In 2015, I published a piece for Alternet looking at Hawaii Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s ties to Hindu nationalist movements. I explored how she engaged in right-wing rhetoric about Islamic terrorists and courted American supporters of the right-wing BJP party in India for donations.
The piece provoked a harsh reaction from Indian supporters of the BJP living in India, who spent weeks trolling me as a Hinduphobe.
But the BJP is hardly the only political party in India. There’s the center-left Congress Party, the equivalent of America’s Democrats, and the Aam Admi Party, an interesting insurgent party with radical hyperlocal politics. Hindus vote for those parties too, and my criticism of the BJP should not have been read as criticism of the Hindu religion. Too many people have died in disputes between Hindus and Muslims, and we are both South Asians, we are both human beings, and I’m not interested in contributing to sectarian hatreds. I only wanted to highlight how Gabbard was courting India’s political right to benefit her political career.
In the years since, Gabbard has shifted more left-wing in her politics, endorsing Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders and engaging less with the Hindu right. These are positive steps, although it’s more than understandable that people would consider her political judgement and values during her years courting very reactionary politics.
However, that does not justify recent pieces attacking Gabbard on these issues.
A piece at The Intercept examined Gabbard’s continued relationship with Indian-American political activists, and originally included a sentence listing the number of individuals with Hindu-sounding names who donated to her. After a backlash, this sentence was removed. When I originally read the piece, I was shocked at the implication that people with Hindu names giving money to a politician must be trying to win her over to right-wing Hindu nationalist politics. How would we read an article listing off the names of Jewish donors to a candidate and then implying that their religion means they are supporters of the Israeli Likud? It was a bigoted implication and it’s unfortunate this somehow made it past editing at The Intercept.
This however was not the only problem with the article.
It takes aim at the Hindu American Foundation, a Hindu-American group that is supportive of Gabbard (that isn’t surprising, she was the first Hindu elected to the Congress).
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.
I’m not sure what this is supposed to prove. HAF engaged in a prolonged campaign to elevate the prominence of India and Hinduism in California textbooks. You can read some of their literature on the topic here. This is little different than when Muslim groups lobbied for New York City to adopt Muslim holidays for schoolchildren or when Jewish organizations lobby to have their holidays and traditions taught to children. Much of HAF’s campaign on textbooks is focused on simply polishing Hinduism’s image and making sure that the religion isn’t presented as a regressive monolith — not too different from how Catholics don’t want their religion portrayed solely through the lens of the abuse scandal.
At worst, it’s a little chauvinistic, but it’s hardly any different than what other religious organizations do.
The claim that HAF represents Hindu American nationalists is so off-base it makes me wonder if The Intercept spent even a cursory amount of time examining their politics before deciding to accept the article.
Last year I wrote a piece looking at an anti-Muslim campaign targeting a Muslim GOP committee member in Tarrant County, Texas. HAF took a stand against this campaign, defending the committee member’s right to be a practicing Muslim and a Republican. When Muslims worldwide were outraged at blasphemous cartoons that mocked their faith, HAF took their side in the dispute. Yes, HAF talks to BJP members and promotes relations with Modi. So does Imran Khan, the leader of Pakistan. India is the world’s largest democracy and you can’t put your fingers in your ears and pretend it doesn’t exist — you have to engage with it (but not necessarily uncritically).
If this is a Hindu nationalist organization simply because it advocates for a better image for Hinduism, I must be an Islamist because I promote the same thing for Islam.
While Hindu-Muslim tensions are far worse in South Asia than they are in America, some of it does unfortunately spill over into the United States. I know what Hindu nationalism and Muslim anti-Hindu sentiment is like, and this isn’t it.
The irony here is that these sort of sloppy hit pieces only make Hindu-Muslim reconciliation more difficult. The Indian press has been picking up the attacks on Gabbard, and the Hindu right is likely to use this as an example of why their philosophy is right. “Areh Yaar, even the sellout Hindu group is called nationalist by these Amreekans. You try to beg them for respectability, and this is what they give you. You might as well be one of us,” they’ll say. If you don’t think this will happen, you’ve never studied how this dynamic tends to play out.
UPDATE: I wanted to point out that HAF released a report in 2011 seeking to mobilize Hindus against caste-based discrimination. This isn’t included in the articles portraying the organization as right-wing. This isn’t to deny that the organization has left-wing critics, but the Indian political spectrum isn’t the left and the far-right (although it can sometimes look that way on Twitter). HAF has critics on the right as well.
UPDATE 2: Mat McDermott, who does comms for HAF, gave me a long quote describing HAF’s political orientation as they see it:
First of all, we pride ourselves on being a politically non-partisan organization in that we’re willing to work with Democrats and Republicans (not to discount third parties) on issues of shared concern. Some issues we advocate for get more support from Democrats, some from Republicans.Second, we try to approach the stances we take from what we believe to be a Hindu perspective rather than trying to fit our stances into a left-center-right category.Sometimes, such as supporting same-sex marriage and LGBT rights, or strong action on climate change and environmental protection, or for stronger gun safety laws, that puts us on the left side of the US political spectrum. Sometimes, when we speak up for the rights of Hindus in, say, nations or regions where they are a minority and don’t always get treated well, we get more backing of people on the right of the US political divide. It’s a delicate balance sometimes because what we believe to be a Hindu take on issues often doesn’t neatly fit into the buckets of left/right, Democrat/Republican, in US terms.Uniting that is a firm commitment to pluralism in belief, mutual respect, and upholding both civil and human rights, the welfare of all beings.
CORRECTION: The original version of this post implied that The Intercept published its article before the Sludge piece. This has been corrected and I regret the error.