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Sun 5 December 2021

CJ Werleman explores the growing influence of radical Hindu nationalists in American politics

Whereas the influence of lobby groups associated with guns, pharmaceutical companies and defence contractors in the United States is well known, the growing reach of the Hindutva lobby has flown almost completely under the radar – even evading progressive Democrats, who typically have an attentive eye for human rights concerns.

A glimpse into a growing problem within the global Indian diaspora was revealed earlier this month, when the Washington Post ran an article entitled: “Under Fire from Hindu Nationalist groups, US-based Scholars of South Asia Worry About Academic Freedom”.

The authors described how American journalists, human rights activists and academics, who participated in the first ever major online conference on Hindutva (a form of Hindu nationalism) in the US – “Dismantling Global Hindutva” – were targeted with rape and death threats, while universities, including Harvard and Stanford, were subjected to nearly one million emails and thousands of spam messages.

A key player in the email campaign was the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), an innocuous sounding organisation implying official representation of Hindus among the Indian American population. But, even by HAF’s own admission, “Hindutva is not the same thing as Hinduism”.

HAF is also leading the efforts to cajole and coerce US lawmakers into supporting policies favourable for India’s ruling party – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – and the radical Hindutva movement.

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In fact, the current Indian Government is inseparable from HAF. The organisation’s founding board member, Dr. Mihir Meghani, authored the ideological manifesto, Hindutva – the Great Nationalist Ideology, which guides both the BJP and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In defining the Hindutva ideology, Dr. Meghani calls India the “land of Hindus”, suggesting that the Muslim presence in India is an outcome of “Islamic invasions”, and “forced conversions”, while glorifying the destruction of the Babri Mosque.

Prior to co-founding HAF, Dr. Meghani was active within the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHP-A), having once served as a member of its governing council. The VHP-A says that it is guided by “the same values and ideals” as those of Vishwa Hindu Parishad of India, an organisation designated as a religious militant organisation by the CIA, and cited as a perpetrator of sectarian violence in multiple US State Department reports on religious freedom. 

Dr. Meghani is also associated with several other Hindu extremist groups, such as Sanatan Sanstha (SS) and its affiliate Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS), which is currently under active investigation for involvement in terrorist activities and assassinations of liberal intellectuals.

In 2010, HJS recognized Dr. Meghani’s contributions by bestowing upon him an award recognising his “selfless service to humanity through Hinduism based values and solutions”.

Other HAF leaders, including Dr. Meghani’s fellow co-founder Aseem Shukla, defended the massacre of more than 2,000 Muslims at the hands of organised Hindu nationalist militants during the Gujarat Riots of 2002. He and others at HAF have also attacked mainstream human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, for their respective criticisms of human rights abuses by Hindu nationalists.

Over the years, HAF has been a consistent and ardent apologist for India’s ill-treatment of religious minorities, including pressuring US lawmakers to back off a congressional resolution condemning India’s revocation of Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status in 2019, and its human rights violations in the disputed Muslim majority territory.

Working in tandem with the Indian Embassy in Washington DC, HAF has also successfully lobbied US lawmakers into adopting pro-Indian Government talking points related to Kashmir and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a discriminatory law targeted at Muslims.

“Hindu American Foundation, known among progressive and minority South Asian American groups for using intimidation and the spread of misinformation to counter their advocacy work, has been at the forefront of reinforcing the embassy’s efforts – deterring members of Congress from taking critical positions on India and masquerading as a liberal representative of the Indian American community,” observed The Intercept last year.

HAF has also been a strong advocate of anti-conversion laws, meant to prevent Muslim men from marrying Hindu women, while it is hypocritically silent on forced conversions to Hinduism, as well as “Hinduisation” campaigns carried out by Hindutva organisations.

Ultimately, HAF operates as a sanitized front for India’s and the world’s largest paramilitary organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which was founded in 1925 to inspire a revolution against British colonial rule but without co-operation from Muslims, who its founder Kashav Baliram Hedgewar referred to as “snakes” and “anti-national”.

One of the primary strategies adopted by HAF is to inspire online supporters to swarm critics and opponents of Hindu nationalism with vicious but baseless smears, along with threats of violence, prompting a group of academics in North America to publish the “Hindutva Harassment Field Manual,” a guidance for academics, journalists and human rights activists who become “targeted by hate”.

“A part of the problem is that most people in America have never heard of Hindutva or of Hindu nationalism. This, however, has been changing in the last couple of years because of the accelerating human rights abuses of the Modi regime that have garnered more and more international attention,” says Audrey Trushke, a historian of South Asia and associate professor at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.

The other part of the problem is US lawmakers. Many people have been fooled into believing that HAF advocates for Hinduism and not Hindutva, which means the United States is asleep at the switch when it comes to identifying the threats that such an ideology poses to religious minorities.

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