Vote Your Conscience, Vote with Pluralism

It’s almost Election Day. I am reminded that I and many other Hindu Americans have choices ahead of us — not just at the presidential level, but all the way down the ballot. I believe it is my dharma to go vote – it is a responsibility that I take on. As we consider the various candidates and their stand on the issues, I think of how important it is to have the opportunity to vote, and the diversity of  perspectives I bring: a woman, a planning commissioner for my city, an IT professional, a wife of an automotive engineer, a mother of two college students, an interfaith advocate and social justice activist, an Indian immigrant with extended family not just around the US, but also in India. My foundational worldview of pluralism is critical as I seek to blend and balance the issues that are important to me, as I cast my ballot amidst the competing priorities of these multiple hats I wear.

I have – like many around me – gotten frustrated by the atmosphere of hate arising from the presidential campaign, and have stopped reading the headlines. I instead read thoughtful pieces, like this from Raleigh-based pastor John Pavlovitz, and from strategic thought leaders like the American Enterprise Institute’s Sadanand Dhume, and attend informative lectures like one about the ongoing conflict in Syria, organized by Peace Action of Michigan, where Prof. Juan Cole of the University of Michigan explained how complicated the situation there is.  But striking a balance is not simply achieved by being thoughtful or well informed. One has to engage the issues and weigh them against each other when selecting each candidate or voting. But if a personal experience drives one issue to be more important than any other, pluralism becomes hard to achieve: a well-crafted political choice isn’t necessarily represented by a bumper sticker answer.

Interestingly, this election season, I have been having flashbacks to heated arguments I had as a teenager with my cousin, who was just a year younger than me. In 1981, my parents decided to move the family back to India after living in the US for more than a decade.  I had to find my way, at that hormonal, unsettling stage in life, to find my place in Hyderabad, after calling the Northeastern US, primarily Stony Brook NY, my home for more than 11 years. My cousin and I had arguments – ranging from whether baseball or cricket was better (I’ve come to love both, after seven years in India) – to which superpower (America or Russia) was better. As a 14-year old Indian, he appreciated the alliance that India had with Russia, and was frustrated that the United States encouraged Pakistan’s encroachment into Indian territory, among other things he found wrong with the United States. I simply could not understand my cousin’s lack of awareness of how great America was! Obviously, I had been fed that American democracy was better than anyone else’s, and that Russia was the enemy.

More than 30 years later, I am now more aware that national security is not just about the threat from Russia, and that internationally, terrorism is springing from many Muslim-majority countries. India continues to face increasing threats from Pakistan, with violation of ceasefires by the Pakistani military. Indian Hindus in Muslim-majority Kashmir, and in other South Asian nations, particularly Bangladesh and Pakistan, continue to face oppression and violence. As I and others at the Hindu American Foundation, plan a human rights speaker series, I realize how skewed the narrative has stayed on the US relationship with India and Pakistan. In organizing the metro-Detroit portion of the Hindu American Foundation’s 2016 speaker series, a tour of two leaders from a non-political, secular, non-profit, non-discriminatory and progressive humanitarian charity organization (Pakistani Hindu Seva Welfare Trust), someone recommended that it is important to acknowledge that Muslims in India face similar oppression. While this did not originate from an argument between two hot-headed teenagers, I was left as flabbergasted as I was decades earlier.

First, the numbers tell the story: Hindus in Pakistan have gone from 25-30% when the country was formed to less than 3% today. Then there is the genocide of more than 3 million Hindus in 1971 in Bangladesh, with continuing atrocities against Hindus even today – and Christians, Buddhists, atheists, and secular intellectuals have also not been spared. Compare the civil rights of Hindus in Pakistan with that of Muslims in India: the Pakistan assembly passed the Hindu Marriage Bill in Sept. 2016 to enable the Hindu community to register their marriages, whereas Muslims in India have been governed for decades by an All India Personal Law Board, which allows the Islamic Law Code of Shariat to apply to Muslims in India in personal affairs. The Hindu American Foundation’s annual Human Rights Report documents challenges Hindus face in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and around the world. The ISPaD Project documents and preserves the history of the partition of the Indian subcontinent. But as the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “in the vacuum of our silence other voices will speak,” so Hindus should be there to tell their story, and use their vote to indicate their choices.

I hope that my fellow Hindu Americans – and my fellow Americans – understand my efforts at advocacy not as “political” with the negative connotation that people often give it, but as an opportunity to tell the stories that some don’t want to hear. We must be willing to have uncomfortable, but very necessary conversations about violence being perpetrated by Muslims in the name of Islam.  These conversations are too often stifled in the name of political correctness and get lost in false equivalencies. We should listen to Muslims who are genuinely calling for necessary introspection and internal dialogue, and, most importantly, remember that it is most often Muslims who are the victims.

So as I go to the polls and vote this Tuesday, I have to weigh all the things that are important to me – from US-India relations to my local school board – voting for “whichever candidate we feel will champion those issues most effectively,” as my HAF colleague Mat McDermott recently said. As I get out to vote, I envy the clear voice of the people in the world’s other pluralistic democracy, India – which voted Narendra Modi into office as the Prime Minister in 2014 with an overwhelming optimism and an overwhelming majority.  While it is easy to vote on a single issue, just as so many of my fellow Americans will vote on the issue of guns or reproductive rights, I hope that my fellow Hindu Americans will vote with their conscience, with pluralism at the core.

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