Letters: Aditi Banerjee on HMEC Panel Cancellation

EDITOR’s NOTE: Caste is such a controversial topic that it behooves Hindus; as the only ones who are constantly barraged with attacks on this subject by assorted activists & “experts”; to do their due diligence and come up with a well articulated position on it. The WAVES Conference on Varna/Jati/Kula was one such attempt.

An opportunity to advance this discussion was lost recently, when the HMEC ( Conference of Hindu Temple Leaders ) came within a hairsbreadth of having a Panel on this, with briefings from the WAVES Conference, but got cold feet & dropped it at the last moment.

Aditi Banerjee explains in more detail, in her open letter to the Hindu community leaders & activists, republished below with some minor edits.

 


 

Namaste,

As Gokul-ji’s note mentions, HMEC (the Hindu Mandir Executives Conference, an official VHP of America initiative) did indeed summarily and arbitrarily cancel the panel discussion on caste scheduled for the HMEC conference at the end of September. As recently as a day ago, the caste panel was still on the official conference schedule on the HMEC website. Because I was asked by HMEC to organize the panel, I’m sharing my knowledge regarding the panel’s cancellation and my concerns about the larger issues this raises for the Hindu community. I am sending this note to those for whom this may be an issue of interest, given their active involvement within the Hindu community.

Background

A few weeks ago, I was asked by SG-ji, program chair for the HMEC conference, to organize a panel discussion on caste with 1 moderator and 3 panelists. I was asked to pick the speakers and to provide a description of each panelist’s talks. I had discussions with SG-ji regarding who would be on the panel and the various topics that would be discussed.

After further discussions and consultations with S-ji and others, I put together a panel consisting of Rajiv Malhotra, as moderator, Dr. Bal Ram Singh, Ravi Joshi and myself. My role as a panelist was to summarize various presentations by spiritual leaders and scholars worldwide at the recent WAVES conference on caste, which I had helped to organize. This format and the roles of each of the panelists were discussed with S-ji several times, and he approved the panel and I was told that the panel was a go.   

A few days ago, and barely two weeks before the conference, I was abruptly informed that HMEC would like to remove Rajiv Malhotra and Ravi Joshi from the panel and, instead, constitute a new panel with SG-ji as moderator and Padma Kuppa (a member of HAF), Bal Ram-ji and me as the panelists. I was told that Padma Kuppa was very eager to join the panel and had obtained permission from HAF to do so.

This was a shocking and unexpected change, and it was acknowledged by HMEC that this was a big change that HMEC (and/or HAF) had proposed.

On principle, I cannot kick two people off a panel for no good cause. No specific reason was given to me for this change, except that HMEC needed to be “balanced” and “fair” and consider HAF’s views and feelings. I was specifically told that Mihir Meghani (co-founder, past president and current board member of HAF) did not want to risk another “public humiliation.”

Of course, conference organizers have the freedom to decide presenters and topics for their own conferences. It is one thing if I had been told upfront what the terms and minimum conditions were with respect to the panel or told that HAF would have a certain say or role in the panel. Instead, I was asked to organize a panel; the program chair for the conference accepted the panel; I was suddenly told to drop two of the four members of the panel (for no good cause) and, as described below, we were not even given the chance to accept HMEC’s new proposal before the panel was summarily cancelled. 

I suggested to S-ji that, instead of kicking off two members of the panel who had already confirmed their participation in the panel, we add Padma Kuppa to the panel and she can represent HAF. This should have been an amicable resolution that would be fair to all—I should also note that no second person was ever mentioned to me as a possible representative for the HAF side.

I said that I could not, on principle, summarily kick people off a panel because of some amorphous political sensitivities, and that, in order to agree to HMEC’s new panel, I would need to discuss it with the other panelists.

S-ji said that he would get back to me later that evening.  A few hours later, he told me that, after discussions with AA-ji and “several others,” it was determined to cancel the caste panel. I wish to reiterate that (1) I had already confirmed that we would be willing to add Padma Kuppa of HAF to the panel, and (2) we were never given the opportunity to decide whether or not we would accept HMEC’s new proposal before the panel was cancelled. I was not given any reason for the cancellation other than the platitude that this was a “sensitive” topic.

Serious Issues Raised by the HMEC Cancellation

This is an alarming turn of events for several reasons, as most eloquently articulated by Gokul-ji in his email. Several people have shared with me their sore disappointment at the panel being canceled and the missed opportunity to have a frank and educational discussion of this topic. Caste is a topic that all Hindus in America are forced to confront, whether in school, the workplace or in social settings where caste is used as a stick to beat up Hindus and Hinduism. 

The saddest and most shameful part of this is that we are failing in our duty to the younger generation of Hindus who look to Hindu leaders for the knowledge and resources to equip themselves to understand, defend and promote their Hindu heritage.  But, because we are too cowardly to confront a sensitive and controversial topic ourselves in a free and open manner within the community, we are forcing Hindu children into having to fight these battles unequipped. Shame!

It is alarming that HAF, a Hindu “advocacy” organization, is too cowardly to defend its own product (the HAF caste report) in public forums within the Hindu community, yet insists on its authority and competence to represent and defend Hinduism to its enemies in Congress, the UN, etc. 

It is disappointing that HAF rejected numerous invitations to participate in the recent WAVES conference on caste, including the offer to co-convene the conference so that HAF could be an equal partner in designing the conference and choosing speakers, etc. It is even more bewildering that HAF felt so threatened about the risk of “humiliation” at an HMEC conference, when the executives of HMEC are all devout supporters of HAF and took special care to accommodate HAF’s considerations. Even in such a forum, HAF did not feel confident enough to “allow” a panel discussion to take place unless it was on their very specific terms. This is becoming part of a disturbing pattern of insularity and unaccountability on the part of HAF, which is especially troubling in a “Hindu advocacy” organization that fundraises for and claims the right to represent the Hindu-American community.

Nor did HAF have the integrity to raise whatever issues it may have had with the panel (in concept) or our particular proposal directly in an upfront manner. Instead, HAF tried all sorts of behind-the-scenes shenanigans to either stack or scuttle the panel, and disappointingly, succeeded in this underhanded effort.

In the process, SG-ji was unfortunately put in a very difficult and awkward position. I believe SG-ji tried to be as balanced and fair as possible, and indeed he was very gracious in his interactions with me. I believe he sincerely wanted to promote a fair and balanced discussion of the different viewpoints on the topic of caste with the goal of educating and empowering the community in a way that would be respectful to all sides. I thank S-ji for taking the initiative in trying to have this panel added to the conference—it took a lot of courage and conviction on his part, and it is a shame that this got shelved because of HAF’s insecurities.

It is also alarming that HMEC, which is officially an initiative of the Sangh and purportedly an organization that is not officially related to HAF, appears to be so beholden to HAF that HAF effectively had a veto power over this panel—and who knows what else HAF is pulling the strings on behind the scenes. This is very dangerous. Today, the issue is caste. But, HAF will certainly release other reports and take positions on other issues that others in the community will not agree with. Will such topics also become taboo for the rest of the community because HAF does not want to be humiliated? We cannot allow this to become a precedent for the stifling of free discussion and debate of these issues within the Hindu-American political community.

Dharma is more important than any organization’s PR concerns.

It is a shame indeed that the caste panel at HMEC got cancelled. There is nothing that can be done about it now. But we—those of us who believe in independent thought and the importance of promoting freedom of discussion and debate within the Hindu community, even when it causes controversy or hurt feelings—must not let this become a dangerous precedent where individuals and organizations collude to protect each other’s territory and bad products out of insecurity and fear of bad PR or humiliation. Dharma is more important than any one Hindu organization. And Dharma will only flower when we ensure fair and free discussion and debate within the Hindu community, even and especially on topics that are sensitive and controversial.

Warm regards,
Aditi

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