|By Lisa Fernandez, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Mar. 23, 2005 - An international spat involving a controversial politician in India and a convention of hotel owners in Florida is causing a major uproar in Silicon Valley, the heart of the nation's Indo-American community.
Indians of all creeds are in a tizzy about the U.S. refusal to allow Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, to come to Fort Lauderdale to speak at this week's conference organized by the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, AAHOA, many of them Indo-Americans from Gujarat. Modi is expected to speak instead by video on Saturday.
"Even people not necessarily supporters of Modi are talking about this," said Sam Rao, a community activist in Fremont. "People think this is a snub."
The Bush administration denied Modi's diplomatic visa Friday under the International Religious Freedom Act, which gives the president the authority to cancel a foreign government official's visit if that person was responsible for "particularly severe violations of religious freedoms."
Modi is faulted for doing little to rein in the predominantly Hindu mobs that killed estimates of 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, in Gujarat in 2002. The riots started after Muslims allegedly set fire to a train full of Hindu activists, killing 58.
Hindu activists here say the visa denial was a slap in the face, some branding the move "Hinduphobic." Indian Muslims, some of whom campaigned against Modi's visit, applaud the denial, saying that allowing him to come here would be tacit approval of what they call "genocide" against the Muslim minority in India.
"This is not a man we should be honoring," said Angana Chatterji of San Francisco, a member of the Coalition Against Genocide who lobbied government leaders to cancel Modi's trip.
India's government, led by the Congress Party that opposes Modi's, protested the visa denial, so the debate isn't solely along strict Hindu-Muslim lines. But like many controversies involving the complex politics of India, accusations are swirling about hidden agendas and global conspiracies.
In Silicon Valley, where many still feel a strong tug of current events in their birthplace, some Hindu organizations are trying to drum up support with telephone calls, letter-writing campaigns and Internet missives.
On Sunday, during Holi -- the Hindu spring celebration -- community members will solicit signatures at Hindu temples in Sunnyvale, Fremont and Livermore for letters addressed to Bush, calling him wrong to deny Modi's visit.
"America is the most powerful democracy in the world and India is the largest," said Chandru Bhambhra, a Fremont real estate consultant and the West Coast coordinator of the Overseas Friends of BJP -- the Hindu nationalistic party in India that Modi represents. "People here protest the Iraq war and Bush, but that doesn't mean he should be barred from visiting countries."
Bhambhra said it's not Modi's fault that anti-Muslim rioting occurred, any more than it was the fault of the Los Angeles mayor when riots erupted after the verdict in the Rodney King police-beating case.
Another Fremont-based group, the Hindu American Foundation, headed by Dr. Mihir Meghani, is sending out press releases calling the canceled visit "Hinduphobic." The group criticizes the United States for focusing on India's role in the persecution of Muslims, but not taking a stand against the atrocities carried out against Hindus in Kashmir and Bangladesh.
But for as many groups that are angry, there are others thrilled that the U.S. government took a step they say acknowledges their plight.
"We are feeling satisfied," said Khalid Azam, a former Santa Clara software engineer now living in Texas and a board member with the Indian Muslim Council, which led the effort to deny Modi his visa. "Modi represents the worst of sectarian politics. He's a dangerous person."
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