US Hindu nationalist groups: What could this mean for Muslims and minorities?

A The New Arab Exclusive Article.

Published September 27th, 2022 | By Dina Sayedahmed and Hamzah Khan

As millions of Muslims in India face the threat of genocide under Modi’s government, Dina Sayedahmed and Hamzah Khan warn about the dangerous impact of affiliated Hindu nationalist groups on minorities in New Jersey, US.

With pockets of Middlesex County in New Jersey dubbed “Little India,” the area has long boasted of a thriving Indian American population. As a whole, New Jersey is home to at least 10% of US migrants from India, according to a study by Migration Policy. Middlesex County, specifically, is among the top four counties where immigrants from India have resettled, second only to Santa Clara County in California.

Not only has the Indian American diaspora brought forth a rich diversity to the region’s cultural and business centres, but schools in the area also rank in the top percentages in the state of New Jersey. Real estate networks sell Edison as a town with a booming economy, progressing from being a manufacturing city to one that offers technological and innovation-based business ventures.

More recently, however, the area’s politics and cultural hubs have been overtaken by Hindutva groups — a political ideology that refers to the predominant form of Hindu nationalism in India. This has deepened a rift between Middlesex County’s Indian American diaspora, and yielded a less optimistic future, from cultural and heritage celebrations in the area to local elections.

 ”Hindu nationalist groups hosted then-Republican nominee Donald Trump in Edison for a charity event in the weeks before the 2016 election. At the event, he praised India for helping fight terrorism, a phrase that has become code for institutionalizing Islamophobia through crackdowns on Muslims.”

Following Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election in 2014, Hindutva has steadily risen to prominence in India. His ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), stokes hatred of Muslims and other minority groups in India through its policies and rhetoric.

One of the BJP’s former social media heads, Arun Yadav, had likened one of Islam’s holiest sites, the Kaabah in Makkah, to an ice cube in a glass of whiskey. Another former BJP leader, Nupur Sharma, who was a spokesperson for the party, made anti-Islamic remarks on a televised debate that triggered demonstrations across the globe. Though both BJP leaders were consequently suspended, the comments themselves are a window into the prevailing culture within the BJP, which has traveled to and infiltrated some pockets of the Indian American diaspora through groups like the Hindu American Political Action Committee (HAPAC), the Overseas Friends of the BJP (OSFBJP), the Indian Businesses Association in NJ (IBA), and the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS).

One group in particular, the IBA, has been especially active in New Jersey’s Middlesex County. During the India Independence Day parade, an annual event organised in the area – which is normally a celebration of Indian culture and heritage – the IBA decided to include a bulldozer decorated with images of known Hindu nationalists and BJP leaders, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. What may seem like an awkward but otherwise unproblematic place for a construction vehicle, bulldozers carry different implications in the context of India.

Over the past few months especially, bulldozers have become a vehicle of injustice in India and a symbol of anti-Muslim animus. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, specifically, is infamous for ruthlessly implementing “bulldozer justice,” a term coined by Amnesty International that refers to India’s unlawful demolitions of minority groups’ homes. His supporters refer to him as “Baba Bulldozer.”

In the wake of the parade, and after mounting pressure from advocacy groups including CAIR-NJ, both NJ senators, Bob Menendez and Cory Booker, condemned the IBA’s actions. However, Edison council member Ajay Patil — who is also a Vice President of the IBA — dismissed the anti-Muslim animus behind the use of the bulldozer.

While the inclusion of a bulldozer at the India Independence Day parade sounded alarms across the state, the infiltration of Hindutva into local NJ communities long predates this event. The OFBJP and HSS have a history of operating in New Jersey and funding Hindutva groups in India. A report by the South Asia Citizen Web detailed the financial information and expenditures of 24 Hindu nationalist-affiliated groups. The report found that seven Sangh-affiliated charitable groups spent nearly $160 million on their programming, which includes sending funds to Hindu nationalist groups in India.

Just weeks ago, the New Jersey chapter of Param Shakti Peeth of America, a charitable non-profit, organised a fundraiser at a Ridgewood church featuring Hindu nationalist ideologue Sadhvi Rithambara. The church reverend, Robert Miller, cancelled the event just days in advance after learning of Rithambara’s background. Last year, New Jersey legislators went as far as honoring the World Hindu Council/Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHP), a group that has continually tried to downplay its links to Hindu nationalists in India despite organising — and then cancelling after facing pressure — a series of events hosting known Hindu nationalists.

In 2020, the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office opened an investigation into Indian IT firm, Nityo Infotech, following a recruiter’s email specifying to not recruit Muslims. Local school board races have also seen Hindutva influence: Two Hindu-American locals and a New Jersey board of education member, Nitang Patel, signed onto anti-Muslim flyers that were later distributed to Gujarati households in Piscataway, a suburb of Middlesex County, in the lead up to the town’s 2019 Democratic primary. A School Ethics Commission later found that Patel should be censured for violating multiple provisions of the School Ethics Act.

In another instance, Audrey Trushcke, a professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University in New Jersey, came under fire for pointing out that Hindutva groups in NJ were inspired by fascists and Nazis.

Hindu nationalist groups also hosted then-Republican nominee Donald Trump in Edison for a charity event in the weeks before the 2016 election. At the event, he praised India for helping fight terrorism, a phrase that has become code for institutionalizing Islamophobia through crackdowns on Muslims. The Pennsylvania chapter of the VHP hosted a “Modi Victory Celebration Dinner” in 2014, a sharp contrast to its claims of being a benign group with no political leanings.

“We must prepare to either kill or be killed,” Hindu nationalist and religious leader Swami Prabodhananda Giri said last year at a conference in New Delhi, prompting an investigation by India’s Supreme Court — a court that is predominantly occupied by Hindu judges. Muslims and other minority groups in India have faced existential threats since Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi consolidated power with his reelection in 2014, and Genocide Watch has warned of an impending genocide of Muslims in India.

At its core the Hindutva movement, which has been broiling since the colonial partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, is both a Hindu nationalist as well as an anti-Muslim movement that goes largely unchallenged by democracies around the world. In the US, elected officials wine and dine with Hindutva-affiliated groups like the Hindu American Political Action Committee (HPAC), and in New Jersey, specifically, elected officials like Frank Pallone march and shake hands with Hindutva-leaning groups like the IBA.

If democracies around the world continue to ignore the rising threats of Hindutva, India’s 204 million Muslims could face ethnic cleansing. As its influence grows among New Jersey’s Indian diaspora, communities that once boasted of success risk creating a hostile environment and an increase in anti-Muslim attacks and harassment.

Dina Sayedahmed is the Communications Manager at CAIR-NJ, America’s largest Muslim civil liberties organisation.

Hamzah Khan is the legal research intern at CAIR-NJ and a student of international relations at Seton Hall University School of Diplomacy and International Relations.