Is Canadian Hindu Advocacy, which has spent the last four years stoking hatred and fear of Muslims, really as big as its leader says it is?
If you haven’t heard of Ron Banerjee and Canadian Hindu Advocacy (CHA), you’ve probably heard about some of what they’ve done since their founding in September 2008: organizing dog-walking protests in front of mosques, fighting against letting Muslim students pray at public schools, opposing TTC ads that praise Allah, and announcing plans to screen Innocence of Muslims in Canada.
When the National Post wrote about that latest stunt—to screen the full-length version of the video that’s led to riots and deaths around the world—Banerjee explained that doing so was not a provocation. Instead, he claimed, showing it would “[promote] tolerance of different ideas and different viewpoints within Canada….It shows the value of tolerance to Muslims and the Islamic community and teaches them, in Canada, we do have tolerance and diversity and they are simply going to have to tolerate diverse viewpoints and opinions without rioting and without going berserk.” Or, as the Post put it in the article’s title: “Canadian Hindu group screening anti-Islam film to make a point about tolerance.”
The Post’s choice of title was an odd one, not just because Banerjee’s reasons for screening the absurd, incendiary film didn’t seem especially tolerant, no matter how many times he repeated the word, but because calling CHA a “group” (or, as the Post also did, an “organization”) at all neatly obscures the reality of just how tiny it really is—and how little attention it really deserves.
To say that Canadian Hindu Advocacy lends Ron Banerjee credibility is an understatement—its reach, or rather the reach he claims it has, is the sole basis for it. Mere months after its founding, Banerjee called CHA “the largest and most prominent Hindu advocacy [group] here in Canada” at a rally, and he hasn’t stopped saying as much since. ”We are a national organization of professionals,” reads the homepage of CHA’s website, “most of whom have left other groups to join together and form an entity that really stands up for traditional Canadian and mainstream Hindu values.” In a letter to Maclean’s on behalf of CHA, Banerjee wrote, again, that “we are a large national group.”
Never mind, for now, that Canada’s Hindu population numbered 297,200 people as of 2001 [PDF], and that even in Toronto Life’s feature about the Valley Park Middle School protests against school prayer that Banerjee helped orchestrate, he claimed a paying membership of only 930, which is 0.31% of that. Never mind, for now, that Banerjee, who is alternately referred to in the press as a director of CHA and its spokesperson, is apparently the only member of the organization who’s ever referred to in the press at all. (Combined, the Toronto Sun and National Post have published dozens of news articles quoting Banerjee, and he’s also a recurring talking head on Sun News Network’s The Arena with Michael Coren, and has been a guest on AM640′s John Oakley Show and Jim Richards’ Newstalk1010 Showgram.)
More troubling is just how far from “traditional Canadian and mainstream Hindu values” Banerjee’s stated views on Islam and Muslims are, and how wide of a platform he has been given in the press in spite of that. At a January 20, 2010 event organized by the far-right Jewish Defence League of Canada, Banerjee told the audience, to laughter and applause, that “in its entire history, Islam, the Islamic civilization, has invented and has contributed less to human advancement than a pack of donkeys. That’s the truth.” There’s another video of Banerjee at a September 17, 2011 “TDSB Appreciation Day” rally outside the Toronto District School Board’s Yonge Street headquarters. In it, he appears to yell at the assembled crowd—which, that day, included Muslim schoolchildren—“Don’t compare yourselves to Jews. Jews are a civilized people. They’re not barbarians. They’re not savages.”
If you talk to Banerjee, he’ll tell you that all he’s doing is being honest. “If they’re offended, then let them be offended,” he tells me in a phone interview, “but it’s the truth. And if the truth offends people, then go hide under your mattress is what I tell them. It’s like that old movie, slamming your fist on the table, ‘You can’t handle the truth!’ [If] people can’t handle truth, they don’t deserve to be part of the public discourse at all.”
He wouldn’t change a thing about what he said about Islamic civilization (“I’m very proud of that statement, actually…They haven’t contributed much positively. They really haven’t.”). When I ask him if he really called a group of Muslim kids barbarians, he tells me: “I don’t know. I don’t remember everything I say. But the point is that there were kids and there were also adults on their side of the fence, and I was yelling at the adults—I wasn’t yelling at the kids—but of course, Muslims being Muslims, what they did was they put the kids in front of them…[the adults] were yelling these vile comments at us, but hiding behind the skirts of their women and their little kids that they put at the front, so that if we yelled back at them or countered them, it would look like we were yelling at little kids.”
I pressed him—does that sound like something you might have said?
“I don’t think so, but I don’t know; I don’t remember.”
I would remember if I said something like that, I say.
“Well, how many speeches do you do in a year? How many presentations? How many rallies do you do in a year where you get into conflicts and you yell back and forth with people? Of course you’d remember, ‘cause you don’t do like two dozen of these a year. I do.”
If you talk to Banerjee, he’ll also tell you that there’s a good reason he’s the sole public face of CHA. “Because of the positions that we’ve taken,” he says, “there’ve been a lot of threats, and it has been decided among the organization that I’m the public face of the organization. The others, they kind of lie low, and don’t even want to admit being members or associated with the group.”
I tell Banerjee that I’m trying to find any evidence of the hundreds of paying members he claims the group has, and I ask if I can talk to any of them. He says, “I wouldn’t know how to do that without disclosing the names of the people and stuff like that.” He sends me this video, which he says shows other members (“senior directors” and a few of their “more active members”). It doesn’t look like a large national group; I count only about ten people standing with Banerjee in it. He promises to send me the names of other members and supporters, some of whom I say I’m willing to keep anonymous. I tell him that, either way, the more he can send me, the better, and that it’s my job to not take him on his word. I give him a day. He sends me five.
I was asking Banerjee for members of Canadian Hindu Advocacy because I’d spent a week looking myself, and hadn’t been able to find any.
When I spoke to Pandit Roopnauth Sharma, the president of the Canadian Hindu Federation, which represents temples across the country, he wasn’t surprised. “Other than knowing Mr. Banerjee by name, I know of no one who’s in the group,” Sharma said. “I don’t know of anyone that I’ve come into contact with who’s said to me, ‘By the way, I’m the president,’ or ‘I’m the secretary,’ or ‘I’m the treasurer.’” Half-serious, he asked for a favour: “When you find somebody, please, I would be interested to know who they are. And if you find members of his executive and things like that, it would be nice to know who they are.”
Dr. Budhendra Doobay, the chairman of Richmond Hill’s Vishnu Mandir and the founder of the Canadian Hindu Federation, says he doesn’t “know of any Hindu [Banerjee] represents,” either. “As far as I’m concerned, his views do not represent the views of Hindus in the GTA.”
CHA’s Facebook group is little help. As of September 28, it has a mere 111 members, only 18 of whom, including Banerjee, were active in any way between June 1 and September 18, 2012 (whether posting anything to the group’s wall themselves, posting a comment alongside something anyone else posted, or Liking anything). Of those 18 members, 7 don’t appear to live in Canada—their home cities are listed as places like Delhi, India. Or Kyoto, Japan. Or Chicago. Of the group’s five administrators other than Banerjee, two appear to be living in India. Still, I sent private messages to all of the administrators and all of the active members whose privacy settings allowed it, asking each one i) whether they were Hindu, ii) whether they were Canadian, iii) whether they were a member of CHA, and iv) what they thought of the decision to screen Innocence of Muslims. After a week, none had replied to me except for one woman, Cutler Hill. She says she’s Canadian, but not Hindu; she described herself as an “evangelical Zionist.” She continued: “I am not part of the decision commity [sic], but if I was I would vote in favour of it.” It was beginning to look an awful lot like Canadian Hindu Advocacy had an abundance of neither Canadians nor Hindus.
And then there’s Naresh Patel. The name appears above CHA’s as the signature of a Facebook post from mid-September declaring support for Terry Jones, the extremist American pastor who’s taken up the screening of Innocence of Muslims in Canada with Banerjee’s support. Patel’s name appears again alongside CHA’s on its website in a letter “oppos[ing] TDSB policies which allow Islamic students to be given religious instruction in publicly funded school facilities.”
Andrea Houston, a reporter with queer alt-weekly Xtra!, met Naresh Patel at another Jewish Defence League of Canada rally, this one in April 2011, outside of the head offices of Pride Toronto. After giving her his name, Houston says that Patel threatened her, telling her “you’re lucky there’s cops around” when she was interviewing other protesters. The article she ended up writing for Xtra! about the protest included a photo of Naresh Patel, a man she realizes, now, was none other than Ron Banerjee.
“I’m 100% confident it was him—like, 100%,” she says today. “There is no question in my mind that it was him at all…[since then,] I’ve seen him on TV, I’ve heard his voice on the radio numerous times.”
Banerjee denies it, and denies threatening Houston. “There was another Indian guy there who was named Naresh Patel and he had come out, so maybe she got mixed up with that…I was there, but I didn’t call myself Naresh Patel.”
There’s only one person other than Ron Banerjee I can find who calls themselves a member of Canadian Hindu Advocacy, and it’s one whose name Banerjee gave me. A work-at-home entrepreneur in Scarborough, he doesn’t want his name used. He is, he admits in a phone call, “not a very active member.” And, he explains, “I’m not a big supporter as such. I know what their cause is and I go to their meetings sometimes.” He corrects himself: “I used to go; I haven’t gone for a long time. And I’m aware from the media what they are doing and things like that.” He says that at the last meeting he attended, two years ago at North York Central Library, “over 20 people” were there.
“There are just a few people who seem to go [to meetings or protests] on a regular basis, but you know,” he says, “as the saying goes, there is a so-called ‘silent majority.’ When you talk to people, they go, ‘Oh yes, oh yes, it’s fine,’ but nobody wants to come up; everybody wants to be politically correct.”
This is what I hear from another self-proclaimed “active supporter” whose name Banerjee gives me, Basu Bose, a director of the Hindu Institute of Learning. Banerjee, Bose says, “has a fair amount of support [in the GTA], not just from me, but many people I know of. I can think of from my personal knowledge at least 250 to 300 people who are interested in various causes [though] they may not support every issue.” But there are only, Bose admits, “15 core members who attend strategy meetings and discuss issues and so on.” (When I ask him whether screening Innocence of Muslims is needlessly inflammatory, his response is one that could have come straight from Banerjee’s lips: “You know what? Muslims don’t need to be enflamed. Give them one slightest provocation and they will go over all of the place.”)
Vinod Sharma, the president and founder of United Hindu Congress of Canada, another supporter whose name Banerjee gave me, defends CHA as well, and invokes that same silent majority. “I’m sure there are thousands of people out there who’d say they would support them,” he says. “Mr. Ron Banerjee is a very good gentlemen. He speaks his mind,” he says. Sharma says his organization “very strongly believe[s] in free speech and open expression,” but “I do not agree with anybody spreading hate.” And so what, then, about that “pack of donkeys” stuff? “There are other, better ways to put it,” Sharma says. “I’m not saying that that’s the perfect wording.” Sharma says that Banerjee “told me that, no, his intention is not to spread hate. He’s just basically defending, doing what is right, what he feels is right. And I said, that’s okay with us. We have no problem with it.”
When I emailed Banerjee again to ask if there were any more members I could speak to—there had just been the one, and just the three supporters, if you count the “evangelical Zionist” Facebook group member, none of whom seem to represent anything close to “mainstream Hindu” or “traditional Canadian” values—he sent this reply:
“Umm Hindus are busy people and some dont want to talk to the media and frankly, since you are owned by the Toronto Star we know exactly what this article will be like even before publication. [The Grid and the Star are both published by Star Media Group, which also publishes Metro, the Chinese-language Sing Tao, and Suhaag.]
So many Hindus who support us refuse to speak to the Star and Star affiliated pubs, it is very difficult. It’s not just Rob Ford who refuses to deal with the Star…
There are many members but, sir, how many exactly do you need? I have provided plenty already..”
I’d asked Banerjee a few days earlier if there was any way he could prove to me that his group wasn’t as small as all of the evidence seemed to suggest—that it was any bigger, effectively, than just him. He had a simple explanation: it couldn’t possibly be. Not with all the media attention they’d always got.
“It may be hard on your side to verify the exact size of the membership,” he told me, “but you know that we cannot be too small a group. Some people think we are, but we absolutely cannot be that small a group.…I mean, you’ve seen the type of influence that we’ve had, and the type of impact that we’ve had. And it just isn’t possible for a very small organization to make that kind of an impact.”