(Speech made by Ms. Sunita Viswanath of ‘Hindus for Human Rights’ on the occasion of Nehru’s 129th birth anniversary celebration held at Queens, New York under the auspices of Indian Overseas Congress and Indo-US Democracy foundation on November 14, 2019)
I am Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights. I am deeply honored to be among you today, especially at an event to commemorate the birthday of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister and one of the Founding Fathers of India, the country of my birth.
I am speaking from my heart today, and hope that I don’t hurt or offend anyone with my words. If you disagree with me on anything, let us discuss afterwards perhaps over chai or coffee.
I have an important clarification to state right at the outset:
Hindus for Human Rights is a human rights advocacy organization. We are a US-based non profit organization. As such we will never endorse any particular party or individual politician. Speaking at an event organized by the Indian Overseas Congress is not an endorsement of the Congress Party in India. That said, I am grateful to be among you to share a message on such an important occasion.
I was born in India, lived in India as a child, and again as an adult. I am 51 years old. I have grown up largely abroad, but my heart is Indian and my Gods are Hindu, and that means that both are open, giving, inclusive, expansive, full of love. My Indian heart sings Eshwar Allah Tero Naam, and my Hindu Gods teach me, “aano bhadra krtavo yantu vishwatah.” This is from the Rig Veda and means: “Let Noble thoughts come to me from all directions.”
I am inspired by both India and Hinduism to believe that we are one, truly one, and so this world is my world, all people my people, all pain mine to help heal, and all injustice mine to denounce.
We are here to celebrate the birthday of Nehruji. But somehow, given the crisis of human rights and democracy in India and the world today, I cannot celebrate much these days. Diwali this year — for me, anyway — was a pledge to be the light of justice in a world where the lights have been put out, the light of wisdom in a world where so many of us seem to have lost our way. Similarly one way to honor Nehruji, the first Prime Minister of free India, is to pledge to do our part to stand by his idea of India, an inclusive idea of India, a secular India, an India whose entire citizenry enjoys human rights.
When I was living in Bombay, more than twenty years ago, my older sons were tiny, and a dear friend gifted them Nehru’s book, “Letters from a Father to His Daughter.” I am not sure if my sons ever read this little book, but I I felt as though it was written for me. Nehruji taught his daughter to be openminded and curious about everything, especially history and science, to never follow violent paths because “fighting and killing each other are about the most stupid things that people can do. It does good to nobody” and most importantly, “to think of the world as a whole, and of other peoples in it as brothers and sisters.”
I will share a little of my story, an ordinary story of one of India’s and therefore Nehruji’s daughters.
Nehruji makes me feel very much at home in my skin when he says, “I have become a queer mixture of the East and the West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere. Perhaps my thoughts and approach to life are more akin to what is called Western than Eastern, but India clings to me, as she does to all her children, in innumerable ways. I am a stranger and alien in the West. I cannot be of it. But in my own country also, sometimes I have an exile’s feeling.”
I was born into an upper caste Hindu family in South India. As a very young child, I was witness to (and a participant in) the practice of untouchability. This is a cause of deep shame for me, and pain, but it was such formative experiences that led me to eventually become a human rights activist, and an anti-caste Hindu. My family moved to England and then I moved to the US as a teenager.
Most of my work as an adult was to advance women’s rights. I have worked in many non-profit organizations, and twenty years ago, I co-founded Women for Afghan Women, today the largest Afghan women’s rights organization in the world. It was the staff of Women for Afghan Women — who today number 850 — that were a huge part of the inspiration for the work I do today. When you ask any of them, man or woman, why they risk their lives every single day for women’s rights, they will say — It is our duty as Muslims. For many years I craved such a voice, such a force of integrity, in my own Hindu community. Practicing Hindus who identify as such, who would risk their lives for the human rights of little girls and boys. Hindus who speak up to Hindu extremists because the heart of Hinduism is peaceful. Other than a few exceptions such as one of my gurus Swami Agnivesh (who is the reason that I became connected to you all), I only found such people in history books. And so over time, I would co-create both Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus and now Hindus for Human Rights, both platforms for Hindu Americans to connect their faith to social justice for all.
Whenever I go to Afghanistan, people show me love because I am Indian. They love India, not only because Bollywood (although I must admit, that is part of the attraction for sure!), but because of what they understand to be the IDEA of India. Even an uneducated Afghan person has a basic sense that India is a country where people of different communities live together in harmony, and that the society is open enough that our very romantic films are even possible.
My Indian friends and family would be terribly worried for my safety whenever I would go to Afghanistan. Today, my friends, including my Afghan friends, tell me to be careful when I go to India.
The India that was envisioned by Nehruji, Gandhiji, Ambedkarji and so many other visionaries and revolutionaries, the India that is a “sovereign, socialist, secular and democratic republic” which ensures “justice, liberty, equality to all citizens and promotes fraternity to maintain unity and integrity of the nation,” is in crisis.
I recently had the honor of spending time with Dr. Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. During the q&a session after his presentation entitled, “Hindu nationalism in Gandhi’s India,” Rajmohanji began to answer a question but could not hold back tears. Through his tears he said, ”I will say what I know Gandhiji would have said. They can attack Gandhi, that doesn’t matter. They can kill Gandhi. But they cannot kill our democracy, our constitution. They cannot take the lives of Dalits and Muslims. They cannot kill India.”
Rajmohanji heard in detail and with interest about our efforts in Hindus for Human Rights to tell the truth about what is happening in India to the whole world, in our temples and mosques and gurudwaras, and on Capital Hill. He advised us to be unafraid in our advocacy. In fact the greatest blessing and validation was when he said to us, “Seeing all of you work so hard makes me wish I had twenty more years to work with you.”
Rajmohanji even joined the Advisory Board of Hindus for Human Rights. People in India sometimes suggest that we cannot or should not advocate for human rights in india because we live outside India. Rajmohanji believes– as we do– that all of us, no matter where we are, must speak truth to power. We in the United States have the privilege of being able to speak truth to power without fear of violence or oppression. It is vital that those of us who can speak, do speak, and never stop speaking up until democracy and justice for all are restored to India.
Progressive Hindus are told by people on the left that a progressive Hinduism isn’t even possible — that we Hindus are casteist and hierarchical and Hinduism itself should be done away with. People who are born Hindu and who care about social justice often say they are “secular” and won’t identify as Hindu. Others are simply silent. While we who oppose Hindutva are paralysed by our discomfort with religion generally and Hinduism specifically, the entire nation is being turned into a Hindu rashtra.
But whether it is the more than 100 lynchings of Muslims, whether it is the rape and murder of a little Muslim girl child inside a Hindu temple by a gang of Hindu men including a priest, whether it is the fact that journalsts and activists and intellectuals are arrested or even murdered for exercising their constitutional right to speak, whether it is the 100 day lockdown of Kashmir or the National Register of Citizens that has rendered two million Indians so far non-citizens — those of us who are Hindu and who are horrified at what is happening in India MUST speak up.
This carnage of lives, rights and democracy is happening in the name of our faith. There must be a Hindu response to Hindutva. After all, since Hindus are the majority, no change is possible without changing the hearts and minds of Hindus. Who will annihilate caste if not Hindus?
In the Hindu American community, whether it is temple spaces or people’s homes, it has become next to impossible to speak a word against everything that is going on. To express concern is to be a heretic. Someone like me is considered naive and ignorant at best, and an anti-national, anti-Hindu communist at worst.
Most of my extended family here in the United States and in India rejoices at the very things which made me weep. If I speak of the lynchings of Muslims sometimes even as they are forced to say Jai Shri Ram, these they consider to be either fake news or exaggerations of news. They will respond by telling me of the plight of Hindus in Pakistan and Bangladesh and the Kashmiri Pandits. And I reply: Every single instance of injustice must be renounced and all perpetrators must be brought to justice. There must be justice for the Kashmiri Pandits. But the answer to a lynching of a Muslim cannot be to say — well, Hindus are oppressed too, so lynchings are ok.
When I was alarmed that Pragya Thakur called Nathuram Godse a Deshbhakt, my Madras-based cousin sent me Godse’s manifesto and said I should read it. When I expressed pain at the 1000s of children imprisoned in Kashmir since August 5th, a Midwest-based family friend said, “These aren’t children, they are programmed terrorists.” And yet another family friend visiting from the UK, recently sat at my dining table in my home and said, “If Muslims are removed from india its GDP will increase three-fold.”
These are all good people in their own way, and I love them. I cannot end my relationship with my dear friends and family. And as hard as it is, I will continue to try and dialogue with them. However, there is no way that any of them can convince me that that hatred and violence can ever be an acceptable response to an atrocity. A simple teaching like “an eye for an eye makes the world blind” has been forgotten. We have all lost our eyes, and we have woefully lost our way.
The brave men and women who work for Women for Afghan Women are fighting Muslim extremists to protect human rights; Buddhists must fight their own extremists in countries like Myanmar and Sri Lanka; and progressive Jews like my own husband are devoted to the rights and self-determination of the Palestinian people.
Similarly, it is the need of our dark hour that believing and practicing Hindus wake up and join the resistance to Hindutva.
Nehruji’s greatest influence and inspiration, Gandhiji, was a progressive Hindu if there ever was one. Gandhiji wrote, “Hinduism tells everyone to worship God according to his own faith or dharma, and so it lives at peace with all the religions.”
And Nehruji said, on Gandhiji’s birthday in 1952, “If any person raises his hand to strike down another on the ground of religion, I shall fight him till the last breath of my life, both at the head of government and from outside.”
“Satyameva Jayate” may have been a popular TV show in india, but these profound words originate in the Mundaka Upanishad. The Truth Only Will Prevail.
There is a zeitgeist throughout the world of ethno-nationalism — it is white supremacy here and Hindu supremacy in India. All of us who are committed to pluralism — an open society, open media, freedom of thought and expression and faith — all of us who are committed to justice for all, MUST come together as one, and speak up. In Truth and Solidarity.
Rajmohan Gandhi has a blog which even at the age of 84, he painstakingly maintains. The blog is called Himmat – A Space for What Must be Said. The best way, the only way, to celebrate and commemorate the birthday of a man such as Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, or for that matter, Mahatma Gandhi, is to have the Himmat to tell the truth no matter the risks.
You have all devoted your lives to, in one way or another, the secular democracy of India. I don’t need to tell you our history, or that that we are in crisis.
I can only say – let us commit ourselves to unite in coalitions of Truth-Telling; diverse and inclusive coalitions that would honor the lives and legacies of Nehruji, Gandhiji and Ambedkarji, and all the other founding fathers and mothers of India. And let our Coalitions not disintegrate into tearing down these great people’s lives and characters. Though Martin Luther King Junior called Gandhiji “the little brown saint of India,” Gandhiji was was no saint. Just a man. As Nehruji and Ambedkarji were men. The people who defeated the British through nonviolence resistance were just humans like us. If we unite in courage and clear thinking, there is nothing we cannot achieve. Satyameva Jayate. Truth Only Will Prevail.