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September 10, 2000
'Aren't there other religions in India?'
Savera R Someshwar in Staten Island
"Nahi ji, hume kuch nahi bolna..."
Tall, bearded and extremely angry, the turbaned Sikh in front of me began to walk away. And then turned back.
"This was a Hindu function. Why? Aren't there other religions in India?"
We were joined by his relatives, who urged him not to say another word.
"Kuch mat bolna..."
"Naam mat dena..."
"This was a Hindu function," he repeated. "They have charged us $ 300 for this... this..." he spluttered, pointed to the bearers who were roaming around with trays of aloo tikkis and kachoris.
"We did not know this was a Vishwa Hindu Parishad meeting. We thought it was a secular function organised for people of Indian origin and not just for Hindus. Otherwise, do you think we would have been here?"
An older Sikh gentleman, his beard white with age, added, "India is supposed to be a secular nation that welcomes all religions. Does this look secular to you?"
A third man, hair cut short and beard trimmed, joined the conversation. "Look, I am a Sardar. We were told this was going to be just like the function last year (a similar function was organized by the Overseas Friends Of The Bharatiya Janata Party). There, every table was given a minute with the prime minister so that we could take our picture with him. And this..."
They walked away furiously.
The function had been publicised as a 'gala public reception by the Indian American community in honour of the Indian delegation of spiritual leaders and the honorary Prime Minister Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee.'
What happened, though, was a different story. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had refused to be part of a VHP function. It was only then that the VHP brought in other organisations, which included, among others, the Federation of Indian Associations, the American Association of Physicians of India and the Indian Political Forum.
Which, as it turned out, was just a red herring. For it was an evening strongly flavoured with the VHP-RSS brand of Hindutva -- be it the dozen-odd speeches before the prime minister's arrival or the saffron colour on the stage holding the sadhus. Seated amid the varied shades of orange was Ashok Singhal, the VHP working president.
Swami Chidanand Saraswati (Muniji) of the Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh -- the driving force behind the delegation that represented India at the religious conference organised by the United Nations -- however, asked to clarify matters.
"This was not just a Hindu function. There were representatives of all religions here - Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Christianity and Islam. The Hindu leaders were asked to speak before the prime minister's arrival. The other leaders were scheduled to speak after Atalji's arrival. We thought this would make them feel important and more wanted. Unfortunately, after the prime minister arrived, we were asked to cut the event short. There was nothing we could do about it. How could we refuse?"
For Mr and Mrs Felix Mathew, a Christian couple from Kerala who came to the US 30 years ago, that did not matter. They were there to show their respect for the prime minister of India. Not that they understood much of what was happening, since the dominant language of the evening was Hindi, which is a language they do not understand.
"But we always attend all the Indian functions, irrespective of who has organised it," said Mrs Matthew. "I think I even spotted a bishop I know on the stage."
Felix, who is a professor at St John's University in New York, is not very happy, though, with the kind of treatment being meted out to the minorities in India. In fact, he feels very strongly about it. "Why is the government not doing anything about the people who are committing these crimes against people of other religions? Why is a criminal like Veerappan still free? Remove Veerappan. Punish all those criminals who are murdering innocent people. India is a secular democracy. People should be able to live there without fear, free to flourish in the religion in which they were born."
A popular emcee who has been requested to lend his voice to various functions, Felix has met Hindu sadhus on earlier occasions -- notably the Vivekananda centenary celebrations held in the city last year. "Even then, I had discussed this with the sadhus in general terms. I told them that there should be protection for everyone, irrespective of the religion they belong to."
Naveen Kelkar (name changed), on the other hand, is vociferously Hindu. "You watch, it will take time, but we will return India to the Hindus. Why should the Hindus suffer and be silent all the time? While there a special facilities for the so-called minorities, the Hindus are afraid to open their mouths in their own country for fear of persecution."
Kelkar, who has been in the US for the last 30 years, does not understand why there is so much fuss being made over the demolition of the Babri Masjid. "What was it, after all? It was not even a proper mosque. So what if we broke it down? And why should there be such a hungama about a mosque that is named after a man who was not Indian, who came here to pillage and plunder and rape our women?"
He believes that militant Hinduism is the only way to return India to her rightful citizens who, he believes, are the Hindus. "There are many people from our community who are supporting the other religions. They should be eliminated."
Nor does he deviate from the path when he states that people of the Islamic faith "should sit quietly at home and be satisfied with what they have. Otherwise, they should go to Pakistan. Why are they staying here anyway?"
"Doesn't that just ratify what I have been telling you?" says Ravi Saini, a 30-year-old investment banker. "Ninety to 95 per cent of the people here (gesturing at the huge tent that has been put up to accommodate the audience) are close-minded. They are never going to change their attitude."
Saini has been in the United States since he was a year old. Over the last few years, though, he has found himself veering distinctly towards Indian culture. The result? Three visits to India in as many years -- "of my own volition," he is quick to specify -- as against the trip that he made in 1987 at his parents's behest. He now wants to marry an Indian girl, preferably one who has been brought up in the US.
"I want to become more Indian, to learn more and understand more about Indian culture and the Hindu religion. I am not overtly religious nor do I follow rituals, but I do believe in the Indian way of life."
He has no plans to return to the motherland: "America definitely offers a much better standard of life." What he would like to instead do is incorporate the best of both cultures in his life. And he believes it is up to the older generation to guide the youngsters, not by imposing restraints on them but by introducing them to the various aspects of Indian culture.
"Which is why functions like these are very important. They allow people to come together, they are a kind of learning experience. I only wish they do not denigrate to an extreme form of religion."
Swami Chidanand Saraswati (Muniji) agrees. "What has happened at this religious conference is a beginning in a new direction. We have met leaders of other religions, we have held discussions with them. Whatever has happened in the past is the past. There will be no more atrocities. When there is communication between two people (which is what we have established here), there is no fear."
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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