AL JAZEERA ENGLISH

> Pakistan's Hazara: 'It's like living in jail'

> From Mumbai's red-light district to UN award

> Yazidi diaspora plead for justice in Iraq

> US Sikhs fight racism with PR campaign

> US chai fundraisers help finance Modi wave


Pakistan's Hazara: 'It's like living in jail'

Surge in sectarian violence puts Pakistan's minority Hazara community in state of fear and frustration

In a room, empty except for an old cupboard with an orange dupatta-covered suitcase on top, Muhammed Reza Wakil, senior vice chairman of the Hazara Democratic Party (HDP) looks at the computer screen.

Wakil is housebound, his contact with the outside world restricted largely to Skype calls, because of concerns he has for his safety as a member of the Hazara community.

There has been an undercurrent of change taking place within the Hazara community after the kidnapping, torture and killing of a 6-year-old Hazara girl, Sahar Batool.

Sahar, the daughter of a gardener, was taken from outside her home on October 28 and murdered. Her body was later found in a garbage dumpster. The event has left an already vulnerable community clamouring for justice.

Wakil expresses the frustration of those he represents who fear the child's murder will be not be classified as part of the minorities' persecution but as a local crime instead.

"This is different from a religious procession during Muharram which takes place outside the Hazara enclaves in Quetta," he tells Al Jazeera.

"Sahar's body was found in a garbage dumpster within the cantonment area, which is supposedly secure."

The Hazaras, a Persian-speaking Shia minority, immigrated to Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan from Afghanistan more than a century ago. Descendants of the Kushans, whose lineage also has Mongol influence, their communities are today found in parts of Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, India and central Asian countries like Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.

Easily discernible due to their Central Asian features, the Hazaras have experienced increasing persecution, during the current wave of  sectarian violence, spreading across Pakistan. According to the Human Rights Watch report published in 2014, "We Are the Walking Dead", several hundred have been killed in steadily worsening violence since 2008.

Speaking from his residence in Alamdar Road, Quetta, Wakil feels like a prisoner saying: "I can't even go to the market to buy vegetables or sugar without fearing for my life so I take what I get within a one block radius, however overpriced and whatever the quality. It's like living in jail."

'Shot point blank'

The Frontier Corps (FC), the auxiliary paramilitary force in charge of securing Quetta has been deployed along the two Hazara residential colonies, which lie on either end of Quetta city.

Routinely, "non-Hazaras" wishing to enter Alamdar Road and Hazara Town are checked for paperwork before being allowed entry to either enclave. Given the brutality of Sahar's death, the community is sceptical about the effectiveness of such basic security checks.

Saroop Ijaz, a consultant at HRW in Pakistan tells Al Jazeera: "In terms of immediate measures, the provision of security for Hazaras has to be paramount. The state of Pakistan has failed abysmally in securing any convictions of those arrested for sectarian killings."

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), the country's most feared sectarian hardliner group has in the past claimed responsibility for regional attacks.

Halima Bibi is from a Hazara family who fled the growing violence in Quetta for a new life in the US.

"My brother, the right-hand man of top Shia leader Syed Ghulam Raza Naqvi, was shot point blank in broad daylight a year ago and the LeJ admitted to killing him," she tells Al Jazeera.

"I have yet to see some justice."

Hazara families, who have escaped the tensions and resettled overseas, continue to fear for the safety of family and friends. Sitting cross-legged on a Persian carpet in her living room in Queens, New York, Halima cries for her two brothers, who are unable to leave the region due to financial constraints.

Like most others, her brothers have quit their jobs and taken leaves of absence. If they want to go to the hospital or get groceries, they have to hide their faces if they leave home before 4pm, she says. In Quetta, most Hazara men keep a low profile and are discreet in their movements, especially outside the enclave area where they are easy targets.

Asma Jahangir, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), tells Al Jazeera: "The Hazaras are under severe threat. The government seems to be helpless, as sectarian hardliner outfits have taken root in Balochistan. They are obviously being supported by external and internal entities. There is no real proof but strong indications."

Many Hazara business people have rented out their shops in the thoroughfare of Mizan Chowk, the central market where they used to make a living selling commodities like shampoo and chewing gum, brought in from neighbouring Iran.

"Travelling even a few kilometres has become a risk, but we have to earn to survive. So we rent it out to the locals," Wakil says.

Challenge of 'extreme sectarianism'

Christian, Sikh, Hindu and Hazara communities each experienced incidents of violence in the first six months of 2014, including sectarian killing, rape, murder, forced conversion, and abduction.

Senator Farooq Naek, a member of the Pakistan parliamentary delegation to the ongoing joint hearing of Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and the UN General Assembly, has said that the country's constitution guarantees equal rights for all its citizens without discrimination.  

Asad Gilani, the minister for urban planning and development in Balochisan, told Al Jazeera that the government is aware of the situation and is taking remedial steps.

"Special development packages have recently been approved. We are building a special park for the Hazaras. If we can't provide them with 100 percent security, we can at least provide them with facilities," Gilani says.

Current figures indicate that Pakistan's diverse minority now make up 12 percent of the population.

According to Ijaz, the persecution of Hazaras is perhaps the most acute example of the general problem of intolerance in Pakistan.

"Putting an end to extreme sectarianism has become a seminal challenge for the Nawaz government," Ijaz tells Al Jazeera.

The situation in and around Balochistan, remains volatile. The Pakistan government states its aim as seeking viable solutions to counter fighters. Jahangir of HRCP tells Al Jazeera: "It requires long term commitment by the government and security forces to challenge militant groups. Some effort is being made but not enough as there is no clarity on strategy."

From the confines of his room in Quetta Wakil ponders his security situation and that of the Hazara community.

"If I pack my bags and leave," he says, "what will the remaining 600,000 Hazaras in Quetta think? What will happen to their hope if their representative deserts them?"

Published on Al Jazeera English, December  14th, 2014


From Mumbai's red-light district to UN award

Dalit woman, who escaped life of poverty with full scholarship to Bard College last year, wins Youth Courage award

New York - From living in Mumbai's red-light district, to winning a scholarship at Bard College in the US, to delivering a TEDx talk in India, to even winning a UN award, Shweta Katti's journey has been extraordinary.

At the 2014 United Nations Youth Courage Awards ceremony on September 22, the 19 year old, dressed in a simple white and orange tunic with saffron-coloured harem pants, smiled nervously amid resounding applause.

As one of the six awardees, she got up on stage and shook hands with Gordon Brown, former prime minister of the UK and current UN Special Envoy for Global Education.

Katti gave a thumbs-up sign as she stood with the other recipients, each honoured for their contribution as agents of change in their support for girl's education and women's rights. The Youth Courage Awards were first announced on Malala Yousufzai's birthday last year, as part of "Malala Day" to honour the rights activist and recent Nobel Laureate.

"I am humbled that my voice and journey have been appreciated," Katti told Al Jazeera backstage. "But this award is for my mom first and then my friends at Kranti. I hope they will recognise their own potential and make their own stories."

Katti's story received global attention last year, when she became the first girl from the red-light district of Kamathipura in India's financial capital Mumbai to procure a full scholarship at Bard College in the US state of New York.

She was also named one of 25 women under 25 to watch by Newsweek magazine for her heroic efforts to break the social stigma associated with Dalits, a sub-caste considered "untouchable" in India, and to not only pursue an education abroad, but also become a representative of a repressed community.

India's Dalits have been historically marginalised and are often targets of violence and discrimination by some members of the privileged castes. In the western state of Maharashtra - with Mumbai as its capital - there have been several instances of atrocities against the community.

Away from home

Katti said that her trajectory as the daughter of a factory worker, growing up in a loft of a brothel where she regularly snuck into the rooms to watch her favourite Bollywood movies on TV, to the sprawling campus of Bard in the hamlet of Annandale-on-Hudson, has comprised a gamut of learning experiences.

Her mother was not a sex worker, but her grandmother did domestic chores in the brothel after her grandfather, a victim of drug abuse, passed away and left them to fend for themselves.

"When I sat on the plane and saw the map of the distance to the US, I was scared. I'm excited about travelling, but when I saw how far I would be from home, I was overwhelmed," she said.

Katti explained that growing up in the brothel, which is all her mother could afford at the time, she always had some sort of family and the sex workers were very protective of her.

"They braided my hair when my mom went off to work and I celebrated Diwali, Holi and other festivals with them. They raised me and were the only family I knew," Katti said.

Similarly when she moved into a shelter home sponsored by Kranti, the Indian NGO that helped bring Katti to the US, she found a family with other girls of like background and life experiences.

"Bard is a great school, but it's lonely in America. I am very connected to my mother and Kranti family back home, so once I finish my education, I know I will go back," she said.

Katti grew up wanting to be a chartered accountant but after being exposed to social sciences, she decided to study psychology so that she could help other girls when she returns home.

Part of this change also came about when Katti had time away from home to reflect on some of the events from her past, namely when she was a victim of sexual abuse at the age of 11 or 12. "As I understand, 50 percent of those who abuse, have been abused themselves and need help," she said.

While she acknowledged that this doesn't make the act forgivable, she understands the root cause and wants to help others who have suffered through it.

"It's not all about the money," Katti said. "There are better ways to give back and what is better than working on issues like gender and sexuality, child abuse and basic human rights."

For this reason, she continues to work with Kranti and she hopes to work with girls from the Dalit community, so that they don't remain oppressed and denied opportunities by the caste hierarchy.

College culture

Even though Katti has been in the public limelight - addressing a massive crowd at a TEDx event in India in March, where she spoke on issues of empowerment - she still considers herself to be reserved.

She has, however, joined Bard's Bollywood dance club and the South Asian student association.

"I grew up with people calling me names like 'cow dung' and 'black bamboo' because of my dark skin and I could never take friends back home because of where I lived," she said. "So I am naturally socially awkward and have low self-esteem."

Ironically, it is this same quiet maturity that has drawn people to her.

"More than a great story, I see her as an amazing human being who is grounded and family oriented," said Sabrina Sultana, one of Katti's two close friends at Bard.

Originally from Bangladesh, Sultana met Katti through the Bollywood dance group and they bonded over their shared South Asian culture.

"We have another friend from Tibet and usually the three of us have slumber parties, eat pizza and watch Bollywood movies. But Shweta really misses Indian food," she added.

For Katti, adjusting to the US system of education has been a challenge, after being schooled in a Marathi medium school all her life, especially when it comes to learning English. She said she can relate to her "English as a Second Language" classmates because they share the same struggle to communicate.

New possibilities

On the upside, she attributes her increased confidence to her independence here.

"Most people here don't judge and this has helped me appreciate people in different ways," she said. "I don't have to hide anything from anyone here. No one points fingers at me any more."

Her mother Vandana was worried after Katti called her from the US, saying she was homesick and depressed but feels that she is more sure of herself now.

"She has never been a burden or a troublemaker and I know that she will complete her degree and give me yet another reason to be proud," she said over the phone from Mumbai.

Trina Talukdar, cofounder of Kranti has seen a dramatic change in Katti as well over the past year.

"We thought that because of her emotional attachment to India, it would be difficult for her to be away for four years. We had mentally prepared ourselves that she may return," she said.

But looking at how Katti has acclimatised, she is now positive that Katti will not only finish her degree, but also find a way to give back to the community in India.

"She has already opened up minds; hundreds of girls back home see her and dream of new possibilities," she said.

Published on Al Jazeera English, November 10th, 2014


Yazidi diaspora plead for justice in Iraq

United Nations - Nayyef Abdo stood with a group of Yazidi protesters outside the UN's headquarters last week, ensuring every few minutes the group of 75 - consisting of families who had traveled from Nebraska, Michigan and Buffalo - were offered water as the summer sun blazed down.

A former US Army translator, the 27-year-old with a cigarette in hand exhaled with a tired sigh. "Do you know how it feels to talk to a hostage who is being held in jail by the ISIS?" he asked.

The jail he referenced used to be a school in northwestern Iraq, about 45km from Mosul. Located in Tal Afar, it is now maintained by Islamic State fighters to hold religious minorities such as the Yazidis.  

The sister of a friend smuggled a mobile phone into the jail, and a prisoner called Abdo to describe the horrors within. 

"She said that 300 Yazidi men were beheaded in front of their families by the IS in a span of a minute because of their refusal to adhere to the IS' religious beliefs and ideologies," Abdo told Al Jazeera. "The children are young, it is easy to influence them. We fear that they will become part of the IS." 

Hoards of women and children were loaded onto trucks and transported to Mosul, he said, where they were gang-raped and sold as jihadi brides for as little as $10.

The acts of murder, violence, forced conversion and sexual slavery are crimes against humanity, Abdo said.

"Forget the Iraqi and Kurdish governments, it's the responsibility of the entire world to stop this persecution, especially against a community whose population is only 600,000. Can you imagine we are experiencing a genocide in 2014?"

Trapped in Iraq

Abdo and the American Yazidi have been pleading for humanitarian aid and justice for relatives and friends trapped in Iraq. During the protest, Mirza Ismail, chairman of the Yazidi Human Rights Organisation, met with officials inside the UN building to urge the international community to recognise its duties and call for intervention.

Among Iraq's ethnically diverse inhabitants, the Yazidi are an ethno-religious minority concentrated around the town of Sinjar, in northwest Nineveh province. The Yazidi religion itself draws on elements from Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. The group, which is ethnically Kurdish, has maintained a historical presence within the region, but often is derided and accused of being heretical devil worshippers, an accusation stemming from their reverance of Malak Tawous, a peacock angel, who the rest of the Muslim world refers to as "Shaytan" or the devil.

Their distinct religious affiliation and belief system, orally transmitted from generation-to-generation is considered offensive by the majority Sunni population in Iraq. Consequently, the Yazidi have been singled out by Sunni groups and have faced a long history of persecution in the Middle East. As a result, the community retreated from the centre of the country and chose the periphery of the Sinjar mountains to reside in, where their sacred village of Lalish is situated.

"They face double persecution - for not being Arab or Sunni Muslim - and occupy the lowest rank in the socio-economic hierarchy of the region," explained Sebastian Maisel, a professor at Grand Valley State University.

The Yazidi do not belong to what the Islamic State considers to be "people of the book" - or religious minorities protected under Islamic law), said Maisel. Therefore, they are unprotected and open to attacks, kidnappings, rape and killings. 

Systematic killing

In early August, Islamic State fighters seized Sinjar, forcing a mass exodus of thousands of Yazidis to the neighbouring mountains in fear for their lives.

The Yazidi were stranded; if they attempted to flee the mountain they risked execution, and if they remained they faced starvation and dehydration. The world was being informed in real time of the tragedy as it unfolded. The United States air-dropped food and water as part of a humanitarian relief operation to help Yazidi civilians. While some reports claim the crisis on Mount Sinjar had been averted, American Yazidis have differing accounts.

"My family in Erbil is currently housing 50 Yazidi who escaped from the mountain, and they know of families with eight to nine children who have just one bottle of water," said Shaemaa Darbo, 17, a refugee who now lives in Buffalo.

Her sister, Hiyam Darbo, said she is also fearful of the Yazidi's legacy being completely wiped out. "My father says that if they bomb Lalish, his identity will be reduced to zero."

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has acknowledged that the international community has a role to play in ensuring a proper humanitarian response to meet the immediate needs of the displaced in besieged areas with food and shelter. The next step would be to provide protection.

"It's clear that there is a directed policy towards clearing the area of Yazidis, using terrorising methods," Tirana Hassan, a senior researcher at HRW told Al Jazeera.

Such systematic and targeted killings show a pattern that could lead to ethnic cleansing. Because of the scale in which atrocities are being carried out, it could "most certainly amount to crimes against humanity, for which IS commanders, and local Arab groups who have joined them, should be held accountable", said Hassan

While the air strikes authorised by US President Barack Obama on August 8 temporarily helped combat the IS advances, the Yazidi want a more sustainable long-term plan.

"The air strikes were a stop gap measure and helped break the siege, but we want ground support to help the hostages," said Abdo.

Kurdish question

Scepticism exists among the community about the role of the Kurdish government and Peshmerga, Kurdish forces, in helping to protect Yazidis.

"In 2003, the Kurdish government had promised to protect us and now it seems like a conspiracy because they didn't give the Yazidi any forewarning or weapons to defend themselves when the IS came," said Shihab Ahmed Hami, another protester at the UN. 

Ismail said he is advocating for the truth on the ground to reach the United Nations.

"There are fake reports coming in from the Kurdish Regional Government [KRG] and the central government in Baghdad as both have abused the international humanitarian aid for political purposes."

He pointed to the thousands of Yazidi and internally displaced Christians who are still living in dire conditions and sleeping on streets, and he stressed the need for a UN supervised relief camp, where the flow of aid can be monitored and basic healthcare can be provided.

According to Maisel, comments from Yazidi laymen and clerics suggest they do not trust their Arab neighbours anymore. "In recent times, the Kurdish national movement picked up the Yazidi narrative as their own, calling them the original Kurds. This boosted the ranks of the movement where the Kurdish Regional Government - under President Barzani -supported Iraqi Yazidis financially and institutionally. They even brought some Peshmerga units to Sinjar. However, they proved to be incapable to stop the advance of IS."

Complete exodus?

The larger issue is the fact the Yazidi are in danger of disappearing as a religious community from Iraq, even though it has been their ancestral land for more than 4,000 years. The community views the most recent agression by Islamic State to be the 74th genocide against them. Under Saddam Hussein's rule, most fled to Europe to escape increasing violence, but the current threat begs the question: Is complete exodus the only solution?

"We do not want to flee and deserting our homeland is not the solution, but it must be very clear that this is what the Kurds and Arabs are pushing us towards," said Ismail. He added the community is pushing the UN for a separate autonomous region for the Yazidi and Chaldo-Assyrians in Iraq in the Sinjar region and Nineveh Plain.

"We want police and security forces formed by people of those two regions with an international force on ground," he said.

But according to Maisel, regardless of whether the Yazidi are able to retake Sinjar or not, the prevailing sentiment among the refugees is not to go back, but to find a safe place to live elsewhere. "The Yazidis look at the exile community where they can practice their faith without persecution. Only complete exodus makes sense for the Sinjar community."

Maisel acknowledged this would bring an end to the ancient community in northern Iraq, but he said he feels the situation in Syria isn't any better. Most Yazidi families have already fled the Syrian civil war and constant harassment.

"Thus, within a year or two, we can see the entire community vanish from their ancestral homeland," he said.

Published on Al Jazeera English, September 7th, 2014


US Sikhs fight racism with PR campaign

Sikhs have begun a national dialogue about identity on second anniversary of the shooting at a Sikh temple

Wisconsin, US - Sikhs in the United States will observe the second anniversary of a deadly shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin on Tuesday in which a white supremacist gunman, Wade Michael Page, opened fire on a Sikh temple killing six people, including Satwant Singh Kaleka, its founder.

The August 5, 2012 attack was the deadliest on an American house of worship since the 1963 Birmingham Church bombings.

Sikhs around the world expressed outrage, but for Sikhs in the US, the sense of personal loss served as a soul searching experience as the shooting represented an assault on their identity and a turning point for many to begin defining themselves in the fabric of American life.

"My pride in being Sikh and American was very much enhanced that day, it changed my perspective on family and community," said Kanwardeep Singh Kaleka, a nephew of the slain temple founder.

Following the shooting, he decided to adopt a Sikh appearance - not only to stand in solidarity with the Sikh community, but also to mark himself as an American "because America stands for diversity embodied by different individuals".

"There is a silver lining from the event. People came together to learn about various faiths, which is essential in creating meaningful interactions so we can connect together as both communities and families," he said.

Raising awareness

Other community members are raising awareness against stereotyping their community.

"The Sikh community has always been an active one, but the shooting was an unfortunate reminder that there was much to do to raise awareness about who we are," said Harleen Kaur, 20, whose family moved from India to Racine, in southeast Wisconsin, when she was three.

One of two Sikh families in her hometown and the only Sikh student in her high school, Kaur told Al Jazeera that the Oak Creek Gurduwara served as a special place for her and that the killing of Kaleka turned out to be "personally impactful".

Now an active community advocate, she adorns her articles of faith more visibly by organising youth camps in Wisconsin for the Sikh-American youth.

On a national level, several initiatives and dialogues have emerged about religious identity said Washington-based Jasjit Singh, executive director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF).

SALDEF is the nation's oldest nonprofit organisation dedicated to protecting the civil rights of Sikh Americans. In conjunction with Stanford University's Peace and Innovation Lab, two groups conducted the first-ever national survey to assess the public perception of Sikh Americans and their articles of faith.

The Turban Myth study, published in December 2013, established that even though approximately 500,000-700,000 Sikhs live in the US, 70 percent of the American public cannot identify a picture of a Sikh man as being Sikh.

The study reported that about half of the public associates the turban with Islam, and that a culture of bias exists against the Sikh appearance of a beard, turban, and uncut hair.

"It's not even misconception, in fact it is non-conception, as Sikhs are not even on the American radar," Navdeep Singh, Policy Director of SALDEF, told Al Jazeera.

Using these results as a baseline to direct communal efforts and development strategy, SALDEF collaborated and partnered with Comcast to air the first of its kind Sikh American Public Service Announcement (PSA), as part of a larger campaign to introduce Sikh Americans to the American public.

Aired throughout July, the 30-second ad offers a message on the community and likens Sikh-American values to American values.

The ad - carefully scripted and evaluated by SALDEF to include specific images and facts from the Turban Myth study - meant to create consciousness among the American public to "pursue a more holistic and educated judgment of our community", Singh said.

A monotheistic faith, Sikhism was founded in South Asia more than 500 years ago. Observant Sikhs do not cut their hair; male followers often cover their hair with turbans - considered sacred - and refrain from shaving their beards.

Ad controversy

The face of the ad, Waris Ahluwalia, a popular Sikh-American actor and designer was racially targeted with hate speech when he was featured alongside another American in a GAP ad displayed in the New York City subway in November 2013.

When SALDEF approached him about the PSA project, it immediately struck a chord in him because of his experience in creating a dialogue after the GAP ad controversy.

"I knew I wanted to participate because my work is about creating a thoughtful existence. Cultural understanding and context are some of the most powerful tools we have in the fight against ignorance and intolerance," he told Al Jazeera.

He said the PSA can help young Sikh Americans become more cognisant of their individual potential in American society.

According to Jesse Kaur Bawa, an assistant professor of Lawyering Skills at Howard University School of Law, discrimination can only be alleviated through increased visibility.

"Not only do we have the first turbaned Sikh arguing a case in the Supreme Court, the first turban wearing female pilot, and the first turbaned Sikh on American Idol, but we also have support from government agencies," she told Al Jazeera, while referring to an FBI announcement in June 2013, where they said they would begin to formally track hate crimes against Sikhs, Hindus, and Arabs starting in 2015.

In terms of garnering support from key governmental figures, the National Sikh Campaign hired Geoffrey Garin, former chief strategist for Hillary Clinton and strategic adviser to Priorities USA, the super PAC supporting President Barack Obama's re-election in 2012.

A dynamic grassroots movement, the National Sikh Campaign, was formed in March with the historic mission of creating a well-evaluated and data-driven media campaign that aims at dispelling and tackling misperceptions of Sikh Americans.

"By bringing on key political consultants to form public perception on the basis of conducted organised research, our aim is to lay the foundation for the largest promotion of Sikhs in the western world," said Gurwin Singh Ahuja, the executive director of National Sikh Campaign and former national field coordinator of Obama's re-election campaign.

Personally motivated by the efforts of the Obama campaign and how they worked positively for a person of colour, Ahuja hopes the National Sikh Campaign can bring some constructive change for his community.

"When I saw the resources we could work with during the Obama campaign, the thought that crossed my mind was that if my community had such resources available to us, maybe Oak Creek wouldn’t have happened," he told Al Jazeera.

With Garin spearheading their message, the campaign plans to employ social media strategies and run television ads, target web and digital integrated services and use earned media in the pursuit to singularly counter negative perceptions of Sikh Americans.

"One of my important areas of interest as a researcher has long been the topic of prejudice and understanding how to encourage people to look past negative stereotypes," Garin told Al Jazeera.

"Given the level of bullying young Sikhs face in schools, and the ill-informed reactions people sometimes have when they see a bearded man in a turban I'm glad to have the opportunity to help the American Sikh community identify how best to communicate a more accurate and positive image to their fellow Americans."

Mistaken for Muslims

For Ibrahim Hooper, National Communications Director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the American Muslim and Sikh communities have worked closely on issues of discrimination, bias, and violence against Sikhs, where Sikhs are mistaken as Muslims by Islamophobes after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

"Anyone with a turban and a beard must be Osama bin Laden and these cases reveal that both Muslim and Sikh bigotry go hand in hand," he told Al Jazeera describing sporadic cases where the Sikh elderly have been attacked and cab drivers have had people calling them names and thinking they are terrorists.

Michael German, a former FBI agent says there is a long and unfortunate history of white supremacist violence in this country, targeting a wide array of minority communities.

"A recent study by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point revealed that annual fatalities caused by violence from far right extremists typically exceed those caused by other groups," said German, who is a fellow at Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School and a former senior policy counsel.

"But this data should be taken in context. Only a small minority of those holding white supremacist views ever engages in violence, and the number of fatalities from politically motivated violence is still just a tiny fraction of the more than 14,000 homicides committed in this country each year," he added.

Still, he said, the data does raise questions as to why the government tends to view politically motivated violence against minority groups, which it calls "hate crimes" differently from politically motivated violence committed by minorities, which it calls "terrorism".

Published on Al Jazeera English, August 4th, 2014


US chai fundraisers help finance Modi wave

Well-organised support among Indian-Americans for BJP’s prime ministerial candidate is eclipsing that of rival parties

New Jersey, USA – Indian-American supporters of Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist politician, are vigorously campaigning to propel the former tea vendor to a leading position in the race to head the world’s largest democracy.

Momentum in the US among fans of Narendra Modi – the candidate of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) and one of the most controversial figures of his generation – offers key insights into the religious nationalist’s campaign.

Analysts believe impetus generated by the Overseas Friends of BJP (OFBJP) for Modi – who has been denied entry to the US for a decade – eclipses that of campaigns backing the ruling Congress Party and the upstart Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), whose anti-corruption platform gained it a surprise victory in the New Delhi assembly elections last December.

“OFBJP’s local efforts are helping to create an echo chamber of inevitability towards Modi,” said Milan Vaishnav, South Asia researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC.

“There is definitely an ‘enthusiasm gap’ between the OFBJP’s level of enthusiasm and spirit and that of other political parties.”

Pogrom accusations

OFBJP support for Modi in the US obeys a broader strategy to redefine Gujarat chief minister from religious hardliner linked to one of his country’s worst episodes of Hindu–Muslim carnage, into economic miracle worker.

Modi was accused of being a conspirator in the 2002 anti–Muslim pogrom during which 1,500 people died in India’s most industrialised state under his watch, an accusation Modi has denied.

In March, 500 Indian-Americans gathered at the start of the Hindu New Year to campaign for Modi in a posh township in New Jersey where the OFBJP had organised one its largest fundraisers.

Popularly known as “chai pe charcha” – or “discussion over tea” – the campaign highlights the politician’s trajectory from humble railway tea vendor to political frontrunner as about 800 million Indian voters go to the polls.

“He will take India to the level of Vishwa Guru [world leader],” said OFBJP President Chandrakant Patel, one of Modi’s foremost backers in the US.

Patel – a long-standing activist in right–wing Hindu groups and active within the OFBJP for 15 years – is convinced a “Modi Tsunami” will generate an electoral landslide certain to install him as prime minister.

“Modi’s strength lies in putting the nation first,” he added.

Economic hopes

Modi’s meteoric rise through the ranks of the BJP reflects a radical shift in the politics of India whereby voters seem prepared to overlook his potential to polarise in exchange for the prospect of steering the country into the first world.

Economic issues have overtaken ideological differences for many people, providing space for religious ideologues to campaign on a platform of putting the economy – and Hinduism – first.

Jayesh Patel, a former OFBJP president, was confident Modi would introduce voting rights for non-resident Indians, improve consular services and boost India’s investment climate.

“Modi will even help India secure a permanent seat in the United Nations – wait and watch,” he added.

“Narendra Modi is a visionary,” said Narain Kataria, president of the Indian American Intellectuals Forum, who added that the BJP figurehead will enshrine “Hindu values” if he comes to power.

“Hindus are secular by nature and since Modi is a proud Hindu, he is secular too.”

Secularism is a highly politicised theme in India which many Muslim Indians fear could lead to an imposition of majoritarian Hindu ideals on the country that disregard minority rights.

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen is among those who have expressed unease at Modi’s understanding of secularism, saying he would not like a prime minister who generates concern and fear among minorities.

Stoking such fears are the links between some BJP activists in India and abroad with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu right–wing paramilitary organisation associated with anti-Muslim violence.

Siddharth Varadarajan, a journalist and Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, New Delhi, said: “When Hindutva-oriented politicians or activists make claims like ‘Hindus are secular by nature’ or that ‘India is secular because the majority of its people are Hindu’, what they are really saying is that people of other religions are not secular by nature and that if the people of other religions became the majority, India would cease to be secular.

“Both of these claims, paradoxically, show the communal thinking of those arguing along these lines. Such people have no concept of civic values, or of citizenship in which the identity of citizens – their religious beliefs, linguistic, caste, ethnic affiliations, gender or sexual preference – have no bearing on their rights and responsibilities.”

Rival campaigns

Sadanand Dhume, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said anecdotal evidence suggests that most of the funds raised overseas have been channeled towards the BJP and the AAP, although the latter’s campaign has recently lost steam.

“But it’s highly unlikely that overseas funding constitutes a large proportion of campaign funds for an established national party such as the BJP,” he said.

The 18 OFBJP chapters comprising more than 5,000 members across various US cities have organised over 200 tea parties like the New Jersey event but, while there is vocal support for Modi, support for Congress and other rival parties has appeared tame.

Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment explains the “enthusiasm gap” that he detects in favour of Modi on the basis of the emails he has been receiving about OFBJP’s activities.

By contrast, he has heard little from the Indian National Overseas Congress INOC (I) about their activism – suggesting a lack of engagement.

The INOC (I) website has scant evidence of up-to-date or coordinated activity, its Facebook page has barely 200 likes, and there has been no Twitter activity. Its US members join chapters that accord with their Indian state of origin, and sporadic updates suggest this division has made their activities and lobbying initiatives more individual.

The Congress Party campaigners working in the US refused to comment on the record about their efforts.

AAP’s outreach coordinator, Pran Kurup, said the organisation adheres strictly to India’s foreign contribution regulations.

“We want to help change the politics of India, it’s not about the business of getting seats and procuring a majority,” he said.

Kurup said that AAP volunteers overseas have switched to a digital platform where they are fervently organising online discussions on youth employment, corruption, rising prices and administrative grievances, an effort he compares to a startup.

“It’s a bit chaotic and unstructured, but there is a common objective without a top-down approach,” he said

Heady symbolism

These rival parties are clearly finding it hard to trump the religious symbolism and nationalistic imagery of the BJP that was much in evidence in New Jersey, where the occasional patriotic song was interrupted by a priest invoking the gods.

The enthusiasm this generates was clearly in evidence among participants such as Arvind Patel, owner of Jersey City based Rajbhog Foods.

“I am the sole provider of snacks and tea for such gatherings and all the money comes out my own pocket,” he said.

Patel has distributed about a million packets of Indian snacks, aptly named “Modi Magic”, and had customised Styrofoam teacups with campaign stickers for the event.

As the grand finale by traditional “kathak” dancers graced the stage at the Sheraton Hotel, the crowd chanted in unison: “Let us help make an India that we would wish to go back to.”

Published on Al Jazeera English, April 25th, 2014