This is the first posting in the Desi Spotlight Series, a series of blogs that will spotlight organizations and individuals of South Asian origin living in the United States that are making a difference in human rights in South Asia.
For the interview with the President of the Indian Muslim Council – USA, Mr Rasheed Ahmed, see full entry.
Desi is a term used by South Asians in this country to refer to themselves and means roughly, people. For example, I would say that I am a desi, albeit born and raised in the United States. The first organization profiled is the Indian Muslim Council – USA, a desi group based in the United States and made up of Americans of Indian origin dedicated to seeing a pluralistic India.
Over 17 years ago, on December 6, 1992, at the culmination of a decade long campaign by the leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party, India’s main opposition party and ruling party from 1998 to 2004, kar sevaks ignored an order from the Indian Supreme Court and began to tear down the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, a holy city in India’s largest state Uttar Pradesh. Several days of sectarian violence left thousands dead and the inept government of Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao tottering towards defeat in the 1996 elections. This inept handling of the violence perpetuated by Hindu nationalists groups and subsequent defeat of the government at the elections no doubt led to the horrors of early 2002 in Gujarat.
On February 27, 2002, 56 kar sevaks were killed when the rail carriage they were in caught on fire, trapping the victims. Blame fell on Muslim shopkeepers in the Godhra Railway Station in the eastern part of Gujarat, despite little or no evidence. Immediately, politicians in the state where these murders occurred, Gujarat, began whipping up their supporters to attack specific Muslim neighborhoods and specific people living in those neighborhoods. The whole state was soon consumed in an orgy of violence that was only stopped a few days later when the Indian Army was deployed in the worst hit areas. Thousands of Muslims were forced into so-called “relief camps”. Thousands more met a worse fate, killed, raped, or traumatized. Nearly seven years later, some of the people most closely implicated in the violence, particularly Chief Minister Narendra Modi, are not only free and not facing charges, but are also still holding the levers of power.
This destruction of the mosque in Ayodhya and the events that followed (including Gujarat in 2002) together with widespread human rights violations by Indian security forces in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir has frayed relations among religious communities despite decades of peaceful coexistence.
It is in this context, that the Indian Muslim Council – USA was formed to get involved in human rights issues in India. They held their first national conference in 2003 (an event I spoke at and participated in) where they strategized on seeking redress for the victims of the pogroms in Gujarat in 2002. Despite the name of their organization, they advocate for a pluralistic and prosperous India for all Indians, regardless religious beliefs.
The interview was conducted with the President of the Indian Muslim Council – USA, Mr Rasheed Ahmed. One caveat is that the views of the IMC-USA do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
AIUSA: Can you tell me a little about your organization?
IMC: Indian Muslim Council-USA (IMC-USA) is an advocacy organization of Indian Americans; our mission is to work for peace, pluralism and social justice for all. IMC-USA was established when it was becoming more and more clear that NRIs can and must play a role in supporting the civil society in India which is under extreme pressure from undemocratic and sometimes violent forces with increasing impunity. We are a not for profit, tax-deductible organization established in 2002.
AIUSA: What was the impetus for the IMC’s founding and what do you see for the future?
IMC: The main impetus was and is an increasing impunity in India for the practitioner of politics of hate and intolerance. The infringement of fundamental rights under the garb of law and order and silencing of good people by one means or others is something dangerous not just for marginalized Indian citizens but India itself. The prosperity of India is at risk and the rightful place of India in the global leadership can be challenged if Indian citizens are denied basic rights and equal access to opportunities.
AIUSA: Do you have any sort of dialog with Hindu groups on an ongoing basis? If so, would you care to discuss?
IMC: We find that in United States there are many Hindus [as individuals] who do not like the extremist point of views but we have yet to find Hindu groups or organizations that are totally free from the pressures of RSS/BJP in America (background). Yes there are those who erect statues of Gandhi and garland them on anniversaries and talk about Gandhi’s non-violence philosophy but some of these Gandhi lovers when in India do not hesitate to celebrate [Nathuram] Godse the murderer of Gandhi. There is an interesting schizophrenic behavior, they love enjoy the freedoms of religion and in favor of pluralism in the United States but they want to see India as a Hindu rashtra.
AIUSA: How closely do you work with other Muslim, but not of Indian origin groups in the United States? On what sort of activities?
IMC: As a Muslim organization we have contacts with other Muslim organization and groups but since our focus is India, primarily we work with Indian groups of all backgrounds irrespective of their religious affiliation.
AIUSA: With respect to the Liberhan Commission findings, there was a lot of media coverage about the findings. I was wondering if you can summarize your position on the findings.
IMC: Our position on Liberhan Commission is that although it may be 17 years late but at least now there are 68 individuals who are implicated who should be charged as documented in the Liberhan report and they should be tried immediately and apply the law of the land. Government should adopt the Liberhan Commission recommendations and setup the regional tribunals to try the culprits. The report also documents the relationship between BJP and RSS, the obvious agenda of RSS to turn India into a Hindu rashtra and replace the secular democracy with a theocratic regime in India through BJP as its political front must be noted. [see links above for additional context]
AIUSA: I notice that you are also campaigning on a case of Mr. Shaukatullah Ghori and his mistreatment at the hands of the Andhra Pradesh Police in July 2009. Do you have any updates on the case?
IMC: We were alarmed by the practice of police to circumvent the proper procedures to the detriment of rules of conduct of police and rights of the accused. Mr. Shaukatullah is taken to Gujarat and Gujarat being a state from where to get any information one has to go all the way to Supreme Court, we are unable to get updates on his whereabouts.
AIUSA: Can you highlight any successes in the past couple of years?
IMC: Our success lies in the ever increasing awareness of the issues we work on and our increasing network of activists in United States and in India. As you know advocacy is an arduous and tedious work with little tangible benefits in the short term. However, we do have several tangible results as well. The one that comes to my mind is the campaign we had initiated and coordinated to shed the light on the illegal arrests and torture of Muslim youth in Hyderabad, [the capital of Andhra Pradesh] in the aftermath of Mecca Masjid and Twin Bombings in 2007. Our petitions and grassroots campaign of telephone calls, faxes, email and written letters contributed heavily to the Andhra Pradesh Minorities Commission report by Advocate Ravi Chander. This report documented the total disregard to police procedures, human rights and human dignity, based on this report courts acquitted all the accused who were arrested and tortured by the police.
AIUSA: How about any challenges or setbacks in the past couple of years?
IMC: The challenges will always be there, we focus on what we can do and try to do the best we can. We are mindful that we won’t succeed all the time but what matters is we do not give up and join the silent majority and become part of the problem.
AIUSA: Anything else that you’d like to add?
IMC: I must say that we look towards Amnesty International as a leader in the area of work we are engaged in and it is heartening to see that sometimes when we are unable to do any meaningful work AI is hard at work. We are thankful for support from AI associates and members. I must also express my happiness on Mr. Salil Shetty’s appointment as the Secretary General [Mr.Shetty’s appointment was announced in December 2009 by the International Secretariat of Amnesty International, replacing Irene Khan, a Bangladeshi national and the first Muslim and first woman to hold the post of Secretary-General of AI], being from India he may be able to bring a more in depth understanding of rights issues in India. Please convey my congratulations to him
For more information about the Indian Muslim Council – USA and its work, please go to their website at http://www.imc-usa.org If you have any questions about this interview or have any clarifying questions, please ask them in the comments section.