- If Hindu nationalists are losing their credibility in inter-faith spaces in the U.S., it’s because of their hypocrisy on human rights and religious freedom — one yardstick for themselves and a different yardstick for other minorities.
In her recent article in the American Kahani, Kavita Sekhsaria of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) laments over what she calls “the treatment of Hindu organizations and Hindu speakers at the Parliament of World Religions.” She also claims that “Hindu speakers were banned, and Hindu organizations were demonized in a way that does not honor standing together, defending freedom, or engaging in improving human rights.”
There’s a lot to unpack in her accusations against the Parliament of World’s Religions (the Parliament) and her ad hominem attacks on Prof. Anantanand Rambachan, a renowned scholar of Hinduism and an advisor to Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR), who had written that those who were complaining of discrimination at the Parliament did not address their own ties to India’s “contentious and aggressive politics.”
The Preponderance of Hindu Voices
Let me begin with Sekhsaria’s patently absurd claim that the Parliament discriminated against Hindu speakers.
A search of the Parliament website for the list of 2023 speakers shows over 18 Swamis and Sadhvis, as well as 50 or more other Hindu speakers, who brought diverse Hindu perspectives on Vedanta, Bhagavad Gita, ahimsa, yoga, ethics, animal welfare, climate action, human rights, religious freedom, freedom of expression, and so on. These were interspersed with Indian classical and devotional music as well as Hindu worship and chants. As a matter of fact, the number of Swamis as speakers exceeded the number of Reverends and Rabbis!
I am aware of only one Hindu speaker who was disinvited following allegations of Islamophobia: Nivedita Bhide of the Vivekananda Kendra (Kendra), a Kanyakumari-based organization founded by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), with the express mission of countering the dominance of Christians in the Kanyakumari area and Arunachal Pradesh.
Sekhsaria did not advance any argument as to why Bhide deserved to remain as a speaker despite her alleged Islamophobic tweets. Neither did she clarify HAF’s stance on the ideology of the Kendra and the RSS, whose values run counter to the Parliament’s goal of cultivating interfaith harmony.
The idea that “Hindu speakers were banned, and Hindu organizations were demonized” at the Parliament is a vast exaggeration, when in fact only Hindu nationalist groups appear to have been left out of the list of speakers.
Hyperboles are Not Arguments
Instead of reasoned arguments, Sekhsaria chooses to mischaracterize Prof. Rambachan’s remarks as a call to exclude from the Parliament those who don’t “entirely condemn Hindutva and the Government of India.” He made no such demand even by implication. Absurd as such a litmus test would be, it would have disqualified most of the Hindu spiritual leaders at the Parliament, who are unlikely to have publicly condemned either Hindutva or the Government of India!
Prof. Rambachan was clearly expressing his concern about Hindu nationalist groups, who on the one hand openly or tacitly embrace the Modi government’s anti-minority policies, but on the other hand, seek legitimacy at interfaith gatherings like the Parliament.
I have had the pleasure of working with Prof. Rambachan ever since the inception of HfHR. I see him as a man of principles, always weighing his words carefully to avoid an accusatory tone, even as he expresses his views with precision and conviction. In my view, Sekhsaria has done herself a great disservice by willfully distorting his thoughtful critique, instead of taking it to heart.
Sekhsaria goes on to say that “Dr. Rambachan, and the organizations he supports openly, Hindus for Human Rights, and by association, Indian American Muslim Council [IAMC], have peddled the falsehood that the Hindu organizations they demonize are tied to the creation and fueling of hate against non-Hindu minorities in India.”
It’s interesting that she deliberately uses the word “openly” to describe Prof. Rambachan’s support for HfHR as if there were something sinister about a member of our own Advisory Board supporting our work! She then attempts to weave a conspiracy by linking him to the IAMC, even though he has absolutely no connection with that organization.
As our earliest and closest partner, we have found IAMC to be laser-focused on defending the human rights and religious freedom of Indian Muslims in India and the US, but they also speak up for the rights of other minorities. They meticulously avoid commenting on Hindu religious affairs and do their best to keep their organization clear of controversial international struggles.
To me, the mere fact that HAF and other Hindu nationalist organizations are unable to muster even an iota of empathy for the beleaguered Indian Muslim community, as it endures more homes and places of worship destroyed illegally, more lynchings, and more legal harassment of activists, betrays their deep-seated animosity towards India’s largest minority.
HfHR is working to challenge this toxic ideology manifested through violent state policy. It does not bode well for the Hindu tradition to be linked to this kind of state violence.
Equating Hindu Nationalists with All Hindus
Sekhsaria also makes the preposterous charge that HfHR and IAMC “attack every proud Hindu for their identity.”
In the first place, HAF’s claim to be speaking on behalf of all Hindus is an insult to a majority of Hindus worldwide who do not subscribe to RSS’s hate-filled ideology.
Speaking for myself, I have always had a troubled relationship with the word “pride,” which has all too often been used to justify attacks on other communities. We are all painfully aware of how “German pride” enabled the destruction of six million Jews. We are now seeing “Hindu pride” being deployed regularly in India to justify hate speech and violent attacks on Muslims and Christians.
We at HfHR wholeheartedly reject the “Savarkar/Golwalkar” version of “Hindu Pride,” which presupposes contempt for other faiths. Instead, we aspire to lift up the shared heritage of all Indians, of which we can all be proud, and which does not ask people to hate others in order to love themselves. That is the core belief of our progressive Hinduism, founded in the spirit of saints of yesteryears such as Basavanna, Akka Mahadevi, Tukaram, Kabir, and other pathfinders.
It is to the credit of the Parliament that it tried not to give a platform to speakers and organizations whose acts of commission and omission show their lack of commitment and consistency on human rights and religious freedom.
HAF’s “Action in Inaction” (The Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 4, Verse 18)
Sekhsaria’s entire defense against charges that the HAF supports Modi’s anti-minority policies rests on just one point: That they have not made explicit statements in support of such policies. This is disingenuous, to say the least. Extensive findings in recent years (#1 and #2) show the proximity of the HAF to the RSS family.
This is not the place to revisit those findings, but suffice it to say that several founders of HAF hail from the RSS family and have never credibly distanced themselves from them. HAF receives a substantial part of its funding from supporters of the RSS family. Rishi Bhutada, a board member of the HAF, was the head spokesperson for the Howdy Modi event in 2019, which unabashedly hailed Modi and Trump. And, HAF advocates aggressively in Washington in support of the Modi regime and attempts to shield it from any criticism of its human rights record.
Given that history, it’s a poor defense to suggest that the lack of explicit statements in support of Modi’s anti-minority policies absolves them of all responsibility for the massive violation of the rights of minorities in India.
The Blame Game
HAF has played the blame game for years.
Mihir Meghani, co-founder of the HAF, wrote an essay in 1996 applauding the destruction of the Babri Masjid. When the essay surfaced in 2006, he blamed his teenage years and pointed the finger at unknown persons for doctoring his essay and posting it on the BJP website without his knowledge.
In the 2004-06 California school textbooks controversy, the HAF sued the state
to halt the publication of textbooks that had not accepted all the edits suggested by Hindu nationalist groups. When the judge dismissed the case, HAF blamed “anti-Hindu” scholars, “communists,” and the learned judge himself for not being suited to comment on Hinduism.
In 2019, HAF filed a defamation suit against me and my colleague, Sunita Viswanath, and three others, citing an imaginary conspiracy among defendants some of whom had never even met or talked before the lawsuit! When the judge threw out the case, they blamed it on technicalities and attempted to mischaracterize the ruling.
Throughout 2023, HAF has made its opposition to SB 403, the CA bill to ban caste discrimination, a central pillar of their work. As the bill awaits the Governor’s assent, they continue to blame Dalit groups for daring to expose the underbelly of dominant caste culture in California workplaces and social settings.
And now the HAF is falsely blaming the Parliament of World’s Religions for imagined discrimination against Hindus.
When will HAF end its blame game and start looking inwards for its string of policy failures and the resulting loss of credibility in the community?
(Top photo, courtesy, Religion News Service)
Raju Rajagopal is a co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights USA.