Last summer, I met a staff member in the United States Congress at a café in Washington DC to talk about the rise of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. His boss, a Republican member of Congress, is an outspoken critic of Modi and the young staff member agreed to meet on condition of anonymity.
“My boss can pretty much say anything he wants on Modi and no one will care. Actually no one will notice,” he told me.
After Modi met last week with the US Ambassador to India, Nancy Powell, signalling a thaw in the US- Modi relations after nine years of deep-freeze, I called this same Congressional aide. “The picture is changing,” he said. “People are definitely thinking twice before criticizing or supporting Modi now.”
It was certainly never like this during the nine years I spent in Washington DC. When I assisted with the 2005 campaign to deny Modi a visa to the US, our job was quite easy: no one knew who Modi was and we did not face any opposition. In denying Modi a visa, we argued that the US would be adhering to its own laws and citing its own reports. This, coupled with the Bush administration’s desire to guard religious freedom globally, made the Modi visa denial seem both logical and non-controversial at the time.
Today the picture is different. While the Indian media often reports that Modi’s mouthpiece in Washington is APCO, Congressional aides I interviewed after the Powell-Modi told me the only pro-Modi activity they see comes from the Hindu America Foundation (HAF).
On November 18, 2013, Congressman Joe Pitts, a Republican from Pennsylvania, introduced House Resolution 417 that urges the US to block Modi a visa should he re-apply. Today the resolution has 43 co-sponsors, 22 Democrats and 21 Republicans, a paltry amount, given that there are 435 members in the US Congress. But the resolution continues to lose sponsors.
I spoke with one Congressional staffer whose boss signed the resolution. According to him, “Each office who signed the resolution received a visit from HAF. They told us the resolution is biased and anti-Hindu. HAF is not promoting Modi but they are definitely trying to undermine anyone in Washington who is critical of Modi.” He added that most members wished the issue would go away. “It is a radioactive issue and members (of Congress) are reluctant to touch this,” he said.
One member of Congress, Republican Steve Chabot of Ohio withdrew his name as an original cosponsor of the resolution after he faced pressure. That Chabot dropped his name is significant—he was one of a few members of Congress who visited Gujarat a few months after the 2002 riots and once compared the situation in Gujarat to Rwanda. This past weekend, another member of Congress, Republican Scott Perry from Pennsylvania, asked to withdraw his name from the resolution. Both members of Congress received visits from the HAF, one Congressional aide told me.
When I attended the Hindu America Foundation reception on Capitol Hill in June 2013, I saw something admirable—an important initiative to help Americans understand Hinduism. The Hindu America Foundation was started in 2003 to serve as an advocacy voice for the estimated two million Hindus in America. Before I moved to Washington DC, I often wondered what is the need, for example, for a separate Filipino America group or a Baha’i American group. But I realized that as US politics changes, it still manages to stay the same. Many people land their first internship because their grandfather went to Yale with a particular Congress member or because their father hung out at the same yacht club as a Senator. If you are a son of immigrants like myself, groups like the Hindu America Foundation are critical—they help you find your way, they connect you to a network, and most importantly, they give you encouragement, something often uncommon among Indian Americans (“Why don’t you work in business consulting instead of politics, Zahir?”).
The Hindu America Foundation is also important because stereotypes of Indians and Hindus, while diminishing, still exist in the US. In the playgrounds of California in the early 1980s, I saw my friend Deepak subjected to this humiliation: why do you worship gods with so many arms? Why do you eat monkey brains? Will you go to hell if you eat beef? Much later when I worked in the House of Representatives, I experienced this all over again: why do you, Neha, still believe in the caste system and will you still hang out with someone when you learn they are from the same caste? And why does your dad have a swastika tattoo? These questions may be more about ignorance but they are exhausting nonetheless, especially when you have heard them since your childhood. The Hindu America Foundation creates resources to help answer these questions and to better inform people.
But I saw a different side of the group when I worked in the US Congress. I once met with representatives from HAF who spoke about the mistreatment of religious minorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh, including Hindus. The meeting went well until I asked about Christians and Muslims in India, as well as Modi’s human rights record. One Hindu America Foundation representative walked away from the table. He later claimed I was being rude and unprofessional.
In 1998, Frontline ran a piece on Hindutva activism online and quoted Mihir Meghani, a co-founder of HAF and a one time volunteer with the VHP America. Meghani is the author of Hindutva: The Great Nationalist Ideology which states, “It is up to the Muslims whether they will be included in the new nationalistic spirit of Bharat…whether they wish to increase Hindu furor or work with the Hindu leadership.” According a source close to Meghani, who declined to be identified, Meghani was in Gujarat last week to meet with Modi. My numerous interview requests to Meghani were not returned.
In her book A Place at the Multicultural Table: The Development of an American Hinduism, Syracuse University Professor Prema Kurien includes more evidence of Meghani’s Hindutva leanings, and observes that, “The contradiction between the rights of minorities in India and the rights demanded for Hindus in the United States was not addressed by Meghani.”
This is not the first instance of HAF’s conservative leanings. In 2009 when Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History was being shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) nonfiction award, the Hindu America Foundation wrote a letter to the NBCC saying,
“Prof. Doniger is known for seeking and presenting provocative and idiosyncratic sexually explicit and Freudian analyses of Hinduism's holiest books… The pornographic depictions of Hindu Gods and Goddesses in Prof. Doniger's books already grace the websites of some banefully anti-Hindu hate sites with their own varied agendas.”
It is an argument not unlike that from the group that protested Doniger’s book in India.
In 2005, the Hindu America Foundation partnered with two other groups, the Vedic Foundation and the Hindu Education Foundation, to push the state of California to change passages on Hinduism in official school textbooks. “If anti-Hindu groups are successful, sixth graders in California public schools, and in following California’s lead, children in public schools across the U.S., will learn a warped, outdated version of Hinduism which is not on par with the portrayal of other religions,” HAF wrote in a statement.
This was opposed by Michael Witzel, a Professor of Sanskrit at Harvard University, as well as UCLA Professor Stanley Wolpert and historian Romila Thapar. Speaking about the effort to change the textbooks, Witzel told Rediff,
“The proposed revisions are not of a scholarly but of a religious-political nature and promoted by Hindutva supporters and non-specialist academics who write on issues outside their areas of expertise.”
It is only recently that HAF has become vocal on Modi. After a bipartisan group of Congressional members criticized Modi’s human rights in November 2012, a letter was sent to one of the attendees, Democratic Congressman Mike Honda of California. Among the signatories was Meghani, as well as Ro Khanna, an Indian American who is currently running in the Democratic primary against Honda.
The letter to Honda stated, “We too deplore the horrific violence that took so many lives, both Hindu and Muslim, in the state of Gujarat in 2002” and noted “India’s judiciary is known to be fiercely independent and has a history of tackling high profile cases and convicting high profile leaders.” (That last statement may be the greatest indictment against the signatories of the letter, given the state of India’s courts.) When I asked Niraj Baxi, the former president of the National Federation of Indian American Association, why he signed the letter, he told me, “I only signed the letter because of the Hindu America Foundation.” Khanna has since distanced himself from the letter. He has raised $1,975,000, many of this from tech titans like Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google. Sources told me that Honda does not want to talk about Modi, publicly or privately.
And as if this upcoming electoral contest for California’s influential, wealthy, heavily Democratic Silicon Valley district was not interesting enough, Vanila Singh, a Republican 43-year-old-physician, recently jumped into the same Congressional race against Honda and Khanna. Singh is a volunteer with the Hindu America Foundation and she is supported by Shalabh “Shalli” Kumar, the controversial Chicago businessman who funded a trip a Congressional trip to meet Modi in 2013. One of the three members of Congress on that trip, Cathy Rogers, has since distanced herself from Kumar, as has Singh. HAF has been careful not to endorse any of the candidates, given its US non-profit status.
Like all groups, HAF is not a monolith, nor can it be judged by one of its members alone, and others I interviewed in the US Congress praised HAF and welcome their presence in Washington. “They have really been a great addition to the discussion,” a Democratic aide told me. This person added that since HAF has been active in Washington, the US has started to recognize Diwali and paid greater attention to the plight of Hindus in countries like Bangladesh. She also pointed out that many members of Congress are open to meet with HAF and that Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat from Hawaii and the first Hindu elected to the US Congress, has attended HAF events herself (and also opposed HR 417).
Indeed some of the criticism of HAF is simplistic, as Sheetal Shah, an HAF director, wrote on her blog “Om Sweet Om.” She points out that it is unfair to criticize HAF for what its founders did 15 or 20 years ago, when the only Hindu groups in the US were outfits like the VHP. I also know, having spent most of my career at non-profit organizations, that in every group there is often at least one person whose politics is odious, that rogue person who ends up blabbering to the media and sullying the pot for others. I also know that many people join HAF because they want to change the group, to push it in new directions, something I admire. And as Amardeep Singh, a professor at Lehigh University, writes in an important piece, sometimes the word “Yankee Hindutva” is to easily thrown about.
Other Congressional aides told me the push for Modi comes does not come from HAF but from the United States India Political Action Committee, or USINPAC. Its chairman Sanjay Puri admitted to the Times of India, “We lobbied against (House Resolution 417) because it would have interfered in the electoral process now underway in India.” Whether or not APCO is connected to HAF or USINPAC is unclear and my interview request to APCO was not returned.
Of course this past week’s Modi meeting did not happen because of the Hindu America Foundation, APCO, USINPAC or any lobbying group. The meeting was bound to happen, given the US India relationship. But what is fascinating is that groups that once hid their affection for Modi now feel emboldened to declare it.
Zahir Janmohamed lives and writes in Ahmedabad.