Human Rights and Religious Freedom Focus of Capitol Hill Reception

Washington, D.C. (September 14, 2010) - Hindu Americans celebrated results of their advocacy and lauded prominent supporters and lawmakers at the annual Capitol Hill reception sponsored by the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) earlier this week.  The reception followed a day of intense meetings this Tuesday, where the largest delegation of Hindu Americans to date broke into teams meeting with 25 members of Congress and their senior aides.  The teams discussed a specifically prepared “Hindu American Agenda” focusing on topics ranging from human rights and religious freedom, to even a House resolution supporting healthy vegetarian meal options in public schools.
The reception the same evening, held in the famed Gold Room of the Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill, hosted over 150 Hindu American delegates, several lawmakers of the U.S. House, congressional staffers, representatives of several NGOs and media.  The Foundation honored four awardees for their “dedication to civil and human rights.”
Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), co-Chair of the India Caucus, received the Friend of the Community Award. Addressing a packed hall, he spoke of the plight of Hindu Pandits driven out of their ancestral homeland of Kashmir, and the need for the governments of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Bhutan to safeguard their religious and ethnic minorities.
“As someone who has been to Bangladesh, Pakistan, South Asia and Central Asia, I know of the stories of many of the two million Hindu Americans who have suffered injustices in these countries,” said Congressman Royce. “It sickens me to think that Pakistan was once twenty-five percent Hindu and is now less than two percent, and to think about the intimidation that is used against Hindu women. The same thing occurs in Bhutan and the same thing occurs in Bangladesh.”
“Congressman Royce absolutely understands the need to monitor our nation’s funding of regimes that are inimical to our nation’s interests in democracy and religious plurality,” said Jay Kansara, HAF’s Associate Director. “Each year, HAF publishes a report of human rights violations against Hindus in the diaspora, and it’s alarming the amount of aid given to many of the eleven countries who continue to remain in the report. We demand accountability from our nation’s leaders and that is why we come to DC every year to voice our concerns.”
As Royce focused on the rights of Hindus living abroad, Neal Katyal, Acting Solicitor General for the United States, narrated his family’s early experiences as immigrants to this country and the progress Hindus have made in the United States.  Katyal expressed his admiration for the work of the Foundation. Katyal received the Pride of the Community Award for his celebrated role in guaranteeing the rights of detainees in Guantamano Bay, in addition to many other achievements.
”I marvel at the fact that the office that I work for, the Solicitor General, once filed briefs stating that the 'teeming millions' of Indians arriving in this country could never integrate in America because they could never assimilate,” reflected Katyal. “I think everyone here in the room is proof that such a prophecy was fundamentally wrong.  In an environment that is at times worrisome, I applaud the work of the Foundation to promote values of equality and justice not just for Hindu Americans, but for all Americans.”
The Mahatma Gandhi Award for the Advancement of Religious Pluralism went to Reverend Patrick McCollum, a leading chaplain of the Wiccan faith, who spearheaded an effort to overturn a hiring policy in California that limited the hiring of chaplains to five-faiths: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Native Americans.  Rev. McCollum also joined HAF and 40 other faith based and civil liberty organizations to advocate for the introduction and passing of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act. He spoke on the need for America as a whole to recognize the need for plurality in society.
“I want especially to thank the Hindu American Foundation for even acknowledging people who do this work,” lauded Rev. McCollum. “In the spirit of accepting the award, I would like to be a representative of all the unsung heroes, men and women, who work daily to bring about pluralism for all people. So it isn’t just me, there are so many people who need to be recognized for this important work.”
Vishal Agarwal, one of the foremost lay scholars of Hinduism in the United States, received the Dharma Seva Award.  He has worked closely with HAF during several national campaigns over textbooks and overcoming biases in academia.
Despite the first round of House votes after a five week recess coinciding with the evening’s reception, several Congressmen also attended to welcome the Hindu American community and express appreciation for the work of the Foundation.  Amongst these were Representatives Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), Jeff Miller (R-FL), Jim Gerlach (R-PA) and Joe Wilson (R-SC).
Earlier that day, members of the Foundation’s Board of Directors, senior staff and active members fanned out for meetings at over a dozen offices of key House members.  They pressed for recognition of the plight of Kashmiri Pandits in House Resolution 1601 sponsored by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), chair of the India Caucus’ Kashmir Task Force.  In an official statement from his office regarding the resolution, Rep. Pallone said, “The U.S. is being tested more than ever in our determination to protect human rights and ensure peace and security for the people of Kashmir. -- I will face these challenges head on with you by continuing to advocate for the basic liberties, rights and individual freedoms of all Hindus here on Capitol Hill.”
HAF also garnered support for the U.S. to urge Pakistan to address mounting human rights violations in that country against Hindus and other minorities.  The delegates endorsed a congressional resolution promoting inter-religious dialogue and protection of religious freedom in House Resolution 764.
The Foundation added its own voice to those of many community groups demanding more vegetarian and vegan options be added to school lunches to promote a healthy lifestyle by advocating for H. R. 5504. Delegates also encouraged the passing of House Resolution 1593 promoting the development of a national curriculum standard for social studies in American schools in the wake of politically and religiously biased school board proceedings in Texas earlier in 2010.
“I think we were successful in getting our voice heard in today’s meetings,” noted Sheetal Shah, HAF’s Senior Director. “We have been building substantial relationships with our nation’s lawmakers for nearly a decade, and we hope to continue our dialogue for the benefit of future generations of Hindu Americans.”