Hindu Nationalist Lobbyists on Capitol Hill Are Growing in Influence

Right-wing lobby groups that claim to speak on behalf of Indian Americans are trying to stifle criticism of Narendra Modi’s Hindu chauvinist agenda. They’ve modeled themselves on pro-Israel groups like AIPAC and forged alliances around Islamophobic bigotry.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi address a public rally ahead of the Nagaland assembly election at Agri Expo, Chumukedima, India, in the northeastern state of Nagaland on February 24, 2023. (Caisii Mao / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In the early 1990s, Indians comprised a tiny minority in the United States. Today there are around 4.2 million people of Indian origin in the US, with around 2.6 million being American citizens. Of those 1.4 million are naturalized citizens, and 1.2 million were born in the United States.

The Indian American groups that began to emerge in the 1990s looked to characterize themselves as representative of the larger Indian American community. A series of overlapping Hindu nationalist organizations were developed to make India synonymous with Hindutva.

In doing so, they consciously modeled themselves upon the pro-Israeli lobby in the United States and forged close ties with its leading organizations. They have become an important channel of support for the right-wing government of Narendra Modi and a regular source of hostile flak for Modi’s critics.

Origins of the BJP Lobby

In April 1991, L. K. Advani, one of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s most prominent leaders, launched the Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP) to directly “educate American lawmakers, the American people, and the Indian American community about the true principles of the BJP.” The OFBJP became the protector of India’s external image.

Rising communal tensions in India and the mounting death toll in heavily militarized, Indian-occupied Kashmir had drawn skepticism and concern in the West. “The BJP was getting a lot of bad press all over the world and particularly in the US,” Adapa Prasad, vice president of the OFBJP in the United States, recalls.

This project of stage-managing the image of the Indian state was immediately put to use following the Hindu nationalist demolition of the sixteenth-century Babri Masjid mosque in December 1992 and the Bombay riots and anti-Muslim pogroms that followed. The New York Times described the events of 1992 as “the worst outbreak of sectarian violence in India since 1984.”

Indian Americans who had once played a significant role in the agitations abroad against Indira Gandhi during the Emergency years of the 1970s were now activated to consolidate the Hindu nationalist project. These Indian Americans were now deeply established in the United States; their organizations were now a lot more networked and connected to a community with much more wealth, social status, and stability.

In 1993, Gopal Raju, an Indian American entrepreneur and founder of India Abroad, formed the Indian American Centre for Political Action (IACPA). The IACPA was created to mold a new generation of politically astute Indian Americans. Raju arranged internships on Capitol Hill and hired Ralph Nunberger, a professor in international relations and a legislative liaison for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), to help him succeed.

In concert with Raju’s effort, US congressmen Frank Pallone (New Jersey) and Bill McCollum (Florida) formed the India Caucus, an interest group that recognized India as a US partner and looked to strengthen relations between the two countries. The other US congressman who played an integral role was Democratic lawmaker Gary Ackerman, who articulated the call for a greater partnership between India, Israel, and the United States.

At a fundraising dinner organized by two Indian Americans in his honor in Atlanta in 1999, Ackerman described “strong India-Israel relations” as “very critical to ensuring peace and stability in a part of the world that is characterized by instability, fundamentalist religious bigotry, hatred toward the West and its values, and murder and mayhem spawned by acts of cross-border terrorism.”

He described India and Israel as “ancient civilizations [that] have much in common politically and economically and share strong democratic beliefs, traditions and values.”

Within ten years, the India caucus grew from eight members to a quarter of the US Congress. “It helped, of course, that the Indian American community had money in its pocket and its ‘leaders’ (those with money) wanted to be players in DC,” Vijay Prashad writes. For their efforts, both Ackerman and Pallone were awarded major civilian awards by the BJP government in 2002.

Learning From AIPAC

These nascent gatherings came together in the form of the United States India Political Action Committee (USINPAC) in 2002. Founded by three Indian American Republicans, Sanjay Puri, Jesal Amin, and Sue Ghosh Stricklett, USINPAC was built to raise India’s standing in the political imagination of America’s decision-makers — in other words, to align American power with Indian interests.

Amin, like several Hindu nationalists, believed that “terrorism” in India and in Israel were connected. USINPAC unashamedly adopted the organizational model of AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in a bid to speak the language used in the halls of the US Congress. Soon enough, USINPAC became the body seen to represent Indian American interests in Congress.

It steered clear of condemning the Patriot Act of 2001, despite the fact it was likely to impact Indian Americans, especially Muslims and Sikhs. Likewise, it tiptoed past the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat in February and March 2002 that killed around two thousand people, uprooted the lives of tens of thousands of others, and changed social dynamics in the state forever.

The War on Terror didn’t merely usher in programs of surveillance and racism against the Muslim community. It also facilitated the cross-pollination of essentially right-wing ethnonationalisms and helped normalize anti-Muslim bigotry in different parts of the globe.

It became routine for AIPAC representatives to travel to New Delhi or to bring Indian delegations to Israel and Washington, DC, for dialogue. In September 2002, Indian PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee met with B’nai B’rith International, the AJC, the Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs, and AIPAC and exchanged pleasantries on “the blossoming of relations between India and Israel.”

At the other end of the spectrum, a coalition of groups like Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), and the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC) began mobilizing for working-class rights, immigration rights, and racial justice, as well as against rising Hindutva in India. Christians, Dalits, Muslims, and some Hindu Americans also launched the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate (CSFH) to halt the flow of American dollars to Hindu nationalist projects in India.

Through these efforts, Narendra Modi’s visa to the United States, for instance, was revoked in 2005. However, given that Modi wasn’t a national figure at the time, the State Department’s decision to block his tourist visa was more symbolic and came with little risk. When Modi became the head of state, the ban was revoked.

Steve Bannon and the Bhagavad Gita

In September 2014, months after he became prime minister, Modi traveled to New York City to attend the UN General Assembly. His address to world leaders would be remembered most peculiarly for his request for the declaration of International Yoga Day. “By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us deal with climate change,” Modi said.

Later that evening, he was greeted with the fervor appropriate to a returning war hero–meets–prodigal son by throngs of Indian Americans at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Outside the venue, a sprinkling of protesters stood with banners calling for accountability for his role in Gujarat in 2002. In his address, Modi spoke less as a politician and more like a sage who had come to bless a gathering.

The Indian prime minister made three interventions. He emphasized the role of the Indian American community as ambassadors and credited them as key players in India’s destiny:

You all have earned a lot of respect in America through your conduct, values, traditions, and ability. You have played an important role in creating a positive image of India not just in America but globally as well, since the world community lives here.

Modi specifically invited the community to invest in his “Make in India” initiative, promising to cut the red tape that often hampered business back home. He asked them to believe in his project. He urged them to stand up to his detractors — to be India’s ambassadors: “I have attempted to make development a people’s movement. . . . I want to instill the sentiments in people like ‘Whatever I do, I do it for my country, let me do nothing that shames my country.’”

Finally, to show how much he cared about them, Modi announced a relaxation in travel and visa restrictions for persons and families of Indian origin. In so doing, the Indian PM made the Indian American community feel seen and heard.

In late July 2019, Modi began sending thousands of additional troops to Indian-occupied Kashmir, spreading panic across the valley. A week later, he imposed a communications blackout over the region. Landlines, cellular networks, and the internet were among the casualties. Kashmiri activists as well as pro-India politicians were arrested, and foreign journalists and human rights observers were barred from traveling to the region.

In September that year, thousands of people arrived in New York City during the UN General Assembly, attended by Modi, to show solidarity with Kashmir. This show of solidarity by multiple grassroots movements, nationalities, and faiths, including Palestinians, the Black Lives Matter movement, Indian minorities like Sikhs, Dalits, Christians, as well as Pakistanis, enraged the gatekeepers of India’s image abroad.

Hindu American organizations were activated to defend Modi’s move in the diaspora while the Indian government sent delegations to assuage US concerns. One notable meeting took place between Harsh Shringla, India’s then ambassador to India, and Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former aide. Shringla tweeted out a photo of himself standing next to Bannon, along with a caption: “A pleasure to meet the legendary ideologue and ‘Dharma’ warrior Stephen Bannon, an avid follower of the Hindu epic the Bhagavad Gita.”

After receiving some criticism online, he deleted the tweet with no explanation. But by then, the message was loud and clear.

Anti-Muslim Propaganda

Back in 2016, the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) had invited Daniel Pipes, founder of the right-wing Middle East Forum (MEF), to Delhi to speak to journalists, government ministers, and army officials about the threat of Muslims to secular societies. “He argued that Islamists who work within the system, especially in countries like the United States and India, are even more threatening than the Islamic State,” a VIF report of the event read.

In 2020 several hit pieces originating from the MEF began making their rounds on Indian news sites. First Martha Lee from the MEF took on Stand With Kashmir, a grassroots advocacy group, in the Print, arguing that the organization supported terrorism and carried “a dangerous agenda.” Months later, Clifford Smith, also from the MEF, claimed in another article for the Print that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement had expanded its net of ambitions beyond Israel to now target and undermine India.

“Friends of both Israel and India must work to counter this shockingly effective political activism before it is too late,” Smith wrote. His rant argued that Ilhan Omar, the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR), and Stand With Kashmir were part of some larger pan-Islamist conspiracy against India and Israel. It didn’t take long before the Indian government blocked Stand With Kashmir’s website and social media accounts across India.

Academics working on scholarship critical of Hindutva say the efforts to intimidate aren’t new: they have merely intensified. Vinayak Chaturvedi, a longtime scholar of Hindutva at the University of Irvine, California, and Audrey Truschke, an historian at Rutgers University in New Jersey, have meticulously documented the tactics used to intimidate them and others because of their writing about Hindutva in the United States.

Truschke says she has “lost count” of the number of death and rape threats issued against her. She now has armed security accompany her during guest lectures. Student activists like Shreeya Singh, the founder of Students Against Hindutva Ideology (SAHI), told me she received hate mail for days after writing an open letter to the US Congress calling on lawmakers to pass Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal’s resolution on Kashmir.

For Indian Muslims and Kashmiri Muslims in the United States, there is an even greater price for speaking out. Once they become targets, they seem destined to enter an ecosystem of endless harassment and surveillance. Being heckled at university discussions is merely the tip of the iceberg. Some Kashmiri academics have found their names on pamphlets, distributed outside lecture halls prior to or during academic panels, linking their work to “terror groups” or describing it as being sponsored by the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency.

If they are on social media, they are bombarded by Hindutva trolls. Since the Indian state is routinely responsible for enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, politically motivated detentions without charge, and unofficial no-fly lists, the intimidation and threats of harm have yielded immediate results. Several Kashmiris in the diaspora have abandoned advocacy or activism for the sake of family back in Indian-occupied Kashmir.

Ather Zia, an associate professor in anthropology at the University of Northern Colorado, told me that her university began receiving emails from strangers in 2019 questioning her academic credentials. Zia, born in Kashmir and an academic in the United States for several years, said that one email addressed to the provost of her university accused her of being an activist masquerading as an academic and of being antisemitic for comparing Kashmir with Palestine. The email’s writer also accused Zia of violating US immigration law because her work “discriminates against nationals of India and Israel, adherents of Hinduism and Judaism and non-Muslim Kashmiris.”

Zia said the university supported her, but she was asked to explain to the provost why her work was being linked with terrorism. “The problem is that each time there is new leadership at the university, I have to explain it all again. In that sense, sometimes, it is very demoralizing,” Zia told me. Zia also said that during her interview for US residency, immigration officials questioned her in detail about her academic work. She had to provide additional letters of support from colleagues to substantiate her case as an academic.

Congressional Conformity

It is not merely academics and activists who have faced the wrath of Hindu nationalist groups. Take the case of Pramila Jayapal, the congresswoman from Washington’s 7th Congressional District. Jayapal introduced Resolution 745 in December 2019 that focused on three things: lifting the communications blackout that has been imposed on Kashmir since August, ending detentions without charges, and respecting religious freedom.

The resolution made no mention of the Indian occupation or the Kashmiri right to self-determination. But weeks later, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s foreign minister, allegedly refused to attend a meeting on Capitol Hill on account of Jayapal’s presence. The move illustrated the extent to which the Indian government expected nothing but obedience and loyalty from those of Indian origin.

When Ilhan Omar introduced a resolution in late June 2022 calling for India to be characterized as a “country of particular concern” under the US International Religious Freedom Act, none of the Indian American lawmakers in Congress supported it. With the United States rapidly approaching a new cold war with China, there is little appetite in Washington to tackle Hindu nationalism.