Oproep internationale actie op Hindu Forum of Europe

Op 16 november 2015 werd Actiegroep Holi is geen Houseparty uitgenodigd op de General Assembly van het Hindu Forum of Europe in Brussel om de protestactie onder de aandacht te brengen van haar internationale netwerk. Hieronder is de tekst weergegeven van de toespraak die is gehouden door Pravini Baboeram en Shivani Jagroep.

Good afternoon,

Thank you to the members of Hindu Forum of Europe for having us here today. A special thank you to the president of Hindu Forum of Europe, mr. Radj Bhondoe, for inviting us to be here this afternoon and share our message.

We stand before you as daughters of a new generation within the Indian Diaspora. A generation that is born and raised in Europe but maintains a great pride of her cultural heritage that is linked to India, specifically the Hindu community.

It is precisely this appreciation for our cultural legacy that brings us here today to celebrate Divali with you. An inspirational message that celebrates the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance and hope over despair. These three elements are closely related to the cause we want to raise here tonight. A cause that demands respect for and understanding of our cultural heritage. We are referring to our beloved spring celebration Holi, celebrated by all of us in spring time.

Since 2013 several European organizations have taken it upon themselves to move Holi to summer for commercial purposes, such as the Holi Festival of Colors, the Holi Fusion Festival and Holi One Colour Festival. These festivals take place throughout Europe, in countries such as Italy, the UK, The Netherlands, Belgium and France. They remove the festival from the original social-historical context of spring and eliminate rituals of prayers and Holika dahan. Only people over the age of 18 are allowed to enter and a minimum entrance fee of 15-30 euros is required. They claim to spread the spirit of Holi, but in fact abuse this spiritual message of unity and equality to mask their commercial goals. It is deeply offensive to reduce a rich and ancient spiritual experience that celebrates spring, to a house festival in summer with coloured powder as the only symbol related to Holi.

It is precisely this offense that has led to complaints from people within our community since the beginning of these festivals in 2013. One of these people was in fact the president of Hindu Forum of Europe, mr. Radj Bhondoe. These complaints have been ignored consistently and the European organizations have continued to promote their festivals while being aware of the grievances within our community.

The main claim these festivals make in response to the complaints is that they:

  • Promote a universal message of unity and equality. Now let us reflect critically on this claim. How valid is this message when these organizations consistently deny the many complaints they have received from our community? How can you achieve unity and equality when you ignore the voices of people of color? How do you show respect when you know your actions offend others, even if you don’t mean to, and continue those actions anyway? It is not the intention that counts, it’s the impact.
  • The festivals also claim they make Holi accessible to everyone by bringing Holi from India to Europe and that’s something they want us to be thankful for. Again, let us reflect critically on this claim. How can you make Holi accessible to everyone when you charge people a minimum of 15-30 euros to enter the festival and limit access to people over 18? How can you make Holi accessible when you as an organization file a demand at the European Trademark Commission to exclusively trademark Holi as your product? Why do we have to be thankful for Europeans when the values of Holi were transferred to us from generation to generation within the Indian Diaspora? Holi has always been accessible to everyone in Europe, but Europeans have been too blind to see it. If there’s anyone we need to be thankful for, it is our parents and grandparents and ancestors who have raised us with the values of Holi.

It seems the imperialist attitudes of Europeans during colonialism has continued with the imperialist attitude of European organizations in appropriating Holi for profit.

The attitude however is in line with the general attitude of Europe towards people of color. It is part of a bigger social injustice and inequality that affects all ethnic and religious minorities in Europe. It is linked to the cultural appropriation of non-western cultures that marginalizes people of color, including people of the Indian diaspora.

As part of the new generation within the Indian Diaspora, as active citizens of the European Union and as proud Hindus it pains us to see the way we are treated. How our concerns aren’t taken seriously and our voices are being ignored. We realize change won´t come unless we demand it.

Therefore we decided to set up the action committee: Holi is not a houseparty. Our action committee has one demand: remove the word “Holi” from the communication strategy of the festivals. In this way the festivals are able to continue and reflect their true objective, promoting a color fest, while respecting the cultural legacy of Holi that is linked to spring.

We published a public protest letter against one of the leading festivals, Holi Festival of Colors with our demand. Our letter also announced peaceful demonstrations at the festival in The Netherlands if they declined our demand. The demonstrations were an expression of willingness to confront the event in a public space. The organization refused to respond. And so we continued to mobilize our community towards a collective protest until the organization was willing to meet with us and discuss our demand.

What did we accomplish? Within two weeks “Holi is not a Houseparty” gained over 1000 likes on Facebook, with a post reach of over 10.000. Within a month we were able to bring representatives of leading Hindu organizations in The Netherlands together to publish a joint protest statement, calling on the Holi Festival of Colors to remove “Holi” from their communication and respect the core values of the original celebration in spring. After two months we were able to get a meeting with the Holi Festival of Colors and announced our breaking news: the Holi Festival of Colors in The Netherlands was cancelled. It is the beginning of a bigger social movement that encourages people of Indian descent to stand up and speak out.

Our protest awakened a discussion within the Dutch Indian community. People were engaging in discussions on social matters regarding the position and development of our community. Despite attempts from our opponents to dismiss our demands, most people started to realize their voice matters.

As with every social movement our protest also triggers resistance. It led to a public discussion that inspired us to develop a discussion toolkit. With the toolkit we wanted to provide our community with a broad range of arguments on this discussion and encourage them to decide and express their own opinions. Our approach of public confrontation with the festival organizers also led to a discomfort within the Dutch-Hindu community and raised questions on how to carry out the protest. The common strategy of laying low and maintaining the peace was proposed. Some argued our protest only divided the community and our strategy was counterproductive. In our view however, when your voice is being ignored consistently, public confrontation is the only solution to bring about real change. It is a strategy we have learned from one of our biggest icons, Mahatma Gandhi, who set a great example with his Non Cooperation Movement, a collective act of resistance and public confrontation to achieve independence.

To this day the resistance to our protest frames us as radical, anti-white and not truly Hindu. We are questioned on our knowledge of the scriptures and foundations of the Holi celebration. The framing ignores the legitimate grievances of Hindus, regardless of their theoretical knowledge, who feel their cultural heritage is being damaged and disrespected. It inspired us to consult with leading Hindu priests who preach in the mandirs, who have studied the scriptures and understand the spiritual and historical meaning of Holi. These Hindu priests counter the arguments our opponents offered from a religious perspective: Holi offers more than a message of unity and is specifically linked to the time period of spring, this you cannot ignore. There is no such thing as Holi in summer, therefore the organizations need to remove “Holi” from their communication strategy. Our contact led to an invitation to several mandirs to inform the people on our campaign and call for action. We set up the photo series “respect my culture #holiisnotahouseparty” and published over 35 photos of people, including key figures from the community, expressing their support for the campaign.

All the while during our protest campaign we kept the organization of Holi Festival of Colors up to date on the developments and requested a meeting to discuss our demands. It led to a Skype meeting with one of the initiators of the festival, Maxim Derenko. During the meeting Maxim denied our protest as legitimate and showed no intention of removing Holi from their communication strategy. He did however answer our question when he was asked about the dates for the festival in The Netherlands. He responded the festival was cancelled and he didn’t want to elaborate on the cause. The festival however would continue in the rest of Europe. Why would the organization cancel a festival that makes millions of euros? The only explanation is a threat to those profits. No business likes negative publicity that questions your image, especially when your message is unity and respect for all. It shows that even though the organization denied our protest as a factor, they have been sensitive indeed to the possible negative outcomes of our protest.

Our protest campaign and the discussion it triggered within the Dutch Indian community shows one thing: our voice matters. Not just the voice of the action committee, but of everyone who participated in the discussion. Whether it was to support our demands or to oppose our protest, it all contributed to a sense of awareness of our place in this world. It showed active citizens who feel responsible for their cultural legacy and gained courage to stand up for it. We are proud of the results we have accomplished in The Netherlands but realize this is only the beginning. Even though the Holi Festival of Colours has been cancelled in The Netherlands, it still continues in the rest of Europe, together with others festivals, to trademark Holi in summer. We will continue our actions against these festivals, but we cannot do this alone, we need your help and support.  That’s why we stand here before you today, to call on our mothers and fathers, our uncles and aunts, our brothers and sisters in the Indian Diaspora to take the protest to an international level, to take action and demand respect for the cultural legacy that is so dear to us. We encourage you to stand up against these festivals in your countries and demand respect for your spiritual legacy. We want to remind you that you are not alone in this and call on the message of Divali to inspire us. To shine a proud and powerful light, to spread the knowledge on the social-historical context and the importance to preserve and honor our spiritual legacy. And to hope that we will achieve social justice together. We thank you for your attention and wish you all a Subh Divali.