- While Hindu protagonists of the temple in Ayodhya boisterously celebrated the groundbreaking ceremony, a diverse group of protestors decried the Modi government’s agenda of normalizing human rights abuses in India.
NEW YORK — Chants of “Jai Shree Ram,” reverberated across Times Square on Aug. 5, as hundreds of Indian Americans of all age groups, celebrated the ground breaking ceremony of the controversial Ram temple in Ayodhya in India. It was a festive atmosphere, as revelers were dressed in traditional attire to commemorate what they called “a historic” moment for Hindus. Wearing saffron colored kurtas, many supporters were seen with saffron flags, as they danced to the beat of the dhol. Singers from ISKCON sang bhajans in praise of Lord Ram as people clapped, danced and joined the chorus. A diya lighting ceremony was held, as people clapped and chanted praises on Lord Ram.
On either side of the celebrators were protestors who regarded the celebration as an expression of hate and bigotry. Holding placards decrying the Indian government’s agenda of normalizing human rights abuses in India, they raised slogans against Prime Minister Modi’s government and the atrocities committed against the minorities.
Chants passing Ram were met with slogans like “RSS Murdabad,” “BJP has got to go!” and “Azadi,” at New York’s iconic venue. The exchanges were verbal, as the police patrol managed to keep the two groups apart.
Similar to those celebrating, the protestors too belonged to diverse backgrounds. On one side were Khalistani separatists and those opposing the Abrogation of Article 370, which revoked the special status, or limited autonomy, granted to Jammu and Kashmir, while on the other side were members of Muslim, human rights, anti-fascist groups and secular advocacy organizations like the Association of Indian Muslims (IAM), Hindus for Human Rights and South Asia Solidarity Initiative (SASI) and India Civil Watch.
The protest was organized by the Coalition to Stop Genocide in India, a broad coalition of Indian Americans and U.S.-based civil rights organizations and activists. Those protesting held placards and chanted slogans as a reminder “that normalizing hate and bigotry would not go unchallenged in the U.S.”
Jagdish Sehwani, chairman of the Ram Janma Bhoomi Shilanyas Celebrations Committee of USA, was behind the Aug. 5 event, held in collaboration with Hindu American community organizations aligning with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. Sehwani had promised the celebration to be a “once-in-a-mankind event,” with beaming 3D images of Lord Ram across the giant billboards, as well as chantings and bhajans, and speeches by prominent members of the community.
However, the reality was slightly different.
Although news reports in India media have largely focused on the digital display at Times Square as the highlight of the celebration, any such display was conspicuously absent during the evening hours.
Originally promised to run from 8 am to 10 pm, the ad was reportedly displayed for a few hours — from 10:30am to 1 pm — on a billboard at the corner of West 47th Street and Seventh Avenue. It was 10 seconds long and ran every 15 minutes, according to the organizers.
Minhaj Khan, president of the New Jersey chapter of the Indian American Muslim Council, told American Kahani that the billboard which was owned by Disney, was shut down once the company was made aware of the event’s real purpose and the history. Minhaj said the coalition of Indian American groups was successful in getting Clear Channel to withdraw from broadcasting the display as well.
Earlier, on July 31, Branded Cities, the company that runs digital advertising for NASDAQ, had refused to run the advertisement. The same day, the group had submitted a letter to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio expressing their outrage with “the hatred being displayed” at Times Square. “As diverse, interfaith, and intercultural organizations, we believe this propaganda project offers a one-sided view devoid of deeply troubling historical context,” the coalition said in the letter.
The World Hindu Council of America (VHPA) issued a statement denouncing the attempts from these organizations “to prevent Hindus from expressing their right to practice their religion freely and publicly by commemorating one of the most significant events in Hindu history.”
Many took to social media to express their happiness and support for the groundbreaking ceremony.
“Congratulations to all Indians and people of Indian origin, specially to Hindus, Jains and all who worship Lord Ram, Hanumanji on this historic day of laying of the foundation stone for building Ram Temple in Ayodhya,” political activist Ajay Bhutoria wrote on his Facebook page.
Overseas Friends of BJP president, Krishna Reddy Anugula, in a Facebook post expressed his happiness over the Aug. 5 groundbreaking ceremony. “Centuries long wait for a permanent home for Lord Shri Ram is over.,” he wrote. “August 5, 2020 will remain imprinted in golden letters in the history of modern India. August 5, 2020 is the culmination of an over a century old legal battle in which Lord Ram, being the embodiment of truth, has won after a long stretched out struggle led by various nationalist organizations.”
Devout Hindus believe that Lord Ram was born in Ayodhya some 7,000 years ago but that a mosque was constructed on top of his birthplace in the 16th century. The Babri Masjid stood on the site for almost 500 years until it was demolished by Hindu radicals in 1992, which sparked riots across the country, killing over 2,000 people. Last November, the Supreme Court allowed construction of the Ram temple on the disputed site and also allotted a 5-acre land to the Muslim community to build a mosque near Ayodhya. Following that verdict, Modi had announced the formation of the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teertha Kshetra Trust this February.
A billboard on the opposite side of the street, reportedly paid by AmPakCares.com, was running daylong protest ads marking Indian government’s move to revoke statehood from Jammu & Kashmir. Another billboard displayed singer Diljit Dosanjh’s new song, “G.O.A.T..” In a separate event, bhangra groups Soormay and Saggi performed at Times Square in support of the new song.
Protesters countered the digital display with vehicles displaying their message stating their cause. There were plans to buy space on billboards, but the cost was exorbitant, one of the organizers told American Kahani.
Unnamed sources in the Indian American community attributed the limited display to the lack of funds. Sehwani, however, refused to divulge details on that matter. He said the display, although limited, was indeed historic and unprecedented. “The joy of seeing the reality of a temple built on the holy ground is incomparable.” he said. He also raised objection to the ban against the digital display, arguing that it wasn’t political, but was “purely spiritual,” with photos and no accompanying text. Additionally, he refused to disclose the cost of the billboard, saying that as “Ram-bhakts,” it was their duty.
According to a Nov. 23, 2017 report in Travel and Leisure magazine, it costs $35,000 per minute to advertise on the building at the corner of West 47th Street and Seventh Avenue, known as 20 Times Square.
Sewhani also created a storm on Twitter when he shared a nine-second video of the digital display, with the caption, “I was so proud to see our Ram Mandir and Ramji in Times Square today. Let’s celebrate this once in a lifetime event tonight at 7.30 p.m..” However, the tweet was later removed by Twitter for carrying “potentially sensitive content.”
Many students and youngsters celebrating were not too concerned with the digital display and were excited to be part of the event. “We are waiting for this moment for a long time, and we are here to celebrate it’s completion,” Yovraj Singh Vihol, a student at PACE university said. Although he and his group of friends were not born in 1992 when the Babri Masjid was demolished, he said he was proud of being part of “Hindu history.”
Some like Ruchi, a physical therapist in New York, who managed to see the digital display told Scroll that “it’s exciting, even if the ad was on for a short time. It makes you feel at home to see something like this in the middle of New York.”
Protesters argued that the celebration of Ram temple by the Hindutva brigade is a celebration of power: to hate and hurt with impunity.
S. Karthikeyan of Ambedkar King Study Circle (AKSC) observed that the Aug. 5 protest “has brought various sections together to challenge the Hindutva project.” Adding that “political Hinduism is not a religious issue,” but a class issue, “final victory is possible by uniting the workers, peasants and the socially oppressed sections.”
“We are here to make people aware that our fight against fascism is global,” New York Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani, who protested at Times Square told American Kahani. “And when we stand for a pluralistic diverse society, it is one that we must be committed to everywhere.”
Speaking on behalf of the protesters, Mamdani, who identifies himself as an “Indian American socialist,” said people will put their Indianness into question, but he believes that “our active showing up here makes us in many ways worthy of being Indians.” The protesters are fighting for an “India we know, not the one we are learning to live in.”
Mamdani said that the Times Square event shows us that the “we, as the Indian American diaspora, cannot separate ourselves from what’s going on in India, because a lot of the rise of the Hindutva movement of the BJP that is being fueled and funded by the diaspora and you can see that from the amount of people that are here.”
Acknowledging that there is division in the Indian diaspora in the U.S., Mamdani said we have to make it clear that it is not monolith. “There may be people here who are supportive [of the Hindutva ideology], there are just as many of us who passionately believe in an India which respects each and every person’s background and doesn’t demand the erasure and the killing of Muslims, Dalits and Christians.” He added: “Frankly for me the most offensive thing about this is not that there is a prospect of a billboard, it’s what’s going on right now in India and that’s why I am here.”
In a press release issued by the Coalition to Stop Genocide in India, Sunita Vishwanath, president of Hindus for Human Rights points that “the Ram Temple issue was leveraged by Hindutva forces to polarize Indian society in a destructive campaign that has resulted in untold human suffering and that continues to this day.” She argues that “we learn in the Ramayana that Lord Rama’s birthplace is Ayodhya,” but “our scripture does not specify where in Ayodhya Lord Rama was born.”
Similarly, Jawad Mohammed, General Secretary of the Indian American Muslim Council agreed that Ram is a revered figure in Hinduism. Adding that “respect for all religions is part of our commitment to pluralism,” he said, “people’s reverence for Ram has been manipulated in order to serve a vile and hateful agenda whose evil fruits are evident not only across India but now increasingly in the U.S. as well.”
In addition to human rights advocates, New York City Councilmembers Daniel Dromm and Brad Lander issued statements through the Coalition to Stop Genocide in India to condemning the celebration of hate and bigotry.
“Sadly, far-right extremists in both India and the United States have especially taken to demonizing and denigrating Muslims,” Councilmember Dromm said. “I condemn any attack on an individual or group because of their faith and stand with my Muslim siblings here in my district and in India as they fight for dignity and human rights. I also thank all the Hindus and others who have taken a stand against dog-whistle propaganda cloaked as cultural celebrations,” he added.
Similarly, Councilmember Lander, said: “We all have a responsibility for speaking out against Islamophobia, whether it comes from our country, or even our own community.” He said “as a New Yorker, and as a progressive Jew, I stand with our Muslim neighbors, here in NYC and those in Kashmir and throughout India who are facing nationalist and Islamophobic hatred and violence.”
Bhargavi immigrated to the U.S. in 1997 and has worked with Indian American media since then in various capacities. She has a degree in English literature and French. Through an opportunity from Alliance Française de New York, Bhargavi taught French at Baruch college for over a year. After taking a break and two kids later, she went back to work in the Desi media. An adventure sport enthusiast, in her free time, she likes to cook, bake or go for hikes, biking and long walks.