Human Rights Forum Highlights Hindu Minority Plight
By ASHFAQUE SWAPAN
Special to India-West
MILPITAS, Calif. — Three activists drew horrific pictures of the predicament of Hindu minorities, sometimes backed by poignant video presentations, in far-flung parts of the world at the Hindu Human Rights Forum hosted at the Vaishnav Mandir here July 20. Hosted by the Hindu American Foundation, speakers talked about the plight of Hindus in Kashmir, Malaysia and Fiji. HAF also presented its recently released fourth annual human rights report, “Hindus in South Asia and the Diaspora.”
The plight of evicted Kashmiri Pandits, and Hindus in Fiji and Malaysia was highlighted by impassioned presentations by Jeevan Zutshi, a Bay Area community activist and Kashmiri Pandit himself; southern California-based engineer and Malaysian Tamil human rights activist Bhuvan Govindasamy; and San Francisco Bay Area-based attorney of Fiji Indian descent Sadhana D. Narayan.
The statistics are staggering: An estimated 350,000 Kashmiri Pandits have been hounded out of their homeland in the Kashmir valley; and Malaysia’s egregious discriminatory policies have resulted in a drop of Indian-descent student enrollment in Malaysian universities from 20 percent in 1957 to just five percent in 2003. In Fiji, harassment and discrimination has led to an exodus of Fiji Indians: From around half the population in the 1970s, the Fiji Indian population has dropped to 38 percent in 2004.
To be sure, only in Kashmir can it be argued that Pandits have been targeted because of their religion. In Malaysia and Fiji, Hindus have been part of a broader, xenophobic attack against immigrants. Malaysia’s decades-long troubled race relations led to Singapore leaving the Malay federation and a Chinese guerilla insurgency, while in Fiji, the plight of Hindus has been driven by the schism between indigenous Fijians and Indians who immigrated in the 19th century, a point made by Narayan.
“The civil rights issues in Fiji do not boil down to a Hindu-Muslim type of conflict,” she said. “The Hindus and the Muslims in Fiji live in peace, and live in harmony.
“The conflicts that we have as Hindus in Fiji relates more to the fact that ethnic Indians, primarily Hindu, have been discriminated against in the last 10-20 years or so as a result of the ethnic Fijians and their actions. . . If anything, the Muslim community has suffered with us.”
Zutshi’s presentation was augmented by the screening of a documentary film on the plight of the Kashmiri Pandits by Ashok Pandit, which presented poignant images of destitute Pandits in refugee camps and distraught women talking about the murder of their husbands by Islamists.
Zutshi refused to recognize the anti-Indian movement in Kashmir as the freedom movement that its supporters claim it is. He said it was an Islamist insurgency fueled by Pakistan. “The Islamic colonization of Kashmir has been supported by Islamic terrorists and fundamentalists who committed crimes of genocide against the community of Kashmiri Hindus in Kashmir. . . (including) targeted attacks on Sikh community,” he said.
He was scathing in his condemnation of the Indian government’s role. “Unfortunately, Indian leaders have been romancing with the Islamists, anti-Hindus and anti Indians,” he said. “So much so that the self-confessed killers and anti-nationalists, they have been wandering scot-free in the streets of Kashmir. . . The government of India has established two standards of justice. One for Indians, one for Kashmiri Muslims.”
The U.S. role had been equally egregious, Zutshi said. “The (George W.) Bush administration has been cozying up to the Taliban regime in the same way . . . (as) the earlier administration of President (Bill) Clinton.,” he said. “Thousands of Kashmiris Hindus have been murdered . . . Hindus are suffering, and the government is silent.”
He said the recent violent protests in the Kashmir valley against leasing of forest land to the Amarnath temple was a “sad and painful portrayal of the exclusivist and illogical mindset that rules the roost in Kashmir.”
“The government’s approach towards this issue is reflective of its subjugation to the Islamic diktats which . . . cannot be accepted,” he said.
Govindasamy painted a grim picture of the plight of Hindus in Malaysia. “From 1957 what was a trickle of removal of rights became, under the rule of Dr. Mahathir Mohammed, a torrent, a waterfall,” he said.
“What was a trickle of temple demolitions about 25 years ago, has now grown, and till now, 15,000 Hindu temples have been demolished.
“They have taken away our economic rights, they have deprived us in education,” he said. “They cannot even leave our religion to us.”
Five Indian leaders have been unlawfully incarcerated, he added.
In 50 years, the Malaysian government has turned the Malaysian Indian society into the underclass, Govindasamy charged.
“Hindus are an endangered species in Malaysia,” he said. “If this goes on for the next five to 10 years, there will be no more Hindus. All will either have left, or will have forcibly converted to Islam.”
Although Fiji Indians had gone through a difficult time, there was a glimmer of hope, Narayan said. Ironically, following a coup in 2006, things are looking up. Narayan made it clear that although she applauded the positive developments, she in no way endorsed the military coup.
“Currently, we are in the process of trying to have another constitution put in place which essentially would go back to the original constitution . . . which would allow race neutral policies,” she said.
A rise in indigenous nationalist fervor and four coups in 20 years, including the toppling of democratically elected Fiji Indian Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, had exacerbated the plight of Fiji Indians, Narayan told the audience. “We were put in a position where all of a sudden we were interlopers and we did not belong,” she said.
“Fiji Indians were . . . essentially told to leave,” Narayan said. Temples have been attacked repeatedly, she said.
“The second thing they did was to make people homeless. . . Individuals who had lived on the same land for three generations were forced to leave their lands and tear down their homes and go away. Now where would they go?,” she asked.
“So we have squatter camps that have developed around Fiji.”
There are now huge squatter camps in the Fiji cities of Suva and Ba, and Amnesty International estimates that 12 percent of Fiji Indians live in squatter camps.
The worst part was a lack of security, Narayan said. “In Fiji if you are Fiji Indian and a Fijian came and robbed your home, nobody would come,” she complained. “Nobody would come to assist you. . . If you have no personal safety or security in your own home, you start feeling very frightened.”
Consequently, Fiji Indians left the country in droves, and now Fiji faces an economic crisis.
Former Fiji Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, who is now Fiji’s finance minister, has told Narayan that the nation is bankrupt.
“The exclusionary policy of the last 20 years of keeping out Indians, making them feel not wanted, has eventually helped to destroy the economy of Fiji,” she said. “And he was asking Indians to come home.”
The government is promising lease restoration of land and possible government payment. “Understandably, a lot of Fiji Indians are not interested in coming back,” Narayan said. The government is promising 30-year leases on land with automatic 20-year renewals. “It’s a situation where the government may end up having to rebuild the homes of the Fiji Indians and that’s something that we are hopeful will end up happening,” Narayan said.