On November 29, I participated in a briefing on religious freedom in India, held in Washington and organised by the Indian American Muslim Council. This briefing was before members of the bipartisan United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. I was one of a diverse group of Indian-American civil liberties and religious freedom activists who testified about how religious freedom is increasingly diminished in India today, under Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government. The goal of the briefing was to increase international awareness of censorship and limitations of speech in India.
It is curious to me how some among the Indian press have characterised this public meeting as a hypocritical cabal attacking India and Hinduism. Their discussions, like the one on Times Now on Saturday, carefully excised all traces of the Hindus of conscience who spoke at this meeting. I know this, because I am one of them.
I am a Hindu American of Indian origin, a social justice activist and a founding member of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus. I consider it my dharma to work for the rights and security of men and women wherever these rights are denied. I have spent much of my life fighting for women’s rights in Afghanistan, in part through criticism of religious extremism in that country. I am also connected to movements in the United States that fight for the civil rights of the poor and marginalised, and protest against racism, sexism and Islamophobia, which motivate those at the helm in America today. Our experience as immigrants and racial and religious minorities in the United States informs our concern for minorities in other places.
Just as my Hindu faith motivates my participation in these struggles, it requires me to speak out about the state of India today. Given the global surge in majoritarian politics and bigotry, and blatant attacks on religious minorities and human rights defenders in Narendra Modi’s India as well as in Donald Trump’s America, I consider it my right and duty to add my voice to the defence of those brutally targeted with violence and repression in both the oldest and the largest democracies in the world. Indeed, next month I will be speaking at a similar briefing in Washington, addressing the religious freedom of the Hindu minority in Pakistan.
‘Love, not hostility’
My testimony was specifically about the attacks, arrests and murders of human rights defenders, journalists and critics of Modi and Hindutva by Hindu mobs. I spoke not out of hostility to Hinduism or India but, rather, out of love and commitment to both.
My talk, which was not mentioned on Times Now, was specifically about the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh in September 2017, and the attacks this year on Swami Agnivesh and Swami Sandeepananda Giri, the persecution of activists such as Teesta Setalwad, Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid, the arrest of human rights advocates Arun Ferreira, Gautam Navlakha, Vernon Gonsalves, Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao and, most recently, former Indian Police Service officer and Modi dissenter Sanjiv Bhatt.
How can India thrive when reasonable voices of justice and inquiry are arrested and killed?
I see this question and speaking out against the forces that perpetrate these crimes as the core of my life as a Hindu. The Rig Veda says, “Aano bhadra krtavo yantu vishwatah.” (Let noble thoughts come to us from all sides). Such was the commission in Washington on November 29.
Just as the Hindu voices present at the meeting were airbrushed out by some in the Indian media, Hindu voices like Sadhana’s are also routinely equated with Hindutva by elements of the Left and excised from progressive social justice circles in the United States and India – despite us working for the very same goals. This is why it is important that the Indian American Muslim Council invited Sadhana to be a part of this briefing, and why we were honoured to participate.
Sadhana stands as an organisation that is both Hindu and fiercely defensive of the values embedded in the Indian Constitution, foremost among them being the “liberty of thought, expression and belief”.
Sunita Viswanath is co-founder and board member of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus.