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Day of the Hindu Priest
Report: Dateline 05/20/2000

The Indian Prime Minister's forthcoming visit to the US in September 2000 may witness a landmark in American history. For the first time ever, a Hindu priest might be allowed to deliver the invocation opening the daily session of the US legislature on the day Prime Minister Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee addresses members of the US Congress as part of his return visit to President Bill Clinton.

Sherrod Brown, a founder member of the Congressional caucus on India has requested the chaplain of the House of Representatives to set aside a day for a Hindu priest to deliver the invocation. This 'swadeshi' salute may well become a reality when the Indian Prime Minister arrives in Washington, after addressing the millennium summit of world leaders at the United Nations, later this year.

Although the House chaplain has the power to allow clergy of any religion to offer the opening invocation, it has never invited a Hindu denomination so far. Earlier, the House has hosted members of various Christian and Jewish sects, and also recently had Muslim Imams.

Mr Brown has substantiated his request to the chaplain saying: "Freedom of religion is a hallmark of the US. By inviting clergy of various faiths to deliver the invocation, we honour our diverse religious heritage. There are hundreds of thousands of practising Hindus in this country. We should fulfil our responsibility to represent the religious diversity of this country by including a Hindu priest as a guest Chaplain." 

This Hindu element is, in fact, the most unprecedented thing in the travels of any Indian Prime Minister so far. Behind Brown's move is a powerful American-Indian lobby of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters who are too enthusiastic about introducing the Hindu element into Vajpayee's trips, observes K P Nayar, a Washington based political commentator. This lobby draws parallels between Vajpayee's forthcoming US trip and his two visits as Prime Minister to Mauritius. In Port Louis, says Nayar, the Hindu element of the visit often overtook the bilateral and state-to-state concerns of the Prime Minister.

At the state level there have been efforts in the past by American Indians to include Hindu priests in the legislative process. The Maryland state's House of Delegates has had two such Hindu invocations, but the Vajpayee visit has given an unexpected opportunity for those who contend for such exercises to be repeated at the national level as well. According to the India Abroad News Service (IANS), this is largely due to the efforts of Democrats Kumar Barve and Satveer Chaudhary, the two Indian-American state legislators in the US. However, political observers caution, the move may bump into some opposition arising from the conservative nature of the Capitol Hill on matters related to religion.

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