Just days after being formally charged with inciting an anti-Muslim mob, the deputy prime minister of India was feted this month at a dinner organized by the American Jewish community’s oldest civil rights organization.
On May 31, India’s Central Bureau of Investigation charged eight people, including Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, with helping to incite a mob of Hindu protestors who destroyed a 16th-century mosque in 1992. The incident was immediately followed by nationwide riots that left 2,000 dead.
Less than two weeks after the charge was filed in India, the American Jewish Committee hosted a June 10 dinner in Washington for Advani, with several congressmen, Bush administration officials and leaders of the Indian-American community in attendance. It was not the first meeting between AJCommittee leaders and Advani, the controversial Hindu militant who is the second-ranking member of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. This time, however, the meeting took place with a formal charge hanging over Advani’s head.
Advani has said that he actually tried to discourage demonstrators from destroying the historic Babri mosque in the northern city of Ayodhya. Prior to the incident, however, Advani and BJP leaders had regularly rallied their followers around the claim that the mosque had been built on the ruins of a sacred Hindu temple.
Critics accuse Advani of regularly inflaming interreligious tensions and of working to transform India, the world’s largest democracy, into a theocracy. His party traces its intellectual roots back to a Hindu nationalist movement that admired Nazi Germany and claimed credit for the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.
“Advani basically represents a group of organizations that have the ultimate aim of turning India into a Hindu state,” said Smita Narula, head of the Asian division of Human Rights Watch. “To achieve those ends they have encouraged extreme violence. It’s been harmful not only to Muslims and Christians, but for the population as a whole and for the country’s secular, democratic fiber.”
Advani might seem an unlikely interlocutor for AJCommittee, given the organization’s century-old record of fighting to protect the rights of minority groups in the United States and other countries. But during the past decade the organization has increasingly turned its attention to building American and international support for Israel. During the same period, Advani and BJP have been working to improve ties between Jerusalem and New Delhi.
“Our interest is in more understanding and better contacts between India and the United States and India and Israel,” said Jason Isaacson, director of the AJCommittee’s office of government and international affairs. He noted that Muslim parties and officials are members of the current BJP-led government, and he rejected the idea that Advani sought to undermine India’s pluralistic democracy.
Advani has also been criticized for his unwavering support of Narendra Modi, chief minister of the state of Gujarat, where Hindu rioters raped and killed more than 1,000 Muslims last year in attacks that Human Rights Watch and other observers claim were orchestrated by the BJP-led regional government. Hindu leaders say the riots were a spontaneous response to an arson attack on a train, allegedly carried out by Muslims, that left 58 people dead.
Narula said Human Rights Watch was set to release a report next week criticizing the Indian government for its failure to punish the Hindu rioters. She condemned Advani’s backing of Modi. “Advani was very supportive of the chief minister,” Narula said. “He called him a hero and said he contained the violence.”
Isaacson, asked about the criticisms of Advani and BJP, said his organization was confident that “the democracy of India would sort out the problems of India.”
The AJCommittee is hardly alone in its willingness to work with Advani. The Indian leader held meetings with top officials including President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during his visit this month. The spokesman of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, Mark Regev, told the Forward that his country maintained close contacts with Advani. “He is a man of great power,” Regev said.
Despite their reputation for extremism, Advani and his colleagues in the BJP-led government, which took power in 1998, have been greeted by Israel and Jewish groups as a welcome change from its predecessor, the secularist Congress Party. The Congress Party, which was founded by Mahatma Gandhi and which dominated India’s post-independence politics for 51 years, was seen as tilting toward Moscow during the Cold War and siding with the Arab world against Israel.
Under BJP rule, by contrast, India has become a major purchaser of Israeli-made weapons. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, officials in both countries have worked, along with Jewish communal leaders in America, to portray Israel and India as dependable allies of the United States in the war against Islamic terrorism. The AJCommittee has been at the forefront of these efforts, sending delegations to India and meeting frequently with visiting Indian officials in this country.
The committee organized a high-powered group of 45 people for its most recent dinner with Advani. Among those in attendance were the co-chairs of the India caucus in the House of Representatives, Democratic Rep. Joseph Crowley of New York and Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina.
Wilson, asked by the Forward about his first meeting with Advani, said: “I was very impressed.” Questions about BJP’s domestic policies and the accusations against Advani didn’t come up, Wilson said. “He impressed me as a very sincere and enthusiastic promoter of his country and better relations with the United States,” Wilson said.
A spokeswoman for Crowley said the Queens Democrat, whose district includes a large South Asian population, felt obliged to work with India’s democratically elected leaders. Crowley, the spokeswoman said, is “not going to tell Advani how to relate to his constituency.”