March 2, 2001

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Arthur J Pais in Washington DC

Mired in a controversy over whether it is honorable to "beg" the American government for $ 100 million relief for Gujarat earthquake relief, a well-publicized rally in Washington DC on Wednesday drew about 100 people and half-a-dozen Congressmen who found nothing wrong in organizing it.

At least one of them warned that unless the demand for aid and relief is continued with a sense of urgency, the Gujarat issue "will go off radar," and "nobody (in Washington) will remember the devastating tragedy" after a few weeks.

Many of the community leaders listed in the letter sent out by Florida businessman Mahendra Gupta did not show up, pleading scheduling conflict. However several, speaking on condition of anonymity, insisted that it was demeaning to ask America to donate money.

"We have enough resources in our communities to raise five times that amount," said a New York physician. "It is a different thing to rope in former president Bill Clinton -- or for that matter George W Bush -- in fund-raisers organized by the community," he continued. "But it is an entirely different matter to stand on the steps of Congress and demand even one cent."

Some community leaders said they reluctantly let their names be used in the campaign but had the rally not been suddenly proposed about two weeks ago, they would have sought to argue against it.

But Gupta and several Congressional leaders who addressed the gathering on a bright, crisp Washington afternoon did not see any humiliation in asking for the money.

"We are not begging," declared Gupta, his voice indignant and shrill. "Those of who criticize us, those who have sent me hate mail for pushing this idea do not have any idea how the American system operates," he said. "We are doing the American thing."

He said some of his family members, particularly his son, wanted to fly in for the rally but he discouraged them because of adverse comments he had received, with some people suggesting that he wanted to hog the limelight.

He declared -- without substantiation -- that Indian Americans contribute $ 22 billion a year in federal taxes. "What we are asking is a mere fraction of what wealth we have created in this country," he said.

He also said that along with many Indian community leaders he has been meeting Congressional leaders to plead for greater support for Gujarat. Pointing out a dozen Texas delegates, including students from Rice University, he said they had met with Sheila Jackson Lee, a legislator from Texas. "We will continue doing what we must to rebuild Gujarat," he said.

Earlier, as if reading Gupta's mind, Florida law-maker Coreen Brown, one of the first persons to address the rally, said: "We are not talking about charity here. Natural disasters happen everywhere. As long as we live we all need help."

Representative Jim McDermott (D-WA), who has just returned from a trip to India with a Congressional delegation, suggested the $ 100 million demand was no big deal, especially when there is an "enormous surplus (in the American treasury). "Send me the bill," he said, referring to the number of influential Congressional committees he is involved in.

McDermott said Gujarat has known natural calamities for long. Just as the state was getting rid of the drought, the earthquake struck, he said. But the present calamity is unprecedented, he added. While the Indian community has rallied for various causes in Gujarat, "we should go a little farther than in the past," he declared.

He also warned that community leaders and Indian Americans should not let the issue go out of the radar, It is imperative that every legislator in all the 50 states should be approached to put pressure on the Administration, he added.

"Go home and talk to your Congressmen," he said. "Unless you talk to them. and make the Congress do it, nothing will happen."

McDermott, who is also co-chairman of the India Caucus in the House of Representatives, recalled how he was getting ready to attend a Republic Day event in San Francisco. Meanwhile, the devastation had changed the nature of the event. "It was like I had gone to a funeral," he said.

McDermott, a physician, also talked at length about his visit to India. He said he had full faith in the spirit of Indians and their resilience but without powerful help, they will take longer to be on their feet. Representative Benjamin Gillman (R-NY) came to the rally with good news.

He said he had learned Washington had allotted another $ 10 million for relief work, bringing the total commitment to $ 25 million.

Acknowledging the initial American reaction to the earthquake has been "disastrous," Gillman said he has been in touch with the embassy in New Delhi that relief help is dispensed quickly.

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