A large number of tents have sprung up on the outskirts of London for a three-day event from Friday to celebrate 50 years of the British version of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), whose chief Mohan Bhagwat arrived here on Wednesday, July 27.
The event, called “Sanskriti: MahaShibir 2016”, marks 50 years since the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) was established in 1966. Registered as a charity with regulator Charity Commission, it is headed by Dhiraj D Shah, based in Birmingham.
Bhagwat, who arrived with senior RSS functionary Dattatreya Hosabale, will live in a tent at the sprawling Hertfordshire County Showground near Luton, and address a gathering of HSS members and invitees on Sunday, July 31. He will then move to London for several engagements during his week-long stay here.
Shah said: “From a very humble beginning in 1966, HSS has grown into a national organisation with over 110 shakhas. During this period, we have ventured into diverse areas across the length and breadth of society, including religious, cultural, social, educational, intellectual, student, legal and of course sewa.”
HSS says it expects “over 2,200 Hindus from across the UK and Europe” to participate in the event, and they will have a busy schedule for three days. Organisers say “Sanskriti presents the very best of Sangh, from ‘khel’ and yoga to ‘baudhik’ and ‘charcha’”.
Topics for discussion during the event include “Geopolitical situation and how Hindutva is the solution”, “How can we shape the next 50 years”, “Yoga: beyond the mat”, “Spirituality beyond religion” and “Dharmic capital”.
The organisers say the open air venue in the countryside has been transformed into a fully tended township, with more than 400 tents, infrastructure built from scratch and amenities required during the three days.
According to Shah, the theme of the gathering is ‘sanskar’ (value of life), ‘sewa’ (selfless service) and ‘sangathan’ (community spirit). Every effort was made to use recyclable materials to generate awareness of environmental sustainability, the organisers said. The Hertfordshire County Showground said it was “delighted” to welcome HSS, but added: “Please note this is a private event.”
With an average weekly attendance of 2,000 at more than 110 shakhas, HSS has a presence in most parts of Britain. MPs with large Hindu populations in their constituencies – such as Bob Blackman (Conservative, Harrow East) and Barry Gardiner (Labour, Brent North) – support its activities.
HSS functionaries were involved in organising the diaspora event at Wembley Stadium addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his November 2015 visit. Several RSS ‘pracharaks’ and functionaries have travelled from India over the years to work in Britain for certain periods and some organisations of the Sangh Parivar have branches in Britain, including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
According to the latest annual statement filed with the Charity Commission, HSS’s main objective is to advance Hinduism and “educate the public in the Hindu ideals and way of life”.
Its activities include setting up branches “where Hindus of the UK could congregate, provide facilities for training of body and mind and develop good character”, organise leadership courses and arrange lectures and discussions.
In February 2015, the Charity Commission launched a statutory inquiry after an undercover investigation showed a teacher at a camp organised by HSS for children in Herefordshire making strong remarks against Christians and Muslims.
HSS launched its own inquiry, extended full cooperation to the investigation and said it will in future take “even greater care that no views are expressed from its platform that could directly or indirectly promote interfaith discord”.
In the financial year ending March 2015, HSS said its income was £201,381 and expenditure £201,332. One of its largest expenditures mentioned was for “Shakha – hall hiring”. HSS said in the annual return it rented part of its property in Birmingham to Sewa International, another registered charity organisation, of which HSS is the sole member.
Facebook came under fire on Tuesday from lawmakers from several countries who accused the firm of undermining democratic institutions and lambasted chief executive Mark Zuckerberg for not answering questions on the matter.
Facebook is being investigated by lawmakers in Britain after consultancy Cambridge Analytica, which worked on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, obtained the personal data of 87 million Facebook users from a researcher, drawing attention to the use of data analytics in politics.
Concerns over the social media giant’s practices, the role of political adverts and possible interference in the 2016 Brexit vote and U.S. elections are among the topics being investigated by British and European regulators.
While Facebook says it complies with EU data protection laws, a special hearing of lawmakers from several countries around the world in London criticized Zuckerberg for declining to appear himself to answer questions on the topic.
“We’ve never seen anything quite like Facebook, where, while we were playing on our phones and apps, our democratic institutions… seem to have been upended by frat-boy billionaires from California,” Canadian lawmaker Charlie Angus said.
“So Mr. Zuckerberg’s decision not to appear here at Westminster [Britain’s parliament] to me speaks volumes.”
Richard Allan, the vice president of policy solutions at Facebook who appeared in Zuckerberg’s stead, admitted Facebook had made mistakes but said it had accepted the need to comply with data rules.
“I’m not going to disagree with you that we’ve damaged public trust through some of the actions we’ve taken,” Allan told the hearing.
Facebook has faced a barrage of criticism from users and lawmakers after it said last year that Russian agents used its platform to spread disinformation before and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, an accusation Moscow denies.
Allan repeatedly declined to give an example of a person or app banned from Facebook for misuse of data, aside from the GSR app which gathered data in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Legal documents reviewed by Reuters show how the investigation by British lawmakers has led them to seize documents relating to Facebook from app developer Six4Three, which is in a legal dispute with Facebook.
Damian Collins, chair of the culture committee which convened the hearing, said he would not release those documents on Tuesday as he was not in a position to do so, although he has said previously the committee has the legal power to. (VOA)