Long before the Indian strongman Narendra Modi became prime minister of the world’s largest democracy, he was a prominent leader of the Hindu right. He rose as a public figure through the nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, whose ideology includes a desire to carve out a Hindu nation in which Muslims and Christians are considered second-class citizens. It was a well-known activist who once had links to the RSS who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, accusing him of appeasing Muslims during the bloody partition of the Indian subcontinent.
That anti-Muslim sentiment has been a major driving force of Modi’s political career in the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. In 2002, when Modi was chief minister of the state of Gujarat, he oversaw an outbreak of violence by Hindu nationalists against the minority Muslim population that resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 people. Local and international fact-finding groups accused Modi of complicity in the killings, charging that he did not do enough to contain the violence. Indian courts eventually exonerated him for a lack of evidence, but his image was pilloried. The United Kingdom and some European countries refused to deal with him and in 2005, the United States barred him from entering the country.
Modi’s ascent has normalized nationalist rhetoric, the silencing of dissent, and violence against religious minorities in India — and it’s also had global implications. Elected prime minister in 2014, he was one of the first of a class of populist autocrats who’ve risen to power in recent years. That group includes Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was elected in the same month as Modi; Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who’s been in office for more than a decade but has been increasingly consolidating power; Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, whose war on drugs has killed thousands of people; Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who was elected in October despite his pro-military dictatorship stance; and, of course, America’s Donald Trump.
In the United States, Modi’s reputation has been helped by a group of Hindu-American supporters with links to the RSS and other Hindu nationalist organizations, who’ve been working in tandem with a peculiar congressional ally: Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, the first Hindu in Congress.
Gabbard — a member of the House committees on Foreign Affairs and Armed Services, and co-chair of the India Caucus — is an oddity in American politics. Ever since her 2016 resignation from the Democratic National Committee to endorse Bernie Sanders for president, she has been a rising star in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Last year, she racked up endorsements from groups like Progressive Democrats of America and Our Revolution, and she sailed to re-election.
But she has also become a polarizing figure. Her progressive domestic politics are at odds with her support for authoritarians abroad, including Modi, Sisi, and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. As right-wing nationalism rises across the globe, it is beginning to be recognized as an existential threat to a world order rooted in liberal democratic values, and Gabbard, an Iraq War veteran, is now being pushed to choose sides. (Gabbard did not respond to The Intercept’s multiple requests for comment.)
Gabbard was embraced early on by pro-Modi elements of the Hindu-American diaspora in the U.S., who have donated generously to her campaigns. But as she flirts with the idea of running for president, she has publicly cut ties with those fervent supporters on at least one occasion, while continuing to court them in private.
In June 2014, after Modi won the election, nearly 700 of his supporters gathered at a Hindu temple in Atlanta to celebrate and plan their path forward. To mobilize their community, the speakers laid out a plan that included a call for donations to Gabbard’s re-election campaign. They described the Hawaii Democrat as an “American Hindu” who “has fought against the anti-Modi resolution introduced recently by some members” of Congress.
The event was organized by the Overseas Friends of the BJP, the American chapter of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Gabbard had landed on the group’s radar as one of America’s few pro-Modi lawmakers. In December 2013, she had voiced her opposition to House Resolution 417, which chided India to protect “the rights and freedoms of religious minorities” and referred to incidents of mass violence against minority Muslims that had taken place under Modi’s watch. Gabbard later told the press that “there was a lot of misinformation that surrounded the event in 2002.”
Also in 2014, Gabbard attended an OFBJP event, where Vijay Jolly, a senior politician of Modi’s government, was present. He took to the stage and told Gabbard that “with the support of … non-resident Indians … your victory later this year is a foregone conclusion.” She cruised to re-election.
Hindu-Americans have supported Gabbard since the start of her political career, and that support has increased substantially since Modi’s election, much of it coming from Hindu nationalists.
Dozens of Gabbard’s donors have either expressed strong sympathy with or have ties to the Sangh Parivar — a network of religious, political, paramilitary, and student groups that subscribe to the Hindu supremacist, exclusionary ideology known as Hindutva, according to an Intercept analysis of Gabbard’s financial disclosures from 2011 until October 2018. We cross-checked the names of Gabbard’s donors against open-source materials linked to Sangh organizations, such as event announcements and the groups’ websites.
According to our analysis, at least 105 current and former officers and members of U.S. Sangh affiliates, and their families, have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Gabbard’s campaigns since 2011. (Nearly one-third of Gabbard’s overall donations — $1.24 million — came from more than 800 individual donors with names, according to an expert consulted by The Intercept, that are of Hindu origin, many of whom made repeat donations. Of that amount, nearly $1.12 million was donated during the 2013-2014 election cycle and beyond, according to our analysis.) Gabbard’s ties to Hindu nationalists in the United States run so deep that the progressive newspaper Telegraph India in 2015 christened her the Sangh’s American mascot.
The Sangh’s U.S. affiliates are led by Hindu-American professionals and businesspeople from around the country. Historian Vijay Prashad refers to their collective movement as “Yankee Hindutva,” which he defines as a political ideology whose adherents are successful Hindu-Americans with nostalgia for India and a fantasy of a Hindu state. “This fantasy came at a time when the Hindu right rose in India, and it was this Hindu right that was able to capture the sentiments of this diasporic population,” Prashad told The Intercept.
Since 2013, Gabbard has attended conferences across the United States organized by Sangh affiliates, like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, whose counterpart in India has been linked to advocating violence against Muslims in India and was classified last summer as a “militant religious organization” in the CIA World Factbook. (The BJP has hotly contested this classification.) The Sangh organizations in the U.S. reportedly provide social and financial support for their Indian counterparts. A 2014 study by the South Asia Citizens Web found that between 2001 and 2012, five Sangh-affiliated charitable groups allocated more than $55 million for program services, funds that are largely sent to Sangh groups in India.
Gabbard’s allies are committed to their efforts. “Why should the Hindus not have their own political organization [in the United States]? The Jews have it, the Muslims have it, the Christians have it too,” said Bharat Barai, a Chicago-based oncologist. In 2014, Barai organized a fundraiser for Gabbard, and he has donated almost $16,000 to her campaigns since 2013. He is known to have ties to the Indian prime minister, and just last year, Modi’s government awarded Barai the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, the annual civil honor given to a nonresident Indian for meritorious achievement. In 2019, Gabbard is slated to attend the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas ceremony, at which the Indian government hands out this award, as a guest of honor.
Barai is on the advisory board of the VHPA, which on its website says that it is independent of the VHP and that its vision is to “build a dynamic Hindu society.” Asked about his association with the VHPA, given the VHP’s violence in India, Barai maintained that the groups are separate and that Sangh outfits in America are very careful in “trying to work within the bounds of law.”
Hindu-Americans, Barai believes, are finally making a name for themselves in U.S. politics.
“We have been enslaved for 800 years — first by the Islamic rulers, then by the British,” he said, referring to India’s history under Muslim kingdoms and British colonizers.
The Hindu American Foundation is a prominent, not-for-profit advocacy organization of Hindu-Americans with strong ties to Gabbard. In a 2014 Atlanta speech, Gabbard said she and her team are in touch with HAF on a weekly, if not daily, basis. HAF co-founder and former VHPA activist Mihir Meghani has donated $18,500 to Gabbard’s campaigns and has organized several fundraisers for her. Meghani, a California physician, did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment. In the 2017-2018 election cycle, individual board members of HAF collectively donated $24,000 to Gabbard’s campaign, the news outlet Sludge reported.
In 2016, the HAF lobbied against the replacement of the word “Indian” with “South Asian” in middle-school history textbooks in California, arguing that the change was essentially an erasure of India itself. These efforts were protested by South Asian academics and activists belonging to India’s minority groups, who said that those on the side of the HAF sought to whitewash California’s history textbooks to present a nativist, blemish-free view of how the Hindu caste system was enforced in India. They also argued that the term “South Asia” correctly represents India’s collective history with countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh. A letter to the California State Board of Education about this issue, which garnered thousands of signatures, was spearheaded by the HAF and signed by more than 100 people who have the same names as donors to Gabbard.
Gabbard’s ties to VHPA members have seeped over from the professional to the personal. Rishi Bhutada, a former director of the Hindu Heritage Youth Camp and officer of the Hindu Students Council — both projects of the VHPA — was invited to Gabbard’s intimate Hawaii wedding. (Also present was prominent BJP strategist Ram Madhav, who delivered a gift from Modi.) Bhutada, who runs a business in Houston, has donated $15,200 to Gabbard’s campaigns.
He told The Intercept that that he initially supported Gabbard because she was the first politician to ever directly ask for his support, which she did after reading about him in a 2011 CNN post. “In that first conversation, I heard something in the way she articulated her views on leadership and on how politicians should serve America, and realized that those were qualities that I wanted to see reflected in the political sphere at large,” Bhutada wrote in an email. “We’ve been friends ever since.” He noted that he’s also donated to the other Hindu-American members of Congress, as well as candidates for office. Bhutada said his involvement with the VHPA-affiliated groups did not make him a Hindu nationalist. “I’ve never been interested in such a philosophy, and I (and HAF in general) routinely get blasted by actual right-wing Hindus,” he wrote.
Like Barai, Meghani, and Bhutada, most of Gabbard’s Sangh-affiliated donors are not from Hawaii. This is reflective of a broader trend in her donor base. Since the 2014 election cycle, California residents have given her campaign $725,520, Texans have contributed $215,060, and New Yorkers have donated $215,810. In the most recent cycle, Gabbard’s campaign received $692,198 — 80.2 percent of her total contributions — from individuals outside Hawaii. Out-of-state contributions are normal for politicians with national ambitions, but Gabbard’s political opponents frequently point to this as one of her weaknesses.
Shay Chan Hodges, Gabbard’s 2016 primary opponent, said that Gabbard skews the political dynamics of Hawaii by not paying attention to the small state. “I say, whatever she thinks about Syria or the Indian prime minister, how does that affect us?” Hodges said. “She’s our congresswoman. We have our own problems.”
Amid growing scrutiny of Gabbard’s sympathies for authoritarian world leaders, something that would be a huge liability in a potential presidential run, Gabbard has begun to distance herself from the Sangh affiliates — at least publicly.
In a November 2017 video message, Gabbard announced that she would be chairing the 2018 World Hindu Congress, a conference held once every four years organized by the VHPA and RSS that has drawn other Hindu groups, in addition to Hindu nationalists. She described the event as a “global platform where Hindus will be able to come together, share ideas and inspiration, as we seek ways to positively impact the communities around us and around the world.”
Five months later, she quietly withdrew from the event. But questions about Gabbard’s association with Hindu nationalists persisted, and on September 3 — four days before the event — her campaign released her April letter informing organizers that she would no longer be attending. She ascribed her decision to “ethical concerns and problems that surrounded my participating in any partisan Indian political event in America.” Her recusal marked a significant shift in her rhetoric, as she has attended and spoken at numerous events organized by affiliates of India’s political parties, like the OFBJP.
Abhaya Asthana, the VHPA president to whom Gabbard’s letter was addressed, said his organization was not bothered by her withdrawal, even if she was “misinformed about who would be participating.”
Barai, for his part, initially described Gabbard’s recusal from the event as a “blunder.” “She will be re-elected in Hawaii, but if she wants to run for national office, she will need continued support from Indian-Americans,” he said prior to the midterm elections. Barai anticipated that many Hindu-Americans would be less inclined to donate to Gabbard moving forward. “It is not going to become zero,” he said. “But earlier, if people were giving $5,000, they will give $500, until she clarifies her position and apologizes.”
Displeasure with Gabbard’s recusal from the World Hindu Congress was widespread.
“Gabbard is playing to certain galleries hoping not to attract their ire and their wrath,” wrote Ramesh Rao, a professor of communication at Columbus State University, in a column for Swarajya, a pro-Hindu nationalist publication in India. “It is easy to distance herself from Hindus and Hindu organizations because she knows they are the easy-going, let’s forget the past, let’s join hands together kind of folks who will continue to send her money in support of her election campaigns, and write about her potential of becoming President of the United States. May be not.”
After her re-election, however, Barai had a change of heart and asked Gabbard for a meeting. On November 14, he met with her at her Capitol Hill office, along with Suhag Shukla, who is on the executive board of HAF. They spoke about the World Hindu Congress, ultimately reaching a “happy consensus to put that episode behind us,” said Barai, who chaired the WHC Finance Committee and raised $1.5 million for the conference. Within a couple weeks of that meeting, Barai said, Gabbard held a conference call with about 50 of her Hindu-American supporters, including Asthana, the VHPA president. They talked about her consideration of a presidential run.
Update: January 10, 2018
This piece has been updated to include a comment from Rishi Bhutada that he provided after publication.