As nine-year-old Hardit Singh joined a march to protest the second World Hindu Congress held from September 7-9, at the Westin Hotel in suburban Chicago, he searched for words to articulate the caste system. “They have like four different — you know how they have like temples, and kings, and leaders, and then they have this tower,” said Hardit. “It’s like Egyptians. Like in a pyramid.” As he gesticulated, trying to wrap his head around the system by gesturing with his hands, he grasped that caste is connected to inequalities in power and wealth distribution. “Who gets the lesser money and who gets the most money. Like the kings, they’re at the top. And the poor, they’re at the bottom or not even in the thing. There’s like four stages. I don’t remember all of them, but the last one is separated into a Touchable and an Untouchable.”
“Sikhs do not support that,” concluded the turbaned young Sikh. “We think everyone is equal. The kings and the poor are all together. They’re one thing on this earth.”
Marching close to Hardit was 26-year-old Gohar from Illinois, who explained that they were protesting the presence of the RSS at the World Hindu Congress. “They degrade human lives,” said Gohar. “There are so many Sikhs and so many Dalits who are living in fear.” Gesturing to Hardit, he said, “he’s a Sikh, and I’m a Muslim. We’re marching together against brutality. We just don’t want killings.” Walking alongside was Hardit’s grandfather, Gurnam Singh from Virginia, who added, “christians are also with us.”
A controversy began swirling around the Congress shortly after RSS Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat was announced as the keynote speaker. Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, the first Hindu elected in U.S. Congress, was originally scheduled to chair the event. She resigned, however, after calling the Congress a “platform for partisan politics in India” in a letter to Abhaya Asthana, president of VHP-America, the host organisation.
Reports also circulated that Swami Vigyananand, the VHP Joint General Secretary who conceived and organised the Congress, once praised his organisation’s controversial “trishul distribution” program, stating, “you can’t kill with the trishul, but symbols and ideas are interconnected by the law of association. When the mind gets ready, everything is possible.” More recently, a speaker in the Congress’ educational channel, Sankrant Sanu, made headlines last month after describing critics of the RSS role in Kerala flood relief as “cockroaches,” a term infamously used for the Tutsi victims of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. On the inaugural day of the Congress, Sanu declared, “India needs to be declared an official Hindu State.”
Such demands prompted protesters to turn out en masse on the second and third day of the Congress. “They want to convert everybody,” warned Mohammad from Chicago. “They want to make India a Hindu nation. They are saying that what they are doing is for Hindu people, but Hindu religion doesn’t in any way promote terrorism, Hindu religion doesn’t support killing, Hindu religion doesn’t support pushing the minorities. Hindu religion is good, but these people are trying to bring extreme values.”
Prominent speakers at the Congress who knew there would be protests, called protesters anti-Hindu. A week before the event, Indian-American author Rajiv Malhotra released a video claiming the event was “being attacked”. Interpreting the “vicious attacks” as a campaign “started by Indian leftists in the United States,” he suggested protests were an assault on the rights of Hindus to practice their religion. “There is absolutely no reason why Hindus should be ashamed,” said Malhotra. “There is really no reason why a World Hindu Congress would be a bad idea.”
Protesters like Mohammad, however, countered Malhotra’s suggestion that they were against a Hindu religious gathering. “We are not protesting against Hindus,” he said. “We are protesting against the RSS and the VHP who are the main chief guests for this conference. They are the people behind the whole bloodshed in India.” That refrain was echoed again and again by protesters. “They’re pretending this is a faith conference, but it’s not,” said Protiti from Chicago, adding, “They’re preaching hatred against minorities.” An elderly Sikh man said, “RSS has a convention here. We are not protesting against Hindus. We are protesting against RSS.” All three held the same sign: “RSS is a threat to India”.
Nearby, Ahmed from Indiana held a sign reading “RSS kills Christians, burns churches”. Commenting on the Congress, he said, “they’re trying to make it a political philosophy that, in order to be a true Indian, you have to be a Hindu… Nothing’s wrong with being a Hindu. I’m protesting the idea that, in order to be an Indian, which I am, you have to be a Hindu, which I’m not. It’s a protest against Hindu nationalism.” Adding that “there’s a lot of nationalism based on religion throughout the world,” he said it should be opposed in all forms and that “even Muslim nationalism is not something that should be encouraged.” However, he argued the need of the hour was to stand against the RSS.
The same message galvanised other protesters. Daljit Singh from California, dressed as a Nihang, stood on a grassy slope near the sign to the Westin Hotel. Displaying a sign reading “RSS out of India,” he declared, “They’re terrorists. They’re more dangerous than anybody else. They killed Sikhs in 1984. They killed Muslims in Gujarat. They killed Christians in Odisha.” Daljit was confused as to why Bhagwat was allowed into the country. “They killed thousands of people in India. I don’t know why they are here. They try to do here the same thing they did in India. We don’t want them to kill our people here.” Standing on the sidewalk, Davinder Singh of Virginia held a banner reading “end Brahmin theocracy: save India from fascism.” He warned, “RSS is a terrorist. Sanatan Sanstha is a terrorist. They attack all the peoples.”
Pawan Singh, also from Virginia, carried a sign reading “quit killing humans to protect unholy cows.” As the protesters concluded their first day of protests with a march around the hotel property, Pawan stated, “I am here to raise my voice against the terrorist forces of Hindutva who are trying to corrupt the mainstream American institutions.” He claimed Hindutva — the political philosophy which unites the RSS and VHP — is being exported to America, warning, “terroristic forces of Hindutva, including Mohan Bhagwat, have come here to legitimise the genocides of minorities that they have committed.” He suggested that atrocities may have occurred in secret, stating, “there are many more that we do not even know of because most of the media is under the strict control of the Indian government which is essentially being run by RSS.”
While protesters displayed a banner reading “prosecute Mohan Bhagwat for crimes against humanity,” the RSS chief took the stage at the Congress to state, “We even allow the pests to live.” Claiming that “you have to tackle” the “people who may oppose us,” he called for centralisation of Hindus under the RSS banner. Although lions and tigers aren’t known for moving in packs, he argued, “Even that lion or a royal Bengal tiger, who is the king of the jungle, if he is alone, wild dogs can invade and destroy him.”
Bhagwat did not specify if the protesters were one of the intended targets of his “wild dogs” terminology. What was obvious, however, was that “dogs”, “cockroaches”, and “pests” — that is, terminology typically applied to vermin — was recurrent rhetoric employed to describe those opposed to the RSS both at the Congress and in the weeks leading up to it.
Hundreds of protesters from all walks of life, religions, and nationalities rallied and marched for hours over the two days of protest. Dozens of children were present, including one girl of perhaps 6-years-old who briefly led chants of “RSS, go away”. Both days of protest concluded with distribution of langar by the Sikhs. Protester after protester reiterated that they were protesting the RSS, not Hinduism. Nevertheless, Congress speaker Sankrant Sanu, who imitated Malhotra by releasing a video about the “attack” on the event, concluded, “These are very, very radical, extremist hate groups that cannot tolerate the Indian traditions and the Hindu traditions which we talk about in a positive light. So I would ignore the noise.”
If we are to go by the words of nine-year-old Hardit Singh, however, these noisemakers were raising their voices for radical equality. Equality in which rich and poor, high and low, king and peasant are all considered to be on the same level. That might explain why another one of the banners carried by protesters declared, “no human is untouchable: reject caste system.”