A century-and-a-quarter after Swami Vivekananda’s rousing speech to the World Parliament of Religions here in 1893, the World Hindu Congress has declared its objective to re-connect the 1.1 billion Hindus worldwide with their common heritage and their spiritual link to people of all other denominations.
For three days, beginning September 7, about 2,300 delegates will converge at the Westin Hotel in Lombard, a Chicago suburb, to deliberate, introspect and draw out a plan of action in keeping with the World Hindu Congress conference motto derived from Chapter 37 of the Hindu epic Mahabharata — Sumantrite Suvikrante (Think Collectively, Act Valiantly) and from the Rig Veda: Sam Gacchadhvam Sam Vadadhvam (Stay Together, Express Together).
The Westin Hotel is some 32 km from the Art Institute of Chicago, where Vivekananda’s bust commemorates the spot he spoke from. Many religious leaders are scheduled to attend the Hindu Congress conference.
A video message from the Dalai Lama, who had to drop out due to frail health, will be screened. Speakers in the various events include professor Ved Nanda of the University of Denver; Lord Jitesh Gadhia, the youngest Briton of Indian origin in the House of Lords; Swati Dandekar, a former legislator from Iowa; Congressman Raja Krishnmoorthi; Columbia professor Arvind Panagariya, a former economic advisor to the Indian government; and the actor, Anupam Kher.
The overwhelming majority of the 2,300 delegates — 1,300 — are from North America, with other delegates coming from 60 countries. For Indian immigrants, much has changed in Chicago since 1893. Over a century ago, Vivekananda spent a night shivering in a railway yard before a Good Samaritan took him in. He cut an exotic figure in his flowing robes, with passersby pulling at his saffron turban as he walked on the streets.
At the parliament, Americans heard a Hindu monk speak on behalf of his religion for the first time. Today, Chicago and its suburbs have more than a dozen expansive Hindu temples. Discourses by the likes of Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev attract packed audiences. The faith’s underlying message, in 1893 and 2018, is unity and tolerance. In his now famous speech, Vivekananda, who is regarded by many as more of a social reformer than a religious leader, spoke of the fact that India has sheltered “the remnants of the Israelites who came to South India seeking refugee from Roman tyranny, and remnants of the grand Zoroastrian nation”.
Another common message, then and now, is of dharma-righteousness for its own sake. Following his speech, an American journalist commented: “Vivekananda’s address before the parliament was broad as the heavens above us, embracing the best in all religions, as the ultimate universal religion — charity to all mankind, good works for the love of God, not for fear of punishment or hope of reward.”
The Hindu Congress conference, in the estimation of the organisers, has almost similar ambitions, an indication that Hinduism’s core message is timeless and unchanging. “There will be no spiritual discourses,” conference convener Abhaya Asthana said in an interview. “The aim is to use the essence of Hindu philosophy, dharma, to inform how we come together (in the diaspora) as men, women and youth — in politics, education and commerce.”
Asthana noted that despite the fact that Hindus have done well individually in North America, they do not have collective clout, a deficiency that the conference will deliberate on. “We are almost there in the social media, but we need more impact in politics, commerce and technology,” he said. Do Hindus, especially those in alien lands, need to take a long hard look at Hinduism? This is a question that hangs uneasily in the air when Indian Americans talk of current events in India.
But Asthana is sanguine. “We do not have to redefine dharma. The philosophy is sound, the principles are sound. Ahinsa (non-violence) is ingrained. All we need to do is to live our lives rooted in the philosophy of service and tolerance. “We want to connect all Hindus worldwide as well as reach out to all others for the happiness of all living creatures,” Asthana said. The pervasive, although often unspoken, apprehension, that religion is the great divider of modern times, has persisted since the first World Parliament of Religions in 1893.
The solution, as propounded by various speakers at the parliament, then, was an all-embracing universalism that envisioned a coming together of the great religions of the world. Racism, xenophobia and intolerance were unaddressed issues when Vivekananda spoke in Chicago. Poor immigrants from southern Europe, including many Jews fleeing Russia, had arrived in the United States at the time. Nativist feelings inspired laws designed to limit the entry of immigrants. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882 and the Immigration Restriction League in 1894.
The parliament chairman, Presbyterian minister John Henry Barrows, noted the scepticism: “Many felt that religion was an element of perpetual discord, which should not be thrust in amid the magnificent harmonies of a fraternal assembly of nations. On the other hand, it was felt that the tendencies of modern civilisation were toward unity.” The one word that tolled like a bell through the halls of the parliament was “universalism”.
Vivekananda, in his address to the final session of the parliament, elaborated on the theme: “My thanks to this enlightened audience for their uniform kindness to me and for their appreciation of every thought that tends to smooth the friction of religions. A few jarring notes were heard from time to time in this harmony. My special thanks to them, for they have, by their striking contrast, made general harmony the sweeter.”
Despite the passing of a century, participants at the World Hindu Congress conference may well find the tools to overcome the impediments in the path of righteousness unchanged. In addition to unity and tolerance, dharma inspires us to “stand up for justice”, said Ashtana, scientist at the Nokia Bell Labs, who works on Artificial Intelligence and neural networks, offering another quote from the Mahabharat — Yato Dharmastato Jayaha (Whence Dharma, Thence Victory).
The Alt-Left and the Social Justice Warrior (SJW) groups have taken out their knives and re-opened their petition accounts as Hindus from around the world prepare to gather at the World Hindu Congress (WHC) in Chicago this weekend (7-9 September 2018).
The first salvo was fired exactly a month ahead of the gathering when the American wing of the #SJW sprung into action to demand that Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard recuse herself from the World Hindu Congress events and that she “publicly sever ties” with “Hindu nationalist organisations”. In this report published by Caravan magazine, a rabble-rouser named Pieter Friedrich, of a group called the “Organization of Minorities of India,” is quoted as saying that “the RSS is India’s version of the KKK….” He claims that there is no difference between Hindutva and white nationalism, and that the RSS has gained more ground and exercises more influence in India than “… the KKK has in the United States”. He then goes on to warn Representative Gabbard that “…appearing alongside Bhagwat is comparable to taking the stage with David Duke”.
These folks know how to press Hindu buttons, and they know how to pander to the interests and individuals who seek an India devoid of Hindus and Hinduism, and they know how to scare the likes of Gabbard, who was the first to take oath as a member of the US Congress on the Bhagavad Gita.
Gabbard’s office sent out a couple of emails/letters claiming that she was not the chairperson of the WHC, and that she is not associated with the event in any way, and that she withdrew from participating at the WHC events because a “significant number of Indian partisan politicians will be speaking at and playing an important role at the World Hindu Congress….” (Letter to Dr Abhaya Asthana, Coordinator, WHC, 26 April 2018). Gabbard is both playing coy and clever when she said that “partisan politicians” will be speaking at the conference. She does not identify them, nor does she tell us what kind of partisan politics she is opposed to, since all politics is partisan.
Given the extremely partisan nature of American politics, and that so many participants at such events are self-selected, both here in the US as well as in India, and that some Indian partisan groups have demonised any individual, group, or event dealing with Hindus and Hinduism, what kind of speakers did she expect to be invited to the WHC? Those inimical to Hinduism? Those who abuse Hindus and Hindu ideas and precepts? Those who have worked hard all their political life to rid India of Hindus and Hinduism? Now that Gabbard’s office is sending out letters stating that she is not attending the event, would not those groups opposed to Hindus and Hinduism have a field day claiming that Gabbard has distanced herself from the WHC because she claims it is a partisan event and that she got pressured by them to do so?
In this election year, and having been marginalised by the Democratic Party she belongs to, Gabbard is playing to certain galleries hoping not to attract their ire and their wrath. It is easy to distance herself from Hindus and Hindu organisations because she knows they are the easy-going, let’s forget the past, let’s join hands together kind of folks who will continue to send her money in support of her election campaigns, and write about her potential of becoming President of the United States. May be not.
We do know that canards spread by anti-Hindu academics and activists are par for the course in India, and these academics and activists, spurred on and funded by partisan politicians have consistently and pugnaciously presented plans and actions seeking the vivisection of India. These actors have found much sustenance and support from the mainstream/left-liberal media outlets as well as from academics in India, Europe, and the US. When an author like Mira Kamdar gets ensconced in the Editorial Board of The New York Times, or a serial provocateur like Prof Wendy Doniger or the newly-minted PhDs like Audrey Truschke operate from the hallowed halls of the University of Chicago or Stanford or Rutgers, it is not surprising to see the litany of negativity on Indian matters published by newspapers, and the tomes of provocative scholarship emerging from Western academe on Hindus, their habits, their temples, their women, and their culture.
When such persons give the battle-cry will others not follow? And they indeed have, if anyone wants to pick up the gauntlet and do a content analysis of newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times published over the past five years or the books about Hindus/Hinduism/India published by Western academics from the time when the Bharatiya Janata Party began to emerge as a viable political alternative to the Congress Party. Ditto, for the big British newspapers, the BBC, and so on.
So, who are the groups that have signed on to this petition demanding that Gabbard distance herself from the World Hindu Congress? They include the following, and while some of these groups/associations claim to be new, they are no more than repurposed and renamed entities who have been operating in the United States for the past three decades, if not more:
Alliance of South Asians Taking Action, San Francisco, CA (asata.org)
Ambedkar King Study Circle, San Jose, CA (akscusa.org)
Bhim Rao Ambedkar Sikh Foundation, Kent, WA (brasf.org)
Chicago Desi Youth Rising (CDYR), Chicago, IL (chicagodesiyouthrising.wordpress.com)
Chicago South Asians for Justice, Chicago, IL
India Civil Watch, New York, NY
Indian-American Muslim Council, Boston, MA (iamc.com)
Organization For Minorities of India (ofmi.org)
Periyar Ambedkar Study Circle-America, San Jose, CA (pascamerica.org)
Sadhana: A Coalition of Progressive Hindus, New York, NY (sadhana.org)
Sikh Information Centre, Stockton, CA (sikhinformationcentre.org)
And these groups, let us not mistake, do not have merely an anti-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) agenda and fulminate only against the Sangh’s philosophy of Hindutva but they have as their target all of Hinduism and all of Hindus. Their work and ideology, and their programmes and publications, and their affiliations and networks have been analysed by an anonymous author who has carefully scanned available sources and enumerated his voluminous findings here, titled, “A House of Cards: Coalition Against Genocide and The Politics of Deception,” and here by a good friend, whose acerbic, razor-sharp takedown of the vile combination of the “FOIL”ers is necessary reading for all those who want to understand India’s despoilers.
Those willing to invest some time and energy into analysing the modus operandi of these groups and the affiliations of its founders, leaders, and promoters will find these two online sources a treasure trove. The network of “South Asianists” has kept Hindu-Americans on their back-foot for far too long, and they will try to do so again in New York City on 6 September for Hindus have not yet found a way to take the battle to their avowed enemies – both in India and across the world – simply because of this fact: Hindus and Hindu philosophies, by nature, encourage and accept diversity; Hindus, mostly, do not proselytise; Hindus and Hinduism do not claim monopoly over god and truth; and Hindus have not made it their agenda to make the world Hindu as Christians have sought to make the world Christian, Muslims have sought to make the world Muslim, or communists/socialists have sought to turn the world red or shades of pink.
It is not the intent in this short commentary to track and pin down each of these eleven signatories of the petition to Gabbard, but it is imperative that we probe some of them a little, as their agenda is, to use Rajiv Malhotra and Aravindan Neelakandan’s words, to “break India”.
So, here is just a sample of the background, the history, and affiliations of some of the eleven listed organisations.
The first on the list of the signatories is the “Alliance of South Asians Taking Action” (ASATA). The author of A House of Cards notes the following about this organization:
“A close examination of ASATA shows that it is yet another creature of FOIL (Forum of Indian Leftists/Forum of Inquilabi Leftists). In fact, it is a new incarnation of FOIL initiatives such as Youth Solidarity Summer and Organizing Youth….
“In essence, the activists that run ASATA and BASS have undergone training via radical leftist programs in New York, San Francisco and other places. These activists have now formed ASATA to extend FOIL’s radical leftist thought leadership to a new generation of South Asian youth. Such activism, as illustrated under FOIL here, subscribes to inaccurate and pejorative notions such as the Hinduism = caste = racism view and propagates the theme that all horrors of South Asia are caused by “Hindu savages” in India.”
On the Indian-American Muslim Council (IAMC), sixth on the list, the House of Cards author notes that one of the founding members of IAMC, Shaik Ubaid, was deeply and intricately connected with terrorist organisations, and another founding member, Omar Khalidi, had been peddling his jaundiced views about India and Hindus for a long time on a variety of forums in the US, Europe, and India.
The weekly/fortnightly emails from IAMC makes for incredulous reading as the group collects and collates every kind of crime that involves Muslims, as victims, in India, and seeks to pin it on some “right wing/Hindu nationalist” organization or groups. The constant drumbeat is possible as the English language media in India is equal partner in highlighting alleged attacks on Muslims, and in masking/hiding crimes committed by Muslims against Hindus or against other groups.
This coordinated campaign, carried out in a professional, strategic fashion, then gets picked up by Western media and/or the offices of congressional representatives or senators or the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) that then acquires legs in congressional hearings or the USCIRF’s annual report. These reports then get repackaged and sold again as fresh evidence against “right wing/Hindu nationalist” groups in India and the Narendra Modi government.
The Ambedkar King Study Circle is an interesting group founded in 2016. It is doubtful that Ambedkar, who died in 1956, knew much about Martin Luther King Jr, who came to prominence in the Civil Rights Movement only in 1954, or that King had studied Ambedkar and his works. With their executive leadership seemingly made of members of the Tamil Diaspora (see here) we can surmise why Article III of their Constitution includes the following statement:
Organise and participate in hall meetings, protests and demonstrations to sensitise and educate the people in the United States on class, race, caste, gender and religious oppressions taking place across the globe in general, and among Indians in particular.
This “study circle” seems to have an obvious left/communist agenda and background as they use the prefix “Comrade/Com” to refer to or identify the speakers they invite to address them. One of the invited speakers to their 2018 conference, to coincide with the WHC, is the controversial social activist Teesta Setalvad, who has been accused of embezzling funds her organisation had raised, and meant for victims who had suffered during communal riots. Here again, we see the incestuous circle of fellow travellers and co-conspirators whose only goal seems to be a division of India based on religions, jati, language, and regional identities, and by encouraging a planned/violent overthrow of elected governments.
The Bhim Rao Ambedkar Sikh Foundation seems to be an organisation on paper only as a search of BRASF.Org or ambedkarsikh.org takes one to a site that can’t be reached. There is a Dr B R Ambedkar Sikh Foundation listed on the Charity Navigator site that monitors and evaluates non-profit/charity organisations. The site offers interesting information: this 501 (3) (c) organisation, since being set up in 2015, has raised zero dollars, has assets of zero dollars, and seems to be nothing more than a cover-up for its political activities. That this group joins hands to attack and besmirch individuals and groups who put their body, soul, and mind to provide relief to those in danger or affected by natural and/or human-made disasters is indicative of the nature of the “work” of the members of this network of “South Asians for Justice”.
It is not as if the WHC have planned the events more skillfully, or that they could not have more carefully vetted and constituted the various panels. Some of these problems have arisen not because of any overt biases but because of the makeup of the Hindu-American population and the involvement of people from different regions of India and the Indian Diaspora in such community activities. However, a professional, self-conscious, careful, and sensitive approach to these matters would have minimised and/or resolved some of the issues:
The WHC organising committee members are overwhelmingly men, and from North and Central India, with just a very small handful from South India.
Similarly, the largest numbers of plenary session speakers are of North/Central Indian origin, and male.
It is the same with the list of “Economic Conference Speakers,” “Educational Conference Speakers,” “Media Conference Speakers,” “Organizational Conference Speakers,” and so on.
The meeting rooms/halls are named after people who have been demonised by the “secular/left/progressive” groups in India: for example, “Ashok Singhal Hall,” “Mahamana Malviya Hall,” or “Lokmanya Tilak Hall”. Surely, they could have named one meeting place “Rajaji Hall” or another “Narayana Guru Hall” embracing not only the range of Hindu leaders and activists across India, but given the attendees and the conference-watchers something to cheer and ponder about.
The programme, as detailed on the WHC website does not offer any information about the inclusion of sessions that deal with jati/varna divides; temple entry and temple management concerns; regional and language divides, etc.
We see very few Indian academics/scholars from the social science/humanities areas represented, or given charge of inviting speakers, organising the thematic sessions, etc.
Of course, it is easy to criticise standing outside of the tent about activities inside the tent. But we have seen that time and again, Hindus, who mean well, make unnecessary blunders and get bad press. The WHC is indeed a mega event that needed some input from people beyond the established networks of Hindu groups and activists, both in India and in the US. That this event has brought together the old detractors and despoilers is not surprising, but that these groups are given the same set of ammunition to target Hindus is worrying.
In closing, it is important to remember this: Urban Naxal groups, the Social Justice Warrior groups, the network of the left/liberal academics, and the English media echo chambers are all aligned to oppose not Hindus, but what Hindus believe and embody – the very core principles of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ (the world is one family), and ‘Nara Seva, Narayana Seva’ (serving humanity is serving divinity). If the WHC panel presentations and invited speakers harp well and consistently about these two principles, WHC 2018 will be a success. #KhabarLive