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22 Jan, 2006

Non-Resident Indians Hear Warning About Foreign Funding of Sectarian Agendas

Originally Published:  22 Jan 2006

HYDERABAD –  Indian expatriates living abroad who believe in a secular and communally harmonious India as espoused by its founding fathers have been urged to remain “vigilant” about foreign funding of sectarian agendas back home.

Speaking at a convention of the overseas Indian diaspora here earlier this month, Mr George Abraham, National Coordinator of NRI-SAHI (Non Resident Indians for a Secular and Harmonious India) and the General Secretary of Indian National Overseas Congress USA (INOC), said, “A little recognized phenomenon that concerns some of us is that sections of the NRI communities in the United States are becoming polarized along communal lines. Furthermore, their communications and actions are beginning to have an impact on the linked communities in India through various ethnic and social organizations.

“It is now documented that NRI funds, knowingly or unknowingly are reaching the coffers of social and cultural organizations with narrow sectarian interests. The actions of these groups, in turn, are having an unsettling effect on the peace and security of parts of country and its people.”

Mr Abraham was speaking at a session on Communal Harmony and Social Justice which was included at the last minute for the first time in the four-year history of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, an annual convention of overseas Indians designed to attract Indian money and mindpower back home.

But his warning reflected growing concerns that the image of India as a modern, technologically advanced country would be affected if Indian politicians, including many funded by foreign money, continued to whip up communal and sectarian differences.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself took up this theme when he said that Indian civilization itself “is based on the idea of plurality, diversity, tolerance, and on the possibility of the co-existence of multiple identities, which in a sense, is what this gathering epitomizes.”

Said Dr Singh, “This is the time to think big and think boldly about the future of India. This is the time to forget our differences and labels and celebrate our common Indian-ness This is for all of us to become strategic partners in progress in ‘one-for-all, all-for-one’ spirit.”

But Mr Abraham said that the “vested interests that perpetuated caste politics over the centuries …. seem to have resorted to a new strategy, that is, to supplant secular nationalism with religious nationalism. The political Hindutva ideology that distorts the great, enlightened and tolerant Hindu perspective was simply an outcome of that necessity.”

He added, “A communal and conflict-ridden environment negatively impacts on all scores. Violent communal conflict slows down economic growth by destroying physical infrastructure, motivating talented individuals to migrate and frightening away foreign investment.

“It will destroy lucrative tourism opportunities and eventually threaten the very existence of civil society and democratic institutions. The rich and eclectic nature of India’s culture should prove to be its synergy, not its downfall.”

He said that the state of Kerala, where he grew up before moving to the US, once was “a model of civility where communities lived in peace and harmony. It is no longer such a place even though communal conflicts have not yet gripped the state to the extent that it has some other states.”

Mr Abraham reminded the audience that “Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the architect of Modern India, were all NRIs at one time or the other and contributed greatly to the intellectual discourse on the future directions that free India would take.”

Today, Mr Abraham said, “Ethnic unrest, terrorist attacks resulting in the deaths of innocent civilians, communal tensions being whipped up by extremist elements resulting in increased violence and polarization between communities.

“Respect for the rule of law is eroding in many parts of India and, increasingly, political parties are exploiting the insecurity and fear of the common people to create vote banks. Attacks on minorities often go unreported or find no justice before the courts even if the culprits are apprehended.

“The true test of a democracy is not the prosperity of the majority under it but how its minority citizens are treated. As global citizens, we NRIs should be leveraging the diversity that is India and turning it into our advantage.”

He said that the strong democratic and pluralistic framework that attracted many of the overseas Indians to move to the US was the same as that espoused by India’s founding fathers.

“Indian expatriates have succeeded to a large extent because many of those countries were open societies that welcomed us. We have built Temples, Mosques, Gurudwaras and Churches and brought our culture and tradition to further enrich theirs.

“Therefore, NRIs have an even greater obligation to embrace and promote the concept of an open society in their motherland where nobody has a monopoly on truth, and everyone acknowledges and allows for the fact that different people have different views and there is need for institutions to protect the rights of all people and allow them to live together in peace.

“It will be hypocritical for us to behave as civil libertarians abroad while promoting and funding sectarian policies and projects at home. We need to condemn the sectarian hatred emanating from any quarter whether they are from religious or political leadership. An overemphasis on exclusive identity, stereotyping of a community or a religion and lack of, understanding of other faiths etc. may lead to this attitude of intolerance.

“We need to equally condemn sectarian violence and killings whether they are anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat, anti-Sikh riots of 1984, anti-Pandit cleansings in Kashmir or anti-Christian violence in Kerala, Orissa and other States.”

Mr Abraham said there were at least 200 known attacks in 2005 against Christian institutions and churches all over India. Increasingly, he said, extremists are hiding under the cover of “religious conversion” to justify their attacks.

“I want to categorically state that I, like any rational and patriotic Indian would object to any so called ‘forced conversion’ or re-conversion induced by incentives or threats. The problem is that in our society it does not take much to whip up a communal frenzy based on rumours or outright falsehoods.

“Political parties and their related social and cultural outfits exploit this vulnerability in our social mindset. I have already mentioned the role of some NRI groups in feeding these social insecurities through funds from overseas.”

He said that the “misuse of religion is a perversion of humanity’s most sacred teachings. In fact, when religious communities come together in mutual respect and bridge their differences to work together, religion can be a stunningly powerful force for peace.”

Urging NRIs to examine “whether we can avoid becoming a part of the problem through our actions and interests.” Mr Abraham called for the formulation of a multi dimensional action plan that could include Rapid Response Teams quickly deployed to trouble spots to nip communal conflagrations in the bud, strengthening of inter-faith dialogue initiatives, and structured education and awareness programs targeting key groups such as police, social activists and religious leadership from all faiths.

He also called for the session on Promotion of Communal Harmony and Justice to become a permanent part of the overseas Indian diaspora agenda and strengthening of the Communalism Suppression Bill in consultation with secular civil society groups and minority community leaders.

At the same time, he said, “NRIs should be requested to be vigilant about contributing to ‘development’ and social service organizations in India that are merely fronts for promoting sectarian agendas.”

Concluding with the Martin Luther King Jr. quote that, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” Mr Abraham said, “I urge (overseas Indians) to get involved and break the deafening silence of the NRI community to advance the cause of freedom, democracy and human rights everywhere. Let this (conference) be the starting point.”