How the American Sangh built up Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard
South Asian Affairs Analyst
Tulsi Gabbard, a United States Congresswoman, entered the historic First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles to the strains of Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” She shook hands with her cheering fans, leaped on stage with a smile, accepted a garland of white flowers from a supporter, folded her hands in greeting and said, “Aloha.” It was a sunny Saturday morning in March 2019, and she was campaigning for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. Addressing an animated crowd of hundreds, she urged them to “stand together.” The 38-year-old representative for Hawaii’s second congressional district, who frequently refers to herself as a “Karma Yogi,” declared that the nation is divided. “What we are seeing is this dark shadow caused by a corruption of spirit that is ruling our land,” she warned—a clear reference to the polarisation of Trump’s America.
Gabbard called for a range of changes in domestic policies: fixing a broken healthcare system, reforming criminal justice, providing affordable housing and addressing the climate crisis. Reckoning with the “cost of war,” she said, is central to carrying out this vision of change. As a major in the US Army National Guard—a reserve component of the US armed forces—and a veteran of the war in Iraq, she denounced “wasteful regime-change war policies.” America’s foreign policy, she argued, is creating a new Cold War that puts it at “greater risk of nuclear catastrophe than ever before in history.”
Outside the venue, around two dozen people had gathered to protest. They were neither irate protestors opposing her domestic policies nor activists angered by her stance on America’s wars. They were people such as Baljit Kumar, a young Dalit refugee residing in nearby Riverside. “She supports the people I ran from in India,” Kumar told me. Claiming that Gabbard’s congressional campaign financing is heavily augmented by American affiliates of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—the parent organisation of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party—protestors held bold red, white and blue signs proclaiming her “Prince$$ of the R$$.” Since 2015, a handful of articles in online Western media outlets have speculated about Gabbard’s perceived closeness to the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, and the BJP.
The mood inside the hall was different. As she concluded her speech, the crowd chanted: “Tulsi! Tulsi!” The emcee, Jimmy Dore—a comedian who hosts a popular YouTube show, and is a Gabbard supporter—opened the floor up for questions. As hands went up all around, he pointed to me. Aware that my prepared question was about to strike a discordant tone, I removed my hat and glasses.
“It is getting serious,” Gabbard joked.
“In your first two terms in office, you met the RSS spokesperson at least three times,” I said. “You spoke at many RSS events, including two in India. When did your collaboration with the RSS begin and how much money have they given you?”
The usually unflappable Gabbard, who speaks with slow deliberation, grimaced. She paused long enough for an audience member to shout, “Speak up.” Finally she responded. “I am a soldier, and I took an oath,” she began. “One oath in my life. That was an oath to serve and protect this country, to put my life on the line for the people of this country.”
She grew more emphatic. “We stand for aloha. We stand for diversity. We stand for peace and bringing people together around these shared ideals of freedom and opportunity for all people.” Gesturing to the audience to stand, she continued, “Thank you everybody for standing with me. It is this kind of attacks that are rooted in religious bigotry that we must stand together and condemn. Whether these attacks are being targeted at Hindus, or Buddhists, or Muslims, or Jews, or atheists, or Catholics, we must stand united and condemn this hate and bigotry because an attack against one of us is an attack against all of us.” Again, the crowd chanted, “Tulsi, Tulsi.”
This is typical of how Gabbard responds to questions about the depth of her relationship with Modi, her association with affiliates of the Sangh Parivar—the family of organisations working with the RSS—or the identity of many of her key donors. Such queries are dismissed as signs of “Hinduphobia.” When an article in The Intercept described her as “a rising progressive star, despite her support for Hindu nationalists,” Gabbard lashed out with an opinion piece for Religion News Service, headlined: “Religious bigotry is un-American.” She said her critics were “trying to foment anti-Hindu sentiment.”
Yet, as they say, the devil is in the details.
Tulsi Gabbard is not of Indian origin, but identifies as a Hindu. She has visited India only once—in 2014, on the personal invitation of Narendra Modi. And yet, before she was even elected to office, she promised to be “a strong voice in Congress for improving India–US relations.” When she won a seat in the US House of Representatives in 2012, she made history as the first Hindu ever elected to the chamber. At the outset of her first term, she joined the House India Caucus—a coalition of representatives who support pro-India policies. She now co-chairs the body.
Now, Gabbard hopes to make history in the 2020 election by becoming the first female president. At present, she is a dark horse in the race. She is lagging in the Democratic primaries—internal elections to choose the party’s nominee for the presidency—and has to battle high-profile contenders such as Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
Gabbard has perhaps the most peculiar personal history of any candidate running. Born in American Samoa, and raised in Hawaii by a Catholic father and a practising Hindu mother, she was primarily homeschooled. Her parents oversaw a Hare Krishna splinter group called the Science of Identity Foundation, and the family campaigned intensely against gay marriage. She was immersed in the Bhagavad Gita, and kept her childhood copy of it with her when she was deployed as a medical administrator to Iraq. Later, she gifted the same copy to Modi.
Gabbard’s critical take on the United States’ interventionism and its offshore wars is unpopular with Washington’s defence lobbyists—and the sort of issue on which primaries are almost never contested. Nevertheless, it has won her support that cuts across party lines and ideologies. She appeals to wide-ranging constituencies: libertarians to socialists, “War on Terror” hawks to white supremacists, Trump supporters to Sanders supporters, and the Hindu diaspora. Gabbard’s manner is measured; her words seem carefully chosen. Her eloquence, poise and ability to stay on point broaden her appeal.
Gabbard’s rise in US politics came out of nowhere, and is inexplicable until one considers how Sangh donations gave her a leg up when she was a virtual unknown. The first Indian-American donors to her first congressional campaign—who were also among the first non-Hawaiians to support her—are top executives in RSS affiliates in the United States. Donor names provided in filings to the Federal Election Commission, which I collated with lists from Sangh websites and promotional materials as well as media reports, reveal that hundreds of leaders and members of such groups gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to Gabbard in the formative years of her congressional career. Kallie Keith-Agaran, a Democratic activist in Hawaii, has also compiled a database of Gabbard’s donors. Her extensive documentation of their contributions and affiliations closely corroborates my independent findings.
Gabbard emerged on the US political scene at a pivotal moment for the Sangh’s aspiration to see Modi as the Indian prime minister. Since 2002, Modi and the RSS had both grown increasingly controversial in the United States, facing protests by academics as well as censure by the US government. Modi stood accused of complicity in the anti-Muslim pogrom that had taken place in Gujarat, while he was the chief minister of the state. Even by conservative estimates, the pogrom took over a thousand lives. Afterwards, he was denied a visa to the country. The greatest diplomatic triumph for the American Sangh was rehabilitating Modi’s tainted reputation in the United States. Gabbard played a significant part in that project.
There are nearly 4.5 million Indian Americans in the United States. Just over half are Hindu. Fifty percent are registered Democrats, but they tend to shy away from partisanship—especially those who belong to Sangh offshoots. Constituting less than 1.5 percent of the population, Indian Americans are not typically considered a significant voter base. Yet they have emerged as a crucial constituency for Indian politics, given their vast support for Modi at his “rock-star” receptions in New York and California, and his dependence on them for “diaspora diplomacy.”
Amongst Gabbard’s many donors are various members of the US chapters of groups such as the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, the Overseas Friends of the BJP and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America. Thanks to her connection to leading figures of the American Sangh—such as Vijay Pallod, a businessman from Texas; Bharat Barai, an oncologist from the Chicago region; and Mihir Meghani, a physician from California—she has been eagerly welcomed at many Sangh fundraisers around the country.
“She has proved it at a young age that she is a capable leader,” Barai told me. “When a capable Hindu candidate will contest, sure, I look at it favourably. But, of course, I don’t vote for every Hindu candidate. They also have to be capable.” Pallod told me he liked Gabbard because she was a “moderate” and seemed genuine. “She is not like many politicians who do not keep their word,” he said.
Even as mainstream interfaith groups refused to participate in events hosted by the American Sangh, Gabbard repeatedly spoke at its events, in the United States and abroad. While organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have published reports warning about the spread of Hindu-nationalist violence under Modi’s administration, Gabbard has called India an “indispensable partner” to the United States, and pushed for enhanced cooperation between the two countries. Gabbard’s donors have publicly applauded her for supporting Modi before he was elected, for speaking against the US decision to deny him a visa after 2002 and for working against congressional efforts to recognise human-rights violations in India.
Tulsi Gabbard began her six years in office as a liberal Democrat. She is now closely aligned with the progressive wing of the Democratic party, and is campaigning for president with rhetoric about peace and diversity. Yet by the end of her first term, one Indian paper was describing her as “the RSS fraternity’s newest mascot.” Few in the United States realise that Gabbard’s relationship with the RSS does not agree at all with the progressive image she cultivates. The RSS, as a mainspring of Hindu nationalism, is an organisation that pushes a regressive ideology at odds with a multicultural society. It campaigns for a homogenous, hegemonic culture it hopes will turn India into a Hindu State, in which minorities such as Muslims and Christians will, at best, be second-class citizens.
“The Sangh in America backed Tulsi Gabbard because they understand that the international community is increasingly worried about the sectarian violent politics of the Sangh in India,” Ashok Swain, a professor of peace and conflict studies at Sweden’s Uppsala University, told me. “They want some powerful political personalities on their side, particularly in the United States. They believe Tulsi can be one of them, who can provide them cover from international sanctions. Tulsi has also done that in the past.”
One day in the spring of 2015, Tulsi Gabbard was the centre of attention. Some three hundred guests gathered outside the Kahalu’u Fishpond on the Hawaiian island of Oahu to witness her wedding to Abraham Williams. Dressed in a royal-blue lehnga choli, she walked down the aisle alongside her father, the Hawaiian state senator Mike Gabbard. Abraham, wearing a white suit, stood waiting for her at the altar. By his side stood Vinod Dave, the pandit who was to perform the traditional Vedic ceremony. Tulsi’s mother, Carol, also stood waiting—as did India’s acting ambassador to the United States at the time, Taranjit Sandhu, and Ram Madhav, who was then a BJP spokesperson and is now a national general secretary of the party. Prior to his appointment as party spokesperson a year earlier, Madhav had served as the national spokesperson for the RSS for over ten years.
During the ceremony, Madhav took the stage to convey Narendra Modi’s personal greetings. “All of us here share the happiness of your family and loved ones on this important day,” he read from Modi’s letter. “On behalf of our prime minister, I invite the newly-wed couple to celebrate their honeymoon in the land of devas,” he added. He then delivered gifts from Modi—a pashmina shawl and a Ganesh statuette.
It was an illustrious delegation for a junior congresswoman. Gabbard had just begun her second term in January 2015. She had also just returned from a three-week tour of India, where she met Modi, half a dozen cabinet ministers and the chief of the army staff.
The month before her wedding, she had begun hinting at presidential ambitions. Described by The Atlantic as a “rising star” of the Democratic Party, she disagreed that there was “little hope for a Hindu in the Oval Office in our lifetimes.” Arguing that spiritual practice is not a credential for a presidential candidate, she concluded, “People are looking for someone they can trust.”
Modi, meanwhile, was looking to recruit members of the Indian-American diaspora to his unofficial diplomatic corps. “We are changing the contours of diplomacy and looking at new ways of strengthening India’s interests abroad,” Madhav told the Washington Post in February 2015. “They can be India’s voice even while being loyal citizens in those countries. That is the long-term goal behind the diaspora diplomacy.”
Two people whom Modi has long relied on to be “India’s voice” in America—or, some might argue, the Sangh Parivar’s voice—joined Madhav as guests at Gabbard’s wedding. Ramesh Bhutada and his relative Vijay Pallod made the eight-hour flight from Texas with their wives, as well as Bhutada’s son, Rishi, and Rishi’s wife and son. Ramesh, Vijay and Rishi had all been generous donors to Gabbard’s congressional campaigns since before her first election, in 2012.
Years before Madhav articulated Modi’s concept of diaspora diplomacy, the RSS had embraced a similar idea. In December 2010 in Pune, the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh—the RSS’s international wing—held a Vishwa Sangh Shibir, a quinquennial summit of HSS members from 35 countries. “Hindus abroad should act as cultural ambassadors of Bharat, and the HSS has been working in that direction,” Mohan Bhagwat, the sarsanghchalak—supreme leader—of the RSS, said during a farewell address. “This country alone has the capacity to save the world and humanity from the impending dangers.” Bhutada and Pallod were in the audience.
Dressed in the traditional RSS uniform of khaki shorts, white shirts and black caps, the two Houstonians posed for pictures with the founder of the HSS, Jagdish Chandra Sharda. In his nineties and confined to a wheelchair, Sharda travelled from Canada just to speak at the camp. His memoirs portray his life as part of “the story of Sangh expansion overseas, specially the first steps of Hindu philosophy as a social movement outside Bharat.” When Sharda died in 2017, Bhutada, speaking in his capacity as the vice-president of the US chapter of the HSS, eulogised him as “the first one to start Sangh shakha”—branches—“outside of India.”
When KB Hedgewar founded the RSS, in 1925, he explained that “the Sangh wants to put in reality the words ‘Hindustan of Hindus,’” which he compared to a “Germany of Germans.” Hedgewar’s mentor, BS Moonje, reached out to the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. In 1931, he travelled to Italy to tour institutions run by the National Fascist Party. Professing himself “much impressed” by the “fascist organisations,” he declared, “Every aspiring and growing nation needs such organisations. India needs them most.” In 1939, just before replacing Hedgewar as RSS chief, MS Golwalkar praised Nazi Germany’s racial policies as “a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by.” Soon, however, the RSS decided it had something of its own to offer the world.
In 1946, Sharda was a young teacher of Sanskrit and Hindi in Amritsar. An irregular member of the RSS since his teens, he began participating in earnest after attending an officers’ training camp in 1942. After the Second World War ended, he accepted a teaching position in British-occupied Kenya. In his Memoirs of a Global Hindu, Sharda writes that his “Sangh colleagues” were upset at the news that he was leaving at that “crucial juncture”—just before Partition—but did not want him to miss the opportunity. “I also promised them that wherever I go, Sangh will go with me; and wherever I went, I would organize Sangh work.”
During the rough voyage to Kenya, he was comforted after spotting a fellow passenger wearing the “khaki half-pants of Sangh.” As the two gathered others to join in community activities, their number swelled to 17, all of whom identified as RSS swayamsevaks—volunteers. “The first Sangh shakha outside Bharat was held on board the ship S.S. Vasna in September 1946,” he writes. In 1947, as he settled into life in Kenya, Sharda founded the Sangh’s first permanent international branch.
Eventually known as the HSS, Sharda’s new organisation followed the same ideology as the RSS. Its purpose, Sharda writes, was to unite and organise a community, which “possessed all the qualities of a highly civilized and cultured society, except for the stark absence of unity, discipline, organizational qualities and assertiveness.” His comments reflected the Sangh’s shifting rhetoric. In the mid 1960s, shortly after founding the Vishva Hindu Parishad to serve as the RSS’s religious wing, Golwalkar remarked, “The average man of this country was at one time incomparably superior to the average man of the other lands.” He hoped the Sangh would return India—or, rather, the Hindu community—to that golden age of superiority. As the Sangh expanded internationally, it stopped looking to the outside world for inspiration and instead began insisting that the outside world should look to India and its culture for inspiration.
Ian Hall, a deputy director of Griffith University’s Asia Institute and the author of a forthcoming book on Modi’s foreign policy, told me that the ideological concept of a superior Hindu culture motivated the Sangh’s international expansion. Hall called the expansion “part and parcel of spreading the word.” According to him, “The Sangh are convinced that, one day, the world will come to appreciate the wisdom of the sanatana dharma, which is wisdom for the world, not just for India.”
By the 1960s, Sangh branches had sprouted up in many erstwhile British colonies—from Kenya to Myanmar, Hong Kong, Mauritius and elsewhere. Decolonisation prompted emigration, and many Indians living in the newly liberated countries moved to the United Kingdom. In 1966, Sharda inaugurated the UK’s first HSS branch. Meantime, across the ocean, changes in immigration law soon opened the doors for Indians to immigrate to the United States.
Asian immigration to the United States was severely restricted before Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. At the height of the civil-rights movement, the United States scrapped its racially oriented quota system in favour of one giving preference to highly skilled immigrants. Around twelve thousand Indians a year began entering the country. New arrivals included Ramesh Bhutada, who emigrated in the late 1960s, just as the Sangh was taking root in American soil.
In 1969, Modi’s friend Mahesh Mehta emigrated to New York from Gujarat—where the two shared a mentor and attended the same RSS shakha. Upon arrival, Mehta, an RSS pracharak—fulltime worker—immediately established the first Sangh organisation in the United States. Officially founded in 1970, the VHP of America was the VHP’s first overseas branch.
Bhutada was not yet involved. Although his father was an RSS officer in Maharashtra, an IndoAmerican News profile explains the son “never understood RSS properly and was busy in his studies.” That changed when HSS-USA was founded, in 1977. Sharad Amin, described by the India Herald as a leader with “vast experience” in the HSS and VHPA, told the newspaper that Houston’s first HSS shakha began in Bhutada’s house. Ever since, he has been a cornerstone of the American Sangh.
In 1981—the year Tulsi Gabbard was born—Bhutada partnered with Jugal Malani, his brother-in-law, to found Star Pipe Products. It developed as a family business. Bhutada soon hired another relative: his wife’s cousin Vijay Pallod, who had recently arrived in America. As they settled into Houston, Pallod and his wife briefly moved into Bhutada’s home. “I saw a steady stream of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh workers giving time and energy to worthy causes,” he told Indo-American News. One of those was Bhagwat himself, someone, Pallod told me, he continues to admire. According to him, Bhagwat is not the hardliner RSS chief his predecessor, KS Sudershan, was. “He speaks in a very different tone,” Pallod said.
Pallod gained more than an employer in Bhutada. “Yes, we are cousins by marriage,” he told me, “but more than that, he is my mentor.” After Bhutada introduced him to the Indian-American community, Pallod soon became an active social worker.
The American Sangh grew more firmly rooted throughout the 1980s. In Houston, the VHPA and HSS partnered to begin hosting youth camps to, as Amin writes, keep children from “losing touch with Hindu culture.” In India, the RSS pracharaks Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani founded the BJP. Modi, also an RSS pracharak, was assigned to help build the new party. In Hawaii, Gabbard’s parents began working for a state senator while running a school. In 1988, the former swayamsevak Vinod Prakash, who emigrated to the United States in the 1960s, founded the India Development and Relief Fund in the state of Maryland. Pallod eventually joined the charity as a vice-president, while Bhutada became a major donor and advisor to it.
The 1990s brought more direct Sangh engagement with the growing diaspora. In 1990, the HSS held its first Vishwa Sangh Shibir, in Bengaluru. “Here, we deliberate on the present and future of Hindu society living outside Bharat,” Sharda writes. On the international stage, the BJP was receiving negative press after joining the VHP’s militant campaign to destroy the historic Babri Masjid, which it claimed stood on the birthplace of the Hindu icon Ram.
Sangh activists, watched by Advani, demolished the mosque in 1992, setting off communal violence across India. The same year, Advani decided that the party needed a global presence. So he founded the Overseas Friends of the BJP, to help project “a positive and correct image” and “correct any distortions in the media’s reporting of current events taking place in India.” As Vijay Jolly, who was the chief of the BJP’s foreign-affairs cell, later explained, the group intended to “indoctrinate” the diaspora “with the BJP ideology.”
“Until the 1990s, there was often a sense of resentment towards those who had left India, especially the highly educated, as they took skills and know-how out of the country, leaving it—in principle at least—poorer,” Hall told me. “But in the early 1990s, views changed, and the diaspora began to be seen as a potential resource—an untapped well of funds that might be invested in India, in particular.” In 1993, shortly after the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the former BJP president Murli Manohar Joshi travelled to the United States to explore this resource.
Modi joined Joshi. During the tour, the 42-year-old Modi visited several American Sangh activists. One was the Houston-based Ramesh Shah, a friend of Bhutada and Pallod who emigrated from Gujarat in 1970. In Indiana, Modi stayed in the home of Bharat Barai, the physician, who emigrated from Maharashtra in 1974. On a second trip, in 1997, Modi again stayed with Barai and breakfasted with Amrit Mittal of Illinois, another friend of Bhutada who had emigrated from Punjab in 1971. All three were long-time leaders of the VHPA.
In 1998, Tulsi Gabbard was just 17 years old and stepping into the world of politics. It was a pivotal year for her and India, as the BJP came to power for the first time. In the United States, the VHPA’s structure took shape, with a governing council of over fifty elected members, who included Mahesh Mehta, Bharat Barai, Vijay Pallod, Ramesh Shah’s daughter Sonal, and a young physician named Mihir Meghani.