The event is a staged reading of Shashi Tharoor’s 2001 book Riot. Shabana Azmi, the internationally acclaimed actress, secularist, and now Rajya Sabha Member is the main draw. The setting is the auditorium of The New School University on lower Fifth Avenue where high spirits abound as graduation ceremonies and celebrations are being held this week and the next.
On the street directly in front of the New School, the mood among the South Asians, mainly Indians but also Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, is cautious and mildly tense. Flyers have been posted on the brick walls declaring a fight against the Hindu Right. People eye each other warily trying to sort out political affiliation and ideological bent.
Around showtime at 6:30 p.m. the Hindutva sympathizers, numbering about 35 gather on the street under the eye of NYPD cops deployed specifically to provide coverage for the event. I had called the 6th Precinct days before to find out what arrangements had been made. Detective Singer, a veteran of free speech protests reminded me that no permit was need to hold a rally, or a counter protest.
Facing the BJP/RSS followers are members of various organizations — self-described Leftists, social progressives, community activists, university students and faculty. The flyers noted above have been posted by members of these groups. One counter-protest organizer stated ” I tried to talk to them. But I lasted five minutes. They feel the media is biased against them.” Banners and flyers appear and some heated exchanges ensue. But the encounter remains peaceful though tense, as expected.
Weeks before the event, emails have been flying furiously. An email from one marginally educated Narain Kataria, representing a Hindu fundamentalist group calling itself The IATFM — Indian Americans for Truth and Fairness in the Media, vilifies Ms. Azmi for her alleged Communist and Islamic fundamentalist sympathies. It goes so far as to attack her late father, the unforgettable lyricist, Kaifi Azmi, who died only recently.
The following excerpt is an analysis of Hindutva organization in the US, by Vijay Prashad, a scholar at Trinity College, CT:
[Mr. Kataria is a long-time member of the Overseas Friends of the Bharatiya Janata Party, a senior member of the group that runs the VHPA-allied Indian Development Relief Fund, a senior figure in the Bajrang Dal/Meir Kahane-linked Hindu Unity Group (whose website posts a “hit list”), the Organizing Secretary of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (the overseas wing of the RSS) and a contributor to the RSS’s paper, Organiser.
The Indian American Intellectuals’ Forum is a Hindutva organization whose members include: Jagat Motwani, Sardar Inderjit Singh, Raksh Pal Sood, Arvind Gupta, Arish Sahani, Ravi Kulkarni, Romesh Diwan, Narindar Kukar, Dinesh Agarwal, Rakesh Shreedhar and many others. Messrs. Singh and Sood are from the Sikh Sangat of America (an organization from Edison, NJ, that is part of the Sikh-Hindu alliance organized by the Hindutva groups, and which held a Hindu-Sikh Unity Celebration in Edison on 8 November 1997). Messrs. Agarwal and Sahani are from the Overseas Friends of the BJP. At their gathering on conversions and missionaries, the chief guest was the VHP’s External Working President (and Chairman of Mody Industrial Group), Dr. Bhupendra Kumar Mody. The surprise in the list is Jagat Motwani, head of GOPIO.
To get a sense of Mr. Kataria’s importance in the world of Hindutva, we might eavesdrop on the HSS’s Hindu Sangathan Divas of 1999 in New York City. As organizing chief of the HSS, Mr. Kataria took a leadership role in the meeting, where the head of the HSS told the six hundred people in attendance that the Hindu Empire extended from Afghanistan to Indonesia, and that there is a chance for a revival if Hindus remain united. If you think this is the world of the crackpots, bear in mind that not a moment later, the Consul General of India in New York, Mrs. Shashi Tripathi took the stage, extolled the armed forces and called the Kargil war “a little bit of a pinprick.” “Our armed forces are very strong,” she continued. “They have been taken unaware. But it does not matter. They will soon throw the enemy out of our country.”] End of excerpt.
Inside, the auditorium, the program is opened by Isheeta Ganguly, a Rabindrasangeet artiste who sings a composite rendition of Vandemataram and a Sufi exhortation of Allah. Then the readings from Riot are undertaken by Shabana Azmi, the actress and culinary expert Madhur Jaffrey, Shashi Tharoor and the journalist Tunku Varadarajan. The show organizer, Aroon Shivdasani of the Indian Arts Council asks the gathering to hold all comments until the performance is completed. There is standing room only and the four performers read excerpts to an attentive and mostly appreciative audience. The performances are riveting, each in their own way with Shabana Azmi holding the limelight.
Question time brings a number of perspectives. There is a question about why a woman’s version of the violence among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs is not depicted, since the four protagonists are all men (though two of the parts are read by women) Another questioner wonders why male violence is so widespread , whether in Rwana or Ahmedabad. Thare are also questions about how to solve the problem of violence among groups in India, relations with Pakistan, questions about truth and trust, integrity in public office and the role of free speech in a democracy.
In New York the challenge to a narrow-minded, bigoted, sectarian interpretation of Indian Secularism and Indian Democracy has been under way for some time. Hindutva is being challenged in the streets, in the classrooms, on the internet and in the media. NRI’s who fund hate and terror against India’s citizens, can expect that their positions will be challenged and opposed at every turn. They are being countered by persons who cherish the gorgeous, one-of-kind mosaic of tradition, belief and practice that is India. The narrow, myopic, politically self-serving vision of Hindutva will be countered by those who passionately uphold the rule of law, due process and the guarantee of secularism under the Indian Constitution.