Hindu American Foundation Hosts Leading Diplomats, Civil Rights Advocates at Inaugural Policy Conference & 13th Annual D.C. Advocacy Day

Washington, D.C. (June 28, 2016) — Over three days early last week, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) held its first-ever policy conference and 13th annual D.C. Advocacy Day, and celebrated the second annual International Day of Yoga. The events brought together Washington heavy hitters such as Vanita Gupta, who is the top civil rights prosecutor for the US Department of Justice, Ambassador-at-Large Rabbi David Saperstein, and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI).

On Monday, June 20, HAF brought together 15 expert panelists at the Reserve Officers Association in Washington D.C. who engaged in thought-provoking discourse on some of the Hindu American community’s most pressing foreign and domestic policy concerns. In the morning, HAF’s Senior Director, Samir Kalra, Esq., moderated a discussion about U.S.-Bangladesh foreign relations and the alarming intolerance of minority communities in Bangladesh, as well as challenges faced by non-Muslim minorities in Pakistan, highlighting the perspectives of speakers Bharath Gopalaswamy, Rukhsana Hasib, and Farahnaz Ispahani.

Ms. Ispahani described the situation in Pakistan: “Officially mandated textbooks reject pluralism and represent minorities, especially Hindus, in an extremely negative light. In recent years Pakistan has witnessed some of the worst organized violence against religious minorities since Partition. From January 2012 until now, at least 450 incidents of sectarian violence have been reported. These incidents led to 3755 casualties, including 1551 deaths.”

As for how to help stop the ongoing targeted killings of religious minorities, atheists, LGBT activists, and others in Bangladesh, Ms. Hasib said, “The solution has to come from within Bangladesh, with pressure from the United States. The United States should immediately insist that the Government of Bangladesh provide non-partisan security throughout the country. Effective reforms should be put in place and enforced, with pressure from the United States.”

The afternoon’s session, moderated by HAF’s Executive Director, Suhag Shukla, Esq., focused on U.S. civil rights concerns and the Do No Harm Act, bringing together Caroline Darmody, legislative assistant for Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-MA), Maggie Garrett from Americans United for Separation of Church & State, the Anti-Defamation League’s Michael Lieberman, and the Acting Director of the U.S. Dept. of Justice’s Community Relations Service, Paul Monteiro. The Act’s intention is to amend the original Religious Freedom Restoration Act and promote a diverse and pluralistic society in which individual religious freedoms are preserved while avoiding infringement on the lives of others.

The day’s keynote presentation was made by Vanita Gupta, US Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division (pictured below). Ms. Gupta told the audience of one hundred, “I want to commend all of you for organizing, launching and participating in this inaugural policy conference as we discuss some of the most pressing civil rights issues of our time...The Hindu American Foundation’s motto – ‘promoting dignity, mutual respect and pluralism’ – represents the very best traditions of people from many different faiths, beliefs and backgrounds around the country.”

The evening’s diplomatic reception began with remarks by Rabbi David Saperstein, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, as well as senior diplomats from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The event concluded with an address by Ambassador Arjun Karki of Nepal, describing the development efforts since his country’s earthquake last year which destroyed thousands of homes and ancient Hindu heritage sites.

Ambassador Saperstein characterized the gathering as “historic” and was “deeply appreciative” of HAF’s “collective efforts to advocate for the promotion of dignity, mutual respect, and pluralism. Not only to the benefit of more than one billion Hindus across the globe, but also for members of other religious and ethnic communities.”

"On behalf of HAF, I want to thank everyone who participated in our inaugural policy conference,” said Jay Kansara, HAF Director of Government Relations. "From our excellent speakers to our delegates that flew in from across the country, this event was a success because of their presence.”

During HAF’s annual advocacy day, delegates met with more than 40 Congressional offices throughout the day expressing deep concerns about foreign and domestic policy issues. Delegates also attended briefings at the Embassy of India, U.S. State Department, and the American Jewish Committee.

This year’s events were also underscored by the celebration of the second International Day of Yoga, a milestone for the Hindu American community. HAF Senior Director Sheetal Shah told the audience, “We’d like to bring light a lesser known face of yoga, one not rooted in physical postures, but one rooted in selfless service. Karma yoga is the practice of selflessly performing our righteous duty, or dharma, without expectation of a reward. Expounded upon in the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most well known Hindu texts, karma yoga can and should be practiced throughout our day as we become more conscious not only of our actions, but also the motivations behind them, and the impact they have on our surroundings.”

An impassioned day of advocacy on the Hill concluded with HAF’s Capitol Hill Evening Reception, which brought together over 300 guests to honor notable advocacy work, done by the Hindu American community or on its behalf. Among the honorees were the Bhumi Project’s Gopal Patel, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), and the State Department’s Nisha Desai Biswal.