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Fashion of India and Hinduism Bashing in Foreign Land

Fashion of India  Hinduism bashing in foreign land

Context

Right in the middle of busy a work day (Wednesday, Oct 21st, 2015), I received an email from a friend about an India related event happening in my neighborhood. The event titled Shattering the Silence: India's Authors Protest Recent Murders”- An Evening with Ashok Vajpeyi, was hosted by Centre for South Asian Civilizations at University of Toronto. Simply knowing that most of the Centers of South Asian Studies are typically Anti-India/Anti-Hindu, it peeked my curiosity. I knew from the news headlines, that there is an anti-Modi campaign of intellectuals in India to return literary awards. Knowing about the Indian media’s bias against Hinduism, it made me wonder: How come someone is invited to University of Toronto, with such good timing. Who paid for travel expenses? Who are the anti-India, anti-Hinduism players in my town? With these thoughts, I moved around some items on my schedule to participate in the event.

While driving to the event I called my wife to do quick internet search on the speaker, Shri Ashok Vajpeyi. She gave me a 2-minute gist on his profile and the local organization hosting the event. I learned that he was one of the initial people who returned his Sahitya Akademi Award and he is an activist who’s linking Dadri lynching incident to suppression of freedom of speech of intellectuals in the country. He’s connected to leftist & Nehruvian-secularist mindset people and was close to Congress politician, Late Sh. Arjun Singh. I also called Shri Rajiv Malhotra, who has been my advisor and coach in understanding the intellectual Kurukshetra. Rajiv Ji encouraged me to speak up my mind and be comfortable with the confrontation.

Although I expected it to be another anti-India/ Anti-Hindu event, I went with more of a curious mindset to understand how these events get organized and what lessons I could learn. I’m sharing the learnings with people who care for Hinduism and who care for India, so that they are prepared a bit, as they come across similar scenarios.

Event Structure/ Format

The event was organized at University of Toronto, Mississauga campus at Instructional Centre, room 120. It was a typical auditorium style classroom setting, for 80-100 people or so. There was a formal reception, where attendees had to sign up/check in. Three cameras were placed at different angles to cover the event well, with a fancy looking multimedia set up. There were marked signs behind the cameras which instructed that, if people didn’t want to be on camera, they should sit behind these lines. It felt like, the event was set up to be nicely documented and promoted.

I went ahead and sat in the first row as I wanted to get engaged in the conversation. I knew people raising issue against the speaker will be discouraged and I will hardly get a minute or two, if lucky. So being close to speaker, I wanted the opposition from Dharmic-Patriotic side to be recognized on the camera. In front of the room, there were two nice chairs and a set of books that Shri Vajpeyi has published. The format was, that Shri Vajpeyi would give a speech, and then there would be a facilitated Question & Answer session.

The audience was a good blend – visually and ideologically. My guess is that about one-third people in audience were of Islamic representation (a couple specifically identified themselves as Pakistani), about same number were Caucasian – I’m assuming representing the Christian side (One professor of Christianity was identified). I’m guessing of the total of about 50 people, about one-third were in support of Dharmic ideology. As a pleasant surprise, 8-10 people in the audience were familiar faces, whom I had seen in other local Indian events.  It was nice to see, how many people of Dharmic ideology had independently heard about the event and came to the event at a short notice. Of these, 3 of us had participated in the workshop “How to be an Intellectual Kshatriya?” by Rajiv Malhotra. Being a university event, a good number of University students and staff were there. Shri Shafique Virani, was the host of the event.

Key Points of Ashok Vajpeyi’s Speech

Being a very experienced literary person, Shri Vajpeyi definitely has very good command over words and did a good job in presenting his views. This is besides the fact that he happens to be on the opposite side of Dharmic/ Hinduism ideology. Here’s my notes from his speech:

  • First thing Shri Ashok Vajpeyi established was that the killings in the country are not random, they are by design. So the whole pluralism and harmony of India is under threat.  
  • Not only current harmony but the tradition of pluralism of India is under threat. He raised the issue that the established History is being questioned, and government seems to do it by design. E.g. An incompetent person, who hasn’t published a book is Chair of National Book Trust.
  • Intellectual freedom is under threat: He mentioned that it is battle of two ideologies. His ideology of democracy, secularism, pluralism of last 60 years, which is at heart of, what makes India great; is under threat and new narrow ideology is overtaking India. In the new environment all the intellectuals and thinkers are systematically pushed aside. They are being forced to write, think and dream in particular direction. 

Shri Vajpeyi, branded Hinduism as some narrow ideology, dictatorship kind of thought which started making me very uncomfortable. In this messaging, he mixed positive thoughts sophisticatedly that we have a great tradition of doing Shastrarth and he specifically mentioned that leftists are not allowed to represent their ideology now. As he suggested that we should have open debate on intellectual issues, I was hoping that I will get to do a Shasthrath today with Shri Vajpeyi.

  • He clearly identified himself as upper caste Brahmin and gave his personal story of how his mother scolded/ slapped him when he called “Rehman uncle” as “Rehman.” With this, he introduced the idea of caste and the idea of victimhood for Muslims. He positioned himself to be “good-upper caste-liberal” Hindu; while working against Hinduism/ Dharmic ideology.
  • In a follow up discussion, he brought the issue of Dalit and Women, saying these are the two big groups that are on the brink of breaking down.
  • He questioned why “Aurangzeb Road” is renamed as “APJ Abdul Kalam Road.” Two points he connected was that history shouldn’t be questioned – so he supported Aurangzeb and attacked current government for the mindset that “see even a Muslim can be patriotic like Dr. Kalam.” – implying government assumes that all Muslims don’t care for the country.
  • He mentioned about a BJP Member of Parliament/ ministers are saying that Hindus should produce at least 4 children. He called himself a literary person, with political language throughout the speech.
  • He brought up the discussion of Gujrat Riots. Shri Vajpeyi attacked Prime Minister Narendra Modi, saying Modi equated Muslims to dogs. (The incident when a journalist asked a question to Narendra Modi, whether he feels sad about the people who died in riots. Modi Ji responded that, one feels sad even when a puppy dies accidently under your car; then how come I wouldn’t feel sad on the death of so many people.)
  • Then he connected what is happening in India to all the violent countries where Islamic terrorism is prevalent. Mentioned that religious violence in not happening only in India but religious violence is happening all over the world like Syria and other middle eastern countries. He equated India to those violence torn Middle-eastern countries.
  •  About workings of the government, he said while ministers are provoking and spreading the ideology of Hindu terror , and at the same time they provide lip service using standard political statements like we are operating within constitutional parameters.
  • Then he made mockery of spiritual leaders saying these Hindu religious Babas get arrested very frequently.  He said every time that happens, he feels spiritually happy "inside". He said that I know it is an evil happiness but I enjoy it because it is happening to these evil people.
  • He mentioned that he does not have any political power. He is a writer and writers are lonely people but at this point in time writers have become the consciousness of the society . He simply wants the message of atrocity to spread out; as that’s all he can do. He wants to make everyone aware of the dangers that lie ahead if the current situation continues in India.
  • He closed with nice words that he hopes that India will come out triumphant and will uphold its great tradition of pluralism, democracy etc. etc…

Open Discussion after the Lecture

In Q & A session Shri Raj Maheshwari, whom I know from Intellectual Kshatriya workshop, was the first one to raise the concern. He very politely asked “It seemed more like a one-sided political speech, so please disclose your political affiliation.” To which Shri Vajpeyi very conveniently said that I am non-political person. I am in the field of literature and basically shirked the real question.

As Shri Raj Maheshwari had mentioned the idea of it being one sided story, someone from the audience pointed out that someone should present the other side of the story. That’s when I volunteered and offered to provide the overview of Dharmic ideology against which Shri Ashok Vajpeyi has delivered the whole speech.

The points that I mentioned were:

  • First of all, we need to understand that the story of India is anchored in Dharmic or Hinduism philosophy. Pick any of these interchangeable words. All the other ideologies like Islamic and Christian ideologies have later joined the national thought. So the new thoughts are merging with and attacking as well, the core, the Dharmic DNA of India.
  • There was no religious violence among Dharmic society until Islamic and Christian ideologies came to India. Because there is deep enlightened secularism or genuine secularism or pluralism is built into the philosophy of Sanatan Dharam or Hinduism. But in last 200 years or so, due to British colonialization our traditional way of Hinduism has been disrupted and our minds are colonialized, or at the least polluted and not anchored in Dharmic philosophy.
  • Secularism solves the problem of Islamic and Christian societies, by separating political and religious affairs. Secularism essentially is irrelevant in Hindu society because we have genuine secularism built into the Hindu philosophy, and wrong practice of secularism in India is creating unnecessary problems. The speaker is speaking against Hinduism and its degrading Hinduism to some narrow ideology.
  • India is perhaps the only country where is the history is written by colonizers and it still is taught in formal education. So we need a huge decolonization program throughout the country.
  • We’ve had bad governments since we got political freedom in 1947. It was bad because, it continued the British guiding thoughts and policies. With Nehru’s policies we didn’t go back to our root or traditional ideology or story of India anchored in Dharma. And that’s the side I want to present, which is opposite to the speaker’s thoughts.
  • With the current government, our hope is that they build the future of India, on our true heritage anchored in Dharma. We definitely don’t want the current government to be of some narrow exclusive ideology, which speaker today blamed them for.

With this introduction of alternative ideology to Shri Vajpayi's; I also offered to provide counter-points to each of speaker’s arguments, if the forum is provided for “Shastrarth.” Which was obviously not possbile during that session.

In my heart, I thanked Mr. Shafique Virani, who did not interrupt me while presenting the Dharmic side; which was against his guest for the evening. With my comments the stage was essentially set for discussion to choose, one of the two sides, as opposed to giving the free pass to Shri Vajpeyi.

Interestingly, most of the people in the room who were in favor of speaker or against Dharmic ideology, kept quiet. Whereas, the people on our side of Dharmic thought, essentially took over the whole event.

Here’s some of the key questions/ comments from the open discussion:

Ravi Hooda, mentioned that the speaker’s lecture seemed like political rant. Being a man of literature, he should not create the bad taste. He questioned about timing of his event, and raised the issue that he shouldn’t question the credentials of his country’s appointees. He should not be passing judgement to other people not being qualified for positions given. Shri Vajpeyi’s awards can be questioned and his credentials can be questioned too.

Sujeev brought some good data that Ashok Vajpeyi is now returning award for one unfortunate incident while he had hosted the World Poetry Festival in December, 1984 when Bhopal was reeling under Union Carbide gas tragedy. Where was his insensitivity at that time?

According to article published at indiafacts.com when Vajpeyi was asked about it, Vajpeyi had shamelessly quipped, “मुर्दो के साथ रचनाकार नही मरता.” (The artist doesn't die with the dead)

Similarly, few other people raised questions about his political alliance, and where his sensitivity was in 1984 or in Muzzafarnagar violence.

Somebody in the opposite side, criticized Manusmriti and brought up issue of Casteism. Fortunately, we had a Sanskrit speaking person Harsh Thakkar from Samskrit Bharati who gave a speech in Sanskrit which essentially mentioned that, to understand a text you should understand the language its written in; which is Sanskrit. He appealed that, as intellectuals we should not make comments on hearsay. He impressed everybody with his whole comment in Sanskrit itself and then translating it in English. 

As a host, Shri Shafique Virani does deserve the appreciation, he moderated the event very professionally. While he was very respectful to the guest, Virani himself started good conversation by asking a question on behalf of opposing ideology. Additionally, when the Dharmic side folks asked the questions and presented their views, he provided them fair amount of time.

Key Takeaways/Lessons learned

  • Psychological toughness: One of the first lessons I learned was the need for psychological toughness. I went to the event with a calm mind, but as the Shri Ashok Vajpeyi packed so much anti-India, anti-Dharmic content in blunt yet sophisticated way; it wasn’t easy to stay calm. While the topic is very close to our hearts, we can’t get emotional and need to represent our ideology in these intellectual debates and discussions in controlled manner, by choosing right words, and right tone. Another key reason to have a tough mind is: In current popular culture/ mainstream thought, being western is "cool" and being traditional/Dharmic is not! So standing with Dharma means swimming against the current of pop-culture, it requires extra effort.
  • Training: Yes, I wasn’t very calm. I missed a few points and my message delivery wasn’t excellent - not up to my satisfaction. If that’s me, who’s been in the field for some years now with sincerity, anyone who wants to represent Hinduism in public/ against sophisticated opponents, needs training! If we, the representatives of Dharma want to serve it well, we can’t keep playing like amateurs where professionals have been practicing for long. I can’t over emphasize the need for training!
  • Team Matters: When I got to the event I saw many people who came there on a short notice. Although, I was ready to get engaged alone in the debate, seeing other people in room who I knew were on our wavelength helped. Many times, we talk about Hindus have hard time coming under one banner/ organization. To me, that’s a nice to have thing, the critical aspect is to anchor ourselves in Dharma with right understanding and training. In the event, although people representing Dharma weren’t from a specific organization, it was still great how intelligent comments complemented each other.  I can only imagine the days, when we start working in well-orchestrated teams and Dharma thought is represented effectively in service of India and in service of betterment of whole humanity.  We are definitely long way from that...
  • Format and who controls it: End of the day organizers control the format and record the event. This was just by luck that we got enough time to speak, otherwise if the format was little bit different, the outcome would not have been that successful. I’m guessing neither organizers, nor Shri Ashok Vajpeyi suspected participation of intellectuals from public. Assuming, the speaker and the organizers are a team, they would never allow the video of the event to be released. So it’s a good idea to record the video for record keeping. These days it’s so much easier with all the phones with audio-video capability. It’ll be interesting to see, whether the Centre for South Asian Civilizations will release the video of the FULL EVENT (Not just Shri Ashok Vajpeyi’s speech).  Currently, the opponents have unfair advantage, as Dharmic ideology people are don’t have fair representation in institutions that influence public opinion and policy making. As an example, Shri Vajpeyi wrote an opinion in Hindu (national newspaper in India, not be confused as pro-Hindu ideology), got invited to University of Toronto, Carleton University in Ottawa and got coverage in Globe and Mail, a national level Canadian newspaper. Do the people who represent Dharmic ideology get to leverage the knowledge dissemination institutions equally? Absolutely not!
  • We all matter: The topic of civilization and Dharma is so important at many levels and we can’t outsource the responsibility to some specialists. We are all stakeholders in it. I’m a busy professional, and along with taking care of my professional work and family responsibilities, I take time to learn and train myself to make contribution. Knowing some of the people in the room who confronted Shri Ashok Vajpeyi in this event, and connecting with others after the event; none were there for professional reasons. They were there for Dharma and nation.

It was interesting that once Shri Ashok Vajpeyi was confronted, he was completely quiet. It looked like the rug was pulled from under his feet, he was in awe, in shock. I wish the video of question and answer session comes out, with some focus on his reactions. My view is that Dharmic ideology is critical for the progress of our nation, and for broader good of the humanity. The narrow ideologies and shallow arguments can’t stand long, when we present our side logically, with right intentions and confidently.

I'm pretty sure, the word would be shared among the opponents camp (in Toronto area), and next time they'll be better prepared to deal with surprise intervention from Dharmic side. At the same time, as we made our presence known in some circles, they'll pause and think, before bashing India and Hinduism. With the initiative of a few committed individuals, it is not hard to create small teams of Dharmic intellectuals across major cities in North America... India?

To sum it up, get out of your comfort zone and do your share! Every contribution matters - big or small!

Author: Sunil Sheoran

Published: Oct 28, 2015

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