By Richard Springer
David Williams, a Republican Party candidate for governor of Kentucky, ignited a firestorm of protests nationwide in the Indian American community by criticizing Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear, his Democratic opponent in the Nov. 8 election, for participating in a Hindu ceremony to celebrate a groundbreaking for a $180-million manufacturing plant in Elizabethtown, Ky.
Williams lambasted the Kentucky governor for “participating with Hindu priests, participating in a religious ceremony. He’s sitting down there with his legs crossed participating in Hindu prayers, with a dot on his forehead with incense burning around him. I don’t know what the man was thinking.”
The plant is being built by India-based Flex Films, a packaging application firm. The project will create 250 jobs in a state hard hit by the recession. Beshear, the son of a Baptist preacher, recruited Flex Films to Kentucky during a recent visit to India.
The president of the Kentucky state Senate, Williams has steadfastly refused to apologize for his remarks. He was trailing in the polls by over 25 percent at press deadline.
Williams said he objected not to Beshear attending the event, but to his “worship of idols.” He added that as a Christian, he would not participate in Jewish, Muslim or Hindu prayers and hoped Hindus would “receive Jesus Christ as their personal savior.”
He qualified his remarks later by saying he “strongly” believes in freedom of religion.
“What I cannot understand is why Governor Beshear has a long pattern of opposing outward displays of the Christian faith such as Christmas trees, prayers before high school football games, and posting the Ten Commandments, but apparently has no problem personally participating in displays of non-Christian religions.”
Response was swift by Indian American organizations and some elected officials.
“The words of Sen. Williams are not only an affront to Hindu Americans, but all Americans as he conjures up the lowest sentiments of exclusion and bigotry,” said Suhag Shukla, managing director and legal counsel of the Hindu American Foundation.
“Williams’ remarks are shameful and should be condemned by Kentuckians and Americans alike,” added Ohio Rep. Jay P. Goyal, D-Mansfield. “We live in a world today where we should be aiming to be more accepting of other cultures, and instead we have people like David Williams saying very insensitive things that deride others for showing a sense of respect for other cultures.”
HAF Nov. 4 issued a press release saying Shukla and Williams had a “civil” follow-up phone conversation about the issue. “While we strongly disagree with (Williams’) comments and opinions, we appreciate his efforts in reaching out to us,” Shukla said.
“Although Williams reiterated that as a Christian it was his hope that Hindus receive Christ as their savior, he added that he did not intend to offend Hindus and would never, in his official capacity, discriminate against anyone on the basis of their beliefs,” the HAF press release said.
But the issue is not over, at least as far as the Indian American community is concerned.
USINPAC chairman Sanjay Puri said in a statement, “It is unfortunate that instead of appreciating the large number of jobs and investment the plant will bring to Kentucky, candidate David Williams chose to display such intolerance and disrespect towards the religious sentiments of the Indian American community.”
The Atlanta, Ga.-based Asian American Hotel Owners Association in a statement said Williams’ remarks were “insensitive and inappropriate.” AAHOA chairman Hemant Patel added, “We are surprised that an elected official with more than two decades of public service would pit one Kentuckian against another based upon cultural differences. Conversely, AAHOA commends Gov. Beshear for his inclusiveness and for his long-term vision for a prosperous Kentucky.”
Maryland House of Delegates members Kumar Barve, Aruna Miller and Sam Arora issued a joint statement blasting Williams.
“In the difficult times we face,” Miller said, “I cannot fathom why anyone would choose to use such inflammatory language instead of celebrating the economic impact and jobs the plant will create.”
Arora said, “As a Baptist, I am embarrassed that someone would try to use our faith as cover for such inappropriate remarks. This is the kind of desperate remark we hear from candidates who cling to fear instead of moving our economy forward.”
Barve said, “Hindus across the globe recently celebrated Diwali, one of the holiest days in the Hindu religion. I believe Williams could take a lesson from (Maryland) Gov. Martin O’Malley who is hosting his third annual Diwali celebration to recognize the valuable contributions of the Indian American community.”
In a letter to Williams, South Asian American Leading Together executive director Deepa Iyer and SAALT policy director Priya Murthy demanded a retraction and apology.
“In addition to being offensive to a large segment of the American population who practices Hinduism, your comments also run counter to the ideals of religious pluralism that have long enriched our country,” they said. “Implied in your statements is the message that those who follow certain religions are not welcome in this country and are not American.”
Beshear campaign spokesman Matt Erwin in a statement called Williams’ remarks “pathetic and desperate” by a “candidate facing devastating poll numbers.”
He added that Beshear’s participation in the traditional Hindu blessing ceremony was “to show partnership in the new endeavor.” Flex Films chief executive Pradeep Tyle and director Anantshree “Audi” Chaturavedi attended the ceremony in Elizabethtown.
Williams’ comments also elicited criticism from a Democratic Party group. The Indian American Leadership Initiative said Williams’ remarks are “just another show of intolerance and ignorance from the GOP.”
India-West contacted the offices of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley to determine if either of the two Indian American GOP leaders had issued any comment or press release. Neither press office responded and no press releases on Williams’ comments were posted on their Web sites by press deadline.