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Aseem Chhabra in New York
The political past of Sadhvi Rithambara, a most prominent voice of Hindutva in India, caught up with her in a Hindu temple in New York, when 40-odd angry demonstrators protested her presence with placards accusing her of communal bloodshed. Rithambara was at the Ganesh Temple, Flushing, Queens to raise funds for her new project -- homes and shelters for orphans and widows.
The demonstrators condemned Hindu political groups for the Gujarat communal
riots. 'Sadhvi Rithambara Has Blood on Her Hands,' said one placard. Another
stated: 'No Money for Terrorism,' referring to the recent media reports that
donations made by Indian Americans are often sent by Hindutva supporters in the US to anti-Muslim right-wing organizations in India.
In the handouts distributed outside the temple, the demonstrators -- including
members of the International South Asia Forum, the SAMAR Media Collective, the
Forum of Indian Leftists, NRIs for a Secular and Harmonious India, and Indian Muslims
Alert Network -- reminded the public about Rithambara's involvement in the
December 1992 Babri Masjid demolition in Ayodhya.
News reports then had quoted the sanyasin exhorting Hindu volunteers:
'Ek dhakka aur do, Babri Masjid tor do [Give one more push, bring down
And so, when Rithambara walked towards the gate of the auditorium located behind
the temple, the demonstrators yelled, "Sadhvi Rithambara par halla bol, zor zor se
Two hours later, in a speech peppered with humor, folksy messages and poems that
reflected her brilliance at demagoguery, Rithambara referred to the demonstration
outside the temple.
"I was welcomed with slogans of murdabad," she said in Hindi to an audience of approximately 300 people, who paid $ 50 to $ 1,000 to attend the event. "Par yeh chotti motti nare baazi se hamara kaya bigdega [But what harm will this insignificant slogan shouting do to me]? "
"She is more of a religious leader than anything else," said an angry N Lalchandani. A founding director of the Nargis Dutt Memorial Trust and trustee of Satya Narayan Temple in Queens, Lalchandani insisted the demonstrators were not stating the truth.
"There are two sides of the picture," he said. "Everybody can say what they want.
She used to be a politician. She is no more in politics. Now she is totally religious."
The organizers tried to get the demonstrators moved across the street from the
temple, but the handful of New York Police Department personnel let the protest
continue on the sidewalk near the auditorium entrance.
"They cannot block the entrance or any pedestrian," Officer Henry Sookhu said. "If
they get violent we will put them in a pen and separate them."
At one point, when classical singer Pandit Jasraj passed by, heading towards the
auditorium, a few protestors shouted: "Pandit Jasraj, how can you listen to this
woman? You are a secular man. Pandit Jasraj, please don't go inside."
Jasraj returned to talk to the demonstrators, but in the midst of the confusion, no
proper dialogue was possible.
Later, speaking to rediff.com, Jasraj said, "I did not like the way they were
shouting 'Hindu terrorist hai hai.' They should condemn all terrorists."
"The Gujarat incident is a totally different thing," Jasraj said, referring to the placards on it. "I do not know who is behind the violence. Hamari Hindu quom aisee nahin hai ke woh logon ko ja ke maren. [Hindus will never go and kill people.]
Jasraj said he didn't know anything about Rithambara's political background. "Aap
yakeen maniyen, main jhoot nahin bhol raha. [Believe me, I am not telling
lies.] I have never read anything about her or seen her face. I have just come to
listen to what she has to say."
Watching the demonstrators was a visibly shaken Uma Mysorekar, president of the
Hindu Temple Society. "The temple did not know she was going to speak. They just
booked the hall. If we had known she was an extreme radical at one time, we would
have never allowed this event to happen."
"These people come and go," Mysorekar said about visitors from India like
Rithambara. "But this is a temple, in the midst of all the ethnic and religious groups. And we must coexist. I don't care if I lost one program. But if it means creating a controversy, believe me I would certainly not have permitted her to speak here. But we realized it too late.
"I am a proud Hindu and I think the organizers have done great injustice to the
temple. They could have gone somewhere else."
Early announcements about the program suggested that Ritambhara's project --
Vatsalya Gram -- would assist battered woman in India. But in her speech, she did
not mention battered women. Instead, she said the homes were meant for orphans
and widows, especially those who were not allowed to remarry. The plan was to build 100 homes in Delhi, Vrindavan, and in Haryana and Madhya Pradesh, of which 23 were already complete, she said.
The program brochure carried several pictures of Rithambara surrounded by children.
One had a quote by her: 'The whole world needs maternal love. Every child shall get a
mother's lap so that no child may feel deprived.'
Lalchandani later said the homes would only accommodate Hindus. "No Muslim woman
and children will be helped. This is pro-Hindu affair."
Another organizer, Dr Mukund Modi asked: "When Christians build orphanages, it is
only for Christians or for other religions too?"
What about Muslim orphans and widows, Modi was questioned? After a little
hesitation, he said: "I have not asked that question. Maybe you can ask her."
Contrary to the assurances from the organizers, Rithambara's speech contained a
strong political tone. She said the efforts to build a temple for Lord Ram at the Babri
Masjid site had given Indians a sense of pride.
"People questioned the Ram Janam Bhoomi movement," she said, "but I told them if
the youth of India stood up for the cause, even Muslims will start to say Long Live
Lord Ram [Yahan to meeyan log bhi bolenge, Jai Shree Ram]."
Her strongest attacks came towards the end of the speech and were aimed at
"Agar koyee galtee kar ke pachtaye, to usey insaan kahte hain. Jo na pachtaye,
usey shaitaan kahte hain. Jo galtee karey, phir pitey, phir galtee karey, phir pitey,
usey Pakistan kahte hain [If someone repents after a making a mistake, we
call him a human being. If he does not repent then we call him Satan. But if someone
repeatedly makes mistakes, we call that Pakistan]," she said, as the audience
roared with approval.
"We cannot tolerate the world tear apart our Mother India," she said. "They say
Pakistan is incomplete without Kashmir. And we say India is incomplete without
Pakistan and Bangladesh. We are aiming to reunite India [Hum Hindustan ko
akhandata ki singhasan par birajman karne ki sadhana mein lagey hain]."
And this, about the future of Pakistan in the event of a war: "Aglee baar jung
ladee to sunlo. Naam nishan nahin hoga. Kashmir to hoga. Lekin Pakistan nahin
hoga [The next time there is a war, Kashmir will survive, but Pakistan will no
Throughout the function, Rithambara sat in her trademark orange garb, in the center
of the stage. Before her fiery speech, she appeared calm and saintly, enjoying a
Bharat Natyam performance.
And when the previously announced bhajan by Yogi Brinda Narayan turned
out to be famed playback singer Mukesh's title song from Raj Kapoor's Jis Desh
Mein Ganga Behti Hai, Rithambara started to sway to the Shankar Jaikishen
There was more Raj Kapoor, when an elderly violinist played Jane Kahan Gaye
Woh Din from the film Mera Naam Joker. Rithambara swayed to that,
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi
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