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A Rebel in the Crosshairs: Founder of Hindutva Watch Says He’s Forced to Live in the Shadows in the United States

A Rebel in the Crosshairs: Founder of Hindutva Watch Says He’s Forced to Live in the Shadows in the United States

  • Journalist Raqib Hameed Naik, the founder of the website that tracks hate crimes across India, has been receiving death threats and harassment for his activism and reporting on the rise of the Hindu right in America.

Raqib Hameed Naik doesn’t feel safe in the U.S. The 29-year-old Kashmiri Muslim journalist who is currently in self-exile here, since fleeing India in 2020, has been receiving death threats and harassment for his activism and reporting on the rise of the Hindu right in America.

Earlier this month, The Washington Post carried an in-depth profile of Naik, focusing on his work as the founder of HindutvaWatch.org, which tracks and archives hate crimes and hate speeches across India. Until the report was published, Naik says he was working anonymously. The tech team at The Post was following his work with Hindutva Watch, and that’s how the publication got in touch with him, Naik told American Kahani. 

During the interview with The Post, Naik said he decided “to make his work public, hoping to build his homegrown site into a major operation aimed at warning the Indian government that its human rights violations are being cataloged.” He said it was “important” for him to “come out in public and look into the eye of your oppressor, to say: “‘I’m watching you, whatever you’re doing. And preserving evidence.’”

American Kahani caught up with Naik to talk about his work, the nature of the threats, life in self-exile, his support system within the U.S., and his hopes for the future.

“I don’t feel safe here at all,” Naik reiterates. He doesn’t share his location, no one knows where he is. “When I came to the U.S. for the first time, I thought it was a place where I could work freely, and express my thoughts freely, but I never thought that it would become so hostile that I would literally equate my situation to what I was going through back home.”

A Fascist Entity

Naik, who was born in Kashmir into a family of modest means, began his journalism career in Kashmir around the same time Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power. Since then he has seen “firsthand the steep decline of whatever was left of Indian democracy and turned into a fascist entity.” Hence, it’s natural for him “to focus on the ideology that is responsible for all of that,” he says. “Hindu nationalism is one of my core [subjects] and that’s what I did in India and also when I moved to the U.S.”

Raqib Naik with Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), the first African-American woman to represent New Jersey in Congress.

Naik told The Post that he spent “much of his youth preparing to become an engineer.” But “it all changed” in college, when he “got a taste for journalism after volunteering to cover events in Kashmir for twocircles.net. “The job exposed him to the plight of Muslims in the region,” he said. He shared with The Post an incident that happened in 1997 when he was 4 years old. His father was mistaken as “a sympathizer with Muslim insurgents,” was taken away by “military men,” and was “returned after three days, beaten and bruised.”

The Post said “Naik’s work began drawing wider attention in 2019,” when Modi scrapped a longstanding constitutional provision that granted unique autonomy and other special protections to Jammu and Kashmir. He was one of only a few journalists able to report on the unrest. But soon, the Indian intelligence officials were haunting his parents’ home in Kashmir. “After being questioned by Indian intelligence officers three times in August 2019,” Naik told The Post that people from organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists urged him to leave. He first went to Delhi. When a U.S.-based charity invited him to to the U.S. to give lectures about his experience, Naik decided to come here. At one of those talks, Naik told The Post that an activist mentioned to him about purchasing the domain name HindutvaWatch.org to track Hindu hate crimes. The activist hadn’t activated the site yet, because of lack of time.

The young Indian journalist is currently in this country on a special work visa. When he returned to the U.S. in August 2020, after visiting his parents in India, he found himself thinking of Hindutva Watch. And that’s how the website was born.

The prime reason for the vitriol against Naik from the Hindu right is because of two articles he wrote for Al Jazeera in April 2021. The Hindu American Foundation filed a lawsuit against those quoted in Naik’s article — Hindus for Human Rights co-founders Sunita Viswanath and Raju Rajagopal, Indian American Muslim Council executive director Rasheed Ahmed and Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations of North America chairman John Prabhudoss. Audrey Truschke, a professor of at Rutgers University was named in the lawsuit as well, although she was not quoted in the articles but only shared them on social media. Naik was listed in the lawsuit as being involved in the defamation and conspiracy to defame, but a ’non-party’ to the actual lawsuit.

Naik’s articles detailed how the coronavirus funds were allegedly steered to Hindu right-wing groups in the U.S. The article named five U.S.-based Hindu rightwing groups — the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of USA, Infinity Foundation and Sewa International. Following the publication, death threats ensued, and he became part of a lawsuit filed by the HAF, Naik says. He claims that the organizations he named in his article, “weaponized the legal system to file a lawsuit to target me, and other people I spoke to, and who shared my piece on Twitter.” 

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta dismissed the lawsuit on Dec. 20.

In the past two years, his father has been summoned “at least 9 to 11 times” to the offices of security personnel. “Considering the times we live in and how emboldened the Hindu right is,” Naik strongly believes that these are not empty threats. “They are capable of executing these threats, they can kill you.”

Naik claims the death threat he got in 2021 was “because of all the derogatory stuff” put out by the Hindutva entities in the U.S. He says he is accused of being Hinduphobic because they want “to put me on the radar of the Indian government and have them harass me and my family.”

‘They Can Kill You’

His family back home in India is “definitely at supreme risk,” he says. In the past two years, his father has been summoned “at least 9 to 11 times” to the offices of security personnel. “Considering the times we live in and how emboldened the Hindu right is,” Naik strongly believes that these are not empty threats. “They are capable of executing these threats, they can kill you.” 

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He gives the examples of journalist Gauri Lankesh, author and CPI (M) politician Govind Pansare, and social activist Narendra Dabholkar, who were all murdered for their critical views of the Indian government. “I know I’m taking a grave, grave risk,” Naik says, speaking about his family in Kashmir. “I worry about their safety, it’s something that’s always on the top of my mind.” But at the same time, he says that it cannot stop him from doing the work. “If my family is at such a risk, imagine the families of the 250 million of India’s religious minorities, including 6 million Kashmiris.”

Naik with Rep. André D. Carson (D-Ind.) 

For over a year, a large part of Naik’s activism can be seen on the Hindutva Watch website, which, since its founding in April 2021, “has cataloged more than 1,000 instances of violent attacks and rhetoric,” according to The Washington Post. “The intention behind creating Hindutva Watch was to make it a one-stop source for everything that is happening in India with religious minorities, especially since Narendra Modi came into power,” says Naik. Every day, he and his team scan different social media platforms to look for hate speeches, hate crimes, and hate rallies that are happening in the country. They then post them on the website and on social media to educate people, and create awareness internationally “about the anti-minority hate and bigotry that is being pedaled by the Hindu right wing.” Apart from that, they also provide English captions to some of the hate speeches given by the top leaders, so that non-Hindi speakers can also understand what’s going on.

Hindutva Watch is on the Indian government’s radar, Naik says. “They’ve tried to shut it down 11 times since April 2021, and they have sent notices to Twitter to take down the account, to take down our content.” In fact, some of their videos were taken down by Twitter after the Government of India and law enforcement agencies sent them the notice to do so. However, Naik feels that what the Indian government fears the most is the fact that they can’t take the site down because it is not based in India. “They cannot directly harass or intimidate me or put me in jail, because I am in the U.S., and the site is being operated from here.”

Hindutva Ideologues a Minority

Naik says he has a support system here. The Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and Dalit communities are “rallying behind me and I have my own circles, own network,” he says, adding that people appreciate the work. According to him, less than 5 percent of the people from the Indian American diaspora support the Hindutva ideology. These are the people who have “the money, who throw in money to shape public opinion and pretend as if the whole Indian American diaspora supports Hindutva,” he says. “It’s not like that. It’s just those 5 percent people, and organizations like HSS, VHP, HAF, Seva and Ekal, and a few others, who are involved in this stuff,” he adds. “But other than that I have support from everyone.”

Taking measures to keep his work safe online is comparatively easier than his personal safety. “For online safety, I have taken a lot of measures to ensure the data set on the website is safe,” he says. “There have been attempts to hack into our system and our social media handles, and keeping the system secured is my top priority.” However, as far as his personal security is concerned, “it’s an ongoing challenge, especially with the increased presence of Hindu far-right groups in the U.S.” He is “in touch with security experts who continuously advise me on the measures I must take to keep myself safe.”

Analyzing the workings of the current Indian government, Naik says that it has “shut any medium that is a platform where people can voice the criticism of their policies.” He continues: “They have the vision, and they will go to any length to shut down their critics, anyone who questions what they are doing.” According to him, “right now in India, there is just one informational funnel that is reaching the people — it’s from the government, through their mainstream media, that is controlled by a nexus of corporations that are favorable to the Hindutva regime. And all that people are listening to is anti-minority hatred in their primetime debates.”

Naik is cautiously optimistic about the future but acknowledges the vast amount of work that needs to be done. “It’ll take a lot of effort to undo the amount of damage that this regime and its ideology has done to India. He feels that the work “needs to be done by the majority community because no one from the outside, or the minority, or the marginalized community, are going to undo that radicalization that has been done in such a scale,” he says. “So that de-radicalization, that conversation should start from within the community.” And once that starts, Naik sees hope. “But, for that to happen, it is very important to defeat this ideology. To make sure that this ideology is no longer supported by the people.”

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