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September 10, 2000
When Staten Island wore saffron
Amberish K Diwanji in Staten Island
On the beach, a huge tent had been erected to host the show. There were policemen all over the place, and when the prime minister of India arrived, a police helicopter hovered overhead. Security was tight.
Yet, on reaching the venue one could be forgiven for believing that the prime minister was not the chief guest. At best, he could have been termed the first among equals, and his equals were not fellow Cabinet members but assorted sadhus and sants gathered at the venue, each of who was venting his spleen over the microphone.
Most of the Indians present were Gujaratis, and among the organisers, the chief being the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, the lingua franca was Gujarati.
Most of the sants and sadhus who spoke had come down from India to attend the United Nations Millennium Summit for Peace, which was an assembly of religious leaders of the world. The organising body for India was the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
There were three dais: one with about 50 sadhus, the second where the prime minister and other government officials would sit, and the third where the band along with some Bharatiya Janata Party officials were present. The dais where the sants were seated was at the highest level.
Senior journalists could not recall another function (save international conferences) where the prime minister was seated at a level lower than some of the others present.
In front of the first dais where the sants and sadhus sat, there was a statue of Mahatma Gandhi, holding an Indian flag.
On the dais among the sants was VHP working president Ashok Singhal and its general secretary Acharya Giriraj Kishore. On the stage where the band was playing was seated BJP general secretary Narendra Modi. The band, made up of second generation Indian Americans, played both the Indian and US national anthems.
The speeches were vintage VHP. "Hindus are being persecuted;" "Hinduism is in danger and needs to be protected;" "Hindus are the only people who have never waged war or conquered other people's territory" (for some reason, this line was repeated by a number of the sants and sadhus and each time brought a huge round of applause from an appreciative audience); "We are a peaceful people but that does not mean we will allow others to destroy our religion and culture;" and, "Those Hindus present in the US must work to ensure that Hinduism is preserved in this country."
Singhal spoke about how at the religious summit, there was a furore over the Christian desire to convert people of other faiths.
"I am happy to announce that when we had an inter-religion dialogue between the Hindus and the Christians, the Christian leaders agreed that their religion forbade converting the poor in the garb of giving them aid," he said.
"We want to continue this dialogue between the Christian groups and the Hindus and Buddhists on the other side," he added.
Singhal was rather subdued. Other sants, not very well known except to their followers, were far more shrill and radical in their statements. One of them, Acharya Dharmendra, spoke of the need for dharma (righteousness, but often confused with religion) to be part of politics and said that political leaders must consult religious leaders in their decision-making process.
While the organisers insisted they had invited leaders of other religions also, apart for one Zoroastrian lady who spoke about the benevolence of Hindus who protected Zoroastrians when they migrated from Persia to India to escape persecution, no other religious leader spoke, not even the Sikh leaders who were visible on the dais.
"We have invited them all, but they did not turn up," said Dr Ila Sukhadia, one of the organisers and a member of the VHP of America.
She claimed that no Sikh could speak because before their turn came, the prime minister arrived and hence the speeches of the religious leaders had to be curtailed.
After his speech, the prime minister departed in his 21-car cavalcade while the sants, the $ 500 guests and some of the media party departed for a vegetarian dinner. The rest of the crowd had to content themselves with snacks, including chhole which was quite a hit with the New York policemen!
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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