May 21, 2002
1932 IST

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Tharoor's Riot kicks up a controversy in NY

Prem Panicker in New York

It's cold in New York just now, but the temperature is expected to spike sharply upwards later this evening -- around 6.30 pm, to be exact.

That is when senior United Nations official and author Shashi Tharoor will arrive at the Swayduck Auditorium (65 Fifth Avenue) for a staged reading from his latest novel, Riot.

The reading, organised by Ms Aroon Shivdasani, Executive Director of the Indo American Arts Council and World Policy Institute, will also feature senior Wall Street Journal editor Tunku Varadarajan and actresses Shabhana Azmi and Madhur Jaffrey.

Thus far, there is nothing to set this event apart from the dozens of readings, staged or spontaneous, that are part of New York's weekly cultural calendar. But there is a catch -- and his name is Narain Kataria.

Kataria owes allegiance to the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh -- which is the Americanised version of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. A week ahead of the event, desi mailboxes across the US have been swamped with a letter from Kataria which is, to use the mildest adjective, vitriolic.

Warning readers of the 'danger to the country', Kataria in a reference to Tharoor says he has 'done more damage to Hindu society and India than Pakistan by publishing anti-Hindu and anti-Indian articles in mainstream media'.

But the bulk of the venom is reserved for Ms Azmi -- a 'notorious woman with a soft corner for Islamic militants and Talibans' (sic!).

Azmi, Kataria says, condemned the American attack on Afghanistan, attempted to block passage of the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance in Parliament, 'hobnobs with followers of Lenin and Stalin', 'suffers from Hindu phobia and needs urgent counselling'...

To cut a sorry story short, Kataria's diatribe ends with an exhortation to all recipients to take part in a 'boisterous demonstration' against Azmi, a 'dangerous woman with potential to create trouble in the society'.

Almost immediately thereafter, came two mails -- one from Ms Shivdasani, politely setting forth the fact that the IAAC is a non-profit, non-partisan outfit aimed at building awareness of Indian artistic disciplines in North America, that the organisation raises funds for various India-centric causes such as the Gujarat earthquake, and that Ms Azmi is arriving in NY as the IAAC's guest.

Another email -- again from the organisers, but this one unsigned -- critiqued Kataria's original email, pointing out factual inaccuracies (Ms Azmi has not acted in the film Earth, as Kataria says, to cite one instance), and refutes allegations relating to the actress's alleged pro-Islam leanings.

And finally, two days before the event proper, came the third and last email in the series -- this one unsigned, but with what looks like the entire list of Indians in America in the 'To' box.

Challenging Kataria's statements with reference to Shabhana Azmi, the mail calls for a counter-demonstration and says: "It is crucially important to tell the truth about what has happened in Gujarat, even as the Hindu Right tries to obfuscate the issue."

A bemused Tharoor told that the event, being a sell out (Entrance fee: $10), could have done without the publicity.

"Shabana is a Member of Parliament and is able to take care of herself. But me? You know my work. These guys haven't read a word I've written and have no idea what I really stand for -- a pluralist, democratic India of which all Indians (and Indian-Americans) can be proud," Tharoor says.

"I should laugh at their descriptions of me as a 'communist' when I was probably the Swatantra Party's only supporter in Delhi in those 'consensually' socialist days of the early 1970s.

"But I don't think these ignorant hatemongers should be allowed to spread, without refutation, this venomous and inaccurate characterisation of me and my writings in their emails. Can anyone point to one single anti-Hindu or anti-Indian thing I have ever published?" Tharoor asks.

"I've received many letters regarding this event, and you can make out by reading them that none of them (the writers) have read the book," says Ms Shivdasani.

"I find that fundamentalists, whether Hindus or Muslims, often get carried away by emotions and do not look at the facts."

Tunku Varadarajan, the most high profile Indian journalist in the mainstream American press, was more outspoken.

"Hindu culture by its very nature has no need for guardians of any kind, especially self-styled ones," Varadarajan said, adding that in his view, this kind of hate-mongering was the product of a 'combination of hatred and ignorance', and an inability to 'understand the gentler essences of Hinduism'.

Arguing that the likes of Kataria should be ignored as much as possible, Varadarajan says that far from being patriotic Indians, such are actually Hindu separatists.

"I say that as an unabashed Hindu: Hands off my religion, I say to them."

When the controversy broke, Ms Azmi was en route to New York. "I spoke with her, and told her about this," says Ms Shivdasani. "She told me not to worry, that she intends to come for the reading, and that she can 'handle the situation'."

Ms Azmi arrived in New York on Monday night.

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