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Former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback to receive Mahatma Gandhi Award for pluralism

Former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback will receive an award named after Mahatma Gandhi for his work as the country’s international voice for religious freedom.

The Hindu American Foundation announced Thursday that next month it will present Brownback, who now serves as President Donald Trump’s ambassador at-large for international religious freedom, with the Mahatma Gandhi Award for Advancing Pluralism.

“This award is bestowed upon individuals and institutions who have demonstrated a commitment to fostering one of America’s greatest strength, its inclusive and pluralistic character, and appropriately named after India’s founding father Mahatma Gandhi, who sacrificed life and limb to advance pluralism,” the foundation said in its announcement.

The foundation praised Brownback’s advocacy for Hindu minorities in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other Muslim majority countries.

The award is named after the Indian leader whose commitment to nonviolent resistance served as a model for the U.S. civil rights movement.

Brownback met with representatives of India’s government during his final full year as governor following the hate crime murder of Indian-born engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Olathe.

Brownback’s time as Kansas governor coincided with Gandhi’s great-grandson’s service in the Kansas legislature. Former state Rep. Shanti Gandhi, a Topeka Republican, served one term in the Kansas House from 2013 to 2015 during Brownback’s governorship.

The former Kansas senator and governor’s selection as the country’s primary voice for religious minorities proved surprisingly controversial.

Trump tapped Brownback for the post in July 2017, but he was not confirmed until the following year after the Kansas Republican faced strong opposition from Senate Democrats based on his record of opposing LGBT rights.

Vice President Mike Pence had to cast a rare tie-breaking vote to confirm Brownback to the post.

It’s a role that puts Brownback under the purview of another Kansan, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose time in Congress coincided with Brownback’s time as governor.

“You know Ambassador Brownback’s doing fantastic work on religious freedom here, important work. It’s great to have another Kansan here, someone that I know and trust and value,” Pompeo told The Star earlier this year.

Brownback has mostly avoided controversy during his ambassadorship, but he faced scrutiny in 2018 after Reuters reported that he lobbied the British government on behalf of anti-Muslim activist Tommy Robinson, who was in jail for disrupting a trial.

Brownback has been praised by religious organizations and media for raising the profile of his office, a lesser-known diplomatic post established in 1998 that has traditionally gone to clerics.

Deseret News, a newspaper owned by the Mormon Church, published a profile earlier this month that highlighted Brownback’s efforts to elevate the issue of religious freedom both in Washington and abroad.

“Can America’s religious freedom ambassador save the world?” the story’s headline asked readers.

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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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