Seven years ago, this was the shocking question that greeted the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) delegation during a visit to a Congressional office. More perplexing than the question itself was the dilemma of how to reply diplomatically without making the Congressman feel, well, dumb.
We’ve come a long way since then, but there still exists a great deal of misunderstanding and/or lack of knowledge about Hindus. In 2008, only two years ago, a Congressional staffer told one of our directors that he “didn’t realize that Hindus lived outside of India.” It’s perhaps a smidgen better than confusing Hinduism and Islam, but not by much, seeing as though there are approximately 2.3 million Hindu Americans.
Just three week ago, I returned home from HAF’s Eighth Annual DC Advocacy Days, where a delegation of approximately 45 Hindu Americans met with over 40 Congressional offices to discuss issues of concern to the community. Thankfully, this year, we didn’t encounter any startling questions. I’d like to credit that, in part, to the consistent outreach and advocacy efforts of the Foundation. As the Hindu American community continues to grow and establish itself, it is important that, at a very minimum, our elected officials know who we are. Every faith group advocates for itself, and it’s important that Hindu Americans do so as well. The founders of HAF realized that years ago and thus, began the annual tradition of our DC Advocacy Days.
This year, the focus of our Congressional meetings was largely on human rights – specifically those of the Kashmiri Hindus. In 1989, approximately 400,000 Kashmiri Hindus were driven out of their homeland, the Kashmir Valley, by a systematic campaign of terror and violence by Islamic militants. Public announcements were placed in papers, sermons made from mosques, and posters hung up on houses ordering Kashmiri Hindus to leave the Valley, and threatening violence if they refused. Most Kashmiri Hindus fled to others parts of India, and many ended up in refugee camps in Jammu and Delhi. Today, over two decades later, between 70,000 – 80,000 Kashmiri Hindus continue to languish in refugee camps where they lack basic necessities. Unfortunately, the Indian government has not done enough to help the Kashmiri Hindus and their plight has largely gone unnoticed by the world — even by many human rights organizations. Less than 4,000 Kashmiri Hindu families remain in the Valley.
Once again, Congressman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) introduced a resolution in the House that condemns the ongoing human rights violations against the Kashmiri Hindu (Pandit) community. The HAF delegation went from office to office, telling the story of the Kashmiri Hindus and building support for H. Res 387. By the time we returned home, three more Congressmen signed on as cosponsors, and we hope the momentum will continue.
Finally, the full day of meetings was capped off with a reception on Hill where community members, interfaith leaders, and Congressmen are honored for their commitment to the Hindu and American ideals of tolerance, understanding, and pluralism. After eight years of consistent advocacy, it was heartening to hear the words of support from these Congressmen, especially those, such as Reps. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who have repeatedly supported and worked with the Hindu American community.
On a personal note, the highlight of the event for me was watching two of my Congressional interns present awards to the Congressmen in whose offices they worked over the past summer. Two years in the making, the Foundation’s Congressional Internship program launched this year with its first class — five outstanding Hindu American college students who interned in various Congressional offices during the months of May and June. The close relationship developed between the interns and their offices was especially evident when Congresswoman Grace Napolitano (D-CA), as she accepted an award from her HAF intern, Prithvi Guruprasad, held Prithvi’s hand during her heartwarming and powerful speech on the importance of both minorities and women engaging in public service. It was a true testament to Prithvi’s abilities, as well as to importance of advocacy.