Rya Jetha (PO ’23)
I am an American Indian raised in Mumbai, with an American passport, currently attending college in California. I feel very Indian; yet, I have the political power to vote in a country that, until I came to college, I associated with summer vacations and my grandmother’s cornbread. My vote belongs to a country that I am still figuring out, a country that does not feel like home. So, as an Indian American, how do I make my 2020 vote meaningful to me, my upbringing, and the country I call home?
Last week, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump were enjoying a dinner of Cajun spiced shrimp, lamb biryani and hazelnut apple pie, mobs in northeast Delhi set mosques on fire. During Trump’s two-day visit in India, months of protests against the new citizenship law, which makes it easier for non-Muslim migrants to become Indian citizens, turned violent in the nation’s capital. As smoke cloaked the Delhi skyline, Trump commented that “He [Modi] wants people to have religious freedom,” continuing a pattern of world leaders favoring business-forward Modi over human-rights abusing Modi.
The introduction of the new citizenship law in India boils down to Hindutva: the divisive ideology peddled by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and their parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Hindutva is an ideology that defines Indian culture in terms of Hindu values and seeks to establish the hegemony of Hindus in secular India. The citizenship law fits into a pattern of BJP policies that threaten to turn Muslims into second-class citizens.
Hindutva is not a monster born solely within India’s domestic realm: it is well known that the RSS was explicitly influenced by the European fascist movements of Hitler and Mussolini in the late 1930s and 1940s. Similarly, Hindutva today does not operate within an Indian vacuum. Ramesh Subramaniam, Mumbai coordinator of RSS overseas work, told the Times of India that there are 39 shakhas or branches of the RSS worldwide. While Nepal has the largest number of shakhas outside India, the United States comes in second with 172 shakhas as of 2016. These shakhas aim to create what Benedict Anderson calls “long distance nationalism” within the Indian diaspora to gain financial and volunteer support for promoting Hindutva in India. In the United States, this “long distance nationalism” has manifested as a movement that historian Vijay Prashad calls “Yankee Hindutva.”
“Yankee Hindutva ” is a force to be reckoned with. Indian Americans, the majority of which are Hindu, account for just one percent of the US population. Yet, they are the wealthiest minority group and among the most generous donors to U.S. presidential elections. While most Indians in the United States voted for Hilary Clinton in 2016, the diaspora largely supports Modi and his right-wing agenda. As of now, thirteen percent of Indian Americans support Trump. However, support for Trump within the Indian American community is expected to rise in the 2020 election after the chummy Trump-Modi appearances at Texas last year and in Ahmedabad last week and because of Trump’s 2017 tax cuts that favored wealthy Indian Americans.
The combination of wealth and ideological fervor of the Hindu-American community in the United States has penetrated the upper echelons of American politics. Tulsi Gabbard has been called the RSS’s American Mascot by Telegraph India after it was revealed that she received at least 105 donations of hundreds of thousands of dollars since 2011 from current and former members of U.S. RSS affiliates. She has also failed to recognize Modi’s divisive politics, calling him “a man on a mission.” Pete Buttigieg, too, has ties to the Hindu nationalism. His policy director on the campaign trail was Sonal Shah, a former national coordinator of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, an organization under the RSS umbrella. Shah’s links to Hindu nationalism go back a generation — her father was the former Vice President of Overseas Friends of the Bhartiya Janata Party.
As Gabbard faces increasing pressure to end her lethargic Presidential campaign and Buttigieg ended his bid on Sunday, attention is now focused on Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. What do the democratic front-runners have to say about the surge in India’s right-wing Hindutva politics?
In September 2019, Joe Biden’s campaign announced a new director of outreach to the Asian-American Pacific Islander community, Amit Jani. The announcement came just weeks after the BJP revoked article 370, a constitutional provision that gave the state of Kashmir autonomy, and reports surfaced that the BJP is building mass detention camps in the northeastern state of Assam. Imraan Siddiqi, executive director of the Arizona chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, commented that the timing of Biden’s hiring of Jani raises red flags: “One would think that Modi and his ideology would be a pariah politically around the world,” and yet “Biden [is] elevating someone who is in support of this now bordering on fascist regime.” An investigation by The Intercept revealed that Jani’s father, Suresh Jani, hails from the same village in Gujarat as Modi, and is one of the founders of the Overseas Friends of the BJP. Jani’s mother, Deepti Jani, worked for Modi’s reelection campaign in 2019, appearing on TV Asia as a “Community Activist, BJP Supporter.” Amit Jani’s strong ties to the BJP are worrying. Biden’s decision to hire him, even more so.
Bernie Sanders does not appear to have any dubious connections to Hindu-nationalists. Sanders has been one of the most outspoken Presidential candidates in criticizing Trump’s appeasement of Modi while in India, tweeting “Over 200 million Muslims call India home. Widespread anti-Muslim mob violence has killed at least 27 and injured many more. Trump responds by saying, ‘That’s up to India.’ This is a failure of leadership on human rights.” Sanders has also been outspoken about the situation in Kashmir, expressing concern that “the Indian government has revoked Kashmir’s autonomy, cracked down on dissent and instituted a communications blockade.” Indian Americans, however, are not enchanted by Sanders. Adapa Prasad, Vice President of the Overseas Friends of the BJP, told The Atlantic that Sanders is unpopular among the community because of his condemnation of Modi’s actions in Kashmir and his proposals to tax wealthy Americans, which do not “gel with the Indian American community.”
The complex relationships that the current and ex-presidential candidates have with the Indian diaspora and Hindu nationalism confirm that our votes this election season are not limited to the domestic realm. In a globalized world, our votes matter not only for national issues such as healthcare reform, wealth redistribution and a revisiting of gun laws, but also for global issues of human rights and rising authoritarianism the world over. Navigating the complexities of nationality, citizenship and homeland as an immigrant to the United States can be alienating. For me, using the elections to embrace and be informed by the complexities of my identity makes my vote feel meaningful to me.
Thank you to Izzy Davis for editing the piece!