Hindutva in the USA: Understanding the Promotion of Ethnic and Religious Conflict

  • By Adem Carroll, Justice for All USA and Sadia Masroor, Justice for All Canada
  • Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.
  • Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
  • The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
  • The ceremony of innocence is drowned–
  • The best lack all conviction, while the worst
  • Are full of passionate intensity.

Suggested Citation:

Carroll, A., & Masroor, S. (2022). Hindutva in the USA: Understanding the Promotion of Ethnic and Religious Conflict. Paper presented at the International Center for Ethno-Religious Mediation’s 7th Annual International Conference on Ethnic and Religious Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding on September 29, 2022 at Manhattanville College, Purchase, New York.

Background

India is an ethnically diverse nation of 1.38 billion. With its own Muslim minority estimated at 200 million, India’s politics might have been expected to embrace pluralism as part of its identity as the “world’s largest democracy.” Unfortunately, in recent decades India’s politics have become ever more divisive and Islamophobic.

To understand its divisive political and cultural discourse one might keep in mind 200 years of British colonial domination, first by the British East India Company and then by the British Crown. Moreover, the bloody 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan split the region along lines of religious identity, resulting in decades of tension between India and its neighbor, Pakistan, a nation with an almost entirely Muslim population of 220 million.

“Hindutva” is a supremacist ideology synonymous with a resurgent Hindu nationalism opposing secularism and envisioning India as a “Hindu Rashtra (nation).” Hindutva is the guiding principle of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing, Hindu nationalist, paramilitary organization founded in 1925 that is linked to a vast network of right-wing organizations, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which has led the government of India since 2014. Hindutva does not merely appeal to the upper caste Brahmin seeking to hold on to privilege but is framed as a populist movement appealing to “the neglected middle [1].”

Despite India’s post-colonial constitution banning discrimination based on caste identity, the caste system nevertheless remains a cultural force in India, for example mobilized into political pressure groups. Communal violence and even murder are still explained and even rationalized in terms of caste. Indian writer, Devdutt Pattanaik, describes how “Hindutva has successfully strengthened Hindu vote banks by acknowledging the reality of caste as well as the underlying Islamophobia and unabashedly equating it with nationalism.” And Professor Harish S. Wankhede has concluded[2], “The current right-wing dispensation does not wish to disturb the functional social normative. Instead, Hindutva proponents politicize caste division, encourage patriarchal social values and celebrate Brahmanical cultural assets.”

Increasingly, minority communities have suffered from religious intolerance and prejudice under the new BJP government. Targeted most extensively, Indian Muslims have witnessed a chilling rise in incitement by elected leaders from promotion of online harassment campaigns and economic boycotts of Muslim owned businesses to blatant calls for genocide by some Hindu leaders. Anti-minority violence has included lynching and vigilantism.[3]

On a policy level, exclusionary Hindu nationalism is embodied in India’s 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which threatens to disenfranchise millions of Bengali-origin Muslims. As noted by the US Commission on International Freedom, “CAA provides a fast track for non-Muslim immigrants from Muslim-majority Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan to apply for and gain Indian citizenship. The law essentially grants individuals of selected, non-Muslim communities in these countries refugee status within India and reserves the category of ‘illegal migrant’ for Muslims alone.”[4] Rohingya Muslims fleeing genocide in Myanmar and living in Jammu have been threatened with violence as well as deportation by BJP leaders.[5] Anti-CAA activists, journalists and students have been harassed and detained.

Hindutva ideology is spread by numerous organizations in at least 40 nations around the world, led by supporters of India’s ruling political party and of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Sangh Parivar (“Family of the RSS”) is an umbrella term for the collection of Hindu nationalist organizations that includes the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP, or “World Hindu Organization,”) which the CIA classified as a militant religious organization in its World Factbook’s 2018 entry[6] for India. Claiming to “protect” Hindu religion and culture, the VHP youth wing Bajrang Dal has executed a great number of violent acts[7] targeting Indian Muslims and was also classified as militant. Though the Factbook does not currently make such determinations, there were reports in August 2022 that Bajrang Dal is organizing “weapons training for Hindus.”[8]

However, many other organizations have also spread the Hindutva nationalist perspective both in India and globally. For example, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA) may be legally separate from the VHP in India that incited the destruction of the historic Babri Mosque in 1992 and the mass intercommunal violence that followed.[9] However, it has clearly supported VHP leaders that promote violence. For example, in 2021 the VHPA invited Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati, chief priest of the Dasna Devi Temple in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, and the leader of Hindu Swabhiman (Hindu Self-Respect), to be honored speaker at a religious festival. Among other provocations, Saraswati is notorious for praising the Hindu nationalist killers of Mahatma Gandhi, and for calling Muslims demons.[10] The VHPA was forced to rescind their invitation following a #RejectHate petition, but others associated with the organization, such as Sonal Shah, have recently been appointed to influential positions in the Biden Administration.[11]

In India, Rashtrasevika Samiti represents the women’s wing, subordinate to the male organization of RSS. The Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) has operated in the USA, starting informally in the late 1970s and then incorporated in 1989, while also operating in over 150 other countries with an estimated 3289 branches[12]. In the USA, Hindutva values are also expressed and promoted by the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), an advocacy organization that depicts criticism of Hindutva as the same as Hinduphobia.[13]

These organizations often overlap, forming a highly engaged network of Hindutva leaders and influencers. This linkage became apparent in September 2019 during the Howdy Modi rally in Houston, Texas, a moment when the political potential of the Hindu American community received widespread media attention in the USA. Standing side by side, President Trump and Prime Minister Modi lavished praise on each other. But ‘Howdy, Modi’ gathered together not just President Trump and 50,000 Indian Americans, but numerous politicians, including Democratic House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Texas Republican Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz.

As the Intercept reported at the time[14], “The chair of the ‘Howdy, Modi’ organizing committee, Jugal Malani, is the brother-in-law of the national vice president of the HSS[15] and an adviser to the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of USA[16], an education nonprofit whose Indian counterpart is affiliated with an RSS offshoot. Malani’s nephew, Rishi Bhutada*, was the event’s head spokesperson and is a board member of the Hindu American Foundation[17], known for its aggressive tactics to influence political discourse on India and Hinduism. Another spokesperson, Gitesh Desai, is president[18] of Houston’s chapter of Sewa International, a service organization linked to the HSS.”

In an important and highly detailed 2014 research paper[19] mapping the Hindutva landscape in the USA, South Asia Citizens Web researchers had already described the Sangh Parivar (the Sangh “family”), the network of groups at the forefront of the Hindutva movement, as having an estimated membership numbering in the millions, and funneling millions of dollars to nationalist groups in India.

Including all religious groups, the Indian population of Texas has doubled in the last 10 years to close to 450,000, but most remain aligned with the Democratic Party. The impact of the Howdy Modi moment[20] reflected more Prime Minister Modi’s success in exemplifying Indian aspirations than in any attraction to President Donald Trump. The community is more also pro-Modi than pro-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as many Indian immigrants[21] in the United States come from South India where Modi’s ruling BJP does not hold much sway. Moreover, though some Hindutva leaders in the USA aggressively supported Trump’s border wall in Texas, a growing number of Indian immigrants are crossing the southern border[22], and his administration’s hardline policies on immigration — particularly limits on H1-B visas, and the plan to strip H-4 visa holders (spouses of H1-B visa holders) of the right to work—alienated many others in the community. “Hindu nationalists in America have utilized their minority status to protect themselves while supporting a majoritarian supremacist movement in India,” according to Dieter Friedrich, a South Asia affairs analyst quoted by the Intercept.[23] In both India and the USA, divisive nationalist leaders were promoting majoritarian politics to appeal to their base voters.[24]

As journalist Sonia Paul wrote in The Atlantic,[25] “Radha Hegde, a New York University professor and co-editor of the Routledge Handbook of the Indian Diaspora, framed Modi’s Houston rally as spotlighting a voting bloc most Americans don’t consider. ‘In this moment of Hindu nationalism,’ she told me, ‘They are being awakened as Hindu Americans.’” It is likely that many of the Hindu American members of RSS-affiliated groups are not fully indoctrinated, but merely aligned with resurgent Indian nationalism. And yet it remains highly troubling that this “awakening” took place only weeks after the Modi government stripped Jammu and Kashmir of their autonomy and put two million Muslims at risk of statelessness in Assam State.[26]

Textbook Culture Wars

As Americans already know from ongoing “parental rights” and Critical Race Theory (CRT) debates, school curriculum battles shape and are shaped by a nation’s larger cultural wars. The systematic rewriting of history is a critical component of Hindu nationalist ideology and Hindutva infiltration of curriculum appears to remain a national concern both in India and in the USA. While some improvements in the depiction of Hindus may well have been needed, the process has been politicized from the beginning.[27]

In 2005 Hindutva activists sued [whom] to prevent “negative images” of caste from being included in the curriculum[28]. As Equality Labs described in their 2018 survey of caste in America, “their edits included trying to erase the word “Dalit”, erase the origin of Caste in Hindu scripture, while at the same time diminishing the challenges to Caste and Brahmanism by Sikh, Buddhist, and Islamic traditions. Additionally, they attempted to introduce mythical details into the history of the Indus Valley Civilization while trying to vilify Islam as solely a religion of violent conquest in South Asia.”[29]

For Hindu nationalists, India’s past consists of a glorious Hindu civilization followed by centuries of Muslim rule that Prime Minister Modi has described as a thousand years of “slavery.”[30] Respected historians who persist in describing a more complex view receive extensive online harassment for “anti-Hindu, anti-India” views. For example, 89-year old pre-eminent historian, Romila Thapar, receives a regular stream of pornographic invective from Modi followers.[31]

In 2016 the University of California (Irvine) turned down a 6-million-dollar grant from the Dharma Civilization Foundation (DCF) after numerous academic specialists signed a petition noting that DCF affiliates had attempted to introduce factually inaccurate changes to California sixth-grade textbooks about Hinduism[32], and expresses concern regarding a media report indicating the donation was contingent on the university selecting the DCF’s desired candidates. The faculty committee found the foundation “extremely ideologically driven” with “extreme right-wing notions.”[33] Afterward, the DCF announced plans to raise a million dollars[34] for Hindu University of America[35], which provides institutional support for persons in academic fields prioritized by the Sangh, as the educational wing of the VHPA.

In 2020, parents associated with Mothers Against Teaching Hate in Schools (Project-MATHS) questioned why the Epic reading app, which the public schools all over the US have in their curriculum, featured a biography of Prime Minister Modi featuring his false claims regarding his educational attainments, as well as his attacks on the Congress Party of Mahatma Gandhi.[36]

Tensions have continued to escalate. In the Fall of 2021 human rights advocates and critics of the Modi regime organized an online conference, Dismantling Global Hindutva, including panels on the caste system, Islamophobia and differences between Hinduism the religion and Hindutva the majoritarian ideology. The event was co-sponsored by departments of more than 40 American universities, including Harvard and Columbia. The Hindu American Foundation and other members of the Hindutva movement denounced the event as creating a hostile environment for Hindu students.[37] Nearly a million emails were sent out in protest to universities, and the event website went offline for two days after a false complaint. By the time the event took place on September 10, its organizers and speakers had received death and rape threats. In India, Pro-Modi news channels promoted allegations that the conference provided an “intellectual cover for the Taliban.”[38]

Hindutva organizations claimed that the event spread “Hinduphobia.” “They use the language of American multiculturalism to brand any critique as Hinduphobia,” said Gyan Prakash, a historian at Princeton University who was a speaker at the Hindutva conference.[39] Some academics withdrew from the event out of fear for their families, but others like Audrey Truschke, a professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University, already receive death and rape threats from Hindu nationalists for her work on Muslim rulers of India. She often requires armed security for public speaking events.

A group of Hindu students from Rutgers petitioned the administration, demanding that she not be allowed to teach courses on Hinduism and India.[40] Professor Audrey Truschke was also named in HAF lawsuit for tweeting[41] about the al Jazeera story and the Hindu American Foundation. On September 8, 2021, she also testified in Congressional Briefing, “Hindutva Attacks on Academic Freedom.”[42]

How has right-wing Hindu nationalism developed its extensive reach in academia?[43] In early 2008 the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate (CSFH) had released its report, “Unmistakably Sangh: The National HSC and its Hindutva Agenda,” focusing on the growth of the Sangh Parivar’s student wing in the USA – the Hindu Students Council (HSC).[44] Based on VHPA tax returns, filings with US Patents Office, Internet domain registry information, archives and publications of the HSC, the report documents a “long and dense trail of connections between the HSC and the Sangh from 1990 to the present.” The HSC was founded in 1990 as a project of the VHP of America.[45] HSC has promoted divisive and sectarian speakers such as Ashok Singhal and Sadhvi Rithambara and opposed students’ efforts to nurture inclusivity.[46]

However, Indian American youth may join the HSC without an awareness of the “invisible” connections between HSC and the Sangh. For example, as an active member of his Hindu student club at Cornell University, Samir looked to encourage his community to engage in social and racial justice dialogue as well as in fostering spirituality. He told me how he reached out to the National Hindu Council to organize a larger student conference that was held at MIT in 2017. In speaking with his organizing partners, he soon became uncomfortable and disappointed when the HSC invited author Rajiv Malhotra as keynote speaker.[47] Malhotra is an ardent supporter of Hindutva, a confrontational attacker of Hindutva critics as well as online ranter against academics he disagrees with[48]. For example, Malhotra has consistently targeted scholar Wendy Doniger, attacking her in sexualized and personal terms which were later repeated in successful allegations in India that in 2014 got her book, “The Hindus,” banned in that country.

Despite the risks, some individuals and organizations have continued to push back against Hindutva publicly[49], while others seek alternatives. Since his experience with HSC, Samir has found a more congenial and open-minded Hindu community and is now serving as a board member of Sadhana, a progressive Hindu organization. He comments: “Faith has an essentially personal dimension. However, in the USA there are ethnic and racial fault lines that require attention, but in India these are largely on religious lines, and even if you prefer to keep faith and politics separate, it’s hard not to expect some comment from local religious leaders. Diverse views exist in every congregation, and some temples stay away from any “political” comment, while others indicate a more nationalist orientation, through support for the building of the Ram Janmabhoomi Temple on the location of the destroyed Ayodhya mosque for example. I don’t think the Left/right divisions in the USA are the same as in India. The Hindutva in American contexts converges with the Evangelical Right on Islamophobia, but not on all issues. Right-wing ties are complex.”

Legal Push Back

Recent legal actions have made the issue of caste even more visible. In July 2020, California regulators sued the tech company Cisco Systems over alleged discrimination toward an Indian engineer by his Indian colleagues while all of them were working in the state[50]. The lawsuit claims that Cisco did not sufficiently address the aggrieved Dalit’s employee’s concerns that he was abused by upper caste Hindu co-workers. As Vidya Krishnan writes in the Atlantic, “The Cisco case marks a historic moment. The company—any company—would never have faced such charges in India, where caste-based discrimination, though illegal, is an accepted reality… the ruling will set a precedent for all American companies, particularly those with large numbers of Indian employees or operations in India.”[51] 

The next year, in May of 2021, a federal lawsuit alleged that a Hindu organization, Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, widely known as BAPS, lured more than 200 lower-caste workers to the U.S. to build an extensive Hindu temple in New Jersey, paying them as little as $1.20 an hour for several years.[52] The lawsuit said workers lived in a fenced-in compound where their movements were monitored by cameras and guards. BAPS counts over 1200 mandirs in its network and over 50 temples in the USA and the UK, some quite grand. While known for community service and philanthropy, BAPS has publicly supported and funded the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, built on the site of an historic mosque demolished by Hindu nationalists, and India’s Prime Minister Modi has had close ties to the organization. BAPS has denied the allegations of worker exploitation.[53]

Around the same time, a broad coalition of Indian American activists and civil rights organizations called on the US Small Business Administration (SBA) to probe how Hindu right-wing groups received hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funds, as reported by Al Jazeera in April 2021.[54] Research had shown that RSS linked organizations received more than $833,000 in direct payments, and for loans. Al Jazeera quoted John Prabhudoss, chairman of Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations: “Government watchdog groups as well as human rights organizations need to take serious note of the misappropriation of COVID funding by Hindu supremacist groups in the United States.”

Islamophobia

As already noted, in India the promotion of Anti-Muslim discourse is widespread. An anti-Muslim pogrom in Delhi[55] coincided with Donald Trump’s first presidential visit to India[56]. And during the last two years online campaigns have promoted fear about “love jihad”[57] (targeting interfaith friendships and marriages), Coronajihad”[58], (blaming the spread of the pandemic on Muslims) and “Spit Jihad” (i.e., “Thook Jihad”) alleging that Muslim food vendors spit into the food they sell.[59]

In December 2021, Hindu leaders at a “Religious Parliament” in Haridwar made blatant calls for genocidal mass killing of Muslims[60], with no condemnation from Prime Minister Modi or his followers. Only months earlier, the VHP of America[61] had invited Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati, chief priest of the Dasna Devi Temple as main speaker[62]. The planned event was canceled after numerous complaints. Yati had already been infamous for “spewing hate” for years and was taken into custody after calling for mass murder in December.

There is of course an extensive existing Islamophobic discourse in Europe[63], the USA, Canada and other nations. Mosque construction has been opposed in the USA for many years[64].  Such opposition is usually expressed in terms of increased traffic concerns but in 2021 it was notable how Hindu community members have been particularly visible opponents of a proposed mosque expansion in Naperville, IL[65].

In Naperville opponents expressed concern regarding the height of the minaret and the possibility of call to prayer being broadcast. Recently in Canada, Ravi Hooda, a volunteer for the local branch of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS)[66] and member of the Peel District School Board in the Toronto area, tweeted that allowing Muslim prayer calls to be broadcast opens the door for “Separate lanes for camel & goat riders” or laws “requiring all women to cover themselves from head to toe in tents.”[67]

Such hateful and demeaning rhetoric has inspired violence and support for violence. It is well known that in 2011, right wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik was inspired in part by Hindutva ideas to kill 77 youth members affiliated with the Norwegian Labor Party. In January 2017[68], a terrorist attack on a mosque in Quebec City killed 6 immigrant Muslims and injured 19[69], inspired by a robust right wing presence locally (including a chapter of a Nordic hate group[70]) as well as online hate. Again in Canada, in 2021 the Canadian Hindu Advocacy group led by Islamophobe Ron Banerjee, planned a rally in support of the man who killed four Muslims with his truck in the Canadian city of London[71]. Even the UN Secretary General had noticed and condemned this targeted attack[72]. Banarjee is notorious. In a video posted on Rise Canada’s YouTube account in October 2015, Banerjee could be seen holding a Qur’an while spitting on it and wiping it across his rear end. In a video uploaded on Rise Canada’s YouTube account in January 2018, Banerjee described Islam as “basically a rape cult.”[73]

Spreading Influence

Obviously most Hindu nationalists in the USA do not support incitement or such acts of violence. However, Hindutva inspired organizations are in the forefront of making friends and influencing people in government. The success of their efforts can be seen in the failure of the US Congress to condemn the abrogation of Kashmir’s autonomy in 2019 or the disenfranchisement of Muslims in Assam State. It can be noted in the US State Department’s failure to designate India as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), despite the strong recommendation of the US Commission of International Religious Freedom.

As energetic and determined as in its infiltration of the US education system, Hindutva outreach targets all levels of government, as they have every right to do. However, their pressure tactics can be aggressive. The Intercept[74] has described how Indian American Congressman Ro Khanna withdrew from a May 2019 briefing on Caste Discrimination at the last minute due to “pressure from many influential Hindu groups.”[75] His colleague Pramila Jayapal remained the event’s sole sponsor. Along with organizing protests at his community events,[76] activists mobilized more than 230 Hindu and Indian American groups and individuals, including Hindu American Foundation, to send Khanna a letter criticizing his statement on Kashmir and asking him to withdraw from the Congressional Pakistan Caucus, which he had recently joined.

Representatives Ilham Omar and Rashida Tlaib have been resistant to such pressure tactics, but many others have not; for example, Rep. Tom Suozzi (D, NY), who chose to backtrack on principled statements on Kashmir. And before the Presidential elections, Hindu American Foundation warned darkly about Democratic Party leadership remaining a “mute spectator” of the “growing Hinduphobia” in the party[77].

After the 2020 election of President Biden, his Administration appeared to heed criticism of his choice of campaign representatives[78]. His campaign’s choice of Amit Jani as liaison to the Muslim community certainly raised some eyebrows, as his family had well-known links to the RSS. Some commentators criticized the “motley coalition of Muslim, Dalit, and radical left groups” for its internet campaign against Jani, whose late father had co-founded Overseas Friends of BJP.[79]

Numerous questions have also been raised about Congressional Representative (and Presidential Candidate) Tulsi Gabbard’s link to far-right Hindu figures[80]. While right-wing Christian evangelical and right-wing Hindu messaging operate in parallel rather than intersecting, Rep Gabbard is unusual in connecting to both constituencies.[81]

At the New York State legislature level, Assembly Member Jenifer Rajkumar has been criticized for her Hindutva-linked donors.[82] The local community group Queens Against Hindu Fascism also noted her expressed support for Prime Minister Modi. Another local representative, Ohio State Senator Niraj Antani said in a September 2021 statement that he condemned the ‘Dismantling Hindutva” conference “in the strongest possible terms” as “nothing more than racism and bigotry against Hindus.”[83] It is likely that there are many similar examples of pandering that could be dug up with further research.

Finally, there are regular efforts to reach out to local mayors and to train police departments.[84] While the Indian and Hindu communities have every right to do this, some observers have raised questions about Hindutva involvement, for example HSS relationship building with the police departments in Troy and Caton, Michigan, and Irving, Texas.[85]

Along with influential Hindutva leaders, think tanks, lobbyists and intelligence operatives support the Modi government’s influence campaigns in the USA and in Canada.[86] However, beyond this, it is crucial to better understand the surveillance, disinformation and propaganda campaigns being promoted online.

Social Media, Journalism and Culture Wars

India is Facebook’s largest market, with 328 million people using the social media platform. In addition, some 400 million Indians use Facebook’s messaging service, WhatsApp[87]. Unfortunately, these social media have become vehicles for hatred and disinformation. In India, numerous cow vigilante murders happen after rumors spread on social media, especially WhatsApp[88]. Videos of lynching and beatings are often shared on WhatsApp too.[89] 

Women reporters have especially suffered from threats of sexual violence, “deepfakes” and doxing. Critics of Prime Minister Modi have come in for especially violent abuse. For example, in 2016, journalist Rana Ayub published a book about the Prime Minister’s complicity with the deadly 2002 riots in Gujarat. Soon after, in addition to receiving numerous death threats, Ayub became aware of a scurrilous pornographic video being shared on various WhatsApp groups.[90] Her face was superimposed on the face of a porn film actor, using Deepfake technology that manipulated Rana’s face to adapt lustful expressions.

Ms. Ayub writes, “Most of the Twitter handles and Facebook accounts that posted the pornographic video and screenshots identify themselves as fans of Mr. Modi and his party.”[91] Such threats to female journalists have also resulted in actual murder. In 2017, after widespread abuse on social media, journalist and editor Gauri Lankesh was assassinated by right-wing radicals outside her home.[92] Lankesh ran two weekly magazines and was a critic of the right-wing Hindu extremism whom local courts had judged guilty of defamation for her criticism of BJP.

Today, “slut-shaming” provocations continue. In 2021, an app called Bulli Bai hosted on the GitHub web platform shared photos of more than 100 Muslim women saying they were on “sale.”[93] What are the social media platforms doing to rein in this hatred? Apparently not nearly enough.

In a hard-hitting 2020 article, Facebook’s Ties to India’s Ruling Party Complicate Its Fight Against Hate Speech, Time Magazine reporter Tom Perrigo described in detail how Facebook India delayed taking down ant-Muslim hate speech when it was perpetrated by high level officials, even after Avaaz and other activist groups made complaints and Facebook staff wrote internal complaints.[94] Perrigo also documented the connections between senior Facebook staff in India and Modi’s BJP party.[95] In mid-August 2020, the Wall Street Journal reported that senior staff argued that punishing lawmakers would hurt Facebook’s business prospects.[96] The next week, Reuters described how, in response, Facebook employees wrote an internal open letter calling on executives to denounce anti-Muslim bigotry and to apply hate speech rules more consistently. The letter also alleged that there were no Muslim employees on the platform’s India policy team.[97]

In October 2021 the New York Times based an article on internal documents, part of a large cache of material called The Facebook Papers collected by the whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager.[98] The documents include reports on how bots and fake accounts, mainly linked to right-wing political forces were wreaking havoc on national elections, as they have in the United States.[99] They also detail how Facebook policies were leading to more misinformation in India, particularly virulent during the pandemic.[100] The documents describe how the platform often failed to rein in hatred. According to the article: “Facebook also hesitated to designate R.S.S. as a dangerous organization because of “political sensitivities” that could affect the social network’s operation in the country.”

In early 2022 the Indian news magazine, The Wire, revealed the existence of a highly sophisticated secret app called ‘Tek Fog’ which was used by trolls affiliated with India’s ruling party to hijack major social media and compromise encrypted messaging platforms like WhatsApp. Tek Fog can hijack the ‘trending’ section of Twitter and ‘trend’ on Facebook. Tek Fog operators can also modify existing stories to create fake news.

Following a 20-month-long investigation, working with a whistleblower but corroborating many of his allegations, the report examines how the app automates hate and targeted harassment and spreads propaganda. The report notes the app’s connection to an Indian American publicly traded technology services company, Persistent Systems, heavily invested in acquiring government contracts in India. It is also promoted by India’s #1 social media app, Sharechat. The report suggests that possible links to hashtags related to violence and to COVID-19 communalization. Researchers found that “out of the total 3.8 million posts reviewed… almost 58% (2.2 million) of them could be labeled as ‘hate speech’.

In 2019, EU DisinfoLab, an independent NGO researching disinformation campaigns targeting the EU, published a report detailing a network of over 260 pro-India “fake local media outlets” spanning 65 countries, including throughout the West.[101] This effort is apparently intended to improve the perception of India, as well as to reinforce pro-Indian and anti-Pakistan (and anti-Chinese) feelings. The next year, this report was followed by a second report finding not only over 750 fake media outlets, covering 119 countries, but several identity thefts, at least 10 hijacked UN Human Rights Council accredited NGOs, and 550 domain names registered.[102]

EU DisinfoLab discovered that a “fake” magazine, EP Today, is managed by Indian stakeholders, with ties to a large network of think tanks, NGOs, and companies from the Srivastava Group.[103] Such ploys were able to “attract a growing number of MEPs into a pro-India and anti-Pakistan discourse, often using causes such as minorities’ rights and women’s rights as an entry point.”

In 2019 twenty-seven members of the European parliament visited Kashmir as the guests of an obscure organization, the Women’s Economic and Social Think Tank, or WESTT, also apparently linked to this pro-Modi network.[104] They also met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval in New Delhi. This access was granted despite the refusal of the Modi government to allow US Senator Chris Van Hollen to visit[105] or even the UN Human Rights Council to send its representatives to the region[106]. Who were these trusted guests? At least 22 of the 27 were from far-right parties, such as France’s National Rally, Poland’s Law and Justice, and Alternative for Germany, known for harsh views on immigration and the so-called “Islamization of Europe”.[107] This “fake official observer” trip proved controversial, as it took place not only while numerous Kashmiri leaders remained imprisoned and internet services suspended but also while many Indian MPs were prohibited from visiting Kashmir.

The EU Disinfo Lab NGO has a Twitter handle of @DisinfoEU. Adapting a name confusingly similar, in April 2020 the mysterious “Disinfolab” materialized on Twitter under the handle @DisinfoLab. The idea that Islamophobia in India is rising is described as “fake news” in service of Pakistani interests. Recurring in tweets and reports, there seems to be an obsession with the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC) and its Founder, Shaik Ubaid, ascribing to them quite amazing reach and influence.[108]

In 2021, DisinfoLab celebrated the US State Department failure to name India as a Country of Particular Concern[109] and dismissed in a report the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom as “an organization of particular concern” in thrall to Muslim Brotherhood controlled entities.[110]

This touches the authors of this long article, because in Chapter Four of its report, “Disnfo Lab” describes the human rights organization that we work for, Justice for All, depicting the NGO as a sort of laundering operation with vague links to the Jamaat/Muslim Brotherhood. These false allegations repeat those made after 9/11 when Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) and other religiously conservative Muslim American organizations were smeared as a vast Muslim conspiracy and vilified in the right-wing media long after authorities had wrapped up their investigations.

Since 2013 I have worked as a consultant with Justice for All, an NGO founded during the Bosnian genocide to respond to persecution of Muslim minorities. Revived in 2012 to focus on the “slow burning” Rohingya genocide, human rights advocacy programs have expanded to include Uyghur and Indian minorities, as well as Muslims in Kashmir and Sri Lanka. Once India and Kashmir programs began, the trolling and disinformation increased.

The Chairman of Justice for All, Malik Mujahid, is depicted as embodying an active link with ICNA, which is far from the truth, as he broke with the organization over 20 years ago.[111] Working as a Muslim American organization with a strong community service ethic, ICNA has been much maligned by Islamophobic think tanks over the years. Like much of their “scholarship,” the “Disinfo study” would be laughable if it did not also have the potential to harm important working relationships, build distrust and close off potential partnerships and funding. The “affinity mapping” charts on Kashmir and India may attract attention but mean almost nothing.[112] These serve as visual whispering campaigns, but unfortunately have not been taken down from Twitter despite their defamatory content and potential for reputational harm. However, Justice for All has not been discouraged and has increased its response to India’s increasingly divisive and dangerous policies.[113] This paper was written independently from regular programming.

What is Real?

As Muslims living in North America, the authors note the irony that in this article we are tracking vast networks of religiously motivated operatives. We ask ourselves: are we analyzing them in ways that are similar to the Islamophobes’ “investigations” of Muslim American organizations? We recall the simplifying charts of Muslim Students Associations and their supposed “links” to Islamic Society of North America.” We know how de-centralized Muslim student clubs have usually been (hardly a chain of command) and wonder if we too are overstating the cohesion of the Hindutva networks discussed in the preceding pages.

Does our exploration of linkages between Hindutva groups construct an affinity map that overstates our concerns? Clearly like other communities before them, immigrant Muslims and immigrant Hindus seek greater security as well as opportunity. No doubt, Hinduphobia exists, as does Islamophobia and Antisemitism and other forms of bias. Aren’t many haters motivated by fear and resentment of anyone different, not distinguishing between a traditionally dressed Hindu, Sikh or Muslim? Is there really no room for common cause?

While interfaith dialogue offers a potential path to peacemaking, we have also found that some interfaith alliances have unwittingly supported Hindutva claims that criticism of Hindutva equates with Hinduphobia. For example, in 2021 a letter written by the Interfaith Council of Metropolitan Washington demanded that universities withdraw from supporting the Dismantling Hindutva conference. The Interfaith Council is generally active in opposing hate and bias. But through disinformation campaigns, with large membership and involvement in civic life, American Hindutva organizations clearly serve the interests of a highly organized supremacist movement based in India working to undermine pluralism and democracy through the promotion of hate.

Some interfaith groups perceive a reputational risk in criticizing Hindutva. There are also other inconveniences: for example, at the United Nations, India has blocked some Dalit groups from accreditation for many years. However, during 2022 some multifaith groups gradually began to engage in advocacy. Already, the Coalition Against Genocide[114] had been created after the violence in Gujarat (2002) when Modi was chief minister of the state, obtaining endorsements from Tikkun and the Interfaith Freedom Foundation. More recently, through the influence of USCIRF, among others, the International Religious Freedom Roundtable has organized briefings, and in November 2022 Religions for Peace (RFPUSA) hosted a meaningful panel discussion. Civil society advocacy may eventually encourage policymakers in Washington DC to confront the challenges of authoritarianism among American geopolitical allies like India.

American democracy also appears under siege— even like the Capitol Building on January 6, 2021—an uprising which included Vinson Palathingal, an Indian American man carrying an Indian flag, a Trump supporter who reportedly had been appointed to the President’s Export Council.[115] Certainly there are many Hindu Americans that support Trump and work for his return.[116] As we are finding with links between right wing militias and police officers and members of the armed services, there may well be more going on below the surface and barely visible.

In the recent past, some American evangelicals have insulted Hindu traditions, and in India, Evangelical Christians are often marginalized and even attacked. There are obvious divisions between the Hindutva movement and the evangelical Christian right. However, these communities do converge in supporting right-wing nationalism, embrace of an authoritarian leader, and Islamophobia. There have been stranger bedfellows.

Salman Rushdie has called Hindutva “Crypto Fascism”[117] and worked to oppose the movement in his land of birth. Do we dismiss the organizing efforts of Steve Bannon, inspired by notions of esoteric nationalism expressed by Fascist Traditionalists, based on racist fantasies of Aryan purity?[118] At a perilous moment in history, truth and lies are confused and conflated, and the internet shapes a social space that is both controlling and dangerously disruptive. 

  • The darkness drops again; but now I know
  • That twenty centuries of stony sleep
  • Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
  • And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
  • Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

References

[1] Devdutt Pattanaik, “Hindutva’s Caste Masterstroke,” The Hindu, January 1, 2022

[2] Harish S. Wankhede, As Long as Caste bears Dividends, The Wire, August 5, 2019

[3] Filkins, Dexter, “Blood and Soil in Modi’s India,” New Yorker, December 9, 2019

[4] Harrison Akins, Legislation Factsheet on India: CAA, USCIRF February 2020

[5] Human Rights Watch, India: Rohingya Deported to Myanmar Face Danger, March 31, 2022; see also: Kushboo Sandhu, Rohingya and CAA: What is India’s Refugee Policy? BBC News, August 19, 2022

[6] CIA World Factbook 2018, See also Akhil Reddy, “Older Version of CIA Factbook,” Factly, February 24, 2021

[7] Shanker Arnimesh, “Who Runs Bajrang Dal?” The Print, December 6, 2021

[8] Bajrang Dal Organizes Weapons Training, Hindutva Watch, August 11, 2022

[9] Arshad Afzaal Khan, In Ayodhya 25 Years After Babri Masjid Demolition, The Wire, December 6, 2017

[10] Sunita Viswanath, What VHP America’s Invitation to a Hatemonger Tells Us, The Wire, April 15, 2021

[11] Pieter Friedrich, Sonal Shah’s Saga, Hindutva Watch, April 21, 2022

[12] Jaffrelot Christophe, Hindu Nationalism: A Reader, Princeton University Press, 2009

[13] HAF website: https://www.hinduamerican.org/

[14] Rashmee Kumar, The Network of Hindu Nationalists, The Intercept, September 25, 2019

[15] Haider Kazim, “Ramesh Butada: Seeking Higher Goals,” Indo American News, September 6, 2018

[16] EKAL website: https://www.ekal.org/us/region/southwestregion

[17] HAF website: https://www.hinduamerican.org/our-team#board

[18]Gitesh Desai Takes Over,” Indo American News, July 7, 2017

[19] JM, “Hindu Nationalism in the United States: Nonprofit Groups,” SAC,NET, July, 2014

[20] Tom Benning, “Texas Has the US’s Second Largest Indian American Community,” Dallas Morning News   October 8, 2020

[21] Devesh Kapur, “The Indian Prime Minister and Trump,” Washington Post, September 29, 2019

[22] Catherine E. Shoichet, A Six-Year-Old from India Died, CNN, June 14, 2019

[23] Quoted in Rashmee Kumar, The Network of Hindu Nationalists, The Intercept, September 25, 2019

[24] Generational differences matter. According to the Carnegie Endowment Indian American Attitudes Survey, first-generation Indian immigrants to the U.S. are “significantly more likely than U.S.-born respondents to espouse a caste identity. According to this survey, the overwhelming majority of Hindus with a caste identity—more than eight in 10—self-identified as general or upper-caste, and first-generation immigrants have tended to self-segregate. According to a 2021 Pew Forum report on Hindu Americans, respondents with a favorable view of the BJP also are much more likely than others to oppose interfaith and inter-caste marriages: “For example, among Hindus, 69% of those who have a favorable view of BJP say it is very important to stop women in their community from marrying across caste lines, compared with 54% among those who have an unfavorable view of the party.”

[25] Sonia Paul, “Howdy Modi Was a Display of Indian Americans Political Power”, The Atlantic, September 23, 2019

[26] Note also the 2022 Howdy Yogi car rallies in Chicago and Houston to support rabid Islamophobe Yogi Adityanath.

[27] Writing in “The Hindutva View of History”, Kamala Visweswaran, Michael Witzel et al, report that the first known case of alleging anti-Hindu bias in U.S. textbooks occurred in Fairfax County, Virginia in 2004. The authors state: “Online ‘educational’ materials from the ESHI website present exaggerated and unsubstantiated claims about Indian history and Hinduism that are in line with the changes made to textbooks in India.” However, the authors also note some divergence in strategy: “Textbooks in Gujarat present the caste system as an achievement of Aryan civilization, while the tendency of Hindutva groups in the United States was to erase evidence of the connection between Hinduism and the caste system. We have also seen that the modifications of textbooks in Gujarat resulted in a reformulation of Indian nationalism as an essentially militant one, which conflated Muslims with terrorists and reframed Hitler’s legacy as positive, while more generally (and perhaps insidiously) inserting mythic themes and figures into historical accounts.”

[28] Theresa Harrington, “Hindus Urge California State Board to Reject Textbooks,” Edsource, November 8, 2017

[29] Equality Labs, Caste in the United States, 2018

[30]Spiritual Traditions a Force That Has Run India,” The Times of India, March 4, 2019

[31] Niha Masih, In the Battle Over India’s History Hindu Nationalists Square Off, The Washington Post, Jan. 3, 2021

[32] Megan Cole, “Donation to UCI Triggers International Controversy,” New University, February 16, 2016

[33] Special Correspondent, “US University Turns Down Grant,” The Hindu, February 23, 2016

[34] DCF to Raise 1 Million Dollars to Rejuvenate Hindu University of America, India Journal, December 12, 2018

[35] September 19, 2021 commentary on Quora

[36]Group of Mothers Protests Teaching of Modi Biography in US Schools,” Clarion India, September 20, 2020

[37] HAF Letter, August 19, 2021

[38] Dismantle Hinduphobia, Video for Republic TV, August 24, 2021

[39] Niha Masih, “Under Fire from Hindu Nationalist Groups,” Washington Post, October 3, 2021

[40] Google Doc of student letter

[41] Trushke Twitter Feed, April 2, 2021

[42] IAMC Youtube Channel Video, September 8, 2021

[43]Vinayak Chaturvedi, The Hindu Right and Attacks on Academic Freedom in the USA, Hindutva Watch, December 1, 2021

[44] Site: http://hsctruthout.stopfundinghate.org/ is currently down. Copy of Summary is available at: Unmistakenly Sangh, Communalism Watch, January 18, 2008

[45] Hindu Revival on Campus, The Pluralism Project, Harvard University

[46] For example in Toronto: Marta Anielska, UTM Hindu Student Council Faces Backlash, The Varsity, September 13, 2020

[47] Identity Challenges on Campus, Infinity Foundation Official Youtube, July 20, 2020

[48] Shoaib Daniyal, How Rajiv Malhotra Became Ayn Rand of Internet Hindutva, Scroll.in, July 14, 2015

[49] For some examples, see February 22, 2022 Conference on the IAMC official youtube channel

[50] AP: “California Sues CISCO Alleging Discrimination,” LA Times, July 2, 2020

[51] Vidya Krishnan, “The Casteism I See in America,” The Atlantic, November 6, 2021

[52] David Porter and Mallika Sen, “Workers Lured from India,” AP News, May 11, 2021

[53] Biswajeet Banerjee and Ashok Sharma, “Indian PM Lays Foundation of Temple,” AP News, August 5, 2020

[54] On May 7, 2021 the Hindu American Foundation filed a defamation suit against some people quoted in the articles, including Hindus for Human Rights co-founders Sunita Viswanath and Raju Rajagopal. Hindus for Human Rights: In Support of Dismantling Hindutva, Daily Pennsylvanian, December 11, 2021 

[55] Hartosh Singh Bal, “Why Delhi Police Did Nothing to Stop Attacks on Muslims,” The New York Times,  March 3, 2020

[56] Robert Mackey, “Trump Praises Modi’s India,” The Intercept, February 25, 2020

[57] Saif Khalid, “The Myth of ‘Love Jihad’ in India,” Al Jazeera, August 24, 2017

[58] Jayshree Bajoria, “Coronajihad is Only the Latest Manifestation,” Human Rights Watch, May 1, 2020

[59] Alishan Jafri, “Thook Jihad” is the Latest Weapon,” The Wire, November 20, 2021

[60] “Hindu Bigots are Openly Urging Indians to Murder Muslims,” The Economist, January 15, 2022

[61] Sunita Viswanath, “What VHP America’s Invitation to a Hatemonger… Tells Us,” The Wire, April 15, 2021

[62]Hindu Monk Charged Over Calls for Genocide of Muslims,” Al Jazeera, January 18, 2022

[63] Kari Paul, “Facebook Stalling Report on Human Rights Impact in IndiaThe Guardian, January 19, 2022

[64] Nationwide Anti-Mosque Activity, ACLU Website, Updated January 2022

[65] Comments Submitted to Local Government, Napierville, IL 2021

[66] As per Raksha Bandhan Posting on Peel Police Department Website, September 5, 2018

[67] Sharifa Nasser, “Disturbing, Islamophobic Tweet,” CBC News, May 5, 2020

[68] Norway Terrorist Saw Hindutva Movement as Anti Islam Ally,” FirstPost, July 26, 2011

[69]Five years After Fatal Mosque Attack,” CBC News, January 27, 2022

[70] Jonathan Monpetit, “Inside Quebec’s Far Right: Soldiers of Odin,” CBC News, December 14, 2016

[71] Newsdesk: “Hindutva Group in Canada Shows Support to London Attack Culprit,” Global Village, June 17, 2021

[72] Newsdesk: “UN Chief Expresses Outrage Over Killing of Muslim Family,” Global Village, June 9, 2021

[73] Videos removed from Youtube: Banarjee Factsheet Referenced by Bridge Initiatives Team, Georgetown University, March 9, 2019

[74] Rashmee Kumar, “India Lobbies to Stifle Criticism,” The Intercept, March 16, 2020

[75] Mariya Salim, “Historic Congressional hearing on Caste,” The Wire, May 27, 2019

[76] Iman Malik, “Protests Outside Ro Khanna’s Town Hall Meeting,“ El Estoque, October 12, 2019

[77]Democratic Party Becoming Mute,” Latest News, September 25, 2020

[78] Wire Staff, “Indian Americans with RSS Links,” The Wire, January 22, 2021

[79] Suhag Shukla, Hinduphobia in America and the End of Irony,” India Abroad, March 18, 2020

[80] Sonia Paul, “Tulsi Gabbard’s 2020 Bid Raises Questions,” Religion News Service, January 27, 2019

[81] To begin, see Tulsi Gabbard website https://www.tulsigabbard.com/about/my-spiritual-path

[82]Jenifer Rajkumar Champions Fascists” on website of Queens Against Hindu Fascism, February 25, 2020

[83]Dismantling Global Hindutva Conference Anti-Hindu: State Senator,” Times of India, September 1, 2021

[84]International Wing of RSS Penetrates Government Offices Across US,” OFMI website, August 26, 2021

[85] Pieter Friedrich, “RSS International Wing HSS Challenged Throughout US,” Two Circles.Net, October 22, 2021

[86] Stewart Bell, “Canadian Politicians Were Targets of Indian Intelligence,” Global News, April 17, 2020

[87] Rachel Greenspan, “WhatsApp Fights Fake News,” Time Magazine, January 21, 2019

[88] Shakuntala Banaji and Ram Bha, “WhatsApp Vigilantes… Linked to Mob Violence in India,” London School of Economics, 2020

[89] Mohamed Ali, “The Rise of a Hindu Vigilante,” The Wire, April 2020

[90]I was Vomiting: Journalist Rana Ayoub Reveals,” India Today, November 21, 2019

[91] Rana Ayoub, “In India Journalists Face Slut Shaming and Rape Threats,” The New York Times, May 22, 2018

[92] Siddartha Deb, “The Killing of Gauri Lankesh,” Columbia Journalism Review, Winter 2018

[93]Bulli Bai: App That Put Muslim Women Up for Sale is Shut,” BBC News, Jan 3, 2022

[94] Billy Perrigo, “Facebook’s Ties to India’s Ruling Party,” Time Magazine, August 27, 2020

[95] Billy Perrigo, “Top Facebook India Executive Leaves After Hate Speech Dispute,” Time Magazine, October 27, 2020

[96] Newley Purnell and Jeff Horwitz, Facebook Hate Speech Rules Collide With Indian Politics, WSJ, August 14, 2020

[97] Aditya Kalra, “Facebook Internally Question Policy,” Reuters, August 19. 2020

[98]The Facebook Papers and Their Fallout,” The New York Times, October 28, 2021

[99] Vindu Goel and Sheera Frenkel, “In India Election, False Posts and Hate Speech,” The New York Times, April 1, 2019

[100] Karan Deep Singh and Paul Mozur, India Orders Critical Social Media Posts to be Taken Down,” New York Times, April 25, 2021

[101] Alexandre Alaphilippe, Gary Machado et al.,Uncovered: Over 265 Coordinated Fake Local Media Outlets,” Disinfo.Eu website, November 26, 2019

[102] Gary Machado, Alexandre Alaphilippe, et al: “Indian Chronicles: Deep Dive into a 15 Year Operation,” Disinfo.EU, December 9, 2020

[103] DisinfoEU Lab @DisinfoEU, Twitter, October 9, 2019

[104] Meghnad S. Ayush Tiwari, “Who’s Behind the Obscure NGO,” Newslaundry, October 29, 2019

[105] Joanna Slater, ‘US Senator Blocked from Visiting Kashmir,” Washington Post, October 2019

[106] Suhasini Haider, “India Cuts Off UN Panel,” The Hindu, May 21, 2019

[107]22 of 27 EU MPS Invited to Kashmir Are From Far Right Parties,” The Quint, October 29, 2019

[108] DisnfoLab Twitter @DisinfoLab, November 8, 2021 3:25 AM

[109] DisninfoLab @DisinfoLab, November 18, 2021  4:43 AM

[110]USCIRF: An Organization of Particular Concern, on DisinfoLab website, April 2021

[111] We work with Mr. Mujahid for Burma Task Force, opposing Islamophobia, and deplore his defamation.

[112] Webpages grabbed off the internet, DisinfoLab, Twitter, August 3, 2021 & May 2, 2022.

[113] For example, the three panel discussions in JFA’s Hindutva in North America series in 2021

[114] Website: http://www.coalitionagainstgenocide.org/

[115] Arun Kumar, “Indian American Vinson Palathingal named to President’s Export Council,” American Bazaar, October 8, 2020

[116] Hasan Akram, “RSS-BJP Supporters Waved Indian Flag on Capitol Hill”, Muslim Mirror, January 9, 2021

[117] Salman Rushdie, Excerpt Radical Conversations, Youtube Page, December 5, 2015 Posting

[118] Aadita Chaudhry, Why White Supremacists and Hindu Nationalists Are So Alike,” Al Jazeera, December 13, 2018. See also S. Romi Mukherjee, “Steve Bannon’s Roots: Esoteric Fascism and Aryanism,” News Decoder, Aug 29, 2018

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