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Indian-American finds place on religion panel

Washington, May 24: Persistent lobbying by Hindu-Americans, especially after last year’s violence in Gujarat, to have an Indian-American on the US statutory commission which oversees religious freedom worldwide have paid off.

Preeta Bansal, who was earlier solicitor-general of New York and a White House counsel in the Clinton administration, was last night nominated to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), sources on Capitol Hill said.

She will be the nominee of Senator Tom Daschle, the leader of the Democrats in the Senate. The USCIRF is made up of nominees by the US President, the speaker of the House of Representatives and leaders of both the Democrats and the Republicans in the House and the Senate.

It has carried on a virulent campaign against India after last year’s violence in Gujarat, blatantly colluded with right-wing Christian organisations in America to hold hearings on Gujarat and put immense pressure on the US state department to declare India a “country of particular concern” (CPC) for its record in upholding religious freedom and minority religious rights. CPCs in religious terms are the equivalent in terrorist terms of the list of “other terrorist groups” prepared by the state department annually before such organisations are listed formally as “foreign terrorist organisations” and penalised.

The USCIRF has no powers of its own, but it advises both the White House and the Congress on the state of global religious freedom. Therefore, it has a lot of nuisance value and can be a tool for propaganda, as it happened after the Gujarat violence.

Hindu-Americans have always questioned the commission’s credibility since it has never had an Indian or a Hindu among its members. American Sikhs have also been critical of the body. Its members so far have included representatives of Jews, Bahais, Muslims and various Christian denominations.

Its current chairperson is Felice D. Gaer of the American Jewish Committee, with which the Indian government has cultivated close ties in recent years.

Bansal’s nomination apart, Indian-Americans are celebrating the exit of an American of Pakistani origin from the USCIRF.

Shirin Tahir-Kheli, was US alternate ambassador to the UN and earlier National Security Council director dealing with South Asia.

Tahir-Kheli left the commission after national security advisor Condoleezza Rice appointed her as a special assistant to President George W. Bush and senior director for Democracy, Human Rights and International Operations in the White House.

Tahir-Kheli is widely believed by Indians to have been instrumental in orchestrating the USCIRF’s activities directed against India.

Bansal’s nomination by Daschle was preceded by intense lobbying among Indian-Americans. Christian groups lobbied hard against a Hindu being nominated to the body because they feared the nominee’s influence on the other USCIRF members on issues like Gujarat.

For the same reason, the Sangh parivar in the US worked hard to have one of its representatives on the commission. Secular Indian-Americans, on the other hand, worked to counter this.

In the end, the consensus among Democrats on Capitol Hill was to pick a Hindu with good credentials.

Bansal, an expert on constitutional law, was born in Roorkee and arrived in the US with her parents at the age of three. She is a graduate of the Harvard Law School.

Last night, however, Indian Christian organisations in the US were guarded in their reaction to Bansal’s appointment.

Jayachand Pallakonda, president of the Federation of Indian American Christian Organisations of North America (FIACONA) said: “I am very impressed with Ms Bansal’s law background... I hope Ms Bansal also has a good understanding of the religious issues confronting South Asia especially India.”

J. Prabhudoss, chairman of the governmental affairs committee for FIACONA, said he is concerned about some Hindutva extremist elements in the US trying to influence Bansal’s opinion. He hoped she would be strong enough to reject any such attempts.

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