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'Concerns of Hindus are near to my heart'

October 31, 2012 19:46 IST

Aziz Haniffa speaks to the candidate from Hawaii, on course to become the first Hindu-American congresswoman

Tulsi Gabbard is considered a shoo-in to winning Hawaii's 2nd Congressional District November 6 on the Democratic ticket and becoming the first Hindu American in the United States Congress.

Gabbard, 31, was last week again felicitated by the Indian-American community in the Washington, DC area in a manner unprecedented in terms of the community's embrace of a Congressional candidate of its own, even though she's not Indian American.

Earlier last month, Gabbard, fresh from her rock star status at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, had visited Washington, DC to meet with party leaders and Democratic National Committee officials. Then too, she had been accorded a reception and fundraiser by the Indian-American community.

Her popularity among Indian Americans, particularly Hindu Americans, is so palpable that leading Indian-American operatives in the DC area like Shekar Narasimhan brought her over to a reception-fundraiser organized by another longtime Democratic operative Toby Chaudhari in his home for US Senate candidate Tim Kaine, just so that she could be a crowd-puller for Kaine.

In August, Gabbard defeated her main opponent, former Honolulu mayor Mufi Hanneman, in the Democratic primary by 55.1 to 34.3 per cent in a come-from-behind victory, which put her in the driving seat to win the general election in the predominantly Democratic district.

Gabbard said she would be "honoured to join the India Caucus", and that she is "eager to visit India and plan to do so within the first year of my term if I am elected."

You have been embraced by the Indian-American community, particularly the Hindu-American community, like no other Indian-American Congressional candidate has. And you are not even Indian American. What's your take on this unprecedented and enthusiastic embrace?

That question would probably be best asked of my supporters from that community. However, I suspect it is because they appreciate the timeless and universal nature of our Hindu Dharma.

Your dad is Catholic. Your mom, I believe, is Hindu. So does your Hinduism flow from your mom? How deep is it?

I grew up in a multicultural, multi-religious household. My father is of Samoan/Caucasian heritage and he is a deacon in the Catholic church. However, he also likes to practice mantra meditation, including kirtan. My mother is Caucasian and a practicing Hindu.

Are you a practicing Hindu?

Yes, I am a practicing Hindu. Some people are Hindus because they were born into a Hindu family, but may not have seriously studied or applied the Vedic teachings and practices.

In that sense it's very much like many people in America who consider themselves Christians because they were born into a Christian family. But that's not my situation.

I fully embraced Sanatan Dharma after serious deliberation and contemplation in my later teens -- it's not because my mother was a Hindu.

I'm a Vaishnava in the Brahma Madhva Gaudiya Sampradaya. As a Vaishnava, my perspective of Hinduism or Sanatan Dharma comes from the Bhagavad Gita.

I have been studying the Bhagavad Gita since childhood and have, especially beginning in my teenage years, been trying to apply the Bhagavad Gita's principles of karma yoga and bhakti yoga to every aspect of my life.  And of course I am very familiar with the Mahabharat, Ramayana, etc.

On my two deployments to the Middle East, I daily practiced my japa meditation and contemplating on the truth of the Bhagavad Gita.

By doing this, I was able to achieve great inner peace, despite being in an environment of fighting and death. One of the first things I saw when I arrived in Iraq was a giant sign at the gates of our base that read, 'Is today the day?'

I saw that sign every day and it was a constant reminder that today could be the day that I have to leave this world. This forced me to constantly remember and contemplate upon the truth of my eternal identity as taught in the Bhagavad Gita.

First thing in the morning and the last thing at night, I meditated upon the fact that my essence was spirit, not matter, that I was not my physical body, and that I didn't need to worry about death because I knew that I would continue to exist and that I would go to God.

What made you initially reach out to the Indian-American community on the mainland? Was it a case of some sophisticated and strategic outreach, because I believe the Indian-American community, and particularly the Hindu-American community in Hawaii is pretty negligible? Some cynics could argue that your outreach to this community on the mainland was some sort of expediency. How will you counter such criticism? (Gabbard tossed this question to her finance director Erika Tsuji to answer).

Apparently, you are under the erroneous impression that the Hindu or Indian communities on the mainland have been responsible for a significant percentage of the monies raised by our campaign.

While we are very grateful for the help received from mainland Hindus and American Indians, their contributions constituted less than 3 per cent of the total money raised by our campaign.

The first thing any candidate does is reach out to family, friends, and personal acquaintances to get the ball rolling.

After that, a candidate will naturally reach out to likeminded individuals, groups, organizations, PACs (political action committees), etc., who might want to help elect a candidate who shares their views, concerns, or outlook.

So understandably the main people our campaign reached out to for financial support were environmentalists and veterans' groups since Tulsi has been a lifelong environmentalist and is a war veteran. So Tulsi got most of her support from these groups and individuals.

Similarly, some of Tulsi's fellow Hindus here in Hawaii and a few Hindu acquaintances on the mainland began reaching out to Hindu Americans across the country.

However, although Tulsi got support from personal Hindu acquaintances in Hawaii before the elections, Hindus on the mainland were not interested in her candidacy --probably because in the past they'd experienced Hindus running for Congress who never made it to the general election or had a serious chance of winning.

But this all changed after Tulsi surprisingly trounced her more well-financed and well-known opponent.

Once Hindus realised that Tulsi would actually be elected and that there would finally be a Hindu elected to the United States Congress, they became very excited and began giving her more support.

Nonetheless, the percentage of financial support coming from this community, although much appreciated, is still relatively small and less than 3 per cent.

Even though there is excitement that you are a Hindu American and when elected to Congress will be the only Hindu American in Congress, you will first have to represent your constituency. How will you serve this community that has become so excited over the real possibility of having the first Hindu American legislator? More broadly, how will you serve, besides your constituency, the Indian-American community, particularly the Hindu Americans, who have supported your strongly with fundraising, etc.?

If I am elected to Congress, I will be representing all people of Hawaii, as well as all the people of our country -- including Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, everyone. The fact is, people of every religion in our country want the same thing -- they want elected officials who know they are servants of the people, and not special interests.

All Americans want leaders who have a servant attitude. They want leaders to help improve the economy, stop wasting our limited resources, protect the environment, and ensure that their children will have a bright future.

Of course, since I'm a practicing Hindu, they also know that the more unique concerns of Hindu and Indian Americans are near and dear to my heart.

Some areas I will focus on will be legislation relating to H1-B visas and legal immigration, the economy and jobs, strengthening our visitor industry, including relaxing visa requirements for tourists, especially those coming from places like China and India, support for small business, energy independence for America, and permanent membership for India on the United Nations Security Council.

As a war veteran who knows the cost of war, I voiced an early, strong position on bringing our troops home from Afghanistan as quickly and safely as possible.

Our troops have served this nation honourably and sacrificed tremendously. They have decimated Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden is no longer a threat, and they have provided the Afghan people and government with the tools they need to succeed.

In order for Afghanistan to achieve stability and peace, the Afghan people must stand up and determine the direction of their future.

Now is the time to stop the senseless sacrifice of precious lives, and bring our troops home.

We must take the $2.5 billion a week we are spending in Afghanistan, and invest those resources and our attention on rebuilding our own economy here at home.

I look forward to being a strong voice in Congress for improving US-India relations. I will work to increase participation between the US and India on international issues of global importance, boosting bilateral trade, and fostering economic, strategic and cultural ties between the two countries, working together as partners in the fight against terrorism.

The US should continue to unequivocally support India's bid for a permanent seat on an enlarged UNSC. India is an indispensable partner for the US in the coming century and would help to provide much needed balance between the world's powers.

Issues such as the plight of Kashmiri Pandits and human rights abuses of Hindus and other religious minorities in Pakistan are of concern to me.

If I am elected to Congress, I will do everything I possibly can to bring these problems to the attention of my colleagues and to do everything I can to end such abuses.

As an elected official, I will work towards defending fundamental constitutional rights of free exercise of religion and the separation of church and state, and adopt legislation that promotes a message of inclusiveness for Americans of all faith traditions.

I will uphold federal policies that support the religious accommodation of minority faiths in a variety of settings and preclude religious discrimination against any group.

Many people in America, including some in positions of power and influence, view Hinduism as foreign and even mysterious.

Lack of familiarity and understanding can breed fear and bigotry, so I won't shy away from opportunities to increase understanding and appreciation of Hinduism and Hindus.

Especially in today's world where religious misunderstanding and intolerance are at the root of many tragic and unnecessary conflicts, we all need to do whatever we can to increase understanding and tolerance of all religions.

Your father is a powerful politician who has a strong conservative bent and strongly opposes same-sex marriages, abortion, etc. How is it you came to be diametrically opposite?

I am committed to preserving a woman's right to choose. And I want to tell you how I got here. This wasn't always my position -- at one time, I was anti-choice. I also once supported a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

But when I was 23, I went on the first of two tours of duty in the Middle East. Although I had always heard about how most governments in the Middle East maintain excessive control of people's personal lives, it was still eye opening to see women covered from head to toe with burqa, to meet people living in fear of being persecuted for any activity deemed inappropriate by the theocratic authorities, and to witness firsthand communities torn apart and people living in fear of being killed simply because of their religious beliefs.

In Kuwait, my assignment was to provide anti-terrorism training to the Kuwaiti National Guard. That task meant that I would have to go onto a Kuwaiti military base that no woman had ever set foot on before.

I was expected to train men who had never seen a woman on the base before, never mind a woman in military uniform in a position of authority telling them what to do.

As the Kuwaiti guardsmen walked down the line greeting and shaking hands with the newly-arrived Americans, many of the men refused to shake my hand and walked past me as if I was invisible. They refused to even acknowledge my existence.

As the weeks and months went by, however, and the Kuwaitis saw that I knew what I was doing, that I was a person just like they were, the barriers began to disappear.

I was genuinely moved when, on their graduation day, the commanding officer of the Kuwait army presented me with an award in appreciation of the training I had provided.

It was very interesting to see these men go from forbidding any woman to come onto the base to actually publicly honouring a woman for her work there.

It was heartening to see the veil of prejudice start to lift from the eyes of these men. But that was just one tiny victory, and unfortunately it was the exception rather than the norm.

Many times during the two years I lived in the Middle East, I said to myself, God, I would never want to live in this stifling, suffocating, oppressive society. Returning to Hawaii was indescribably liberating.

Before I had deployed to the Middle East I had sometimes heard people refer to the sweet taste of freedom. But it was only upon returning to Hawaii, to America, that I experienced that sweet taste. 

The contrast between our society and those in the Middle East made me realize that the difference -- the reason those societies are so oppressive -- is that they are essentially theocracies where the government and government leaders wield the power to both define and then enforce morality.

My experiences in the Middle East eventually led me to re-evaluate my view regarding government's role in our personal lives and decisions.

Slowly, I began to realize that the positions I had held previously regarding the issues of choice and gay marriage were rooted in the same premise held by those in power in the oppressive Middle East regimes I saw -- that it is government's role to define and enforce our personal morality.

The next year was full of challenges and soul-searching as my long-held views were challenged by my newfound recognition of the absolute importance of keeping church and state separate.

I realized that whether or not I would choose to have an abortion ought to have no bearing on another woman's ability to do the same. And the government has absolutely no business telling either of us what we could do in that intensely personal situation.

I realised that a constitutional amendment defining marriage -- even the one I and most Hawaii voters had supported -- was anathema to the personal freedom we enjoy in America. And so my positions evolved.

I can promise that when I get to Washington I will fight any efforts to undermine our reproductive freedom. It's been a 30-year journey from my childhood to this day, and that journey has spanned continents.

My time in the Middle East forever changed me. I understand how precious our freedom is, and that allowing government to dictate these most personal aspects of our lives is diametrically opposed to what makes America great -- individual liberty and equal rights for everyone.

Image: Tulsi Gabbard with former Virginia governor Tim Kaine

 

Aziz Haniffa