WASHINGTON, D.C. — Former Republican U.S. Senator and erstwhile Governor of Kansas, who is currently the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, was honored on June 24 with the Hindu American Foundation’s Mahatma Gandhi Award for Advancing Pluralism.
At a standing room only event in the Foreign Affairs Committee Room in the Rayburn House Office Building in D.C., more than 300 people on hand to celebrate HAF’s 16th annual Congressional Reception, Brownback was presented with the award for his “leadership at the helm of the Office of International Religious Freedom at the State Department, which has heralded a new era for the United States in elevating the voices of those who have long gone unheard.”
HAF said the former lawmaker and governor, “Since taking office, his keen attention and efforts to address the plight of vulnerable Hindu minorities in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Pakistan, and the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir has helped further the cause of human rights and freedom of belief worldwide.”
In introducing Brownback, Jay Kansara, the D.C.-based HAF Director for Government Relations, in explaining why HAF was giving this award to the ex-Kansas governor and where “the relationship began,” said that “it began in a very dark place unfortunately.”
“In Feb. 2017, in Olathe, Kansas, an Indian IT worker (Srinivas Khuchibhotla) was killed in a bar by a white supremacist,” he said. “But instead of Kansas getting bitter, it only got better because of the work of then governor Sam Brownback.”
Kansara recalled how Brownback had worked tirelessly to embrace the Indian community in the state and assured them of how they were welcome in Kansas “and were part and parcel of the state. Governor Brownback took it upon himself to open the doors of his office and his invitation to the Indian American leaders in the state was a welcome opportunity to turn the tragedy into a triumph.
“And, in his office, he told us that you have a stake here in Kansas—that we can either get bitter or we can get better.”
Kansara declared, “Because of Sen. Brownback, he left Kansas better.”
He said that when Brownback had been appointed by President Trump at the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, HAF had stated that “if he addresses international religious freedom with the same fervor as he had in the aftermath of the killing of Khuchibhotla, “we all would be in better hands.”
Kansara pointed out that in several instances in Malaysia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere, where Hindus have been discriminated and persecuted and even killed, “Ambassador Brownback has been there for us and he will continue to be there for us.”
Brownback, in his acceptance remarks, expressing his deep appreciation for the award, said that as the Hindu community had pushed forward after the “horrible” killing of Khuchibhotla, it was imperative to similarly to push forward with the same commitment across the world.
He declared, “Bad things happen—they do happen, and when you are in government, what do you do in response? What are you going to do to protect the minority community? Are you going to step forward and say, ‘This is not going to happen again,’ or are you going to get in front of it or say, it’s going to hurt me in some way with the majority community.”
Brownback asserted, “You have to stand up,” for the minority community, even if “you disagree with them. You got to stand up for people,” and warned that “if you don’t do that,” it would result in people “contracting and becoming monochromatic.”
“You got to keep bringing people in and be welcoming and say, ‘We want you here.’”
He said that contrary to the contention that with the rapid and exponential growth of technology that “there would be a decline of religiosity in the world, the world has gotten more religious.”
Brownback said that to most people, it was through their religious faith that they “look at things—this is how you analyze the world.”
He said that as the U.S. and the world becomes more interactive with religious communities and for example, “there are more Hindus than there have been before –more than 30-40 years ago, how do we handle this engagement, that is taking place.”
“Do you handle it violently—we say no, we say the government’s role here is that it has to protect everybody’s right to religious freedom.You want to be Hindu, great. You want to be a Christian, a Muslim, great. As long as you’re peaceful about it we will protect your right and this should be the standard around the world.”
Brownback said he was especially honored to receive the HAF’s Mahatma Gandhi award because “I really look at Mahatma Gandhi as being a great leader,” particularly as he “led a movement without violence.”
He noted that usually “when you do that, there are people from the outside who try to introduce violence on the movement. But you can’t lose focus and say, we will respond with violence. No. You respond with peace.”
Brownback then continued to heap praise on Gandhi and mention that he was the inspiration for the civil rights movements in the U.S. and in South Africa.
“So, we got to stand up for each other’s right,” he added, and urged HAF to stay engaged in politics, though he acknowledged “there are no angels involved in politics — and it is a contact sport, unfortunately.”
But, he reiterated, “It is important to engage and we have to stand up for each other.”
Brownback said that “we hope to start a grass-roots movement around the world and stand up for each other’s religious freedom,” and said the Trump administration on July 16-18 would host a major International Religious Freedom Summit in D.C. “to kick this movement off.”
Kansara told India Abroad that “we were honored to present Ambassador Sam Brownback with HAF’s Mahatma Gandhi Award for Advancing Pluralism for his leadership in advancing human rights and religious freedom, and for his keen attention and efforts to address the plight of vulnerable Hindu minorities in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Pakistan, and the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.”
"We look forward to continuing to engage with Ambassador Brownback and the broader U.S. Department of State to correct many of the inaccurate assumptions that exist about India, including those that were in the recently released (U.S. Department of State’s) 2018 International Religious Freedom Report, in order to better educate them on the ground realities of inter-religious relations, human rights, and democracy in India," he added.
In a first, this year’s Capitol Hill Reception was co-hosted by HAF and the Indian American Kashmir Forum, with the partnership of Kashmir Hindu Foundation — all groups advocating for justice for the Hindu Kashmiri Pandit community.
“For too long the religio-ethnic cleansing of the Kashmiri Pandit community from the Valley of Kashmir has been overlooked by the international community,” noted HAF Board Member Rajiv Pandit, himself a member of the Kashmiri Pandit community, now living in Texas.
He alleged that “some three decades ago thousands of Hindus were killed by their neighbors and Pakistan-sponsored militants, with several hundred thousand forced to flee under threat of horrific violence.”
Pandit said, “Some of us emigrated from India entirely, but the majority of our community remains as internally displaced persons in other parts of India. All of us would like to see a time when we are able to return home safely.”
In the wake of heightened violence in the Valley, HAF honored “stalwarts of the Kashmiri Hindu community who have made significant and positive contributions in a variety of fields, including human rights, science, and the arts, as were individuals who have worked towards fighting for religious freedom of people around the world.”
“We’re humbled by the selflessness and achievements of these individuals in protecting, preserving, and promoting the indigenous cultural heritage of Kashmir, and in making incredible advances in a variety of fields,” said Suhag Shukla, HAF’s Executive Director.
She added, “And, after 30 years of largely remaining unheard, we were honored to recognize the efforts of American policy makers who have used their platforms to highlight the need for religious freedom and human rights for this and other minority communities.”
Others who received awards were :Representative Brad Sherman (D.-CA), who was given the Friend of the Community award for his efforts confronting terrorism in South Asia, particular in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack in India’s state of Jammu and Kashmir, including pushing for getting Jaish-e-Mohammad founder Masood Azhar designated a global terrorist by the United Nations Security Council.
Author Bansi Pandit was bestowed with the 2019 Dharma Seva Award — which is given to individuals or organizations “who have worked tirelessly and selflessly for the greater good of Sanatana Dharma and the Dharmic community.”
HAF said that “for more than 25 years, Bansi Pandit has provided the community with many resources for the preservation of our religious and cultural traditions, with a particular focus on the needs of the second generation of Hindu Americans.”
Professors Subhash Kakof Oklahoma State University and Ashok Koul of Brown University were each honored with HAF’s Award for the Advancement of Dharmic Arts and Science in 2019. Kak received the award for his contributions to the fields of quantum cryptography, archaeoastronomy, history, philosophy, and poetry.
Koul, an expert in South Asian languages, was recognized for his more than 30 years experience teaching Hindi, making significant contributions to the field of linguistics.
Also, Arti Tiku Kaul was lauded for her work in promoting Kashmiri culture through music and poetry.
The three recipients of HAF’s 2019 Award for Advancement of Hindu Human Rights, who according to HAF, have all have made notable contributions in preserving Kashmiri culture in the decades since the Kashmiri exodus, were Vijay Sazawal, founder of the Indo-American Kashmir Forum; Deepak Ganju, publisher of Shehjar Magazine, and Sunil Fotedar, a pioneer in creating online archives of Kashmiri culture, religion, and history, as well as the human rights violations against the Kashmiri Pandit community.