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Arun Upadhyay- Indian Hindu Leader- Hosted in Shomron

The US State Department recently joined the latter group by dropping that pejorative and inaccurate phrase, “occupied territories."

Indian Hindu Leader Hosted in Shomron
Indian Hindu Leader Hosted in Shomron.

Dr. Richard Benkin, Chicago

This spring, Arun Upadhyay, International President of Hindu Struggle Committee, realized a long- cherished dream: he visited Israel. While the world marvels at the growing relationship between Israel and India, numerous individuals are making it work at a person-to-person level. Arun, a Hindu activist, has worked on building the India-Israel relationship at the grass roots level for more than a decade—back to a time when the previous Indian government pushed back against our efforts, sent agents to spy on us, and harassed our associates. We were heckled on Indian campuses and threatened,
sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly; and we faced angry protestors who warned that our work represented a conspiracy of “Zionism and Hindutva against Muslims.” Nevertheless, along with our colleague and inspiration, Amitabh Tripathi, and with strong support from the Middle East Forum and Dr. Daniel Pipes we persevered. We persevered because we believed in the natural alliance between Israel and India, and because despite detractors and threats, we kept encountering more and more students and faculty who supported strong relations with Israel.

Moreover, our Asian friends do not buy the false dichotomy between “Israel” and “the West Bank” that we in the West have been fed for decades. Nor do they use the phrase, “occupied territories” because for them, there is but one united Israel. In the West—especially in Europe, the United Nations, and on the left—people try to mask their anti-Israel bias with that false distinction. They ignore the fact that the Arabs were calling for an end to “Israeli occupation” when Jordan occupied the West Bank, and Egypt occupied Gaza. They ignore the fact that the Israelis offered the Arabs their desired Palestinian State, including Jerusalem, only to have it thrown back in their faces. In Asia, the people I encounter are either open in their desire to see Israel eradicated entirely or clear in their support for the Jewish State. Significantly, the US State Department recently joined the latter group by dropping that pejorative and inaccurate phrase, “occupied territories.”. They are not occupied but only those lands that Arab armies controlled after their combined forces failed to destroy the newly born State of Israel in 1948. During hours of pre-trip discussions, as well as more than a decade of work with me, Arun never parsed an old and new city of Jerusalem or called Israeli towns in Judea and Samaria “settlements.” So when Israeli activist and Shomron Regional Council spokesman, David Ha-ivri invited Arun to visit Ariel, Homesh, and the Council; it was no different than an invitation to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

Representational image.
Representational image.

Arun touched down at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport just after the Jewish festival of Passover and the next morning (Sunday, April 8), made the 25 mile (40 kilometer) trip east to Barkan, a town of less than 2000 in northern Samaria. Ha-ivri greeted him with three days of “VIP treatment.” It began with a trip to Jerusalem, less than 25 miles south of Barkan, that included a tour of the Temple Mount’s ancient subterranean tunnels; and by the end of the trip, this young Hindu was quoting Biblical verses to support a Jewish homeland throughout the entire land: “Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria” (Jeramiah 31:5),

After a day-long educational tour and greeting in Shomron, the fruits of which Arun expects to share with other Indians, Ha’ivri arranged a full day of “high profile political and academic meetings” that he said represented a “Golden Age in Israel-India relations.” Arun discussed academic, agricultural, and commercial development with Shomron Regional Council head, Yossi Dagan, as well as ways to expand India-Israel relations. The first concrete result of those talks could very well secure Israel’s place in the hearts of Hindus. Arun came determined to enlist Israeli technology for the massive cleanup project of the heavily polluted Ganges River. The “Ganga” is holy to the world’s billion plus Hindus and as central to their religious narrative as the Jordan River is for Jews and Christians. There are purification rites that involve bathing in the Ganges. Right now, it’s not so bad the closer you get to the glacial source in the Himalayas (which is where I bathed) but difficult throughout much of the river’s path. Good news: within days of these talks, the process began. India’s National Mission for Clean Ganga and Israel’s Ariel University began active discussions about a cooperative project. While these talks continue, another trip to Israel involving Hindus from India, as well as Pashtuns, Baloch and Sindhi, is being prepared.

Ha’ivri also proposed a sister city relationship, and I will be following up with Arun in the coming months. Shortly after hosting Arun, Ha’ivri brought community leaders from Zambia and Kenya, and leaders of First Nations peoples to Shomron, debunking two false accusations at once: that Israel is a western, colonial outpost, hostile to peoples of color; and that Judea and Samaria are any less Israeli than Tel Aviv.

Along with Amitabh Tripathi and me, Arun Upadhyay has been a leader in building strong pro-Israel coalitions, especially on Indian college campuses. He has worked within Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and closely with Anant Hegde, Modi’s Union Minister of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship. Most recently, he has been organizing Indians to actively combat the ongoing persecution of Hindus in Bangladesh that threatens their very existence and is described in my book, A Quiet Case of Ethnic Cleansing: the Murder of Bangladesh’s Hindus.

1. Determine if Sindhi are coming on the trip.

Dr. Benkin has been tirelessly working to highlight the human rights violation of Hindus in Bangladesh.

Next Story

Indian Economy Complex with Multiple Layers in its Social System

This may not matter as much when the economy is growing because the trickle down effect is positive all around, no matter how small

Indian, Economy, Social Status
This data is not sufficiently robust and we need to be cautious in assuming that all is well based on these numbers. Pixabay

The economic slowdown is worrying. They say it is a global and cyclical phenomenon, and that things will improve in due course. Perhaps. Yet, we need to worry because the Indian economy is complex, with multiple layers in its social system that are at various stages of economic stress. They cannot afford to be stressed any further and the impact of the slowdown will be severe in these fragile segments. The tragedy is that we are losing momentum rapidly and India is already headed for a sub 6 per cent GDP growth rate which is the lowest in many years. Data on manufacturing, employment and investment indicates that sector after sector is tightening the belt. The worry is that even this does not reflect the real gravity of the situation.

The official figures of GDP, employment, credit stress and similar data do not capture the informal sector where the impact is certainly worse. This data is not sufficiently robust and we need to be cautious in assuming that all is well based on these numbers. This may not matter as much when the economy is growing because the trickle down effect is positive all around, no matter how small. It is during the downturn that we need to worry. The current stress on the ‘hidden’ economies has the potential to destroy fragile ecosystems irreversibly. That will put us in serious trouble.

India’s ‘hidden’ economy is a formidable challenge. It is a plurality of village communities, agricultural under-employment, cottage industries of weavers, craftsmen and other marginal workers and microcosms that survive on uncertain incomes even in the best of times. Pulling them out of the under-employment, if not the poverty trap, requires serious and committed effort but policy makers have been shying away from tackling it.

Take the example of the handloom sector which in some ways is representative of the many other communities with similar economic struggles. This sector is one of the largest unorganised economic activities after agriculture and represents the informal economy that is struggling to survive. Handloom has been traditional India’s lifeline and the weavers are largely from the weaker sections of society with a legitimate claim on prosperity. Weaving is not only an integral part of the rural and semi-rural livelihood, it is also an exquisite art form that has been passed down in weaver families through generations. Weavers come from various religions, though 74 per cent of the weavers are Hindus and 17.5 per cent are Muslims. The latest government survey indicates that 75 per cent have not studied beyond middle school and, in fact, around 52 per cent have not gone beyond primary school.

Indian, Economy, Social Status
The official figures of GDP, employment, credit stress and similar data do not capture the informal sector where the impact is certainly worse. Pixabay

If it wasn’t for a handful of people who believed in the richness of traditional art, the handloom weavers would be extinct by now. They would only be discussed in history books as a lost heritage that was once the pride of Indian culture and economic support for the communities. One such example is Chandra Jain in Bengaluru, who understands village communities because she has been working with them for almost three decades in some manner or the other.

For the past 15 years, she has been working with handloom weavers to promote their skills in profitable ways and says, “The hand woven fabric is a valuable and cultural heritage, sustained by transfer of skills from one generation to the other. The weavers are India’s heritage but unfortunately they continue to be a very vulnerable section of our society. In recent years it has become increasingly difficult for them to cope with the multiple constraints. They only know how to weave magical fabric, so intricate that even computerised machines can get stumped. Unlike power looms, the weaving skills are not mechanical processes. These skills are learnt right from early childhood through observation, experience and understanding of the creative expression while working with these master weavers. The master-weavers are exceptionally skilled but they are small communities and not commercial organisations. They have no skills in marketing, finance etc. and they need to be protected from and helped to cope with the painful onslaughts of modernisation and digitisation. Unless there is active support for them, the weavers may not survive in the era of mass production and technology.” Chandra has been giving talks on the beauty, varieties and techniques of India’s hand-woven textiles and the making process behind them, trying to create a market for the weaver, that could allow him to stay on in his line. She also works with a few master weavers, and continues to support their efforts.

There are many others like Chandra who believe that handloom is a major thread that binds the weavers, the artisans and the cotton farmer ecosystem as a community. This ecosystem is the fragile underbelly of the country’s economy and has to be helped to survive, not only economically but also as a society. This was recognised by Mahatma Gandhi even during the independence struggle. He emphasised khadi and charkha to help the local economy survive the onslaught of industrial looms and to ensure that the local weavers could eke out their living. Despite this, these craftsmen remain marginalised even today. It is distressing to see polyester and power-looms eroding the exquisite splendour of the traditional Banarasi weaves, Kanjeevaram, Chanderi, Ikat and other outstanding handloom techniques and products that are associated with different states of India.

Surely, it is time to ensure that handloom facilitation centres are provided more budgets and the state emporiums become more active in promoting handloom and crafts, rather than mark time as relics of the years gone by. Instead, in recent years, this community has become even more fragile and vulnerable. Demonetisation and GST impacted the weaver community seriously. Demonetisation was a setback for weavers who struggle with credit constraints and perforce operate entirely on cash transactions. For the uneducated weavers, GST is a complicated animal that diverts their focus from the critical effort of finding buyers to unfamiliar activities like digital compliances and filing returns, often at additional cost.

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This recent effort that attempts to merge the informal sector into the formal economy by dictat, and without adequate preparation has been counter-productive and destructive. It is like a badly handled ‘M&A’ project. Mergers & Acquisitions are not easy even in the corporate world. Mergers are mammoth projects even for largely similar and organisationally strong companies. They are successful only when the merging companies minimise conflict and trauma between their different cultures. They identify facilitators, study the differences in their functioning, and address weaknesses in the process before attempting the cross over.

Similarly, when attempting to include the informal economy into the organised sector we need to first understand the reasons why they have remained excluded until now. We need to understand that the informal sector is marginalised because of fundamental compulsions and not because of choice. They have remained fragile because of lack of education, lack of familiarity with commercial procedures, lack of organisational capabilities, and essentially because there is a cultural mismatch between their work ethics and commercial processes. Dictats and surgical policies are successful only when the policy maker is a magician. Unfortunately, we do not have magicians. We only have politicians and their policies that transform economies on paper and in files. If we are realistic, we will need to address a lot of basic issues so that we can prepare the informal economy to transition into the world of taxable economic activity. This cannot be bypassed.

Despite its many contradictions, India has immense economic potential and its economy is unique. It is a beautiful tapestry of multiple cultures and multiple economies woven together. It is a delicate framework and a vibrant pattern of an organised economy, an agricultural economy and the extensive informal economy that have remained in a fragile equilibrium for decades. The artisans, the weavers, the craftsmen and the farmers who form the rural eco-system have sustained themselves with traditional skills and knowledge that has been passed down over generations. It is the essence of India’s mystique. They need to be protected and cannot be left to the vagaries of economic cycles.

India’s potential radiates from amongst others, its ability to grow as a modern economy while ensuring that the informal sector survives the onslaughts economic headwinds. The challenge for the government and its economists is to go beyond their captive think-tanks and seek solutions from experts actively involved in those sectors. They need to get real and activate handloom promotion bodies that are today sitting on the sidelines for want of resources and adequate budgets. The worry remains that if the GDP remains in a ‘tailspin’ and dives below the current 6 per cent, one by one these ‘hidden economies’ will run out of steam. It will be tough to revive them after that. (IANS)