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Views in brief

April 22, 2005 | Page 4

Pulled right by the Democrats
The real legacy of the Pope

Activists keep a killer out

NARENDRA MODI hoped that his latest junket to the U.S. would be a breeze.

He would have arrived in Florida in March to speak at the national convention of the Asian-American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA). He would schmooze with media figures like Chris Matthews of Hardball fame. He would court U.S. companies and urge them to invest in India. Various corporate donors, like American Express, would pick up the check.

Experience had taught Modi to take such luxuries for granted. After all, didn't he remain in power as the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, India, even after having carried out a vicious pogrom against Muslims in 2002?

Modi, a darling of the Hindu fundamentalist movement in India, is a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a fascist organization, complete with armed goon squads. As the leader of the state of Gujarat, Modi is known to have helped organize and orchestrate the 2002 pogrom, in which more than 2,000 Muslims were slaughtered, and over 200,000 driven from the homes.

The pogrom was "explained" by Gujarat's anti-Muslim media as "retaliation" for the deaths of a handful of RSS cadres in a train fire earlier that year in the village of Godhra. Modi and the media whipped up an anti-Muslim frenzy by spreading the lie that Muslims had bombed the train. Rampaging mobs of Hindu fascists and their supporters murdered, looted, burned and raped as they destroyed Muslim neighborhoods. Modi's state police stood by and watched, and in many cases actually joined in. A court investigation two years later has proven beyond a doubt that the Godhra train fire was indeed an accident.

Despite his role in the pogroms, Modi managed to stay in power in Gujarat. And now, the AAHOA was ready to "honor" this mass murderer as the "chief guest" at its convention in Florida.

Modi, however, didn't count on massive grassroots opposition to his visit, mobilized by the South Asian immigrant community. A letter-writing and petition campaign, coordinated by the Coalition Against Genocide, received a tremendous response. Hundreds of South Asians signed letters, e-mailed, phoned and faxed their opposition to Modi's visit. They targeted MSNBC's Chris Matthews, who, to his credit, was the first to withdraw from the AAHOA convention. Soon after, the Coalition began putting pressure on the AAHOA's corporate donors, as well as flooding Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's office with protest letters.

The result? American Express, one of the AAHOA's main sponsors, withdrew its funding, and the State Department rejected Modi's visa application.

Of course, the State Department is no friend of Muslims, here or abroad. The U.S. has used its harsh immigration laws, made more severe since 9/11, to detain and deport hundreds of Arabs and Muslims from its borders. It has denied visas to those who speak out against its foreign policy.

As Vijay Prashad recently wrote in the Indian magazine Frontline, "[T]he U.S. government did not decide to take away Narendra Modi's visa. That honor must go to activists both in India and in the U.S. who worked in concert."

Modi's dis-invitiation made front-page news in many Indian newspapers. It raised the profile of progressive South Asians in the U.S. And it sent a clear signal to him and his right-wing pals: You are not welcome here!
Ganesh Lal, Glen Ridge, N.J.

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Pulled right by the Democrats

"OF COURSE, the Democratic Party has never been what we want it to be," writes David Swanson of Progressive Democrats of America in his debate with Lance Selfa, "though at times it's been much, much closer to it." ("With or against?" April 8, 2005)

I hope others take up the question of exactly how close the party of Jim Crow and Vietnam has ever been to what we want. I want to address just how misleading it is for Swanson to begin this statement with the words "of course."

Liberal Democrats often portray left-wing criticism of the party as being "old news" (implying that the left supporting the Democrats is somehow new), but the vast majority of Americans aren't even aware that there are ideas to the left of Clintonism. That's in part because Swanson and most other progressives don't raise these critiques at the one time most people are listening--during presidential elections. The results of this silence are tragic.

Last year, for example, as John Kerry was all but officially endorsed by most antiwar groups, he became the spokesman for antiwar ideas in the eyes of most Americans. When people then heard this representative actually speak out for the occupation, for the USA PATRIOT Act and for the "war on terror," most didn't think, "Oh, well, of course the Democratic Party has never been what I want it to be."

Why would they have, since it was at this exact moment that liberals like Swanson and his candidate Dennis Kucinich dropped all criticism of Kerry in the name of party unity? As a result, most people heard Kerry's positions and assumed they were the most realistic way forward. Support for the occupation and the "war on terror" soon went up, and this shift to the right actually helped Bush win the election.

Now that the election is over, if Swanson finds it so obvious that the Democratic Party is not our side, he should help us with the urgent task of creating a progressive movement that is independent of it.
Danny Katch, New York City

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The real legacy of the Pope

AFTER GETTING the runaround from the Vatican's bureaucracy, Archbishop Oscar Romero was granted an audience by Pope John Paul II in 1979. The archbishop wanted to tell the pope about the persecution of his priests and his people by the dictatorial government of El Salvador. He went loaded with papers and pictures documenting the atrocities committed by the Salvadoran military and right-wing death squads.

He was surprised when he was scolded by the pope for bringing so many documents. The Pope said, "I have already told you not to come loaded with so many papers." The Pope didn't even want to see the pictures of the murdered priests.

Archbishop Romero told him about the latest priest to be murdered and showed him a picture of the dead priest's smashed face. Romero's eyes welled up with tears as he recounted the details of his death while the pope looked on with indifference. The pope didn't find it in his "Christian" heart to show any compassion.

Rather than condemn the persecution of priests and the atrocities of the Salvadoran government, the pope told the archbishop to maintain good relations with the government and to tell his priests not to meddle in politics.

In El Salvador, as in much of Latin American, many Catholic priests had taken to the countryside to bring a new religion to the poor peasants. This new religion, liberation theology, didn't teach the poor to accept their misery in a land where misery abounded. Some priests even joined the mass social movements then in existence.

It is no surprise the right-wing junta had the following slogan, "Be a patriot, kill a priest."

Archbishop Romero had been a conservative priest, but his politics changed. In one of his sermons, he called on government troops not to follow their officers' orders to kill innocent people. A few months after meeting with the pope, Archbishop Romero was killed by government troops in the cathedral of San Salvador while giving mass.

Many Salvadorans fondly remember Romero and hope he will be made a saint by the Vatican. The Salvadoran left already refers to him as San Romero de America. His legacy lives on in the many priests who are currently facing crackdown from the Church for standing in solidarity the people of El Salvador.
Balmore, San Diego

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