[To sign on to this statement opposing censorship and intimidation of Arun Gandhi, see the directions here]
On January 7, 2008, Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and the founder/director of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence at the University of Rochester, wrote two paragraphs on the Washington Post blog, On Faith, titled “Jewish Identity Can’t Depend on Violence.” Within three weeks, Gandhi was forced to resign as Director after a storm of criticism that he was anti-Semitic by pro-Israel groups such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the American Jewish Committee, and by pressure from the President of the University of Rochester, Joel Seligman. Why did these two paragraphs cause the resignation of Gandhi, a respected and renowned public figure who has worked for years to promote non-violence and inter-faith understanding, study racism and prejudice, and who grew up with the daily abuses of the apartheid regime in South Africa?
The title of Gandhi’s post, in itself, seems like a reasonable statement to make, one which would be true of any group. No group’s identity can depend on violence. In the article, which was quickly painted as “shameful” by Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Gandhi recognized the horror of the Holocaust but observed that legitimate sympathy for this past tragedy cannot mean blindness or justification for violence inflicted on another group in the present. This too, seems like a logical point, and one that has been made innumerable times by Jewish Americans and Israelis alike, including the children of Holocaust survivors, such as Dr. Norman Finkelstein. However, Finkelstein, author of The Holocaust Industry, also paid the price for his critical scholarship and was recently denied tenure for challenging pro-Israel propaganda and campaigns headed by Foxman and the ADL. Furthermore, many have also noted that the Palestinians who were dispossessed and exiled with the creation of the Israeli state in 1948, after World War II, were paying the price for a European tragedy that was not of their own making, what Gandhi called “a German burden.”
In the article, Gandhi advised those concerned about Jewish identity and the future of Israel to make genuine efforts toward peace and non-violence, rather than acquiring “weapons and bombs.” Israel is the only state with nuclear weapons in the Middle East, a little known fact that causes no hysteria about WMDs in the US, let alone sanctions or invasions. Gandhi noted that when he visited Israel in 2004, he observed their “superior weapons and armaments” that make it the most powerful and advanced military power in the region. His advice was simply to point out that it would be better for Israel to “share its technological advancement” with its poorer neighbors and build friendships, rather than live in a heavily armed fortress surrounded by a wall that has imprisoned Palestinians and expropriated their land. On the same trip to Israel-Palestine, Gandhi had urged Palestinians to engage in non-violent civil disobedience. Another, little known fact is that Palestinians do countless acts of non-violent resistance, and have for a long time, but they face Israeli tanks, U.S.-supplied F-16s and Apache helicopters. Rachel Corrie, an American peace activist, was killed by an Israeli bulldozer that drove over her while she was trying to protect a Palestinian house from being destroyed.
Gandhi actually posted an apology for what he called his “poorly worded” comments and wrote:
I do not believe and should not have implied that the policies of the Israeli government are reflective of the views of all Jewish people. Indeed, many are as concerned as I am by the use of violence for state purposes, by Israel and many other governments. I do believe that when a people hold on to historic grievances too firmly it can lead to bitterness and the loss of support from those who would be friends. But as I have noted in previous writings, the suffering of the Jewish people, particularly in the Holocaust, was historic in its proportions. While we must strive for a future of peace that rejects violence, it is also important not to forget the past, lest we fail to learn from it. Having learned from it, we can then find the path to peace and rejection of violence through forgiveness.
Yet President Seligman described the apology as “inadequate,” rather than supporting Gandhi’s freedom of speech. It was not enough for University of Rochester that he had been pressured to apologize. Gandhi’s resignation makes it clear that he was the latest casualty of the powerful and highly organized pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. that immediately deems any and all criticism of Israel’s policies as anti-Semitic. The irony is that in his post, Gandhi was actually noting the very phenomenon of a community overplaying its historic experience that was enacted in the vitriolic response of powerful and well-funded organizations created to silence and intimidate critics of Israel. Foxman is one of the staunchest apologists for Israel’s inhuman treatment of the Palestinians, about whom a Wall Street Journal editor once quipped: “he has become drunk with power…knowing he can label anyone who challenges him an anti-Semitic bigot.” One only needs to look at the hundreds of responses to Gandhi’s posting on the blog to realize that there were, in fact, countless letters supporting Gandhi and decrying the bullying tactics and censorship of the Israel lobby. Stephen Walt (Harvard) and John Mearsheimer (University of Chicago), authors of the much-publicized book, The Israel Lobby, know a thing or two about this repression. So does Jimmy Carter who was slammed as an anti-Semite after he published Palestine: Peace, not Apartheid.
It is shameful that groups such as the Hindu American Foundation who claim to promote “tolerance and understanding” would support such blatant censorship of Gandhi’s grandson. Perhaps they choose to ignore Mahatma Gandhi’s statement in 1946 that Jewish settlers “have erred grievously in seeking to impose themselves on Palestine with the aid of America and Britain and now with the aid of naked terrorism … Why should they resort to terrorism to make good their forcible landing in Palestine?” The HAF has chosen instead to ally itself with groups such as the ADL and to participate in the dishonest and cowardly silencing of any one who dares to criticize the racism and violence directed against Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims. Hindu, Indian, South Asian groups that profess to support dialogue and mutual respect should respect the rights of individuals to freely express their views without fear of losing their jobs and being publicly defamed. Such actions are insulting to the memory of courageous leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi who risked their lives for national self-determination and an end to colonialism and racism. Like his grandfather, Arun Gandhi has paid a price for the larger principle of speaking out in support of justice and freedom.
[Excerpts from an amicus curiae brief filed in the Superior Court of the state of California (Sacramento county) opposing Hindutva attempts to saffronise school textbooks in California]
- The United States of America is home to one of the strongest overseas networks of the Sangh Parivar, with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA) and the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) being the main affiliates. The VHPA’s projects include the creation of the Hindu Students Council which since its founding spawned several committed Hindutva activists like Mihir Meghani, the founder and President of the Hindu American Foundation. The efforts to rewrite textbooks in California by the HAF, and its allies the Hindu Education Foundation (HEF, an educational project of HSS) and Vedic Foundation (VF, an Austin, Texas based organization with close ties to the VHPA) are related directly to efforts by the broader network of Hindutva organizations based in the U.S. coordinating with the India-based RSS. Specifically, the textbook campaign of the Hindutva organizations in the U.S. is linked to largely unsuccessful efforts by the RSS to do the same in India. Several key players involved in the textbook effort are also leaders and officials of various Hindutva organizations. Ved Nanda, advisor to the HEF is the founder and supreme leader of the HSS, which created the HEF. (See Charts detailing key organizations and individual ties between the HAF, HEF, and VF and Hindutva Groups, attached as Exhibits A and B, respectively).
- It is important to point out that the current textbook efforts of Hindutva organizations in the U.S. bear more than a coincidental relationship to similar efforts in India. Starting in 2002, when the Sangh Parivar’s political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was in power in India, the Sangh Parivar made an abortive attempt to doctor school textbooks in India. This effort was defeated by a coalition of scholars, intellectuals and secular activists in India and elsewhere. The interventions in California are a continuation of the Sangh Parivar’s failed attempts in India; as a HEF volunteer proudly proclaimed in a recent gathering of Sangh Parivar activists from all over the world: Through the Hindu Education Foundation run by the RSS in California, we have succeeded in correcting the misleading information in text books for primary and secondary classes.
- The seeds for the current controversy were sown in 2003, when the Hindu Students Council (HSC) — a project of the VHPA — organized the Dharma Conference. A large number of U.S. based Hindutva luminaries participated along with the BJP’s Human Resources and Development Minister, Murli Manohar Joshi. Mr. Joshi led the efforts by the RSS to write new school textbooks, produced by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), with highly offensive anti-minority propaganda. These social studies texts produced by the NCERT, under the direction of Mr. Joshi and the RSS, badly distorted Indian history with arguments and omissions shaped by the RSS’s Hindu supremacist ideology. The Dharma Conference of 2003 led to the creation of a new organization called Educators Society for the Heritage of India (ESHI), which itself held a conference in 2004 to mobilize supporters from the VHPA’s Hindu University.
- A parallel initiative, Hindu-International.org, launched an unsuccessful textbook rewrite campaign in Virginia. This organization headed by S. Kalyanaraman and Abhinav Dwivedi, both advisors to the HEF, used the above-mentioned NCERT textbooks as its resource, with a publication prepared by the VHP’s UK branch titled Explaining Hindu Dharma – A guide for Teachers Hindu-International’s website also includes images of the cover page of the textbook and the VHP publication.
- The HSC/VHPA co-sponsored a Dharma Summit with the Hindu International Council Against Defamation (HICAD) in August 2005. This event served as the immediate impetus behind the launch of the HEF and VF’s campaign in September 2005. At this conference, Hindutva luminaries, including RSS Chief K. Sudarshan participated and launched the Hindu Council Initiative. This initiative explicitly ties the India efforts of the Hindutva movement to efforts in the U.S. – as evidenced in this excerpt from a report prepared by the Hindu Press International, the media wing of a publication entitled Hinduism Today which supports the VF’s textbook efforts:
- Youth education and guidance were foremost on most speakers’ minds, with a secondary issue being the treatment Hinduism receives in the dozens of textbooks used in American schools and colleges…. Textbooks were rapidly prepared to cover these new courses, which have been incorporated in most schools. However, the books have given shabby treatment to Hinduism. Different speakers explained how to approach the local school board at the time the books were up for adoption, how to influence the selection and even future editions of the books. There was, many noted, a lot of room for improvement! Rajiv Malhotra explained at length the way in which the American and European academics had thoroughly distorted the understanding of Hinduism and ways Hindu communities and leaders can correct this situation.” Hindu Press International, August 16, 2005.
- In support of the HEF/VF efforts in California, ESHI also contacted Prof. J.S. Rajput, former President of the National Council for Educational Research (NCERT), India, to write about the efforts of textbook corrections in India. Rajput’s central role in the NCERT textbook rewrite campaign led by the RSS was widely condemned not only for the crude insertion of RSS propaganda into textbooks, but also for harassment of NCERT scholars unwilling to toe the RSS line.
- The above evidence clearly gives the lie to the plaintiffs’ denials on the Hindutva links of the HEF, VF and HAF, and establishes the motives behind their involvement in the California textbook adoption process.
- We now address in detail the plaintiffs claims on the nature of the HAF. The HAF’s founder and president Mihir Meghani began his career in sectarian politics as an early leader of the Hindu Students Council (HSC). He has been a member of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), and served the VHP-America as a governing council member and volunteer coordinator. His views on Hindutva are expressed most eloquently in his essay, Hindutva: The Great Nationalist Ideology hosted on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s website. In the essay, Meghani writes: The future of Bharat is set. Hindutva is here to stay. It is up to the Muslims whether they will be included in the new nationalistic spirit of Bharat.
- The above evidence, drawn from Hindutva websites, clearly establishes Meghani’s association with the Sangh Parivar and the Hindutva cause. Evidently, the plaintiffs’ claims that the HAF headed by Mihir Meghani has no political agenda and is not affiliated with Hindutva groups in India are patently false. Occasionally, the HAF has also come out openly in support of Hindutva ideologues; the denouncing of a congressional resolution against Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi (for his role in the killing of nearly 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat in March 2002) as Hinduphobic is a case in point. Given the HAF’s links with the Sangh Parivar (which has repeatedly been condemned by human rights organizations for violence against religious minorities, its forceful condemnation of religiously-based violence is utterly hypocritical and is no more than an attempt to pass off as a human rights organization amongst well-meaning but gullible Hindus and non-Hindus in the US.
- The plaintiffs further claim that the HAF has forcefully condemned caste violence, but the timing of this is nakedly cynical. For instance, the HAF’s first report on Hindu human rights, and its numerous press releases until December 2005 avoided any mention of caste violence caste violence. It was only after the HAF’s active involvement in the California textbook controversy and after it was called out in public for its links with the Sangh Parivar that it suddenly woke up to the plight of Dalits and issued a few token declarations. In the context of the California textbooks, the HAF has sought to replace Dalit with the condescending Harijan, and elide mentions of caste (or downplay its severity) in the textbooks. For instance, the plaintiffs claim that for the most part, people could eat with anyone from a different class. Given the context, we presume they meant caste rather than class, in which case they seem to be blissfully divorced from reality. During mid-day meals (a government scheme to provide free lunch to poor children), there have been instances of Dalit school children being segregated from upper-caste children, Dalit children drinking from separate pitchers, and Dalit cooks facing resistance from upper-caste parents [one of whom threw sand in a meal cooked by a Dalit woman]. Dalit children who tried to inter dine with their upper caste classmates have also been denied food and chased out of school.
- Such practices aptly demonstrate upper caste aversion to the polluting presence of Dalits, one of the fundamental beliefs undergirding caste prejudice. As one upper caste parent observed: Today the government says that you must eat food cooked by a Dalit. Tomorrow they will ask what is wrong with a Dalit marrying an upper-caste person. We must curb this at the initial stage … We have preserved our caste traditions for hundreds of years. Why should we break it now?
- Far from being a human rights organization concerned with the rights violation of Hindus, the HAF has functioned more as a human rights front for the Sangh Parivar with its discourse of Hindu victimhood, obfuscation of the centrality of caste in Indian society and its comical attempts at denying the Dalits their chosen Dalit identity.
 The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) is the religious wing of the RSS. Several VHP units were established in countries outside India to facilitate coordination and unity of purpose between themselves and with the VHP unit in India. The VHP website lists VHP of America as one of the VHP units outside India.
 According to one Hindutva website, HSS is started in the USA and other parts of the world to continue what RSS is doing in India. The RSS website says: The Sangh’s full name is Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (H.S.S.); only in Kenya, it is Bharatiya Swayamsevak Sangh and in Myanmar, it is Sanatan Dharma Swayamsevak Sangh.
 Hindu Students Council was started by the VHPA in 1987 as documented on the VHPA’s webpage here and here. Hindu Students Council was the primary organiser for the Dharma Conference 2003 as quoted in Tanmaya Kumar Nanda, Dharma for the new generation. Meghani’s role as founder of the University of Michigan chapter of the HSC in 1991, is documented here: Searching for Our Roots.
 According to Nandini Sundar: “The NCERT social science/history textbooks are not only shockingly low on both grammar and fact, but also reflect many of the RSS’s pet themes – e g, the urge to prove that Indian civilisation is synonymous with Hinduism, which in turn is synonymous with the ‘Vedic civilization.’ This Vedic civilisation is portrayed as the fount of all things great in the world, while all the evils that beset India are traced to foreigners – Muslim invaders and Christian missionaries.”
 “Rakeshji and KalyanRamanji did a lot of research in finding the many references to support comments made on the contents of text book. Initially ‘A teachers guide on Hinduism’ a UK approved text book prepared by a committee headed by VHPA, UK and the NCERT social studies books of India, released in India during year 2003 were used to prepare the comments.”
 HICAD is an entity founded and led by Ved Chaudhary, who is also a founding member of ESHI, which he leads along with Kanchan Bannerjee, co-founder of HSC and the VHPA’s “Vice President for Youth.”
 Lakshmi Ravu, Report on the Dharma Summit 2005: “Some of the most important Hindu leaders in the world were present for this event. Including: Sri Swami Dayananda Saraswatiji (the inspiration behind the Dharma Summit, and convener of the event), Sri Chidananda Muniji (the creator of the Hindu Encyclopedia project), Sri Bodhinatha Veylanswami (Publisher of Hinduism Today Magazine) and several of his sannyasis, Sri K. S. Sudarshan (leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the largest Hindu service organization on earth), Dr. Pranav Pandya (leader of the several million members of the Gayatri Pariwar), Sri Swami Jyotirmayananda (Ramakrishna Order), Dr. David Frawley (Vamadeva Shastriji), Dr. Frank Gaetano Morales (the well-respected American Hindu intellectual and philosopher), Sri Steven Knapp (a prolific American Hindu author), and many others. These Hindu lights and dignitaries all filled the first row of the auditorium. Several Jain, Buddhist, and Sikh leaders were also present.”
 Rajput ran a reign of terror, stated Anil Sadgopal, BJVJ (Bharat Jan Vidyan Jatha – an all-India peoples’ science network) vice-president and education professor at Delhi University. Nobody dared speak his mind at his meetings. People at NCERT refer to that period as a bawander (whirlpool), a toofan (cyclone) that has now hopefully passed. So many who asserted themselves were abruptly transferred. See also Communalization of Education, The History Textbook Controversy: An Overview, Mridula Mukherjee and Aditya Mukherjee, Professors of History, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, 22 December, 2001 (If this is not bad enough the NCERT has appointed to its Executive Committee and Departmental Committee … a self proclaimed RSS activist whose only claim to fame is his confession that he killed a Muslim woman during a riot); Hindutva Ire, Praful Bidwai.
 According to the Human Rights Watch: The Hindu organizations most responsible for violence against Christians are the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council, VHP), the Bajrang Dal,and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps, RSS). According to a former RSS member, these groups cannot be divorced from the ruling BJP party: “There is no difference between the BJP and RSS. BJP is the body. RSS is the soul, and the Bajrang Dal is the hands for beating. The groups most directly involved in the violence against Muslims include the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council, VHP), the Bajrang Dal, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that heads the Gujarat state government. Collectively, they are known as the sangh parivar, or family of Hindu nationalist organizations.
 The HAF’s first annual survey of human rights, released on Jul 13, 2005, makes no mention of the violation of Dalits’ rights. Its second report, released on Jun 27, 2006, admits that it “does not cover the important human rights issues that Hindus face within other parts of India including caste discrimination, women’s issues, terrorism, and discriminatory laws.” The HAF’s indifference to the daily violations of the human rights of 160 millions Dalits in India is hardly surprising, given the Sangh Parivar’s celebration of caste as a precious gift.
 See The future of mid-day meals. By and large, Dalits still continue to be served beverages in separate glasses (reserved exclusively for them) to assuage upper caste sentiments. This practice is commonly referred to as the two-tumbler system.
 Vile as these practices sound, in the nineteenth century “Dalits had to beat a drum to signal their arrival so the brahmin knew where to hide or how to protect his food. The brahmin is most vulnerable to pollution when he is eating, so if a shadow of a dalit fell on his food, the food too became Untouchable.” On occasion Dalits had to wear a spittoon so that his spittle did not fall on his surroundings and he could never stand in the way of a wind that might carry his smell or breath to a brahmin. In a Jataka story (377. III. 154), a Brahmin cries, “Curse you, ill omened candala [dalit], get to leeward” (Sagarika Ghose, “The dalit in India – caste and social class,” Social Research, Spring 2003.)
S Anand makes a very pertinent point in his recent Tehelka article.
Confronting the extremist fringe of the Right comes easy to the liberal-secular set but it ignores the more widespread casteist slurs by other sections of society.
This has been one of my pet peeves for some time now. It is true not just in India, but also in the United States. Academic conferences on secularism are relatively frequent, but caste continues to be relatively invisible. While this is particularly shameful of desi academics (who ought to know better), their white counterparts don’t fare much better either. For instance, in a lengthy article expressing her Fears for Democracy in India, Martha Nussbaum only makes three cursory references to caste and none at all to Ambedkar. As if caste and Ambedkar had/have little to do with democracy in India!
In the wake of the California textbook controversy, where the Sanghis insisted on referring to Dalits as Harijans (a moniker hated by the Dalits), I couldn’t help wondering how much of this brazen arrogance had to do with the lack of discussion on caste in the diaspora. I did a cursory search on the websites of several South Asia programs (a partial list of programs is available here), and found that caste wasn’t on their agenda. An occasional event here and there on caste (for instance, a talk by Sainath when he is on a US tour), but no prolonged, substantive engagement with caste.
In recent years, Title-VI funded programs in Middle Eastern Studies that don’t toe the official Zionist line have come under fire (see articles in The Nation and Counterpunch), and Palestinian advocacy has become increasingly risky even within the academia (see articles by Madiha Tahir and David Green) — the recent denial of tenure to Norman Filkelstein is a case in point. Are the Title-VI programs on South Asia similarly vulnerable to ideological pressures from their funders? Unlikely, since the neoconservative hawks that control American foreign policy are most likely indifferent to caste; the Christian fundamentalists amongst them might even be perversely interested for they see in the vicious system of caste an opportunity to salvage some souls.
How then does one explain the paucity of research on caste in the South Asia programs in the US academia? I don’t have a definite answer, but the caste composition of faculty in such programs might be a factor. The silence of Hindutva groups like the Hindu American Foundation (whose annual reports on Hindu Human Rights are notoriously silent on caste) is understandable, but that of liberal academia is not. As Martin Luther King rightly observed:
We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.