On July 26, 2018, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) organized an event in Washington, DC to commemorate the release of its new report, “India: Democracy in Diversity.” HAF's alleged goal for this event was to provide the "full story" about India's religious freedom. The event consisted of a panel featuring representatives of various Indian religious minorities who shared their perspectives on religious pluralism. Sadhana initially published a statement on the evening of July 25. However, because the report was not yet available to the public, Sadhana decided to remove the statement to give HAF the benefit of the doubt. Some DC-based Sadhana members attended the panel, and shared Sadhana's perspective during the question-and-answer session. Unfortunately, the event and accompanying report confirmed our fears that they would not directly confront the problem of religious violence, particularly in today's India.
A notable exception was Harminder Kaur, the Sikh representative at the event and founder of a nonprofit organization called Sikh Kid to Kid (SK2K) . Harminder ji stated that she was speaking from a place of love for her homeland, but spoke fearlessly and honestly about the issues Sikhs have historically faced, and continue to combat, in India. Harminder ji insisted that we must not normalize the violence that is currently taking place in India, and that dialogue, not denial, is the only way to address religious violence. We are inspired by voices like Harminder ji's, and pledge to continue speaking out against the rising threat of Hindu nationalism to Indian democracy and religious freedom.
Below is our initial statement, edited to accurately reflect the content of the July 26 event.
Since the formation of a Hindu nationalist government in India in 2014, the condition of religious and social minorities has substantially deteriorated. Stories of Muslims and Dalits being lynched on the suspicion of eating beef and Christian churches being burned have regularly made international headlines. Today, right-wing Hindu politicians garland anti-Muslim vigilantes and actively obstruct the legal prosecution of religious fanatics. Yogi Adityanath, Chief Minister of India’s most populous state and head of a Hindu monastery, shares public stages with men who advocate digging up the graves of Muslim women and raping their corpses. Therefore, it is no surprise that India has been listed as the fourth most religiously intolerant country in the world by the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life.
The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) decided to address the issue of religious freedom in India at an event it is hosted on July 26 in Washington D.C, where the organization released its latest publication, “India: Democracy in Diversity.” HAF aimed to introduce US lawmakers, government officials, NGOs, and the general public to what it describes as the "most religiously diverse democracy" in the world. The event celebrated the Indian subcontinent’s long history of welcoming refugees and asylum seekers from around the globe and promoted India’s "civilizational perspective" on pluralism.
Sadhana agrees with HAF that a conversation about democracy, diversity, and religious freedom in India is urgent. However, this conversation cannot happen without representatives of those communities that have been the most targeted by religious violence and persecution.
The event featured speakers from communities that HAF described as "key religious minorities": a Tibetan Buddhist, Zoroastrian (Parsi), Indian Jew, Sikh, Christian-Muslim, and Kashmiri Pandit. However, there were no representatives of Muslim or Christian community organizations at the event, despite Muslims and Christians being the largest religious minorities in India. Additionally, there was no listed representative for Dalits or other caste-oppressed communities, who comprise at least 200 million people.
What kind of a message did HAF hope to send by holding a conference on democracy and religious freedom in India that does not prioritize India's largest marginalized communities? Discussing religious freedom in India without acknowledging the fact that members of India's ruling party want to turn India into a Hindu rashtra (Hindu nation) is nothing but disingenuous.
HAF’s event was timed to coincide with a conference organized by the U.S. State Department on religious freedom worldwide. HAF has been acutely critical of U.S. governmental reports on religious freedom in India. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has placed India on its Watch List since 2009, and listed Hindu nationalist organizations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal as "extremist" groups in past reports. What does HAF have to say to these groups that are actively destroying the democracy and religious pluralism that it celebrates?
Hindu nationalism is destructive to Indian democracy and society. Not only does it endanger the lives of India's minorities, it also targets Hindus who resist the hijacking of their religion by a violent minority, and often results in violence committed against Hindus living in other South Asian countries. Sadhana means "faith in action", and we at Sadhana will not stand by while we watch our holy symbols, religious beliefs, and sacred spaces converted into tools of oppression. Sadhana is a coalition of progressive Hindus who strongly believe in the values that lie at the core of our faith: ekatva (oneness), ahimsa (nonviolence), and seva (selfless service).
As Hindus who are horrified at the brutal violence being perpetrated in the name of Hinduism we believe a discussion of democracy, diversity, and religious freedom in India does not make sense without discussing the challenges faced by the most vulnerable communities today. HAF represents itself as a nonpartisan organization that is committed to combating bigotry and seeking greater inclusion of Hindus in mainstream American society. This September, the American affiliate of the VHP is organizing a "World Hindu Congress" in Chicago, featuring Hindu nationalist leaders including Yogi Adityanath and Mohan Bhagwat (head of the RSS). If HAF is serious about combating bigotry and celebrating India's religious pluralism, will they take a public stand against Hindu nationalist organizations such as the VHP that are directly responsible for creating a hostile climate for Indian Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, and other minorities?
As Hindus, it is our dharma (duty) to speak up and oppose fundamentalism and violence committed in the name of our religion. Hindus must not be resistant to self-criticism; instead, we are called to embody para-dukha-dukhi -- feeling the pain of fellow living beings as our own. Will HAF find the courage to unequivocally denounce rising Hindu nationalism in India as well as the United States? How many more Indians will be lynched by Hindu fundamentalist mobs before HAF finds it important to discuss the threats to religious freedom in India?