Why a World Hindu Congress event in Chicago sparked protests and boycotts
By Barfi Culture Team
9th September 2018

On Friday evening in Chicago, a group of six young men and women abruptly stood up during a speech at the World Hindu Congress event and shouted: 'RSS turn around, we do not want you in town'.

Almost immediately a number of delegates around them stood up and tried to drown them out with: 'Bharat mata ki jay!' (long live mother India!).

The protesters were eventually evicted from the event and some arrested (and later released). But the event ran into controversy even before it was held, sharply exposing divisions among South Asians in US politics.

Background to the event

Held every four years, the World Hindu Congress organizers say they aim to provide a "global platform for Hindus to connect, share ideas, inspire one another". The conference is also meant to showcase "how the values, creativity, and entrepreneurial spirit of the global Hindu community find expression in a variety of spheres".

Speakers who were scheduled to speak included the Dalai Lama (who sent a pre-recorded video message), actor Anupam Kher and preacher Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. A message of support was also sent by the Indian PM Narendra Modi.

But the event attracted controversy for its other speakers. Initially the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, was due to speak. Adityanath has been labelled a firebrand for his controversial statements on Indian Muslims. His name was later dropped from the speakers list.

Also due to speak: Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat, who has courted controversy by denying that rapes take place in rural India, and previously said if a wife violates the marriage contract, the husband can "disown her".

Earlier this week, Rohit Chopra and Maia Ramnath wrote of the WHC conference: "The chief organiser of the event, Swami Vigyanand—an IIT Kharagpur graduate—calls on Hindutva’s foot-soldiers to carry the trishul (a three-pronged spear) as a way to send a message about the need to weaponise and defend Hinduism."

They also raised flags about other speakers at the event.

"Rajiv Malhotra is a US-resident Hindutva ideologue who continuously disparages American congressional institutions like the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, claiming that it exists to protect 'the freedom of Christian evangelists to convert internationally'. More recently, he urged his followers to direct disaster relief only to Hindus in the flood-devastated state of Kerala."

Representative Tulsi Gabbard (Democrat, HI-2) had earlier withdrawn from the event after: "it became apparent that the event was going to be a partisan political event".

Protests and the aftermath

Here is a video from an activist in support of the protesters

A longer video

Chicago South Asians for Justice later said in a statement:

"As young people, as South Asians, and as Chicagoans, we cannot sit idly by as fascist, nationalist, Hindu-supremacist, and anti-Muslim agendas are propagated just miles away. We reject the presence of Hindutva in Chicago and globally, and we stand against racism, misogyny, caste-discrimination, and religious intolerance."

The two of the protesters were handcuffed as they were taken out of the event. According to the Times of India another individual was arrested for allegedly spitting on the protesters.

Other South Asian American organizations also weighed in

South Asians Leading Together (SAALT), an advocacy group, said it would rescind a previous invitation to Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthy (Democrat, Il-8) to speak at an upcoming event, for his involvement with the World Hindu Congress event.

Despite the disruptions, the WHC event carried on over Friday, Saturday and Sunday, featuring a range of speakers from countries including the US, UK and India.

Organizers said it attracted over 2500 delegates from over 60 countries. A statue of Swami Vivekananda was also unveiled at the event. Coverage of the event was provided on Twitter by @WHCongress.

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