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Tulsi Gabbard Flags ‘Hinduphobia’ – Is It Hindutva Donors’ Voice?

Tulsi Gabbard’s tweet fulfills her Hindutva backers’ mission - mainstreaming Hindutva in the US political discourse.

Published
Politics
6 min read
File image of Tulsi Gabbard with Indian PM Narendra Modi.
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Tulsi Gabbard has emerged as an unlikely survivor in the race for becoming the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in the United States. Gabbard has managed to stay in the race despite candidates with a higher popularity rating and more number of delegates – like Elizabeth Warren, Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttgieg and Amy Klobuchar – dropping out.

Realistically, however, Gabbard doesn’t stand much of a chance of winning a nomination, with just two delegates pledging support to her and opinion polls giving her less than 2 percent of the votes.

So, the question many are asking is: Why is she still in the race?

Gabbard’s Presidential Campaign

In the middle of questions regarding the survival of her campaign, Gabbard stirred up a debate by alleging that she has faced “Hinduphobia” in her campaigns for Congress as well as in her current campaign.

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There are two ways one can see this tweet, from the short-term point of view of Gabbard’s election campaign and from the long term perspective of Hindu politics in the United States.

As far as Gabbard’s campaign is concerned, she is now repeatedly stressing on the point that she is the only woman, only person of colour (she is part Samoan), the only army veteran and the youngest candidate still in the race. She is also the first Hindu to make a bid for president.

But, realistically, Gabbard’s best case scenario for now would be to get picked by Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders as running mate or for a cabinet position, and then prepare for her next bid.

And if President Donald Trump wins a second term, Gabbard’s aim would be to rise in the ranks within the Democratic party for a more successful presidential bid in 2024.

Therefore, claiming to be a victim of racism and Hinduphobia, could be a way to strengthen her position in either of the three eventualities – a Trump, Biden or Sanders presidency.

This is the short-term perspective. Now for the long-term view.

Gabbard as the Hindutva Asset in US Politics

Gabbard’s tweet fulfills her Hindutva backers’ main mission – mainstreaming Hindutva in the American political discourse.

Hindus have been Gabbard’s strongest backers and their importance has only increased as she got more and more sidelined in the Democratic race.

According to Opensecrets, Gabbard’s second biggest sponsor in her entire career 2011 onwards is a company called American Spraytech, which had donated $48,489 to Gabbard so far.

The company is owned by New Jersey-based Hindu businessmen Allen Lalwani and Manav Lalwani. The Lalwanis are followers of Sadhu Vaswani. Manav has even worked closely with the Sadhu Vaswani Mission.

Though the Sadhu Vaswani Mission has influence across the political spectrum in India, founder Sadhu TL Vaswani had close ties to the RSS. According to BJP patriarch LK Advani, TL Vaswani presided over a massive RSS rally in Karachi on 8 and 9 August in 1947, a week before Partition.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Dada JP Vaswani.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Dada JP Vaswani.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter/@narendramodi)
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At number four in the list of Gabbard’s biggest donors is a company called At Last Sportswear, which has donated $45,200 to her since 2011. It is owned by another New Jersey-based Hindu businessman Sunil Ahuja.

Ahuja is closely associated with the Sadhu Vaswani Centre in New Jersey.

Then at number six is Star Pipe Products, which has donated $41,716 to Gabbard. It is owned by Houston-based businessman Ramesh Bhutada, reportedly the vice-president of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh’s US Chapter.

HSS is supposedly the international version of the RSS. Bhutada is also one of the directors of RSS affiliate Sewa International.

Bhutada was closely involved with the ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Houston in 2019 and his son Rishi was the event’s spokesperson. Rishi is also one of the directors of the Hindu American Foundation.

Another key donor for Gabbard is Dallas ENT Head & Neck Surgery a hospital in Dallas, Texas, which has given $32,827. The director there is Dr Rajiv Pandit, a doctor of Kashmiri Hindu origin, who also happens to be one of the directors at the Hindu American Foundation.

A report by Caravan on Gabbard’s pro-Hindutva donors cited the case of one Anil Deshpande, describing him as vice-president of RSS affiliate Sewa International.

However, it turned out that this is a different Anil Deshpande. The person who has donated to Gabbard – around $25,000 – since 2011 is the owner of a real estate firm Deshpande Inc, in Orlando, Florida.

There are no known Sangh links of Deshpande. However, he founded a Hindu organisation named Jijnyasa Foundation and is part of the Hindu Society, Florida.

Despite the confusion over Deshpande, the Caravan report written by Peter Friedrich painstakingly documents Gabbard’s links with various Sangh affiliates, especially the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s America chapter.

“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 (Gabbard) has been eagerly welcomed at many Sangh fundraisers around the country,”
The Caravan on Tulsi Gabbard

The article says that Meghani hails from a Sangh background and has donated $18,550 to Gabbard. Barai, another figure in the VHP America, is also a Gabbard donor.

Gabbard’s “Hinduphobia” charge should therefore be seen from this perspective. This is probably what her Hindutva backers want her to say, even in the middle of her presidential campaign.

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Progressive Democrats: New Enemy For US Hindus?

This is not to say that bias against Hindus doesn’t exist in the US. From the anger against Hindu labourers building railroad tracks in California in the late 19th century to the Dotbuster (dot literally referring to Bindi) gang hate crimes against Indians in 1987 and several sporadic attacks on temples that continue to take place, anti-Hindu sentiment does have a history in the US.

Evangelical Christians, too, have regularly targeted Hindus – the most famous example being televangelist and Republican Pat Robertson calling Hinduism “demonic”.

However, the attacks aren’t specific to Hindus. Other ethnic and religious minorities – particularly Muslims and Sikhs – have regularly been subjected to similar, perhaps even more frequent, attacks.

So far, the reality of being a religious and ethnic minority has shaped the politics of Hindus in the US, antipathy to White Supremacism and the Christian Right.

However, the rise of Hindutva in the US has gradually changed this reality and Gabbard’s Tweet is a small example of the ‘New Hindu’ narrative in US.

The incident narrated by the anonymous person in Gabbard’s tweet alleges Hinduphobia not from White Supremacists or Evangelicals but by someone sympathetic to persecuted Indian Muslims.

Though the person doesn’t explicitly state the identity of the Uber driver, the post can be seen as targeting American Muslims and progressives for supposedly being Hinduphobic.

It appears that Gabbard’s Hindutva backers want her to take on progressive Democrats who are extremely vocal about atrocities against Muslims, particularly in India.

The Hindutva anger against the progressive Democrats became clear when Bernie Sanders slammed the Government of India on the communal violence in Delhi but got an angry response from BJP general secretary and RSS commissar BL Santosh (which he later deleted).

Tulsi Gabbard Flags ‘Hinduphobia’ – Is It Hindutva Donors’ Voice?

Remember, not just Sanders but even Democrats like Pramila Jayapal, Ro Khanna, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez have been vocal in criticising the Modi government’s treatment of minorities.

Jayapal even claimed that New Delhi tried to get her dropped from a Congressional meeting with India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar.

Therefore, much of the progressive wing of the Democrats is seen as hostile by the Hindutva lobby and they are actively trying to promote their own nominees like Gabbard.

However, they aren’t putting all their eggs in one basket. Amit Jani, who hails from a BJP background, is part of Biden’s campaign, ironically as his in-charge for outreach among Muslims.

Then of course, Prime Minister Modi has actively weighed in favour of President Trump. However, there is little doubt that Gabbard is Hindutva’s strongest asset in the US and the Hindutva lobby is willing to continue investing in her.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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