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Tulsi Gabbard, first Hindu member of US Congress talks about religion and experiences

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Washington has no shortage of politicians struggling to be seen as a maverick. But Tulsi Gabbard isn’t one of them.

As one of the first two female combat veterans elected to US Congress and also its first Hindu and first American Samoan representative, she wears the label quite easily. And this week, the 34-year-old congresswoman from Hawaii reminded everyone of it, as she broke ranks with the Democratic party establishment and relinquished her post as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee on February 29 to endorse Bernie Sanders for the President. (Her role with the DNC, the party’s governing body, would have required to stay neutral in the election.)

Described last October by the Washington Post as “the Democrat that Republicans love and the DNC can’t control,” Gabbard offered a sample of her independent streak a year ago, when she spoke out of sync with her fellow Democrats and criticized US president Barack Obama’s handling of Islamic extremism—specifically over his unwillingness to brand ISIL an “Islamic” group. “[Obama] is completely missing the point of this radical Islamic ideology that’s fueling these people,” Gabbard told Fox News last February.

Her viewpoint on this subject is all the more notable given her military experience in the Middle East, where she served in a field medical unit in Iraq and was a trainer for the Kuwait National Guard.

But it also aligns nicely with the stance toward Islam held by India’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its Hindu nationalist leader, Narendra Modi, with whom Gabbard shares a great rapport.

Gabbard was among the few to criticize the US government’s decision to deny a visa to Modi before he was Prime Minister, in the wake of accusations that his government in the state of Gujarat did not do enough to save Muslims during the horrific communal violence carried out there in 2002. The Gujarat riots claimed more than 1,000 people, including close to 800 Muslims. Gabbard had called the no-visa decision a “great blunder.”

And in November 2013, five months before Modi would win election as Prime Minister, Gabbard opposed a House resolution that called for “religious freedom and related human rights to be included in the United States-India Strategic Dialogue and for such issues to be raised directly with federal and state Indian government officials,” saying it would weaken the friendship between India and US.

Critiques of her stance, like this one published on the American social-justice site Alternet.org, accused her of putting politics before policy:

Rather than review the litany of abuses that have occurred in the country, Gabbard mused she did “not believe that the timing of this hearing is a coincidence….I am concerned that the goal of this hearing is to influence the outcome of India’s national elections.” She went on to state that even holding a hearing on the issue was “an attempt to foment fear and loathing purely for political purposes.” In other words, her concern was that Modi’s electoral chances would be hurt by an honest look at religious persecution in India.

Speaking at a fundraising event for the BJP in August 2014, where she articulated the plight of Hindus around the world who have suffered persecution, Gabbard said that Modi’s election victory was only possible because “people stood up, one by one by one by one, and said we will demand that this change occurs.”

In September 2014, the new Indian Prime Minister made it a point to meet Gabbard following his historic post-election speech at New York’s Madison Square Garden. And the congresswoman gave Modi a gift—a copy of the Bhagwad Gita that she swore by when elected to office—and assured him of her support for a Modi pet project of declaring an International Yoga day.

“We had a wide-ranging discussion on several issues our countries have in common, including how America and India can work together to help combat the global threat posed by Islamic extremism,” Gabbard said after the meeting.

For all that and more, Gabbard was treated as royalty on her visit to India last year. As she hobnobbed with the Indian Prime Minister and foreign minister among others, The Telegraph, a Kolkata-based newspaper, called her “the Sangh’s mascot” in the US. The Sangh, a moniker for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), is a right-wing Hindutva organisation and the ideological guardian of the BJP party that rules India now.

With Modi set to stay in power until 2019, and Sanders doing better than expected in the Democratic primaries (or at least was up until March 1, when Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton handily won key states like Texas and Virginia in the “Super Tuesday” state contests), it can’t hurt the BJP and India to have a friend like Gabbard in the US.

On March 2, Gabbard answered questions from Quartz via email about her support of Modi, her approach to Hinduism, and the connection she draws between Islam and terrorism. The transcript below has been condensed and lightly edited:

Quartz: Could you tell us about your reasons for supporting the BJP and Narendra Modi, and why you referred to him being denied a visa as a “great blunder”?

Tulsi Gabbard: There are many different areas and sectors where the United States and India’s growing friendship can cover mutually beneficial ground such as defense, renewable energy, bilateral trade, and global environmental concerns such as climate change. Modi impressed me as a person who cares deeply about these issues and as a leader whose example and dedication to the people he serves should be an inspiration to elected officials everywhere.

It is very important that the US and India have a strong relationship of mutual respect. The denial of a visa to Prime Minister Modi could have undermined that relationship had he used it as an excuse to reject having a strong bilateral relationships with America. This would have been bad for both of our countries. For many reasons—not the least of which is the war against terrorists—the relationship between India and America is very important.

QZ: You took on the US president for his reluctance to name ISIS as an Islamic extremist group. Do you still stand by this criticism?

TG: In order to defeat the terrorists who have declared war on the United States and the rest of the world, we need to understand their ideology. In other words, the war can’t be won just militarily. We must defeat them in the ideological war, not just on the battlefield. In order to defeat their ideology, we need to recognize what their ideology is.

The ideology of these terrorists is “Islamism.” It is a radical political ideology of violent jihad aimed at bringing about an establishment of a totalitarian society governed by a particular interpretation of Islam as state law. Referring to terrorists as “Islamist extremists” is simply an accurate way to identify ISIS and other Islamist extremist organizations whose ideology is rooted in one form of Islamism or another.

The majority of Muslims are practicing the spiritual path of Islam within their own lives in a pluralistic, peaceful way. So by calling organizations like ISIS Islamic or Islamist extremists [emphasis hers], we are making a distinction between the vast majority of Muslims who are not extremists and a handful of those who are.

QZ: How much of that sentiment is influenced by your experience serving in the military in the Middle East, versus your interest in Hindu/Muslim conflicts in India?

TG: My experience serving in the Middle East has shaped many of my views. This has nothing to do with any “Hindus/Muslim” conflict in India or anywhere else. It comes from the understanding that in order to defeat the terrorists who have declared war on the United States and the rest of the world, we need to understand their ideology.

My two deployments in the Middle East reinforced the fundamental military wisdom that you can’t defeat an enemy if you don’t understand him. We cannot win this war if we do not understand our enemy’s goals, [or the] ideology that inspires them and fuels their recruitment propaganda. And the first step to understanding an enemy is correctly identifying him in a way that makes clear his ideology.

QZ: You referred to the suffering of Hindu minorities across the world, in a speech you gave during a fundraiser attended by some of the top leaders of the BJP. Do you think that in India there exists a similar situation?

TG: Throughout the world, Hindus are victims of discrimination. Recently, a Hindu priest in Bangladesh was brutally hacked to death by ISIS terrorists and two others were injured trying to help him. Unfortunately, even in the United States, as well as different pockets of India, such discrimination exists.

While there is no doubt there is some discrimination directed toward different “religious minorities” in India, throughout India you will find Muslims, Christians, and people of all kinds of religions free to practice their faith. However, you will not find this degree of tolerance or openness in countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, or other Muslim countries. In fact, if you are not a member of the government-approved religion in those countries, it is government policy that you will be punished and discriminated against. To my knowledge, this does not exist in India. However, if India were to enact government policies that punish their citizens simply for being of a “minority religion,” I would condemn that action.
The essence of the Hinduism that I practice is karma yoga and bhakti yoga, which means to love God and all [emphasis hers] of His children, regardless of their race, religion, etc., and to use my life working for the well-being of everyone.

QZ: A report in The Telegraph, an Indian newspaper, referred to you as the mascot for the right-wing RSS in India. How do you respond to that? Do you think that is true and would you like to be associated with the RSS?

TG: Both in India and here in the US, I have held meetings with members of both the BJP and the Congress Party. As a member of the US Congress, my interest is in helping produce a closer relationship between the United States and India, not just between the United States and one political party of India.

I have no affiliation with the RSS. Sometimes people on both sides, for their own purposes, try to say I somehow favor, or am part, of the BJP or take photos of me at Indian events and circulate them for their own promotional reasons. But the fact is, I’m not partial to BJP, the Congress Party, or any other particular political party in India.

QZ: Some media reports suggest that you seem to be supporting the Indian diaspora, mostly because they are huge contributors to your campaign, especially with your Hindu identity. How do you respond?

TG: Through my election to Congress and my swearing in on Bhagavad-gita, those in the national media, my colleagues in Congress, and regular Americans across the country have all been very respectful, and even proud of America’s diversity. I assume the reason Hindus all across the country have been so supportive of me, is because when they see me, they see the potential for themselves and their sons and daughters.

There are many Hindus in America who feel they need to convert to Christianity or take “Christian” names if they or their children are to succeed in this country. I have found that simply being the first Hindu elected in Congress has been liberating to so many because it shows that every American, regardless of their background, race, or religion, has the opportunity serve our community in any capacity he or she may choose.

This interview was originally published at Quartz.com

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Copyright 2016 NewsGram

  • Cybil Peril

    Who says, USA is a democratic country instead of a fundamentalist Christian country”? Highly racist and communalised hate against Hindus is her basic policy that is hidden behind their fictitious democratic credentials. Why didn’t George Bush deny visa to Ariel Sharon, the Butcher of Beirut? Instead, Bush had entertained Sharon on his ranch while simultaneously denying visa to Modi for no fault of him. The above post smacks of d same racist communal bias. Shame to Western medieval society with no morality.

  • Cybil Peril

    I know, my post might even get moderated, meaning ……????

SHARE
  • Cybil Peril

    Who says, USA is a democratic country instead of a fundamentalist Christian country”? Highly racist and communalised hate against Hindus is her basic policy that is hidden behind their fictitious democratic credentials. Why didn’t George Bush deny visa to Ariel Sharon, the Butcher of Beirut? Instead, Bush had entertained Sharon on his ranch while simultaneously denying visa to Modi for no fault of him. The above post smacks of d same racist communal bias. Shame to Western medieval society with no morality.

  • Cybil Peril

    I know, my post might even get moderated, meaning ……????

Next Story

Across Asia’s Borders, Survivors Of Human Trafficking, Dial in for Justice

The trial has been ongoing since 2013

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Tara Khokon Miya is seen in her village home in Shipur, Bangladesh, Feb. 26, 2018. She is helping to prepare her 27-year-old daughter to testify via videoconferencing technology against the men who trafficked her to India.
Tara Khokon Miya is seen in her village home in Shipur, Bangladesh, Feb. 26, 2018. She is helping to prepare her 27-year-old daughter to testify via videoconferencing technology against the men who trafficked her to India. VOA

When Neha Maldar testified against the traffickers who enslaved her as a sex worker in India, she spoke from the safety of her own country, Bangladesh, via videoconferencing, a technology that could revolutionize the pursuit of justice in such cases.

The men in the western city of Mumbai appeared via video link more than 2,000 km (1,243 miles) west of Maldar as she sat in a government office in Jessore, a major regional hub for sex trafficking, 50 km from Bangladesh’s border with India.

“I saw the people who had trafficked me on the screen and I wasn’t scared to identify them,” Maldar, who now runs a beauty parlor from her home near Jessore, told Reuters. “I was determined to see them behind bars.”

“I told them how I was beaten for refusing to work in the brothel in the beginning and how the money I made was taken away,” she said, adding that she had lied to Indian authorities about her situation after being rescued, out of fear.

Thousands of people from Bangladesh and Nepal — mainly poor, rural women

and children — are lured to India each year by traffickers who promise good jobs but sell them into prostitution or domestic servitude, anti-slavery activists say.

Activists hope the safe, convenient technology could boost convictions. A Bangladeshi sex trafficker was jailed for the first time in 2016 on the strength of a victim’s testimony to a court in Mumbai via video link from Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital.

Convictions for cross-border trafficking in the region are rare as most victims choose not to pursue cases that have traditionally required them to testify in Indian courts, which meant staying in a shelter for the duration of the trial.

“They have always wanted to go back home, to their families,” said Shiny Padiyara, a legal counsel at the Indian charity Rescue Foundation that has facilitated videoconferencing cases and runs shelters for trafficking victims. “And most never return to testify.”

But videoconferencing is making it easier to pursue justice. Survivors have given statements, identified their traffickers, and been cross examined in at least 10 other ongoing international cases in Bangladesh, advocates said.

“Enabling victims to testify via video conference will lead to a possible decrease in acquittal rates for want of prime witnesses,” said Adrian Phillips of Justice and Care, a charity that supports the use of video testimony to help secure justice.

Even then, it is tough. During Maldar’s three-hour deposition, she withstood a tough cross-examination, showed identity documents to prove her age and countered allegations by the defense lawyer that she was lying about her identity.

Students Combat Human Trafficking
Students Combat Human Trafficking, flickr

‘Unpardonable’

Tara Khokon Miya is preparing her 27-year-old daughter to testify against the men who trafficked her to India from Dhaka, where she had been working in a garment factory.

“I almost lost my daughter forever,” she said, sitting in her home in Magura, less than 50 km from Jessore, describing how she disappeared after work and was taken to a brothel in India, and raped and beaten for almost a year before being rescued.

“What the traffickers did to my daughter was unpardonable,” Miya said, wiping her tears. “We seek justice. I nurtured her in my womb and can’t describe what it felt like to not know about her whereabouts.”

The trial has been ongoing since 2013 when the young woman, who declined to be named, was repatriated. The charity Rights Jessore is helping the family through the process, by providing counseling and rehearsing cross-examination.

“The best thing is her father will be by her side when she talks in court,” Miya said, finally breaking into a smile.

India signed a bilateral agreement with Bangladesh in 2015 to ensure faster trafficking investigations and prosecutions, and with Nepal in 2017, and laid down basic procedures to encourage the use of videoconferencing in court proceedings.

“The procedure is very transparent,” said judge K M Mamun Uzzaman at Jessore courthouse, which often converts its conference hall into a courtroom for videoconferencing cases to protect survivors’ privacy.

“I’m usually present and victims are able to testify confidently … it is easy and cost effective for us,” he said. “But the biggest beneficiaries are the survivors.”

Silencing Victims
Silencing Victims, pixabay

The future

Videoconferencing in Bangladesh has been plagued by technical glitches such as power cuts and poor connections.

“Sometimes the internet connection is weak or it gets disconnected during the testimony,” said Binoy Krishna Mallick head of Rights Jessore, a pioneer in using this technology to encourage trafficking survivors to pursue justice. “But these are just teething troubles.”

The bigger challenge, activists say, is to ensure survivors remain committed to the trial despite delays caused by a backlog of cases and witnesses’ failure to appear to testify.

Swati Chauhan, one of the first judges to experiment with video testimony in 2010, is convinced that technology can eliminate many of these hurdles.

Also read: Imagining Panun Kashmir: Dissent And Detente in South Asia

“Victims go through a lot of trauma, so it is natural that they don’t want to confront their trafficker in a court — but that doesn’t mean they don’t want the trafficker to be punished,” she said. “A videoconference requires meticulous planning and it is not easy coordinating between departments and countries. But it is the future for many seeking justice.” (VOA)