Sajha Sanskriti Manch: Help Needed in Varanasi for COVID-19 Relief

In this interview, we speak with Father Anand who is the coordinator of Sajha Sanskriti Manch (SSM), an alliance of various social organisations and activists of Varanasi. Jan Vikas Samiti is a member of SSM. Jan Vikas Samiti has sustained relief work in Varanasi, India since the COVID-19 lockdown. Varanasi is one of the holiest cities for Hindus and Father Anand is leading a campaign on communal harmony by spreading the message of peace.

Father Anand indulges himself in the Hindu practice of “Seva” or “selfless service.” Jan Vikas Samiti is refuting false claims and is providing strength and relief materials to the Muslim community that is being targeted as the group responsible for the spread of COVID-19.

As Ramadan just recently ended and I want to go forth with my intentions, I hope to make this my continued offering in the spirit of giving and shared values so it will inspire others to support this noble cause. A Christian man in the holiest of seven sacred cities in Hinduism is helping his Muslim brothers and sisters in humanity.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Some names have been changed.

Please describe the efforts of this group. What have they been doing and how many people have been served?

The group has an informal coordination group which meets time to time for planning, identifying, enlisting and shortlisting the beneficiaries. From March 25 to April 23, 9,383 families and 45,034 people have been provided aid. We are providing kits that contain wheat flour, rice, lentils, cooking oil, salt, biscuits, bun, masks and soap. Due to Ramadan we have started a new program of reaching provisions for breaking the fast to the poorest Muslims who live in the slums. We have been witnessing that the Muslim community is being sidelined by many NGOs and also Government agencies. There is an atmosphere of Islamophobia and animosity towards the Muslim community.

What are the Interfaith aspects of the relief work?

Volunteers who are involved in packing, loading, and distribution belong to Hindu, Muslim and Christian communities. “Corona Relief Force in Varanasi” is an alliance of 17 social, cultural and educational organizations. The relief was reached to people of Hindu, Muslim and Christian faiths. We have a continued focus on Hindus and Muslims living in the slums in the city and in the hamlets of nomadic tribes, migrant and daily labourers and people of Dalit communities living in the villages. 

Were there any specific incidents of discrimination?

I would like to narrate a real incident that happened two days ago. *Farida, is a volunteer belonging to *ASI, a group that has been working for the rights of teenage girls and against domestic violence. Fahida, who lives in Varanasi city, was asked by ASI office bearers to move to one of the villages to assist Savita*who coordinates relief services in four villages around her village. Farida was accommodated in Savita’s home soRamvilas, Savita’s father-in-law, was upset that a Muslim has come into his house.

He accused Savita of giving shelter to someone who is the cause of the Coronavirus in the country. According to him, Coronavirus is a weapon being used by Muslims to destroy India. TV news, social media and print media had influenced him so much that he considered every Muslim to be an enemy of India and so he managed to provoke the neighbours and other people of the village in order to get their support.

A large number of people gathered in front of Ramvilas’ house, asking Sarita to send away Farida back to Varanasi city.  If not, she would be beaten and chased. Sarita and her husband pleaded for the protection of their guests but her husband was manhandled by his father Ramvilas. The incident has sent shocking waves to most of us who are working against religious polarization in the communities.

It is true that in the midst of the Corona pandemic, Islamophobia is on the rise. There are many Hindu youth who are observing our work, some of them lend a helping hand yet have cautioned us that these relief kits should not be given to “those who are the cause of Corona spread.”’ It is evident that the hot coal of xenophobia and Islamophobia is being fanned by vested interests in the media. We hope and pray that it does not turn into blaze of fire.

Is there also government relief aid? If so, is it truly reaching those who are in most need?

Government aid is given through Public Distribution Shops known as ration shops but this only reaches the ration card holders. In this part of India, corruption based on selfishness and greed has created a situation that many of the poor and needy do not have ration cards but the rich and affluent who are able to bribe the PDS in charge are in possession of them. Although there is an order that all people, even those who do not have cards, be given ration, this is not taking place. These people are being given cooked food distributed through community kitchens managed by the police stations. Only those who live in the vicinity of the police stations are benefitting. Therefore our attempt has been to identify people without ration cards in order to provide them with ration. 

Since you and your colleagues were quite vociferous in advocacy against CAA, what is the status of this advocacy during COVID-19. What are the plans for after lockdown?

Yes, it’s true that we fought against CAA and NRC. Now we are not sure of the Government’s stand. It’s true that indirectly what the Government wanted was to push the minority community out of their homes and be in detention centres. COVID-19 has pushed the Government to ask every citizen to stay indoors. We are not sure what is going to happen. We will continue to fight polarization and discrimination in the name of religion. 

Since Varanasi is the holiest Hindu city in India, what is it like for a Christian minister to do humanitarian work in Varanasi? 

The identity of Christian missionaries in Varanasi has been a rather good one. We have always been part and parcel of the city. Although a minuscule community, Christians have been prominent in promoting a composite culture through their educational institutes, media and cultural centres. The Christian community has its own interfaith dialogue centre which is well respected. In Varanasi, the Christian ministers have not faced any major opposition. The civil society, the elites, along with the media acknowledge the good humanitarian work done by Christians. 

The destruction by Hindu mobs of Babri Masjid was one of the most frightening things you have read about. Is it true that the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi is the next in line for demolition by Hindu nationalists?

On the 8th of December, 1992, two days after the demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, the city of Varanasi witnessed violence. There was looting and killing in Lohta, on a Muslim weaver community. I was involved in a reconciliation process of the warring Hindu-Muslim communities of Lohata, and it took months to bring together both groups—but we succeeded. However, the situation in Gyanvapi is different. There is something brewing underneath; there is tension. It’s not clear what it will lead to. I don’t have the courage to articulate our fears.   

How is the relief work being funded? Do you need further support? 

The relief work is being carried out with the support of generous people in Varanasi and around. Initially, some Christian institutions supported us with materials and funds. Some of our organisations put intime, energy and resources like vehicles, buildings and personnel. Later, some of the students and ex-students of the Universities in Varanasi used social media platforms to highlight the needs. A lot of support came through these appeals. We have not received any funding from any funding agency in India or abroad. Only a few Indian missionary friends working abroad have sent contributions. Many of my family members, too, provided generous support.

What is your message to anyone reading this interview?

As the lockdown may continue perhaps until mid-July, we need more funds. We have received around 1.7 million rupees, which is not enough. It’s exhausting but we are hoping more people will support us. We appeal to all who can afford to support, kindly give generously to this noble cause.

What gives you hope? What continues to inspire you and the work you’re doing?

Varanasi is a city of spirituality. My hope is in this basic spirituality of solidarity and kindness. 

What inspires me, personally, is my understanding of religion. Religion for me is religare, which, in Latin means to bind the human with the divine, and human to human. Goswami Tulsi Das has given the best definition of religion or dharm “par hit saris dharam nahi bhai, par pida sam nahin adhami,” which means “There is no greater religion than kindness to others.” Inflicting the other with pain is the worst irreligious act.

Jesus, my Lord challenges me when he says that in the end of the world during the last judgement we will be allowed to enter into the heavenly kingdom, not on the basis of the religious rituals undertaken but based on the answers we give to the questions: When I was hungry, did you feed me? When I was thirsty, did you give me water? When I was naked did you clothe me? When I was sick, did you care for me? When I came as a stranger from another land, did you give me shelter? When I was imprisoned, did you visit me? I do see God in the hungry, thirsty, migrants, shelterless, sock, imprisoned. That impels me to be at the service of one another.

Jan Vikas Samiti is registered to receive foreign donations. US donors can support Jan Vikas Samiti by making a tax-exempt donation to ICA, selecting Jan Vikas,  or you can contribute directly to their efforts using the information below:

Account name: Jan Vikas Samiti

FCRA Reg. No.: 136760090

Bank Name: Union Bank of India, Varanasi Cantonment

Bank Account No.: 304002010040777


IFSC Code: UBIN0530409

Bank Code: 530409

MICR Code: 221026004

The opinions expressed by the writer of this piece, and those providing comments thereon (collectively, the “Writers”), are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Brown Girl Magazine, Inc., or any of its employees, directors, officers, affiliates, or assigns (collectively, “BGM”). BGM is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Writers. It is not the intention of Brown Girl Magazine to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual. If you have a complaint about this content, please email us at This post is subject to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. If you’d like to submit a guest post, please follow the guidelines we’ve set forth here.
By Aminah Ahmed

Aminah Ahmed is a young dynamic, social activist, talk show host, and public speaker. She is the host of the … Read more ›

Op-Ed: An Open Letter to President Biden in Light of Prime Minister Modi’s Visit to the States

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit
The following open letter is written by Hindus for Human Rights, an organization advocating for pluralism, civil and human rights in South Asia and North America, rooted in the values of Hindu faith: shanti (peace), nyaya (justice) and satya (truth). They provide a Hindu voice of resistance to caste, Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), racism, and all forms of bigotry and oppression.

Dear President Biden,

As Indian-Americans, human rights organizations, and concerned allies, we are writing to urge you to engage publicly and meaningfully to push back against the Indian government’s escalating attacks on human rights and democracy, especially ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the United States.

Despite objective evidence that India’s democracy is under critical attack, you have not spoken out about this crisis. In early 2023, Indian authorities conducted retaliatory raids on the BBC’s Delhi and Mumbai offices for releasing a documentary about Prime Minister Modi. The week before the Summit for Democracy, the Indian government made three successive attacks on Indian democracy. First, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party expelled Rahul Gandhi from Parliament. Second, the Indian government shut the internet down in Punjab, severely impacting the rights for Sikhs to peacefully organize and protest. And third, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that Indians can be found guilty by association for terrorism. And yet, not one representative from the Biden Administration said anything about even one of these developments. Instead, while Islamophobic violence gripped India in late March, you invited Prime Minister Modi to speak at the Summit for Democracy. Mr. Modi visits DC at a time when the state of Manipur has experienced heavy communal and anti-Christian violence after Modi’s ruling party pushed an initiative to undermine Indigenous rights in the state.

Even when confronted with questions by Indian reporters about human rights in India, your administration has only had private two-way conversations about how both of our governments can always improve. Quite frankly, we find it unacceptable to see such equivocation on Indian democracy from an administration that has been strident in its defense of American democracy and the rule of law. 

India is one of the fastest autocratizing nations in the world, mostly thanks to the current government. Freedom House has rated India as a “partly-free” country for the past three years, and has blamed Prime Minister Modi’s government for a rise in discriminatory policies, including persecution against Muslims and caste-based violence against Dalit and Adivasi communities; harassment of civil society, protestors, academia and the media, and the targeting of political opponents. It has also rated Indian-administered Kashmir as “not free,” citing violations of human, civil, and political rights after the Modi government revoked the territory’s autonomous status. In Reporters Without Borders press freedom ranking, India has dropped to 161 out of 180 countries in 2023. India has appeared in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Indexwhich examines accountability for unsolved journalists’ murders — every year for the past 15 years and currently ranks in 11th place worldwide. According to PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, in 2022, India was one of the top 10 countries that jailed writers globally. The Varieties of Democracy Institute characterizes India as an “electoral autocracy” and blames India’s descent into autocracy on Prime Minister Modi. And the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has said India has been one of the top 15 countries at risk for a mass atrocity event every year since 2017, which reflects the toxicity of Indian politics under Modi. 

Given the magnitude of this crisis, we ask you to engage directly with Indian-American and human rights civil society leaders to explore solutions to address India’s human rights crisis. We also ask you to employ the tools at your disposal to ensure that the Indian government cannot attack Indians’ human rights with impunity. As the 2022 Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor report details, several government individuals have committed human rights violations that, under U.S. law, would qualify them to be sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act. Indian security forces that have engaged in human rights violations should have security assistance rescinded, under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. 

Finally, we urge you to publicly call on the Indian government to honor its commitments to human rights, including calling on Prime Minister Modi and his cabinet to halt the use of anti-terror laws to arbitrarily detain political critics. You can publicly denounce the rising numbers of political prisoners and the weaponization of the rule of law in India to shut down criticism. Even if you are not willing to personally criticize the Prime Minister, you have ample opportunity to criticize the Indian government’s misuse of public trust and public institutions to consolidate power and undermine the will of the Indian people.

As President of the United States of America, you hold a unique position to lead the fight against authoritarianism. Prime Minister Modi will listen to you when you speak. But he and his allies will only change if you take a stand publicly. We urge you to listen to those of us who care about India and ensure that one man cannot steal the futures and the rights of our loved ones in India.

— Signed by countless organizations and individuals leading the charge (linked here).

Oak Creek: A Story of Hate, Hope and Healing

Every year on August 5th, the Sikh American community remembers one of our community’s most devastating tragedies in recent memory — the Oak Creek massacre. On this day in 2012, a white supremacist gunman entered the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, a gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin where he shot and killed six worshippers and severely injured others. This violent attack was the deadliest mass shooting targeting Sikh Americans in U.S. history, and at the time, was one of the worst attacks on a U.S. house of worship in decades. Six worshippers — Paramjit Kaur Saini, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Prakash Singh, Suveg Singh Khattra, and Satwant Singh Kaleka — were killed on that horrific day. An additional community member, Baba Punjab Singh, was severely paralyzed and ultimately passed away from complications related to his injuries in 2020. Others, including Bhai Santokh Singh and responding police officer and hero, Lt. Brian Murphy, were seriously wounded during the shooting. 

[Read Related: Oak Creek Gurdwara Massacre’s 4th Anniversary: Young Sikhs Express Optimism for the Continued Struggle Against Hate and Ignorance]

In 2022, the community came together to demonstrate that we are undaunted. My organization, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) joined in supporting the anniversary observance at Oak Creek: a remembrance event centered around the theme of “Heal, Unite, Act.” The Oak Creek Sikh community hosted a series of in-person events, including the 10th Annual Oak Creek Sikh Memorial Anniversary Candlelight Remembrance Vigil on Friday, August 5, 2022. The program included a representative from the White House, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, Oak Creek Mayor Dan Bukiewicz, and representatives of the families who lost loved ones. Being there in Oak Creek 10 years after the tragedy was deeply meaningful — both to see the inspiring resilience of this community and to remember how much remains to be done.

In D.C., SALDEF continues to fight for policies that improve the lives of Sikh Americans. I had the honor of chairing the most recent iteration of the Faith-Based Security Advisory Council at the Department of Homeland Security, providing recommendations at the request of Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas. Consequently, the three subcommittees published a report that emphasized the importance of greater accessibility, greater equity, and greater transparency in counterterrorism efforts that for too long revolved around surveilling populations like the one that was senselessly attacked at the Oak Creek gurdwara in 2012. Leading the FBSAC as a Sikh woman, and representing a community that was highly targeted alongside Muslims by both white supremacists and in post-9/11 counterterrorism profiling, was an opportunity to push the Council to advocate more fiercely for further information-sharing between communities and law enforcement, extending grant opportunities for security for Gurdwaras and other houses of worship, and building trust between the government and Sikh communities. In addition, I advocated for accountability for the damage needlessly caused to Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and Hindu (MASSAH) communities by federal agencies historically pursuing “counterterrorism” objectives which has resulted in eroded trust rather than the development of strong partnerships. 

Although we have made great strides in this country, there is still more to do. Through our work we have partnered with many across the nation to come together and find solutions through tenets central to Sikhism and America — unity, love, and equality. SALDEF continues to strongly endorse the policy framework articulated across the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act (H.R. 350 / S. 963); Justice for Victims of Hate Crimes Act; and the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) Improvement Act (H.R. 6825). We believe strongly in mandating federal agencies to create dedicated offices to investigate domestic terrorism; allowing prosecutors to feasibly indict perpetrators of hate crimes; and allowing religious nonprofits to access federal funding to enhance their own security.

[Read Related: Anti-Sikh Hate is on the Rise: Here’s What we can Do]

While 11 years have passed, the effects of the Oak Creek shooting are never far from the minds of Sikh American advocates and the community we serve. SALDEF will not stop taking a stand against senseless violence and hate crimes. We continue to work in unity with our community and movement partners, and fight for better policies that will actively keep all of our communities safe. Through tragedy, we find hope. We know there can be a world where people from all backgrounds and cultures can practice their faith freely and, even though it has eluded the Sikh American community in the past, we still believe this world is possible.

Photo Courtesy of Amrita Kular

The opinions expressed by the writer of this piece, and those providing comments thereon (collectively, the “Writers”), are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Brown Girl Magazine, Inc., or any of its employees, directors, officers, affiliates, or assigns (collectively, “BGM”). BGM is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Writers. It is not the intention of Brown Girl Magazine to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual. If you have a complaint about this content, please email us at This post is subject to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. If you’d like to submit a guest post, please follow the guidelines we’ve set forth here.
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By Kiran Kaur Gill

Kiran Kaur Gill is an accomplished professional with exemplary executive experience. In her role as Executive Director, she is responsible … Read more ›