Advocate of Hindu Causes Raises Awareness and Funds

At the Hindu American Foundation fundraiser held this past Sunday, from left, Priya Prasad, Seetha Aiyar, Rishi Bhutada, Sheetal Shah, comedian Rajiv Satyal, Sanjesh Dhanja and Kiran Kumari. Photo: Nik Nikam

At the Hindu American Foundation fundraiser held this past Sunday, from left, Priya Prasad, Seetha Aiyar, Rishi Bhutada, Sheetal Shah, comedian Rajiv Satyal, Sanjesh Dhanja and Kiran Kumari.
Photo: Nik Nikam

By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: The inflammatory rhetoric of the just concluded Presidential election and the bigotry that it has exposed across many sections of the country and layers of society have made it amply clear that there needs to be a protector of the rights for the beliefs of minority groups. Often the bigotry comes out in subtle remarks made by people in power, such as of Clay, West Virginia Mayor Beverley Whaling who made a derogatory and racist remark about First Lady Michelle Obama, and resigned on Tuesday, November 15 under pressure.

Other everyday instances born out of ignorance or malice, if left unchecked, can have a profound snowball effect. That was illustrated by Sheetal Shah, Hindu American Foundation’s Senior Director based in New York, of a case in which a Hindu woman decorated the door of her apartment with the Hindu tradition of a swastika. A neighbor in the co-op building complained it was a Nazi symbol and she was asked to remove it and when she refused, the situation escalated. The woman called Shah and the HAF was able to explain the religious significance and mediated a settlement allowing the woman to display the symbol.

Shah was one of the speakers at the Hindu American Foundation’s annual fundraiser, held once again this past Sunday evening, November 14 at India House, with a buffet dinner catered by Dawat Catering. She went on to explain, with a slide presentation, how pervasive the negative portrayal of Hindus has been in textbooks and across many policy-making bodies like school boards, city councils and county offices. She made the case for the HAF’s desire to become the group that all infringements on Hindu rights and issues are referred to so that it could act and protect them through its advocacy and lobbying efforts in Washington, DC and through directors, staff and a leadership council spread across cities in the US.

Shah followed on to describe how the organization was formed 13 years ago “around a kitchen table in Philadelphia” and has grown now to an office on 910 17th Street in Washington, DC run by 9 full-time staffers and with a budget of $1.3 million, who lobby for issues and run several programs, such as internships for students interested in policy work. One such person was Anita Kapyur, a senior at Rice University, who shared her experiences as an alumni of HAF’s 2016 signature internship program on Capitol Hill after interning for Representative Ami Bera of California District 7. The HAF has six chapters nationally, and the Houston one is headed by HAF Director Rishi Bhutada who organized the fundraiser. Shah explained the HAF Vision to “advocate for the promotion of dignity, mutual respect, and pluralism”.

Priya Prasad emceed the event and the invocation was by Kruthi and Keerthana Bhat, classically trained musicians who are recipients of numerous awards in India and the US, and Vikram Sheshadri and his wife lit the ceremonial diya. Bhutada proudly exclaimed that the event was sold out to a packed house of 200 and that $70,000 had been raised prior to the event; and later through the evening and during dinner, another $50,000 was raised. He then touched on the areas in which he has led the effort to correct textbooks and influence media like in the Take Back Yoga campaign, and policy as in renewable R1 religious visas. Seetha Aiyar, HAF’s Director of Philanthropic Partnerships explained how they HAF wanted to raise its budget to $5 million so that it could add more staff and tackle more issues.

The fundraiser paused to give Sanjesh Dhanja, founder of President of Pakistan Hindu Seva Welfare Trust, and Kiran Kumari, General Secretary of PHS, to speak about their work in Pakistan for equal rights of Hindus who are being ostracized for their faith, and young girls forcibly converted to Islam. They showed clips from their movie “Thrust Into Heaven” which was shown later the next day at the Keshav Smruti.

The evening concluded with a stand-up routine by comedian Rajiv Satyal who has performed before in the Bayou City and for the HAF events across the country. Satyal performs weekly at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood and has being featured on NPR, NBC, and Nickelodeon, Satyal co-founded a seven-city tour in India in 2012, titled “Make Chai, Not War” that was covered on All Things Considered and recognized on Capitol Hill. His routine brought out loud laughs and applause for its self-depreciating pokes at Indian idiosyncrasies.