Britain forms a relatively small putative community (small, that is, compared to the Muslim community, which in 2011 numbered some 2.7 million), but with a significant degree of social capital developed through employment patterns and high levels of educational achievement. This social capital is reflected in the development of organizations seeking to represent Hindus in political environments at the national level. The first national level organization was established as long ago as 1978. The National Council for Hindu Temples (NCHT) was established primarily as an advisory body for groups hoping to set up temples, and also as a resource on Hinduism and Hindu worship for temples and educational institutions. Over the years, it has acted as a quasi-representative body and now acts in an advisory capacity to several Government departments. In 1994 the Hindu Council UK was established with a more explicitly representative role. Indeed, NCHT was active in setting up the Council, purportedly in order to enable Hindu representation in secular environments. Ten years later, in 2004, a competing organization, the Hindu Forum of Britain (HFB), was established. The HFB has in recent years been the most active organization in projecting itself as the representative of Britain’s Hindu community, with several prominent roles on government initiatives such as the Commission on Integration and Cohesion.

RH JZ 1The representative quality of these organizations is of course a moot point. They have an ambiguous, layered sense of legitimacy. The HFB, for example, speaks with some certainty for a membership. Around 350 Hindu organizations around the country have chosen to affiliate themselves, and they get some say in policy formation, notably through involvement in the General Council which meets once a year, where the National Executive Committee are also elected.[5] At the same time, the HFB frequently speaks more broadly for ‘the Hindu community’ on matters of concern, and it is this ability to claim ‘community representation’ that provides it with legitimacy in national arenas.

Change in the representative landscape of British Hinduism occurs most frequently in response to what are perceived as major issues or challenges, as is shown by the establishment of both the Council and the Forum.[6] Indeed the most recent representational developments have been prompted by the emergence of a major issue related to caste. In April 2013 the Government indicated that it intended to activate legislation outlawing discrimination on the basis of caste under the 2010 Equalities Act. Although caste is already included as a protected characteristic under the Act, it has effectively been set aside since 2010, as the government at that time felt that there was not enough evidence of active discrimination on this basis. A Lords amendment in March 2013 forced the government to reconsider this position, leading to the change. These events have led to the emergence of a new representative voice for Hindus in Britain, called the Alliance of Hindu Organisations. The Alliance brings together the three existing umbrella organizations mentioned above, along with a series of more specific groups, including a high profile religious order, the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha. In its statements the Alliance has consistently claimed to represent ‘up to one million Hindus living in the UK’.[7]

800px-Shri_Swaminarayan_MandirThe Alliance has yet to establish a proper institutional presence (either virtual or actual), and it remains to be seen whether its existence will be sustained or developed. Its emergence is nevertheless an interesting indication of patterns of development in the representation of British Hindus. The organisations involved have collaborated in opposition to the Parliamentary developments. In a statement towards the end of March 2013, the constituent organizations of the Alliance argued that the legislation was an ‘insult’ to ‘the progressive, peace-loving contributors to the economic vibrancy and prosperity of the nation … the best integrated community in the UK’. The statement goes on to argue that the UK is ‘caste-neutral’, and that introducing legislation will only encourage caste identity, and therefore increase the possibility of caste discrimination.[8] By the time that the Alliance had been properly constituted some three weeks later, this forthright position had been recalibrated to acknowledge the existence of discrimination, but arguing that legislation is not the way to address this problem. In the interim, the Alliance engaged a Public Relations company which proceeded to develop ‘a compelling narrative about why the proposed legislation would be detrimental and what the client’s concerns were about its possible implementation’.[9] Whatever the merits of this argument, the processes involved and the ability to claim authoritative status is indicative of an increasing sophistication in the representation of Hindus as a community, reflecting both the history of organizational development and the social capital that exists amongst UK Hindus.

One further aspect of this recent case worth noting is the involvement in the early oppositional statement quoted above of Hindu nationalist groups, the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. These groups represent a form of assertive Hindu identity that has been a major influence on politics and social relations in contemporary India, and as some would argue, also in the Indian diaspora.[10] Generally speaking, these groups have kept a low profile in the development of national-level Hindu representation in the UK. In this case, however, as in some previous ‘moments of crisis’, their presence has been evident.[11] It is notable that by the time the Alliance had been properly constituted, these frontline Hindu nationalist organizations were no longer listed as a constituent element (although the associated National Hindu Students Forum is still listed). The role of Hindu nationalism in national-level representation of Hindus is a point that has been debated by academics in recent years. The surfacing of such organizations in situations like this is an interesting indicator of their persistent significance in national-level environments.

John Zavos is Senior Lecturer in South Asian Studies at the University of Manchester. His recent publications include Religious Traditions in Modern South Asia (Routledge 2011, co-authored with Jacqueline Suthren Hirst) and several articles on Hinduism and Hindu organisations in the UK. He has worked extensively on the Hindu nationalist movement and is the author of The Emergence of Hindu Nationalism in India (Oxford University Press 2000).


[1] For a summary of the debates on the idea of ethnicity, see S. Fenton (2010), Ethnicity, Cambridge: Polity Press

[2] For a discussion of the idea of religious community, see K. Knott (2004), ‘The sense and nonsense of ‘community’: a consideration of contemporary debates about community and culture by a scholar of religion’, in S. Sutcliffe (ed), Religion : empirical studies, London : Ashgate, p. 67-90; see also A. Dinham (2011), ‘What is a “faith community”’, Community Development Journal, Vol 46 No 4, pp. 526–541

[3] The 2011 figures for Britain as a whole were not available at time of writing.

[4] Office of National Statistics (2004), ‘Focus on Religion’, London: HMSO, p. 13

[5] It should be noted that membership is open to all organizations that identify themselves as ‘Hindu’ (subject to approval by the Trustees), and that all organizations nominate one member of the General Council, regardless of their relative size or their own mechanisms of representation.

[6] The Hindu Council was established in the wake of the Rushdie affair, and also during a major campaign to preserve worship at a large ISKCON temple near Watford; the HFB was established in direct response to an apparently racist attack on a Hindu temple in Wembley.

[7] See, for example, the series of press releases reproduced on the HFB website at http://www.hfb.org.uk/Default.aspx?sID=17&lID=0 (accessed 23 July 2013).

[8] Joint Statement on the issue of caste legislation from Hindu Forum of Britain, BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha, National Council of Hindu Temples UK, Hindu Council UK, Gujarati Arya Kshatriya Mahasabha UK, National Hindu Students Forum, British Hindu Voice, Oshwal Association of the U.K, Jain Samaj, Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh UK, Vishwa Hindu Parishad UK dated 27th March 2013. See http://www.hfb.org.uk/Default.aspx?sID=45&cID=525&ctID=43&lID=0 (accessed 23 July 2013).

[9] http://www.linstockcommunications.com/case-studies/alliance-of-hindu-organisations/ (accessed 18 July 2013)

[10] See for example, C. Jaffrelot, and I. Therwath (2007) ‘The Sangh Parivar and the Hindu diaspora inthe West: what kind of “long-distance nationalism”?’, International Political Sociology 1: pp. 278–295

[11] For this argument about Hindu nationalism in the UK, and also for examples of previous ‘moments’ of high profile activity, see J. Zavos (2010), ‘Situating Hindu nationalism in the UK: Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the development of British Hindu identity’, Journal of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics Vol 48 No 1: 2 – 22.

The image of Gordon Brown was taken by Richard J. Cole and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The image of Ghanshyam and Radha Krishna is included courtesy of Jay Swaminarayan and is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.

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