By Pieter Friedrich
In October of last year, Hillary Clinton made headlines for Tulsi Gabbard when she accused the congresswoman from Hawaii of being “a favorite of the Russians” and suggested that Gabbard was being “groomed” by Russia to run for president on a third-party ticket.
Tulsi Gabbard, who was then running for president, initially benefited from the attention. She filed a $50 million defamation lawsuit. And she got into a spat with Clinton, calling her the “Queen of Warmongers” and all sorts of other things — all of which was widely reported upon.
Less than a week later, however, a different story emerged.
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting — a national media watchdog group based in New York City — issued the results of its investigation of the issue, concluding that the “Russia accusations” were “a distraction from Gabbard’s actual troubling ties.”
“There is no evidence that Gabbard… is any kind of Russian agent, plucked by Moscow to sway the 2020 election toward the reelection of Donald Trump,” they reported. These “hit jobs,” they said, overlooked the proven fact of “the RSS’s influence on Gabbard, despite the evidence that this is much more a part of her life than Russian intrigue.”
The key takeaway from piles of evidence, they explained, is that “the RSS draws much of its power from its followers in the Diaspora, and Gabbard has been crucial to revamping the image of the Hindu nationalist in the United States, and has in turn received crucial financial support from the Indian-American far right.”
The RSS, briefly, is a uniformed and armed paramilitary which has an estimated six million members. Founded in 1925, it developed with inspiration from — and even actual interactions with — the European fascist movements in Italy and Germany. Over the past 95 years, it has spawned a host of subsidiary and affiliated organizations. These include, in particular, a religious wing called the VHP and a political wing called the BJP.
The BJP has ruled India since 2014, with Modi as prime minister, but the current administration is most accurately understood as an RSS regime. Nearly 75 percent of the central government’s cabinet ministers are from RSS backgrounds. This includes not just Modi himself, but those ministers who fill some of the most important portfolios — including the ministries of home, defense, education, communications, and law and justice.
In context of American politics, it’s notable that the RSS has not confined itself to India.
There are international counterparts for the RSS (called the HSS), the VHP (called VHP-America), and the BJP (called the Overseas Friends of BJP). These groups all espouse the same ideology of Hindutva — a religious nationalist political ideology that believes that India is a Hindu nation for Hindu people only and wants to eliminate all Muslims and Christians as well as assimilate all Buddhists and Sikhs.
The leadership of these American Hindutva groups — the HSS, VHPA, and OFBJP — are all intertwined, and many of the executives of one group hold or have held an executive position in one or more of the other groups.
The OFBJP was launched in America in 1992 to counter negative press surrounding the Hindu nationalist project to destroy the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. They say their goal is to project a “positive and correct image of India” in the West and “correct any distortions” in media coverage. They work hand-in-glove with BJP leadership back in India.
The former head of the group, Indian politician Vijay Jolly, said, “We need to touch base with as many among the diaspora as possible and to indoctrinate them with the BJP ideology.” For years leading up to Modi’s election in 2014, Jolly toured the U.S. to speak at diaspora rallies and meet American politicians.
Tulsi Gabbard was one of those politicians.
There is a now infamous image of her wearing a saffron scarf with the BJP logo — in other words, a picture of an American congresswoman wearing the colors of a foreign political party — while speaking at an OFBJP banquet held in Atlanta to celebrate Modi’s election.
While speaking at the banquet, Vijay Jolly raised the eyebrows of many — like myself — who would later hear his words when he told Gabbard (who was then running for re-election to a second term): “We are sure, with the support of the people of Indian origin, the non-resident Indians and, of course, the US citizens, your victory later this year is a foregone conclusion…. I’m predicting today for your victory.”
Does that smack of foreign interference?
It seems so, especially when one considers that at three separate OFBJP banquets celebrating Modi’s victory, speakers — who were donors to Gabbard’s campaign — 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 recognize and condemn violent atrocities committed by the RSS in India.
“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,” explained Professor Ashok Swain. “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.”
That plan worked pretty well for several years, but it ultimately failed.
One day after Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting rubbished Hillary Clinton’s Russian asset accusations — reporting instead that “Gabbard’s most troubling attribute is her documented connection to the far-right Hindu nationalist, or Hindutva, movement known as RSS” — the four-term congresswoman announced that she would not seek re-election.
She continued her presidential campaign, but never gained traction — and had to deal with being challenged on the campaign trail over using congressional campaign funds to help finance the OFBJP banquet where an Indian politician guaranteed her re-election — and she has now dropped out.
It appears that Gabbard will soon be exiting the American political arena, despite the best efforts of the Hindutva lobby.
There continue to be troubling incidents of BJP interference — or threatened interference — in American politics, however.
Last year, for instance, a few days after the August 5th annexation of Kashmir, Congressman Tom Suozzi sent a letter to the US Secretary of State expressing concern and warning: “The Modi government’s move could embolden Hindu nationalists to engage in acts of violence and discrimination against India’s minority religious groups, including Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs.”
The congressman’s letter provoked fury from a man named Jagdish Sewhani — reportedly an RSS officer, a community outreach coordinator for the HSS, former general secretary of the OFBJP, and a close associate of Modi who traveled from New York City to Gujarat in 2014 to be part of Modi’s “campaign team” and, in his words, “privy to the brainstorming sessions during the campaign.” Sewhani is also the man who organized the controversial display in Times Square of the ground-breaking ceremony for Ram Mandir.
Infuriated by Suozzi’s letter on behalf of human rights in Kashmir, Sewhani twisted the congressman’s arm — apparently by leveraging the important role of his Indian-American donors — and pressured him to retract the letter, apologize, and join a community meeting where he harangued Suozzi for “the tone and tenor of the letter.”
Another more recent and even more blatant example of Hindutva interference in American politics came when Senator Bernie Sanders issued a Tweet condemning the Delhi Pogrom in February of this year as a “failure of leadership on human rights.”
In response, a BJP national general secretary Tweeted: “How much ever neutral we wish to be you compel us to play a role in presidential elections.”
Meanwhile, as Gabbard appears destined to disappear from the scene, the Hindutva lobby is hard at work supporting at least six politicians — three who are already in office and three who are trying to get into office.
One of those — although in a somewhat more covert manner — is Congressman Ami Bera in California.
A member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, he was recently appointed chair of the Subcommittee on Asia, which means he is now the most powerful person in the House of Representatives when it comes to US foreign policy on India. Modi has earned his applause — Bera praises Modi’s “inspirational” words and vision, for instance — and, besides joining two of Modi’s rockstar receptions in America (which were organized by the Hindutva lobby), he was instrumental in arranging Modi’s address to a Joint Meeting of Congress in 2016. His campaign finances boast large, recurring donations from the same key figures in the American Hindutva groups who backed Tulsi Gabbard.
Another — to a much more overt degree — is Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi in Illinois.
In 2018, despite huge pressure from his constituents and other concerned citizens, he attended an event organized by the VHPA and shared the stage with Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of the RSS. In 2019, he was the keynote speaker at a fundraiser in Texas for Sewa International — the international wing of Sewa Bharati, a social service organization affiliated with the RSS. There, he was joined on stage by Ramesh Bhutada — the vice-president of the HSS. Weeks later, he joined Modi on stage in Houston at the “Howdy Modi” rockstar reception. And then he was the keynote speaker at an HSS event which was organized specifically to celebrate the founding of the RSS. With so much willingness to carry water for Hindutva groups, it’s no surprise that they have padded the coffers of his campaigns.
Yet another is Michigan State Representative Padma Kuppa.
Kuppa has written extensively through a Hindutva lens. She blames “Western bias” for “attacks on Hindu nationalism,” complains that too many media reports are make the 2002 Gujarat Pogrom “the centerpiece” of coverage about Modi, supports anti-conversion laws in India which make it a criminal offense to change religions without government permission, criticizes non-Muslim women who wear hijab as a sign of solidarity, and quotes the raging Islamophobe Koenraad Elst, a European author who says that “Islam is reprehensible” and insists: “The liberation of the Muslims from Islam should be a top priority for all those who care about India’s and the world’s future.”
Of these three who are currently in office, Bera and Krishnamoorthi both appear secure and relatively unchallenged for the moment, but Kuppa — who was first elected in 2018, is currently seeking a second term, and quite possibly harbors ambitions for a seat in Congress — deserves a great deal of attention.
Turning to the three candidates who are currently seeking office, there is Rishi Kumar, who is running for Congress in California.
Kumar is a city councillor with a long track record of activism with the OFBJP. In 2015, he helped organize Modi’s rockstar reception in San Jose. Writing about his experience, he waxed eloquent about waiting to meet “the man, the myth, the legend” while “Modi fever” took over the region. He further described how Modi is “who I seek to emulate in my governance on the city council.” Last year, while wearing a BJP scarf, he spoke at an OFBJP event hosted to organize support for Modi’s re-election — one of several OFBJP events he has participated in.
Also in California is Ritesh Tandon, who proudly declares, “My father was a strong RSS person.” Tandon is running against Congressman Ro Khanna. And his decision to run for office, he says, was motivated by Khanna’s criticism of Hindutva.
In August 2019, Congressman Khanna charted a new course for the Indian-American diaspora when he commented on reportage about Tulsi Gabbard’s RSS links, stating: “It’s the duty of every American politician of Hindu faith to stand for pluralism, reject Hindutva, and speak for equal rights for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhist, and Christians.”
As Amar Singh Shergill, the Chair of the California Democratic Party Progressive Caucus, wrote:
“Khanna’s statement incited a torrent of hate and criticism from pro-Hindutva and pro-India political supporters, balanced by progressives and anti-Hindutva activists heralding his courageous stance…. In the coming months, we will see a debate within the South Asian American community and the Democratic Party regarding the morality of Hindutva and how the party can reach consensus given the political crisis in India.”
That debate has begun to rage, particularly in regards to the third candidate who is currently seeking office — Sri Preston Kulkarni, who is running for Congress in Houston, Texas.
Understanding the extent of the influence which the Hindutva lobby has on Kulkarni’s campaign requires understanding Ramesh Bhutada.
As mentioned, Ramesh Bhutada is Vice-President of HSS. He is also the founder of the first HSS chapter in Houston. His cousin-in-law, Vijay Pallod (who claims to be the man who “discovered” Kulkarni), describes a “steady stream of RSS workers” at Bhutada’s house over the years. Bhutada has hosted RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat in his home — possibly on multiple occasions.
In 2010, he traveled to an HSS summit in India where, while wearing the uniform of the RSS, he listened to Mohan Bhagwat declare that India “alone has the capacity to save the world and humanity.“
In 2011, he organized an OFBJP “training camp” for activists which was conducted by the political advisor to the man who was then president of the BJP.
In 2014, Bhutada organized a phone-bank in Houston of 700 people who “worked round the clock” making calls “to motivate voters in India” to vote for the BJP.
Later, when Modi won, Bhutada wrote that it was because of Modi’s “RSS training” and claimed that Modi’s “upbringing in the culture of the RSS” meant that “critics should revisit the RSS.”
In 2015, as one of Tulsi Gabbard’s top donors, he attended her relatively small wedding in Hawaii, where he was joined by RSS spokesperson turned BJP spokesperson Ram Madhav.
In 2019, he, along with his son and his brother-in-law, was a key organizer for “Howdy Modi.”
Ramesh Bhutada is also a key organizer — and donor and fundraiser — for Sri Preston Kulkarni’s campaign for Congress.
“In this campaign, Rameshji has become like my father,” Kulkarni said during his first attempt at winning election. According to Bhutada’s cousin-in-law, “Ramesh met with community stalwarts, regardless of their party affiliation to bring their financial power to help Kulkarni.”
Last year, when Kulkarni launched his second campaign for Congress, Bhutada — who was described as having a “strong emotional bond” with the candidate — was one of the major speakers at the event.
Along with his time and energy, Bhutada has poured his treasure into getting Kulkarni elected. In total, along with his immediate family members, he has donated over $50,000.
Well over $50,000 more has been donated to Kulkarni’s campaign by just seven other individuals (and their families) who are known as key executives in Hindutva groups in America.
The extent of Kulkarni’s financing by Hindutva groups deserves a far deeper dive, but one thing remains apparent: Bhutada is pulling the strings of his campaign.
Of the three RSS-linked candidates who are currently seeking office, neither Rishi Kumar nor Ritesh Tandon appear to stand much chance at all of winning — Kulkarni, on the other hand, is in one of the most competitive and closely watched races in the country.
As rumors reach me that Kulkarni — who has had a lengthy career in the foreign service — is interested in being assigned to the Foreign Affairs Committee, if elected, I can only speculate about what kind of agenda he would adopt on the issue of US-India relations as the Modi regime spreads its fascist wings and implements its Hindutva ideology with increasingly lethal results.
As Americans remain deeply concerned about the possibility of foreign interference in our elections by Russia or China, perhaps it’s time — or rather, well past time — that we begin considering the issue of RSS interference on behalf of a Hindutva regime in India.
This story was first appeared on pieterjfriedrich.medium.com