An Indian American member of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), a Hindutva group, was appointed to the United States Faith-Based Security Advisory Council of Homeland Security, a press release said on Monday, 17 October.
Chandru Acharya, who lives in Michigan, is the lone Indian and Hindu voice in the committee of 25 faith leaders residing in the US.
The council, which includes prominent personalities from different faiths, has been set up to give advice to the secretary on matters related to the protection of houses of worship, and coordination between people of different faiths.
Several prominent Indian Americans have, however, denounced the appointment of Acharya to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and alleged that the HSS, whom he represents, is actually the overseas arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
The website of the HSS also says that it takes inspiration from several Hindutva groups, and specifically mentions the RSS in this regard.
"HSS USA is inspired by a long lineage of Hindu movements in India, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which have helped rejuvenate the society and take Hindu civilisation forward," the website states.
Acharya, however, has denied any relation between the HSS and the RSS.
Who Is Chandru Acharya?
While Acharya was raised in India, he settled in the US as an Information Technology (IT) professional and served as the president of an IT firm called Imetris Corporation.
A yoga instructor and football coach, he teaches Hindu history, culture, and heritage at the Hindu Temple Balgokumal in Ohio's Canton, and is often invited to speak at several schools and colleges on the topic of Hinduism, according to The Interfaith Observer.
The press release confirming Acharya's appointment says that he is known in the Hindu American community and interfaith forums for building bridges with people from different faiths through dialogue and peace initiatives, news agency PTI reported.
It further states that Acharya has been actively involved with diverse community organisations that work towards social equity and pluralism.
Among his major accomplishments, the release mentions that he worked across faiths during the COVID-19 pandemic, represented the Hindu community's voice during incidents related to "Hinduphobia" in the US, and provides children with cross-cultural awareness.
Acharya has also held a number of posts in his capacity as a community leader.
He is the current president of the South Asian American Voice of Impact, and serves in the boards of the Detroit Women's Association, the India League of America, Michigan Indian Community Service, and the HSS.
Acharya said that his appointment to the advisory council was based on his body of work and contributions to the community. In this regard, he cited his years of experience working with the local government, community organisations and interfaith groups.
"As the only Hindu in the 25-member council, I wish to represent the Hindu-American community and play a positive role in keeping all faith houses in the United States, including temples, mosques gurudwaras, churches and synagogues, safe."Chandru Acharya
He also said that he endorsed freedom of faith and equality for every person.
However, he did not give a definitive answer to whether he considered the RSS to be a "supremacist" organisation.
Instead, he said that if people stray from the principles of Hinduism, they are the ones who should be labelled as "supremacists."
"If members of the RSS abandon the core philosophy of Hinduism and think that they are superior to others, they are supremacist," Acharya was quoted as saying by Middle East Eye.
Defender of India's Secular Credentials
In the past, Acharya has often denounced reports highlighting the alleged religious intolerance in India.
In April this year, he was among a group of Indian Americans who had cast aspersions on the validity of a United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) report which designated India as a "country of particular concern," citing alleged discrimination against minority Muslims and Christians.
The report had said that the Indian government "continued to systemise its ideological vision of a Hindu state at both the national and state levels through existing and new laws and structural changes hostile to the country's religious minorities."
Acharya had slammed the findings of the report as being "biased" and "one-sided" and alleged that they had been designed to "fuel an ecosystem of fear and hate."
"The report lacks authenticity and attempts to brand the vast majority of peace-loving and pluralistic Hindus as extremists."Chandru Acharya
Further, in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic when several Hindutva leaders were blaming Muslims for spreading the disease in India, Acharya had rejected claims that disinformation had spread "Islamophobia," saying that "it is ugly out there and it is not uniquely Islamophobic or Hindu nationalist."
"Unfortunately although I dislike these trolls and their harassment, it is the price that we pay in a democracy to protect free speech. With hostilities between India and Pakistan in play, it is very clear that both sides are using the online space to make their case and make the other look like an unsafe place for minorities," he had said.
Prominent Indian Americans Oppose Acharya's Appointment
Meanwhile, several Indian Americans expressed their dismay at the appointment of a Hindutva leader to the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Describing the RSS as an "ultra right-wing extremist organisation," Ria Chakrabarty, a policy director at Hindus for Human Rights, said, "The HSS is the overseas arm of the RSS. We firmly oppose the inclusion of organisations like HSS in any religious freedom council."
She also opposed the formation of a religious council within the DHS itself, saying that in the past, some of the department's policies had been "harmful and discriminatory towards Muslims and Sikhs, among others."
"DHS was in charge of enforcing President (Donald) Trump’s Muslim travel ban, has a history of spying on mosques, and just this year, seized the turbans of Sikh asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border."Ria Chakrabarty, Hindus for Human Rights
Rasheed Ahmed, executive director at the Indian American Muslim Council, also slammed Acharya's appointment, and questioned the US government's decision-making process in this regard.
"How can a member of a group whose parent organisation in India is implicated in violence against religious minorities and attacks their places of worship be a good fit for this position?" he asked.
Citing Acharya's refusal to accept the findings of the USCIRF's report on India, Mobashra Tazamal, a Washington DC-based researcher, said that it was unclear how the Hindutva leader could be tasked to carry out responsibilities towards people of different faiths as a member of the advisory council.
"I believe there is a very clear conflict of interest here, and given Acharya's comments and affiliations, his role in the council would severely impact the impartial nature of the organisation," Tazamal asserted.
The researcher also said that while the HSS is now trying to disassociate itself from the RSS, the connection between them was quite clear.
She cited two recent events co-sponsored by the US and British branches of the HSS which featured the general secretary of the RSS, Dattareya Hosable.
"The UK branch of HSS promoted the event featuring Hosable under the title 'RSS: A Vision in Action'. If the HSS is not connected to RSS, then why feature the leader of the group as a keynote speaker?" Tazamal asked.
Speaking to The Quint on Acharya's appointment to the committee, the Faith-Based Security Advisory Council of the US Department of Homeland Security said:
The Council’s focus is strictly to ensure DHS can continue to help prevent targeted violence anywhere in our country by engaging every community.Faith-Based Security Advisory Council of the US Department of Homeland Security
It also said that membership of the council reflects a wide range of diverse voices across various faith traditions and denominations, including from the Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh communities.
(With inputs from Middle East Eye, PTI, and The Interfaith Observer.)