HAF Report- Casting a net full of holes

On December 10, 2010, the Hindu American Foundation (“HAF”) published a report on caste entitled “Hinduism: Not Cast in Caste.”  The issuance of the report generated immediate debate and controversy. Some of the most serious concerns were (a) framing caste-based discrimination as a human rights issue, (b) the problematic aspects of an American organization making policy prescriptions for India, and (c) the potential exploitation of the report by forces seeking to weaken India / Hinduism.  The report was also deeply hurtful to many professing Hindus, who felt it an act of betrayal for a Hindu political advocacy organization. This betrayal was about HAFs explicit call for the rejection of certain of our scriptures and also their demands that Hindu acharyas make certain teachings in conformity with HAF’s stated position in the report. The hue and cry over the report resulted in several definitive criticisms, including one by Rajiv Malhotra, which has already been published [See link]. This and other strong voices from various critics, have coalesced together & gathered enough strength, so that HAF has been temporarily forced to take the report offline while they ‘are working on it’.


Most importantly of all, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Convener of the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha (HDAS), and Dr. Pranav Pandya, Head of All World Gayatri Pariwar (AWGP), Haridwar issued statements calling for the withdrawal of HAF’s report. They also asked for any subsequent report to be issued only with the collaboration and inclusion of a wide variety of community leaders, social workers and scholars as well as with the input and consultation of diverse Hindu acharyas and gurus. [See Below for Letters in the original]. Lamentably, HAF has refused to comply with these letters of appeal from two of Hindu society’s most eminent Acharyas. Also to be noted is that HDAS is the only apex body for Hindu Dharma sampradayas and paramparas – traditions and lineages.

This article will not go over the already well-established arguments against the report, but will instead attempt to (1) provide a summary of the aftermath of the report and certain key responses and (2) describe some of the potential far-reaching consequences of this ill-timed & ill-considered report. It will try and address what this situation bodes for the Hindu community, both in India & abroad, when one organization fills a leadership vacuum in the lobbying arena, and then overextends itself by arrogating to itself the role of a policy advisor for all Hinduism.

If HAF seriously expected to catapult itself into the role of a “Hindu Think Tank”, this report & it’s mishandling has shown up their inability to think through such big picture issues. They are hugely deficient in a core area, that of practicing traditional scholars. Neither do they even seem to have enough people with a ‘lived-in-India’ experience who would have smelt trouble at the very early stages of this project. This at a time when representational & definitional aspects of Hindu thought & practice are still fluid in the minds of policy makers who are overwhelmingly of a Westernized background, if not completely Western, as in US & other policymakers in the world bodies. As a reminder to the reader, the HAF report attempts to cast a wide net, whereby it wants to be used as a document consulted by all global leaders who are in a position to affect how Hindus and their practices will be looked at.


 

Letter From Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Arsha Vidya gurukulam, http://arshavidya.org/

 


 

Letter From Dr Pranav Pandya, All World Gayatri Parivar, http://awgp.org


Report & its Aftermath

Initial engagement with HAF by the various critics was overwhelmingly by emails & comments in the blogosphere, but also via many private phone calls & conversations. There were initial attempts by HAF to engage the critics, and this did give some hope. But in hindsight, these attempts can be best described as a combination of spin & damage control, where HAF officers attempted to engage groups of critics separately & spin their rationale as to why the report was great as it stood. They at no stage showed any serious interest in engaging the ‘criticism’ as opposed to engaging the ‘critics’. Being a PR heavy organization, one supposes this comes naturally, and is not bad in and of itself. Needless to say, when it came to the substantive issues, even their few efforts to engage the substance of the criticism showed up their serious ignorance, rather disturbing under the circumstances.

This ignorance was not only of Hindu Shaastras as understood by practicing Hindus, but also an over reliance on Western Academic interpretation of both Shaastras and of Indian society. As many readers would be aware, the underlying problems with this approach are spelled out in detail in the book Invading The Sacred, a good in-depth reference. Also on view was their poorly thought out ‘game plan’ which till date has either ignored or blithely downplayed the serious criticism that they were handing a potent weapon to the many powerful forces inimical to Hinduism’s very existence. The charge made by most critics, that their report has holes that would be used to undermine Hinduism’s credibility as a force for good in the world, is still not being taken seriously or adequately addressed by HAF.

After some time it became clear that HAF seemed smugly confident of riding out the opposition on strength of its PR skills and media access. But meanwhile the controversy had begun to make its way to traditional Hindu organizations both in India & their US. From these, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, of the premier Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, thought it important enough to step in write a gentle but unambiguous letter to HAF. This letter is reproduced above.

It is to be noted that Swamiji is also the convener of the HDAS (Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha), which incidentally, would have been the appropriate organization to sign off on any report of such magnitude that affects Hindus at large. Of course, therein hangs a sorry tale of a closed-door mentality & lack of due process, as explained in the critique by Rajiv Malhotra.

At this stage, HAF is playing an interestingly sophisticated game of legal eagle whereby it seeks to hoodwink those interested that it is complying with part of Swamiji’s letter (though they don’t really have to, they point out quickly) while flouting completely the spirit in which it was written and the substance of the rest of the letter, which explicitly called for any subsequent report to reach consensus among Hindu leaders. Here (see picture below) is HAF’s legal counsel’s legalistic take on this issue (Published in India Abroad, Jan 14th):

 

The small smartly worded legal statement shown here (part of an uncritical double-spread story in India Abroad), from the HAF Managing Director/Legal Counsel, encapsulates the whole issue quite well, both in substance and spirit. It is a demonstration of HAFs PR skills & media savvy, appearing in a high circulation Diaspora magazine. It makes the right noises by offering token respect to the Swamiji’s stature, while openly defying the heart of the appeal in the letter. The letter from Swamiji did not ask that the report be made “temporarily unavailable online”. It asked for withdrawal until a consensus was reached among all Hindu leaders. This is NOT the course of action undertaken by HAF, despite numerous overtures from community groups and leaders to facilitate such a process of collaboration and consensus.

Instead, HAF seeks to absolve itself of any sense of responsibility beyond “keeping the full report internal”. It asserts its power and unaccountability by saying in the same breath “…we were under no obligation to fulfill his request…” It states that the report is just “kept internal” and not “withdrawn” due to serious flaws. It then attempts to be dismissive of the importance of Swamiji’s letter by letting all know that the Executive Summary is still online, and that ‘numerous community leaders & scholars around the world have endorsed the report’. Thus, the inconsistencies of HAF’s position (presenting two faces to different audiences) are revealed within a few sentences of its own Managing Director’s public statement to the press!


How Did Things Come To This?

It seems a clear-cut case of “when in Rome, do as Romans do”. As seen in its own public demeanor, HAF, as a premier advocacy organization with politicians & legislative bodies, is immersed in an atmosphere where lobbying, good PR, and a corporatized mindset are a great asset. These qualities are not bad by any means, and Hindus so far have certainly welcomed all the efforts & undeniable successes of HAF in this sphere.

But the problem arguably starts when HAF, with its inherent legalistic PR intensive focus, seems to have decided to take this huge leap from targeted advocacy in the US for the micro-minority Hindu population, to claiming the privilege of steering Hinduism itself in a global sense. This Caste Report is staggering in the scope of issues it is attempting to address, and recommendations it is attempting to give. One can’t help but speculate on the inevitable corporate strategizing that would see a “strategic growth opportunity” for HAF with ‘producing’ this type of report. This, if done successfully, would no doubt cement its place as the leading Hindu organization on the US. Most Hindus would say ‘more power to any successful Hindu organization’ since we’re all aware how woefully few we really have. But while we are cheering, many of us have woken up to the fact that it is a minefield out there, and one needs both solid homework, and a deep inner understanding of what exactly is involved in taking up any cause impacting Hinduism.

One can almost see here a lobbying organization attempting to morph into a Think tank. A lobbyist organization is more of a tactical animal, targeted to short term issues. A typical respectable think tank, on the other hand, is much like a University department, has ongoing multi year programs, and is full to the brim with acknowledged ‘Subject Matter Experts’ who have been in the ‘business’ of advising National Governments & International bodies for years, and who are hired for this very skill.

For HAF, it appears all the slick PR focus seems to have caused an almost inevitable drift towards more & more corporate style thinking. This also inevitably is accompanied by hubris & overreach. Even if all this ‘growth’ is great for HAF as a corporate organization, one disturbing fact stands out. Left behind in the dust of all this high speed maneuvering is the damage being done to the very tradition that HAF is supposed to be advocating for as its core mission. Sanatana Dharma (a more accurate word than ‘Hinduism’), is hoary, multifaceted, and complex in a way hard to grasp through superficial engagement. One needs to be especially careful if one intends to officially represent it.

One may argue that Dharmic “ends” justify Corporate “means”, but this argument has not gone well beyond HAF and its few key supporters. And these supporters are few, no matter what HAF may want to claim, when compared to the sheer size & weight in terms of both population & Shastric background that will find this merely an unsolicited interference by the unauthorized (lacking proper ‘adhikaara’), even if they be ‘our own kids’. Word on this misadventure by HAF is still spreading.

What Could Happen Vs What Should Happen

At this stage it appears that HAF promises to come back with its report ‘in a few weeks’. So far there is no indication of HAF changing its ‘closed door’ approach. This means that in their anxiety to keep tight control of the process, substantive changes in focus, tone or content cannot be expected. Critics will be left outside wringing their hands, and experts who’ve been critical will be shut out of the process. This is fair enough if HAF wants to assert their right as an independent organization to do as they please. But they risk losing their constituency of still traditional Hindus. Many traditional Hindus, including well educated ones with Lvy League degrees & business success think, with reason, that HAF’s approach here shows a great deal of pandering to trendy westernized discourse on “human rights” etc at the cost of Hindu traditions. People with enough grasp of Hindu thought & practice are keenly aware that we have a worldview very different at a fundamental level, but which worldview has historically been, and is still capable of producing a just society.

What should happen, for a best outcome, would be a maturing of the HAF leadership, based on their learning from this experience. This learning would be in two key aspects. The first aspect is to understand the views of their critics, and more importantly the core philosophy underpinning their strong disagreement with the report as originally put out, and why it is faulty in many ways. The second aspect would be to understand and admit the stark contradiction in terms of a “closed door” corporate approach to advocating changes in Hinduism, where Hinduism itself is as “open-door”, “Open-Source” a Religion and way of life as is possible, anytime, anyplace.

This maturing, in turn, would lead to a truly collaborative & consensus building approach to issues impacting Hindus in so major a way as the Caste issue. But this can only happen if wiser counsel prevails and they look beyond their current ‘do or die’ approach fixated on ‘saving’ this one report, come hell or high water.

As things stand now, this report has shown tremendous divisive potential, and seems to be turning into a greater embarrassment than all the people concerned (including critics) would have imagined only a few weeks ago. Mixed signals received from HAF so far only mean that in the coming weeks, more and more Hindu sampradayas will want to weigh in on the issue. HAF may soon find that the Hindu public will judge them more on this crucial misstep, rather than all the good work they’ve done in the past. As for Sanatana Dharma (a.k.a. Hinduism), it has been and will be called Sanatana (Eternal) for a reason.


POSTSCRIPT

There is fresh confirmation of a few more major Swamis & Hindu Sampradaya & organizational heads sending HAF open letters supporting above letters of HDAS & Gayatri Parivar in great detail. Prominent are Swami/Baba Ramdev of North India, and the ancient Maadhva Sampradaya Putthige Math Swamiji in South India. Devout and committed Hindus know what this signifies.

More activity is inevitable. Watch Medha Journal updates as more unfolds in the coming days.

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