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September 8, 2000

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The Vajpayee visit E-Mail this report to a friend

At the end of the protest, they sang Jana Gana Mana

Amberish K Diwanji in New York

While Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee forcefully delivered his speech to the United Nations Millennium Summit, sundry groups were holding protest rallies against various leaders, including the PM, on East 47th Street, First Avenue.

Four groups were protesting against India those supporting an independent or merged-with-Pakistan Kashmir, pro-Khalistani, those flaying the attacks on Christians, and those protesting against the attacks on Dalits and India's human rights record.

Interestingly, while the Kashmiri and Khalistani groups had a joint protest, the Christian groups and Dalit groups studiously avoided the first two, and held protests on their own. "We have nothing to do with the Kashmiri or Khalistani supporters," said Yogesh Varhade, a protester at the Dalit group.

Similarly, Sapna Gandhi, who was with the Christian group that was busy singing carols, insisted that their protest and cause were completely different. "We support Indian unity, what we are objecting to is that this government is not doing anything to prevent the atrocities on Christians," she declared.

In fact, towards the end of the Indian Christian rally, the group stood to attention and sang the Jana Gana Mana.

The pro-Khalistan and pro-Kashmiri independence groups were perhaps the first to arrive and grabbed the corner nearest the UN building where they held up placards asking the Indian government to grant the Kashmiris and Sikhs the right of referendum.

To make their protests louder, they took turns in shouting out slogans in favour of Khalistan and Kashmir one at a time. But it was clear that the Kashmiri cause dominated.

The Kashmiri group was led by the Kashmiri American Council, which is demanding that the UN resolutions calling for a plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir be honoured immediately.

"We are asking that India stop persecuting the Sikhs and Muslims and dividing the people in the name of religion," declared Gurinder Singh Manna, chief of the Sikh Youth of America.

Asked what his specific demands were, he replied, "We want that all people should be given the right to decide whether or not they want to be part of India."

Did this mean he was actually asking for India to cease existing as a country?

"India is not a country but a subcontinent of different people," he replied, and with a flourish, pointed towards the assorted group of Christians who hailed from Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and other parts of India and asked, "What do I have in common with someone from Gujarat?"

He said India was a huge land united by the British. "Travel a few miles from Punjab and you come to a different people, different language, and different culture. So why should they be one?"

When asked why not, he retorted, "Let the people decide."

When it was pointed out that the Khalistani movement had died down in Punjab, he said, "The movement has died down because 150,000 people have been killed. But give me just five days to campaign and we will win any referendum for Khalistan."

And why were they with the Kashmiris? "Because their cause is the same as ours. We are only asking that the people should decide and India, which today wants to be part of the UN Security Council, must first implement the UN resolutions."

Besides the Indian (perhaps anti-India sounds more right) protestors, there were protestors against Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, groups demanding a free Jerusalem, and, of course, the Falun Gong, which was some distance away.

These different groups were separated from each other by turnstiles set up the New York police department. Farthest away from the Khalistani-Kashmiri groups were the National Association of Asian Indian Christians, an umbrella organisation of various Indian Christian groups.

Not unlike India, the different Christian groups are divided along linguistic lines. So there is the Tamil Christian Association, the Kerala Christian Association, and the Gujarati Christian Federation of the US.

It was the last outfit's banner that was up front, clearly visible from First Avenue on which a dignitary arriving or departing from the UN might pass.

"We are protesting against the attacks on Christians in India and especially in Gujarat," said Sapna Gandhi, one of the protestors present. Gandhi hails from Ahmedabad and lives in Brooklyn.

"India is a land of peace, it is the land of Mahatma Gandhi," said Gandhi, "and that is why we are upset with the present government because it is not working to stop these attacks on Christians. Recently a church was burnt in Bangalore and a pastor paraded naked in Gujarat."

When it was pointed out that the police suspect the church was burnt by an extremist Muslim organisation rather than the implied Hindu groups, she replied, "We are not saying that Hindu groups alone are responsible. What we are demanding is that it is the government's duty to protect the churches from all extremists, and it is only talking about peace but doing little," she said.

Besides singing carols, the groups later heard a speech from an Indian-origin pastor, sang the national anthem and finally shouted, "God Bless India, God Bless America!"

The smallest group comprised dalits outfits led by Yogesh Varhade, who heads the Federation of Ambedkarites, Buddhists, Ravidasi and Valmiki Organisation of North America, FABROVNA.

"We are protesting against the atrocities that are regularly committed on the dalits of India, even after 53 years of Independence," said Varhade.

Varhade, a committed Ambedkarite, migrated from India in the early 1960s. He avidly recalls his brief encounter with Dr B R Ambedkar at Deekshabhoomi in 1956, when hundreds of thousands of dalits converted to Buddhism. "I was in the front row, and the next day, at some function, I was sitting just about 10 feet from him," he says as his eyes light up in joy.

Varhade has for the past 10 years been demanding that the UN take India to task for its human rights record vis--vis dalits, which he called "hidden apartheid."

He claims it is due to his efforts that the UN has agreed to look into the matter. And next year, when the UN holds a conference on racial discrimination, Varhade plans to raise the issue of dalits rights at that forum.

"It is not just dalit rights. Linked to it are the rights of the child, because the majority of exploited children are dalit children, and all of which we are taking up," he said.

Varhade's main grouse is that India is pious in intention and great in statements about its human rights commitment, but does very little on the ground to actually implement its laws.

In fact, one banner held by the dalit groups read: 'Just laws are not enough, implement them!'

After these protestors held their demonstrations under the watchful eyes of the New York police, they shared their snacks samosas, sandwiches, chips and drinks among themselves and with other protesting groups.

Then they dispersed. Some of them are already leaving for Washington DC, where they are planning an even bigger demonstration. Especially the Kashmiris who plan to rope in 10,000 people. In New York, the Kashmiri-Khalistani numbered barely 200, the Indian Christians ditto and the dalit groups less than 100.

rediff.com has assigned Associate Editors Amberish K Diwanji and Savera R Someshwar to cover Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's visit to the United States. Don't forget to log into rediff.com for news of this historic visit as it happens!

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