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Is Hindu-American Community Coming into its Own? : Dr. Benkin

October 29, 2010

Ashwin Krushna Shashthi, Kaliyug Varsha 5112

By Dr. Richard Benkin

There are not that many more Muslims than Hindus in the United States:  2.454 million Muslims compared to 1.478 million Hindus, according to Pew Research, the US State Department, and others.  You would not know that judging by the tremendous imbalance in attention given the former over the latter; or the power and influence imbalance between the Council on Arab-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Hindu American Foundation (HAF).  During the height of Taliban expansion in 2009, for example, HAF failed to get Congress to pass even a non-binding resolution to condemn the Taliban for atrocities against Pakistani Hindus.  If you cannot get Americans to condemn the Taliban, you better take another look at the reality of your position.

We could suggest any number of theories for this disparity, but one thing is clear.  American Muslims have done a much better job of organizing as a relatively united US interest group than have US Hindus.  But that might be changing in this very tight and pivotal election year.

At least three candidates in the have made genuine outreach to the Hindu-American and Sikh-American communities a priority:  Congressman Mark Kirk, running for the US Senate seat from Illinois once held by President Barack Obama; Robert Dold, running for the suburban Chicago Congressional seat vacated by Kirk; and Joel Pollak, running for Congress from the adjacent District.  All three are in very tight races; all three genuinely consider the Hindu community’s concerns important; and all three are Republicans running in traditionally Democrat areas.  Hindu-Americans traditionally vote Democrat, especially in cities like Chicago, where Democrats maintain strong, “machine” power.

Activists attempting to create an independent Hindu power base recognized that.  As one of them told me, “we have to go around the traditional ‘leaders’ since they are tied to specific groups and will do their bidding in exchange for political crumbs.”  For years, community leaders reliably contributed to the Democrat machine and their media always endorsed its candidates.  Small businesses on Chicago’s Devon Avenue, dubbed Mahatma Gandhi Marg, knew that there would be consequences for displaying opposition candidates’ posters, something several of them told me.   This fall, that culture of corruption boiled over after numerous bad bank loans and foreclosures by the United Central Bank devastated many in the community.  The machine’s Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky—Pollak’s opponent—said she would help but intervened for only three wealthy businessmen—Mr. Amrit Patel, Mr. Balvinder Singh, and Mrs. Shahira Khan—who contributed to her political campaign.  That and a general rejection of Obama’s failed policies sparked anger and discontent within Chicago’s Hindu American community.

An early turning point came in August when Pollak and Dold marched down Devon on India’s Independence Day.  Their opponents were nowhere to be seen.  Pollak and his wife Julia came decked in traditional Indian garb and spent hours after the parade speaking with and listening to Indian-American residents and businessmen.  Dold marched even though the parade was not even in his District.  Dold later spent time at both Hindu and Sikh events; and Pollak spent hours with Shri Baba Brajraj Sharan learning about ecological and spiritual deterioration in India’s Braj region.  Kirk has reached out to Indians state wide, including physicians hurt by Obama’s health care plan.  He also has reiterated his support for persecuted Bengali and other Hindus.

While community members still fear machine reprisals, there have been clear signs that the effort has borne fruit.  A recent cover story in one major Indian paper about the Pollak-Schakowsky election, gave the political upstart and the six-term Congresswoman equal coverage, something that had not happened in previous years.  And at least one Indian TV station has openly supported Kirk, Dold, and Pollak, while also tying their candidacies to my pro-Hindu human rights work. 

As a Congressman, Mark Kirk worked extensively to aid my own human rights work and has labored long to strengthen US-India ties.  Dold and Pollak are first-time candidates who have pledged the same support in Congress and recognize that and translate it into a stronger US.  Each candidate has formed Indian-American advisory committees from which they seek advice and pledge to continue empowering after the election as well.  Pollak is actually a human rights attorney, familiar with anti-Hindu oppression, especially in the Northeast; and Dold, who has personal experience with atrocity victims, actively seeks out information about anti-Hindu activities to help shape his own policies.

Substantively, we need that support to launch effective opposition by the United States against efforts to destroy Hindu communities in Bangladesh and elsewhere.  Politically, the candidates have identified us as a critical constituency whose issues and concerns they will not ignore.  Should they be victorious on 2 November, one national political insider told me, others will recognize your critical role, too, and “you won’t see a repeat of the failed anti-Taliban resolution.”

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