Brown vs. Browns: Apology Tendered, But is the Problem Resolved?
-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao
Tony Brown's Journalis the longest-running black public affairs show on US television and is aired weekly on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) network. He is billed on his personal website as a TV journalist and commentator, a self-help advocate, a radio talk show host, a keynote speaker, media entrepreneur, a film director, educator and an author. Among his chief goals, he claims, is the economic empowerment of African Americans. He also seeks to promote positive values and images in African American families. So, when on June 30, 2001, he broadcast a commentary on the Chicago radio station WLS 890 on Hinduism and said some nasty things about Hindu practices and religion, some Indians got worried.
The show was timed, perhaps coincidentally, with three major congregations of Indians - the JAINA (Federation of Jain Associations In North America), the TANA (Telugu Association of North America) and the 'Vedanta in the Third Millennium' conventions, all held in Chicago. On the air, Brown proclaimed that Nazism emanated from Hinduism, that Hilter borrowed the 'Swastika' symbol from the Hindu religion and that untouchability is widely practiced in India, which permits five percent of the three high castes to rule the rest of the one billion population. He went on to say that after the death of Mother Teresa, all Christian nuns in India were systematically persecuted.
Brown did not stop at that. He asserted that female children and women of lower castes are being forced into prostitution in India because of their status in society. As his diatribe continued, Brown then chastised the US government 'for allowing (Indians) to immigrate into the US'. And he blamed 'the US government for not being able to provide proper educational facilities for Americans, forcing the country to import thousands of computer experts from India'.
“Americans do not understand Hinduism”, Brown opined and that “... in India there are one billion people, of whom 500 million live in poverty. There is no such thing in the country as a welfare system. That means, it is their belief that (lower caste people) should be persecuted and no one should help them... (The) caste system is... based on color discrimination”, he concluded.
Further, he said, “A woman in India is never free. First of all she is under the control of her parents; when she gets married, she is under the control of her husband; and when her husband dies, she is under the control of her children. She doesn't get free. And the concept of Hinduism is purity. Are you pure? If you are around (a person of an) impure caste, you have to go home and cleanse yourself. I am impure because you are around me. Women are impure. That is the theory. Black untouchables are impure. Foreigners are impure. The idea is to create a system of segregation, apartheid, so that the pure people can be kept away from impure people”.
Brown went on to declaim, “There are 300 million gods in Hinduism. You do not have to believe in God to be a Hindu. Christians have a Bible, Jews have a Bible, Muslims have a Koran and there is no Hindu bible. There is no central creed to what a Hindu believes. There is no hierarchy like the Pope, the cardinals and so forth”.
Sure enough, word about Brown's diatribe spread and a number of Hindu organizations and individuals began calling Tony Brown's office and sending him emails. One of the persons who did so and who was instrumental in getting Tony Brown to apologize, was Ajay Shah, convener of the 'American Hindus Against Defamation' (AHAD). The group has spearheaded a number of initiatives to get corporations, businesses and individuals who have misused or abused Hindus or Hindu religious and cultural symbols. Shah is also a standing committee member of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America. Shah, who has a PhD in Chemistry and runs his own hi-tech company, was a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad in Bombay and recalls the numerous campaigns and battles he fought with university administrators, city officials and others in the cause of student well-being. He is also one of the men behind the Hindunet.Org website.
When asked if he had any formal training in negotiation and bargaining, or conflict resolution, he said that all that he has learnt has been 'On the Ground' and on the basis of first-hand dealing with practical problems. So, when faced with the kind of blatant propaganda and racist commentary that a black TV and radio host aired, how did AHAD approach the issue?
“Our aim is not to seek monetary damages and to sue people. We respect people's First Amendment rights, but we also point out how certain kinds of images and commentary hurt the sentiments of Hindus. Education and not confrontation nor punishment, is our goal, ” he said emphatically.
But what if a person refuses to be educated, or a group is keen on confrontation? “Then we will bring economic and political pressure. A Sony Pictures or a Tony Brown cannot ignore the fact that there are more than a million Hindus in the US and more than a billion Hindus worldwide. Would they like to lose them as customers or supporters? We point out that we can harness the opinion and the clout of this big group and it would therefore be in the interests of the propagandist or the user of Hindu symbols to be aware of what they are doing and the economic and political consequences of targeting Hindus”, he elaborated.
Shah said that he first called the Chicago radio station and asked to speak to Brown, but was told that Brown was busy and would respond to an email if Shah sent one. So, a series of email exchanges led to Brown acknowledging that he had indeed relied on partisan and biased sources for his information on Hindus and Hinduism and on the prevailing social/caste dynamics in parts of India. Shah said that when he talks or writes to people he never seeks to 'Corner' them. He always provides space for people to get out of a sticky situation.
When asked how he found out who and what were Brown's sources of information, Shah said that Brown told him about his sources. Other than the usual American newspapers reporting on matters Indian and Hindu and the reports of Human Rights Watch, Brown had also tapped into a variety of anti-Hindu organizations and institutions. Sure enough, after Brown expressed his outrageous views about Hinduism and Hindu practices and beliefs, he remarked that in the wake of his show, he received mail from groups and individuals who wanted him (Brown) to pursue a fight against Hindus, specifically Brahmins. Given that support and encouragement, it is commendable that Shah was able to get Brown retract his statements and issue an apology.
Shah told Brown that he had four demands in the apology that he wanted Brown to tender:
- “My remarks against Hinduism were wrong and I apologize and will not say such things again or I should be subject to even greater criticism. I will discuss these issues with devout Hindus and find out what they really think first before presuming to tell the world what they believe”.
- “I had built my opinion based on websites and articles by perpetual Hindu-bashers and Hindu-haters who want to destroy Hindudharmaas a faith and India as a country”.
- “I have now learnt that the caste in India is not related to color of the skin. I now realize that my use of words 'upper caste Aryans' to describe Mr. Yatin Patel would indeed evoke racial prejudices against Indian-Americans. It was dangerous to inject terms like 'Aryans' in the program since they have racist connotations and hence can inspire hatred towards Indians and Hindus. The word 'Aryan' developed a racist connotation only after it was re-interpreted by Europeans. Such an interpretation was however inconsistent with the original meaning of the word 'Arya'. My opinion was based on the misinformation propagated by anti-Hindu and anti-India groups that seek to drive a wedge between the global Indian community and the global African community, which have lived with mutual respect in Africa, the Caribbean, North America and elsewhere”.
- “It was erroneous to link American immigration policy with caste politics of India because such a link has neither a real basis nor does it do good to any minority community of America”.
Brown apologized to Shah on the phone, agreed to 1, 2 and 3 fully and with some reservations to 4, but said he would formulate a new apology and send it to Shah. Brown apologized to his listeners on radio for his remarks on Hinduism. After his apology, Brown also invited Swami Atmajnanananda of the Washington branch of the Ramakrishna Mission and J. V. Lakshmana Rao, an Indian journalist based in Chicago, to participate in the talk show. Swami Atmajnanananda said one must draw a distinction between caste and casteism. “The assumption that Hindus are inherently racists is dangerous”, he said.
Brown said that he would do commentaries and interviews on socio-political issues and invite AHAD, Human Rights Watch and others to participate. Brown insisted that his fight was against the caste system, which he deemed unfair. He also said that the AHAD letter to him describing the constitutional guarantees provided to the Scheduled Castes and Tribes and the reservations in various public sector undertakings and government services as well as in education, was the first time he realized that India was doing something about caste-based discrimination.
Shah told Brown that as a responsible media and community leader he ought to make sure that his shows and commentaries did not lead to another series of 'Dot Buster' incidents. (The Jersey Journal published a letter in 1987 by a group called the Dot Busters, who wanted to rid Jersey City of Asian Indians. Racial incidents against Asian Indians followed, culminating in the murder of Navroze Mody by a gang of white youths in Hoboken, NJ. The mostly white youths also targeted Indian women and attacked them, identifying them by the bindis they wore). In turn Brown is said to have lectured Shah on the importance of removing injustices due to casteism (which he claimed was similar to racism in the US) in Indian society. Shah informed him of the strong affirmative action programs in India and that even the President of India was a Dalit.
Brown, according to Shah, repeatedly apologized for his comments and expressed his willingness to learn from his mistakes. Although his views on immigration may not change, Shah insisted that those views be de-linked from comments on the caste system - after all, in Brown's initial apology he had himself said that every society has some kind of a caste system. “In that case”, Shah told him, “oppose all immigration on this basis and then Hindus/Indians will not be hurt”. Brown asserted that most immigrants who come to the US from India are from the upper castes, to which Shah sought factual confirmation. Shah pointed out that because of the more than forty to fifty percent reservations in engineering and medical colleges to Scheduled Caste and Other Backward Caste students, there was no study that showed why it was mostly the upper castes who preferred to come to the US.
Brown's commentary cannot and should not be seen in isolation. There has been a renewed and concerted effort by a variety of forces - Christian, Muslim, Left and Dalit - after the BJP came to power, to try and paint Hindus and Hinduism into a corner. Marxist ideologues like Vijay Prashad have found a wide following among Hindu critics because he writes that the Hindu 'Brown Folks' are conspiring with whites in pursuing racial discrimination and racism in the US.
Prashad writes ('Badges of Color: An Afro-Dalit Story', Z Magazine, March 2000), exaggerating the black-Dalit correspondence, “The people who asked about the Dalits, however, did not seem motivated by Bandung. They saw the Dalits as long-lost Africans, people so identified by the color of their skin (if not their genetic roots)”. I found this puzzling. I turned to V. T. Rajshekhar's Dalit: The Black Untouchables of India, first published in 1979, but reprinted in an expanded edition by Clarity Press of Atlanta in 1987.
Rajshekar's book began with the premise that Dalits are part of the African diaspora and that they are the first settlers in the Indian subcontinent. “It is said”, he writes, “That India and Africa was one landmass until separated by the ocean. So both the Africans and the Indian untouchables and tribals had common ancestors”. Besides, he argues, Dalits “Resemble Africans in Physical Features”. Not only is the last part of the claim patently untrue but it is also amazing that Prashad, a professor of International Studies at Trinity College, ignores all the anthropological data showing that caste is not equal to race. There are as many dark-skinned people among the upper castes as there are among other castes and the foremost Dalit leader, Ambedkar, explicitly rejected the 'Caste is equal to Race' thesis.
Writing in The Hindu (March 10, 2001), Andre Beteille, one of India's acknowledged anthropologists, says: “Not content with condemning racism and racial discrimination, the UN now wants to take on 'Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and related Intolerance'. It has in its wisdom decided to expand the meeting of racial discrimination to accommodate exclusion or preference 'Based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin'. In doing so it is bound to give a new lease of life to the old and discredited notion of race current a hundred years ago. By flying in the face of the distinctions between race, language and culture, it is seeking to undo the conclusions reached by the researches of several generations of anthropologists. Interested parties within and outside the UN would like to bring caste discrimination in general and the practice of untouchability in particular, within the purview of racial discrimination. The practice of untouchability is indeed reprehensible and must be condemned by one and all; but that does not mean that we should now begin to regard it as a form of racial discrimination. The Scheduled Castes of India taken together are no more a race than are the Brahmins taken together. Every social group cannot be regarded as a race simply because we want to protect it against prejudice and discrimination”.
Prashad also resorts to seeking support for his specious thesis from a crank racist like V. T. Rajshekar who was kicked out of The Indian Express as a reporter when the newspaper found that he was collaborating with the Khalistanis! Rajshekar has now become the darling of Christian fundamentalists and assorted Hindu-haters because he constantly supplies them with the most outrageous sound bites against Hinduism and Brahmins (Rajshekar has compared Brahmins to Jews and the Jewish anti-defamation league has recorded his anti-Semitic statements).
As an aside, I should add that the People's Union For Civil Liberties' website contains the following information about a Rajshekar complaint: “Dear Shri Rajshekar, I have read, in the Dalit Voice of April 1-15, your speech delivered at the 7th session of the Global Conference Against Racism and Caste Based Discrimination on March 3 at the Nehru Memorial Library, Teen Murty House, Delhi. Speaking in this conference you are reported to have said that your passport was impounded in 1986 and that 'not even the PUCL took any interest in my passport, arrest, persecution because all our human rights organizations are also Brahmin dominated. The President of the PUCL is sitting here and he knows it'. You have full freedom to pass judgments on the structure of the PUCL and its work. But I would like to correct your facts. It is wrong to say that the PUCL did not take 'any interest' in the impounding of your passport. The General Secretary had written in the PUCL Bulletin, Vol. VII, No. 7, July 1987 about it and termed the impounding of the passport as a dangerous trend”. Funny and pathetic reading, isn't it?
Apart from Left activists and academics like Prashad, top correspondents, like The New York Times' Barbara Crossette, write regularly lauding the efforts of Christian and Dalit activists. Crossette, who was India correspondent of The New York Times, is one of the most jaundiced of reporters in matters concerning Hinduism. Reviewing her book, India: Facing the Twenty First Century, (see the India Star website) Aa Sagokia says, “Her obsession for ascribing all (Indian) problems to inter-ethnic and communal differences reveals itself in her discourse about the Harijans of India, which would make one conclude that Harijans are not Hindu, but are members of a different religion altogether. One winces upon noticing that she pays scant attention to political correctness in India by constantly referring to Harijans by the derogatory and archaic term - 'Untouchable'. While she reports on the havoc caused by the caste system and the treatment of Harijans, she does not report about the strides made by India in combating (if not overcoming) the ill-treatment of Harijans; much less does she talk about the fact that there exist means in India which help the Harijans to express themselves, be it Dalit poetry at the literary level or compulsory Harijan representation at the political level, or a genuine effort to absorb them into the mainstream”.
All these have added fuel to the ire that the strange bedfellows (Christian, Muslim, Black, Leftist, Dalit) have worked up against Hinduism. Brown is merely the latest one to succumb to the propaganda disseminated and the conspiracies hatched by anti-Hindu lobbies worldwide (I heard a Libyan-American colleague of mine allege that “Fundamentalist Hindus destroyed mosques in India three or four years ago”. This was at a 'Teach-in' at the University on October 9th regarding Afghanistan, Taliban and Islam-inspired terrorists. That Muslims around the world are fed propaganda about 'Hindu India' was evident in his remark).
The drama is not over yet. It was reconfirmed a few days ago when a friend on a discussion list said that, as recently as October 6th, Brown on his PBS show repeated whatever he had said before, completely masking the fact that he had apologized to AHAD and the Indian-American public just three months ago for what he said. Brown, as he had promised Shah, invited Smita Narula, a senior researcher at the New York office of Human Rights Watch (HRW) (Narula coordinates HRW's South Asia program. Author of HRW's book-length report, Broken People: Caste Violence Against India's Untouchables, she represented HRW at the United Nations Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa) to his show and was back at Hindu bashing.
The friend summarized: “This morning I watched the PBS show Tony Brown's Journal. The topic was caste in India and the guests were Smita Narula of Human Rights Watch and Kenneth Cooper of The Boston Globe. Predictably, the show was a rehash of the evils of Hinduism and Indian society. Brown himself tried to argue that Hindu philosophy was responsible for the oppression of Dalits. It was alleged that upper castes regarded themselves as 'Aryans' who were racially superior to Dalits. The treatment of Dalits in India was compared first to racism in the US and finally to apartheid in South Africa. Narula said that it was like apartheid but did not call for sanctions against India because it 'Would hurt the Dalits more'. The place of women in India was discussed, focusing on the rape of Dalit women by upper castes, on bride burning and sati. There was little effort to provide any sophisticated analysis to these issues. The only opposing view to be aired was a short clip from a Prof. Narasimhan who complained about reverse discrimination against Brahmins. Even Narula seemed uncomfortable with some of the more outrageous statements but did little to temper them. The show may air again on PBS stations, so check your local listings”.
Has Brown learnt anything from Shah and does Brown's apology mean anything in the context of his latest Hindu bashing? Remember, Brown, schooled in the American 'Adversarial System' of politics and justice, does not think it unethical to repeat views for which he has apologized before because his apology has no 'Legal' standing. No court has passed strictures on his anti-Hindu propaganda, for he hasn't been dragged to the courts as any other group would have done faced with such virulent propaganda.
“But we are Hindus and we want to educate the world, not draw blood”, AHAD says. The opposition knows it and understands the paradox that we have created for ourselves. So, Ajay Shah has his work cut out, unfortunately (Shah has an invitation from Brown to appear on his show), to seek another apology, waste more of his precious time to try to educate the uneducable and to convince closed minds. Could you write to Ajay Shah, care of AHAD and tell him that he has your sympathies for continuing the work of Sisyphus?
(Ramesh interviewed Ajay Shah on 2nd and 3rd August, 2001).
Originally published on Thursday, October 11, 2001.