• 07 Feb, 2023

Modi’s Early Engagements with Indo-Caribs - Swami Aksharananda, Ravi-ji Maharaj, Pta Indranee, Dr. Narayansingh, Ravi Dev, among others

Modi’s Early Engagements with Indo-Caribs - Swami Aksharananda, Ravi-ji Maharaj, Pta Indranee, Dr. Narayansingh, Ravi Dev, among others

Modi’s Early Engagements with Indo-Caribs - Swami Aksharananda, Ravi-ji Maharaj, Pta Indranee, Dr. Narayansingh, Ravi Dev, among others

Shri Narendra Modi ji (not as Prime Minister) visited the Caribbean ( Guyana and Trinidad) in 2000 for Hindu conference in the former and a private visit in the latter country. Ravi Dev, among others, encouraged him to make the trip to Guyana. Modi made a second trip to Trinidad for a Ramayana conference hosted by Maha Sabha at its headquarters.  
 
But long before these trips, Modi first encountered and engaged Indo-Caribbean students (a Guyanese and a Trinidadian) in Benaras (and Delhi) during the 1970s thru 1983 and again during the 1990s in New York and Washington DC.  
 
Modi’s first encounter with Indo-Caribbeans was meeting and engaging Guyanese Swami Aksharananda (he was not a swami at the time) at Benaras Hindu University and Trinidadian Ravi-Ji Maharaj. Both Hindu workers were studying in Benaras on scholarship that was made possible through activist Dadasaheb Apte who visited Trinidad and Guyana and interacted with both as well as other students. Ravi-ji and Swami were selected to pursue studies in India on scholarship. Subsequently, Pandita Indranee Rampersaud also earned a scholarship to study at BHU; she was not a Pandita at that time. Indranee came to study at BHU during early 1970s. She did a Bachelors Degree and distinguished herself winning the university’s gold medal for her studies. She would also win the top prize for her PhD in Journalism in Pune some two decades later.  
 

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Photo : Swami Aksharananda

 
Ravi-ji (Ravindra Maharaj) was a student at Sanskrit University in Benaras (Varanasi). He studied in India from 1972 thru 1983 doing a Bachelors and Masters Degree and completed the course work for his doctorate all while doing kar sevak voluntary work. He decided to return to Trinidad to pursue research for his PhD dissertation which regrettably he never completed. He is deserving of a doctorate for his dedicated service to the Indian community in the Caribbean and in the diaspora and for his work in India. The trio – Swami, Ravi-ji, Indranee -- separately interacted with Modi at varied events and activities including at shaka or physical training exercises in Delhi and Benaras.  
 

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Photo : Pandita Indranee

 
Ravi-ji was very active in student politics in India supporting the Jana Sangh (founded 1951), the fore-runner to the BJP which was founded in 1980. He supported and campaigned for Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad    or ABVP (Jana Sangh and BJP university wing) candidates for elective office in student governments. Ravi-ji was elected in the late 1970s as President of the Foreign Students Bureau (FSB), a national student body. A decade before him, another Trini, Lakshmi Beepat, served as President of the body; she is now settled in Germany. Coincidentally, both hailed from Caparo. Through that position and his association with RSS, he was able to meet all the big wigs of Jana Sangh (BJP) including Atal Beharri Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, etc.     
 
Shri Rajkumar Bhatia, a Professor, who hails from Delhi, was very supportive of foreign students. He worked closely with Beepat and Ravi-ji. Bhatia was a key figure in the organizing of an international foreign students conference in Delhi in the late 1970s and charged Ravi-ji with recruiting students to attend the conference. Ravi-ji traveled all over India to woo foreign students to come to the conference. Several prominent local politicians including several leading current BJP politicians attended that students’ meet and also interacted with Indian West Indians. Modi-ji was there.  
 

Dr-Vijay-Naraynsingh
Photo : Dr. Narayansingh

 
According to Ravi-ji, Swami Aksharananda did Bachelors Degree in the Social Sciences – He was very bright and dedicated to his studies, a model student at any university. Local and foreign students were mesmerized by his brilliance, and they would seek him out for assistance and in tutoring them and giving lectures. Said Ravi-ji, “Swami – people gravitated towards him. He was like a magnet for students; he was very sharp, intellectual, bright, and firm in his position”. Ravi-ji, on the other hand, was more involved in student politics and student activism organizing programs and events, focusing less on his studies and more on improving the lives of others and the party. Ravi-ji was very close with top RSS (parent body of the BJP) figures. He was kaaryavaha (volunteer worker) in charge of a large section of India that stretched from Delhi to Benaras. He would organize shaka (physical exercise) that was attended by students and political figures. And for his work, he was held in high esteem by RSS and BJP leaders like LK Advani, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, et.al . Chaman Lal-ji, in particular, a gem of a person incomparable to anyone else, was very fond of Ravi-ji and Indian Caribbean students, praising his work like organizing shaka. Swami and Ravi-ji attended shaka. Whenever Modi visited Benaras to engage students, he participated in shaka that was attended by Swami and Ravi-ji allowing them to interact and engage him.  
 
In Benaras, Ravi-ji also interacted with prominent BJP youth leaders like Vijay Goel (a Minister since 2014) who was President of Delhi University Students Union, Arun Jaitley who also led his university student union before Goel, and Rajat Sharma, who would become the well-known TV news Anchor. Ravi-ji campaigned for Jaitley to become student union President. When Arun Jaitley and Dr. Subramaniam Swamy (an elected MP), two stalwarts of BJP and a prominent figure in the underground movement against Emergency Rule, visited Benaras, Ravi-ji interacted with them. Modi came to Benaras through ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad) activities from time to time and interacted with Swami, Indranee-ji, Ravi-ji. They knew each other well. Both Ravi-ji and Swami attended Assi (holy bank of the River) Shaka and had several encounters with Modi; Pandit Indranee is there now. Modi was also present at the Sanskrit University ABVP Students conference which was co-organized by Ravi-ji, engaging students including the Indo-Caribbeans. Modi also attended several Sangh camps in which Swami and Ravi-ji participated. At the Sangh office in Delhi, the duo would meet Modi often. There, Modi also participated in Shaka with Ravi-ji and Swami Aksharananda.  
 

raviji-maharaj
Photo : (L-R) Raviji, Surujdeo Mangaroo (NCIC Public Relations Officer), Deokinanan Sharma (NCIC President) and Prof. Vijay Naraynsingh  

 
Modi had some very good friends who were supportive of foreign students – Brahm Bahadaur Rai – head of Indira Gandhi Institute, Mahesh Sharma – great, solid social worker for RSS, Durga Singh Chauhan who became President of Students Union and later VC at a University in USA, Manoj Sinha who also held high positions. All of them were helpful to Ravi-ji and other foreign students. Modi would come to Sangh routinely spending time and interacting with them. Modi was a frequent visitor with Chaman Lal (a pracharak or full time voluntary organizer) who early on recognized his leadership and organizing ability. Although Chaman Lal-ji held no official position within RSS and BJP, all the stalwarts would come to his room to seek his counsel. Pandit Vikash said he shared a room next to Chaman Lal at RSS headquarter and he would see all the BJP big guns, including Vajpayee and Advani, coming to meet Chaman Lal.  
 
Ravi-ji said Chaman Lal- ji (who was de facto head of Sangh External Relations Unit) was very helpful to foreign students who came from the Caribbean. Chaman Lal had a special room that he used to welcome guests and foreign students. He treated foreigners like demigods. (I am familiar with the room because I was entertained there in my many visits to him going back to my first visit in July 1985. Ravi Dev said he was similarly treated when he visited in the mid 1990s. Chaman Lal-ji was very hospitable. He was the most simple, honest, caring, warm, compassionate person I ever met. He was very organized in his program and activities. He was very bright and meticulous in his work. He spoke in perfect English and encouraged me to learn Hindi). Ravi-ji described Chaman Lal like a magnet. He was of royal stock from Lahore. He had a Masters Degree in Biology at a time when few were permitted for such advanced studies. He was tall and good looking. He gave up royalty and academia to serve the people and to champion India’s independence. He lived like a commoner and the life of a Sanyasi (giving up worldly and material things). Ravi-ji said, “He was saintly, a complete sanyasi”. Pandit Vikash said “even sanyasi can’t describe him. He was a great soul, great human being, way beyond Gandhi and other notable figures”.  
 
Chaman Lal-ji founded the foreign unit of RSS, Antar Rashtriya Vibhag interacting with Hindus globally. He was known to have hand-written thousands of correspondences; he displayed to me some of the correspondences he received and addresses (in a large book) of people globally. He loved West Indians and went out of his way to make us feel welcome. He was among the most revered person in Sangh – Vajpayee, Advani, Baleshwar, Modi, and other towering figures respected and admired him. They bow to him out of respect and gratitude for what he did for them. (When he passed away in February 2003, they all came to his funeral rites with the public wanting to know who was that figure that drew VVIPs at his funeral rites; my last encounter was at PBD 2003 at Jhandewala (headquarter of RSS) where he praised West Indians for their cultural and religious retention). Chaman Lal-ji was credited with the high suspense thriller of saving Dr Subramaniam Swamy seat and certain jail time; Indira Gandhi was looking to find Swamy and have him arrested. He dodged arrest. But he had to show up in parliament or have his seat declared vacant for being a no show at three continuous sittings. He had missed two meetings. Chaman Lal arranged for Swamy to sneak into parliament, signed the attendance book, and sneaked out without being arrested, saving his parliamentary seat. Indira Gandhi had no time to have him arrested. Then Swamy disappeared and continued the struggle against Emergency Rule while in hiding. (He escaped to the US but returned shortly thereafter).  
 
Chaman Lal remembered Ravi-ji well, mentioning his name and that of Swami Aksharananda to me when we met in 1985 and in speaking about them in subsequent visits. Ravi Dev, Pandit Vikash, and others would subsequently visit Chaman Lal-ji at RSS headquarters.  
Modi had a very good memory of his encounters with his West Indian friends. Trinidad’s High Commissioner to India, Chandradatt Singh, narrated an incident in which he came across Modi at the airport in Delhi. Modi saw a lapel of Trinidad and Tobago flag on Chandradatt’s shirt, came up to him, and said to him: “I know that flag. You are from Trinidad. I have a very good friend from Trinidad. His name is Ravinder”. Chandradatt, very familiar with Ravi-ji, talked to Modi about Ravi-ji’s activities in Trinidad: Ravi-ji engaged in fulltime voluntary work in Trinidad as a swayamsevak.  
 

mananiya-chamanlalji
 

 
Ravi-ji and Modi would not meet again until 1993 in Washington at a Hindu conference. There, Modi would also meet several other West Indians including Ravi Dev, Dr. Vijay Narayansingh, among others. After a chat with Modi, Dr Narayansingh would recognize his leadership potential, telling Ravi-ji: "he is Prime Ministerial material". Dr Narayansingh would be the first Indo-Caribbean or perhaps any Indian from the diaspora to conclude or predict that Modi would be PM. (Dr. Narayansingh has done a lot for Indians, Trinidad and Tobago, Indo-Caribbeans, and the diaspora at large; he is deserving of national honors from India and the gov't of T&T). Around the same time as the Washington visit and subsequently in New York, Narendra Modi-ji would interact with a group of us (Patanjali Rambrich, Andrew Satyanand, Kid Dharamdatt Durjan, and myself, among others) at shaka training and at community meetings at temples and halls made possible by Dr. Mukund Mody of Staten Island during the late 1990s thru 2004; West Indians encountered Dr. Mody at the India Day Parade in Manhattan in 1981 building a strong a relationship. He facilitated the Indo-Caribbean participation at the Hindu Conference at Madison Square Garden in 1984 and engagements with RSS and BJP leaders including Sar Sangachalak Sudarshan-ji. Some of the encounters with Narendra Modi took place in New Jersey. Dr Mody, Dharamdatt, Ramesh Kalicharran, and I introduced the concepts of a global meet of people of Indian origin or diasporans, honors for those who distinguished themselves in service to the diaspora, an overseas embassy for diasporans, a parley of Indian parliamentarians, a university in Delhi for PIOs, among other ideas. Dharamdatt presented a gift to  Atal Bihari  ajpayee  and boldly pushed these ideas with him with support from Dr. Mody who cheered. The discussions paid dividends when a task force was established leading to the launching of the PIO parliamentarians meet in Delhi in 2000, the PIO Embassy in NY in August 2001, the inauguration of PBD in January 2003, that coincided with the Samman Award, among other benefits for the diaspora. A PIO university was also announced at the second PBD in 2004.     
 
Modi visited Trinidad for the Hindu conference in Trinidad in August 2000 and after a discussion with Ravi Dev and others ventured onwards to Guyana for a couple days engaging Swami, Ravi Dev, and other prominent Hindus. He stayed at Tower Hotel and visited a few places including the Enmore Martyrs monument and the compound that now houses SVN school at Cornelia Ida on the West Coast. When Modi visited Trinidad in his second trip for a Ramayana conference hosted by Maha Sabha, Ravi-ji could not attend the conference because he was in mourning following the death of his daughter around the same time. Modi took time to make a special visit to Ravi-ji’s home in Chaguanas to express condolences.  
 

chaman-lal-stamp
 

 
Modi would become General Secretary of BJP in 2002 and shortly thereafter appointed Chief Minister of Gujarat by Vajpayee and Advani. Advani was responsible for making him the CM. As CM, he came to PBDs to showcase Gujarat. Gujarat had the largest booth at all of the PBDs; Modi was at the booth for hours daily promoting and recruiting investment. Guests would blank him. This writer, Vishnu Bisram, engaged him at all the PBDs -- 2003 and 2004 in Delhi, 2005 in Mumbai, and elsewhere thereafter. Modi came across as a deep thinker with love and appreciation for the Indian diaspora. In 2014, at Madison Square Garden, many Indian Caribbeans, including this writer and his spouse, showed up to welcome PM Modi in a packed arena. In 2015 at PBD in Gandhinagar, as Prime Minister, Modi-ji encountered Indo-Caribbeans – Ashook Ramsaran, Deo Gosine, BK Tiwari, and President Donald Ramotar, among others were there. In January 2017 PBD, Ravi Dev, Teemal Deoroop of Trinidad, and I, among a few other West Indians, encountered him in Bangalore.  In January 2018 in Delhi, he hosted PIO  
 
Parliamentarians summit from Guyana, Surinam, Trinidad, and elsewhere meeting Bharrat Jagdeo, Irfaan Ali, Anil Nandlall, Santokie, among others. In January 2019 PBD, I encountered Modi again in Varanasi and we crossed each other again in January 2023 in Indore. In the many encounters, Modi was warm, friendly and engaging. He is a brilliant orator, a masterful speaker, among a few of his kind. He has a very good memory and is fond of Indian Caribbean people praising them for holding on to their ancestral culture and identity.  

 
(On a separate issue, Ravi-ji explained the Indo-Caribbean role in the founding of Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Simbunath Capildeo, Trinidadian, brother of Dr. Capildeo, during a 1960s visit to India asked the head of RSS, titled Sar Sangha Chalak, what the organization was doing for Hindus overseas. Stunned by the question, the RSS head immediate took action. A formal discussion took place on overseas based Hindus where Simbhunath played a major role. The RSS head called upon Vishnu Hari Dalmiya-ji to serve as chair of RSS foreign Hindus chapter. It later was formalized into the VHP during the 1960s. Ravi-ji and Swami Aksharananda came to study in India through the VHP. Ravi-ji said this body would welcome foreign students. The VHP provided very good reception to foreign students. Dadasaheb Apte was President of VHP when Ravi-ji and Swami received scholarships. Ashook Singhal succeeded Apte as President in 1984 serving till 2011; Singhal had a fallout with BJP criticizing it over the slow pace to build the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. He resigned from VHP in protest. When he passed away in 2015, Modi, Advani-ji, and others showered accolades in tribute to his work).

Dr Vishnu Bisram

Dr. Vishnu Bisram is Guyanese born who received his primary and secondary education in Guyana and tertiary education in the US and India. He is a holder of multiple degrees in the natural sciences, social sciences, and education. He taught for over forty years in the US. He is a specialist on the Indian diaspora traveling globally to research and write about Indian communities.