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By Vijaylakshmi Nadar, Edited By Adam Rizvi, TIO: If there is anything that the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi fears, it is international condemnation, against his authoritarian rule, which is threatening to dismantle the democratic, constitutional structure of the country. Though every effort has been made to subvert democratic institutions in the country, including the media, judiciary, bureaucracy and the law enforcing agencies in the country, efforts are also being made to ensure that news of this downgrading from a “fully free country” to a “partially free country”, does not impact his reputation abroad.
To ensure this, the “Hindu” organizations in the US and other Western countries, which till 2014, were concerned with Hindu centric religious activities and festivals, suddenly got co-opted into the more aggressive, hate filled political entity Hindutva narrative. Instead of talking about “Hinduism”, the talks, activities, now centre around protecting the interests of the extreme right wing Hindu leader in power in India.
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This is the last of a five part series, which looks at this curious but dangerous phenomenon, which seeks to brainwash the Indian diaspora, under cover of religion, risking their own existence in the process.
For the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), with the creation of Pakistan, a part of their life long goal was fulfilled, when the Muslims who did not accept their version of Hindu sanskriti left. But the second and most important aspect of their goal of a Hindu rashtra, is presently being shaped by Narendra Modi, a lifelong volunteer of the RSS and organizations like OFBJP, VHPA and HAF along with several sangh outfits in India have been recruited to fulfil it. The aim is to create the Hindu rashtra, by the time RSS’s golden jubilee celebrations in 2025.
To defend themselves against “Hindupobia”, HAF has accused organizations like the Indian American Muslim Council”, which has the dual repsonsibilitty of raising the concerns of not just the Muslim minority, but that of dalits as well, have to also fend off accusations from right wing organizations like the HAF, which often label them as Islamamist organizations for lack of something better to say of their professed path.
“By characterizing IAMC as an ‘Islamist’ organization, HAF has betrayed its failure to understand the conjoining of the words ‘Indian’ and ‘Muslim.’ This is not surprising, since Hindutva ideology consider India to be Hindu and simply cannot accept that Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis and Jews are just as Indian as Hindu-Indians,” said Mr. Kannan Srinivasan, the spokesperson of the Coalition Against Genocide (CAG) spokesperson. “CAG condemns HAF’s reckless assertions that merely attempt to play into a broader environment of anti-Muslim bigotry,” added Mr Srinivasan.
CAG during one of the attacks on them, had pointed out that, unlike HAF, whose “coalition” consists primarily of organizations belonging to one community, Coalition Against Genocide represents a diverse cross section of the religious and political spectrum of the Indian diaspora, including several Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Dalit, Muslim and Leftist organizations.
According to Pew Research Center’s annual reports on the “Rising Tide of Restrictions on Religion“, India has been listed consistently for almost a decade as one of the top three countries in the world with the highest amount of religious violence. While India’s constitution is praise worthy in its protection of civil rights for all, it is the Hindu Nationalist militia outfits in India that are the primary and dominant contributors to religious violence reported by the Pew Research report. HAF does not contest this fact
HAF leadership’s participation in Sangh Parivar training camps in India has been reported, HAF’s support for demagogues of violence and sectarian hatred, such as Sadhvi Rithambara, and the isolation of HAF from the mainstream of national and international human rights organizations.
On its website and in social media, HAF has attacked the integrity of prominent organizations like Human Rights Watch HRW) and US Commission on Religious Freedom (USCIRF). While being vocal about the situation of Hindu minorities in other parts of the world, HAF appears to be considering Christian, Muslim and Sikh religious minorities in India as somehow less worthy of having their plight known to the American public.
The founder members of HAF, including Meghani, provided a hitherto unavailable opportunity to bridge the gap between the Hindutva agenda and mainstream American politics. By situating the HAF’s work within a framework of American multiculturalism, Meghani effectively gained the ability to push the VHP-A’s Hindutva agenda as an issue of “Hindu rights”.
His trajectory as a “second generation” leader of the U.S. Sangh is also notable for the fact that Meghani utilized a rich crop of young Sangh activists like himself to build the HAF. Meghani’s team of volunteers/staff who went on to become the founding leadership of HAF (and continue to be its leaders today) are largely drawn from within the ranks of those placed exactly like him, individuals with established credentials as members of one or another American Sangh organization or initiative.
Thus Rishi Bhutada came out of the Hindu Student Council (HSC) at University of Pennsylvania, Sheetal Shah served as the Southeast Regional Coordinator for the HSC, Suhag Shukla was active with organizing HSC’s regional conferences in the same region, Kavitha Pallod out of the VHP-A’s American Hindu Youth Camp, Padma Kuppa with the VHP-A’s Hindu Temple Executive Council, and Ramesh Rao with the India Development and Relief Fund (IDRF), a fund-raising arm of the VHP-A.
The HAF is independent and unaffiliated only in one sense of the word – legally. It is its own 501c3 and it files its own 990s.
The HAF’s first major public fight for `Hindu rights’ was in 2005, during what is called the California Textbook Controversy. A few Hindus were upset that Hinduism was being described as oppressive because of the prevailing caste system, Instead of accepting that it indeed is a problem and doing something about it, they suggested edits in line with the Hindutva philosophy which was worse. It was followed by the 2010 Controversy around rabid Sadhvi Rithambara’s New Jersey temple speech, and the 2013 case of the Council of Parliament of World Religions (CPWR) withdrawal of sponsorship for the 150th anniversary celebrations of Swami Vivekananda’s birth that VHP-A had planned.
In recent times they launched a campaign against Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal’s resolution on Kashmir, criticising the Indian government. In each of these engagements, the ideological affinities and positions of the HAF are unmistakably in consonance with those of the Sangh Parivar in India and in the U.S.
HAF’s efforts to eliminate the voices of the oppressed majority within Hinduism, that of Dalits and women, is certainly indicative of its narrow ideological moorings, sugar-coated as they may be in the language of rights.
HAF’s support for the VHP of America, when CPWR withdrew its support for a VHP-A event, and HAF’s constant condemnation of the US Congressional House Resolution that is critical of Hindutva and its votaries and seeks to include human rights within the framework of India-US strategic dialog, leaves no room of doubt where their loyalties lie.
In short, the HAF’s stance on “human rights” is identical to that of the Hindutva proponents, its perspective not just reflective of that of the RSS, but faithfully representing and defending the position of the RSS, as if it were its own.
Among the initial members of the Executive Council of the HAF was Ramesh Rao, a professor of Communications, with an established reputation as a vocal defender of the RSS. Rao’s book titled Gujarat after Godhra – Real Violence, Selective Outrage (2003) condemned Human Rights Watch for pointing to state complicity as a critical enabling factor in the genocide of 2002, well established by national and international Human Rights institutions.
In December last year, IAMC accused HAF of being instrumental in getting an article published in Newsweek, against them. The article titled “COVID Relief Funds Went to Violent Extremists”, accused IAMC of being connected to the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). In a sharp rebuttal, Mr Rasheed Ahmed, Executive Director, IAMC, pointed out that the cofounders of HAF were former executive council members of VHPA, which is allied with Vishwa Hindu Parishad, India, which has been classified by the Central Intelligence Agency as a “religious militant” organization.
He also pointed out that HAF had only claimed IAMC had hosted Mohammad Siddiqi, SIMI’s founder. But after founding SIMI in 1977, Dr. Siddiqi left it in 1980, 21 years before the Indian Government banned it, and migrated to the US becoming a US citizen and retiring in 2015 after 28 years as a tenured Professor of Journalism and Public Relations at the Western Illinois University.
“Not once in the 44 years since SIMI was founded in 1977, or in the nearly two decades since SIMI was banned in 2001, has any law enforcement agency or prosecution, either in the US or in India, named Dr. Siddiqi as an accused or as a person of interest,” Mr. Ahmed wrote. “Dr. Siddiqi’s name has not featured as an accused or as being connected, even indirectly, to SIMI in the court filings India’s Government has submitted for each of the eight times it has banned SIMI, the last in 2019”, he pointed out.
In fact, Dr. Siddiqi had never been accused by police in any part of India of any crime. As a US citizen of Indian origin, he had traveled to India multiple times to meet with his extended family, including after SIMI’s ban in 2001, but not once did Indian law enforcement agencies question him.
“Not only did Dr. Siddiqi have nothing to do with SIMI, he criticized it for its turn to extremism. In an interview headlined “The SIMI I founded was completely different” published by Rediff, a leading Indian news website, in 2003, Dr. Siddiqi said he believed that SIMI had been “hijacked by elements in other countries and other Muslim societies” and that “some of them at least have become misguided and radical in their beliefs”, Mr Ahmed pointed out.
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