- The three-term Indian American congressman has long ignored massive violations of human rights and religious freedom in India in deference to his Hindu nationalist benefactors and his friendship with Prime Minister Modi.
For over two years, I have been trying to convince Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi to stand on the right side of history by condemning the anti-minority policies of the Modi government and by distancing himself from his Hindu nationalist benefactors in the U.S.
It started in December 2019 when a report surfaced that he was a keynote speaker at a Hindu nationalist event in Chicago. He claimed that the report was false and that it was an Indian festival where there just happened to be some pictures of Hindu nationalist leaders. He also insisted that he was not in any way associated with Hindu nationalism.
In fact, the October 2019 event was to commemorate the 94th birthday of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and it was organized by the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), the overseas arm of the RSS. On stage were HSS officials as well as garlanded pictures of early RSS leaders, K.B. Hedgewar and M.S. Golwalkar.
Moreover, this was not Raja’s first appearance at a Hindu nationalist event. Since 2016, he had appeared at several events organized by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP), and SEWA International, often in the presence of his donors. During the same period, he had also met twice with Prime Minister Modi in India.
For the uninitiated, the RSS is a century-old Fascist-inspired Hindu nationalist organization, which is practically ruling India today through its political proxy, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its hand-picked Prime Minister Modi. BJP’s authoritarian rule is being consolidated and enforced through myriad off-shoots of the RSS in India. In the United States, organizations such as the HSS, VHPA, OFBJP and SEWA are all part of the RSS family, which are together aggressively defending RSS/BJP’s agenda to transform India into a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ – a majoritarian Hindu nation.
In the fall of 2020, OFBJP registered as a foreign agent formalizing its ties to the ruling BJP government. In the spring of 2021, VHPA had invited an incendiary Hindu priest, Yati Narasinghanand, who has repeatedly called for the “extermination” of all Muslims. VHPA withdrew the invitation only after considerable push-back from groups like Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR).
The VHP in India and its off-shoot, the Bajrang Dal, were listed by the CIA as “religious militant organizations” in 2018. Groups inspired by the VHP have been at the forefront of violence against India’s minorities, including mob lynchings and the recent open calls for genocide of Muslims.
The ‘Artful Dodger’
When confronted with the details about the HSS event that he had spoken at, Krishnamoorthi insisted that the story was “inaccurate in many respects” and “was a joke,” and that he was willing to explain the circumstances to anyone. That was the context in which I spoke to him at length on January 2, 2020, when I was traveling in India amid massive protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
After I had briefed him on widespread police brutality against peaceful protesters in Delhi and in the state of Uttar Pradesh (U.P.), he said that he too was very concerned about what was going on in India. He volunteered that he was speaking to Indian officials at the highest levels, who see him as an “honest broker” and that he had had many “undiplomatic exchanges” with them. However, he did not explain his presence at the HSS Chicago event as he had promised.
At his request, I continued to brief him periodically on the worsening rights situation in India, with plentiful video evidence of state violence against religious minorities. I even brought the head of Amnesty International India to brief him privately about the intimidation they were facing from state agencies after they had published a scathing report on police complicity in the 2020 Delhi riots. Unfortunately, he did nothing to intervene, and just a few days later Amnesty India was forced to shut its doors.
Despite all the information that I have provided to him over the last two years, and his promise to “bring issues to the attention of the Indian government,” I have seen no evidence whatsoever of Raja being an “honest broker.” If anything, he seems to be even more firmly embedded with the Modi camp today as their right-hand man in the U.S. Congress.
Evading Personal Responsibility
During our conversation, he had also said that his primary focus was the “clear and present danger on our soil,” and that 99 percent of his time was spent on working to defeat Trump and in protecting families in the U.S.
It has now been over a year since Trump’s defeat. The situation in India for the minorities is far worse than when I spoke to him, and directly touch the lives of many of his own constituents. Yet, all that Raja was able to muster after his prolonged silence was a noncommittal statement reminiscent of “All lives matter,” carefully crafted to offend no one:
What Rep. Krishnamoorthi said:
“I strongly urge government and political leaders of all faiths across South Asia, and the world, to forcefully denounce calls for sectarian bigotry and violence…”
— Jan 30th statement
What he could have said:
“I pledge to use the power I have in Congress to be a great ally for my beloved India and to work to keep it a free, open, pluralistic and democratic society.”
— Rep. Andy Levin at the Jan 26th congressional briefing co-sponsored by HfHR
Note that his statement placed the responsibility to denounce sectarian bigotry and violence on everyone but himself — in contrast to his congressional colleagues, who have pledged to use their power in the Congress to shine the light on the rights situation in India and are now facing the wrath of the Indian government.
In a later terse statement, Rep. Krishnamoorthi did specifically condemn calls for mass violence against Muslims in India. However, it seemed like a reluctant after-thought, perhaps an attempt at damage control with his Muslim constituency before the upcoming primaries.
Unfortunately, it was too little too late, coming more than eight weeks after the rest of the world had condemned those open calls for genocide of Muslims, and that too only after the RSS itself had tried to distance themselves from those calls. The latest statement made no reference to the Modi government, which has remained completely silent on the issue even as the inciters have been promptly released on bail.
Beholden to Hindu Nationalist Donors
When I challenged him in our 2020 conversation about his long silence on India, Raja finally came to the crux of the matter: He had put together a very successful campaign “coalition,” which he still needed to “function somewhat here.” And that the more he said about issues in other countries, it was likely to threaten that coalition and “rend it asunder.”
In other words, he had no plans to reconsider his financial dependence on Hindu nationalists, even though they were enabling the Modi government to tear Indian democracy apart.
Now that I have a fuller understanding of his long and deep association with some of those benefactors, such as Bharat Barai of the VHPA and Ramesh Bhutada of the HSS and SEWA, I can see why Raja has been reluctant to speak out on India.
Barai and Bhutada are staunch supporters of Modi. Barai is credited with rallying behind Raja’s election to the Congress in 2016. He is also reported to have led a large contingent of Indian Americans to directly campaign for Modi in 2014. More recently, he led the effort to defeat a Republic Day Resolution in the Chicago City Council, which would have expressed concerns about the state of Indian Democracy and the CAA.
Bhutada chaired the “Howdy Modi” event in Houston in September 2019 at which Raja was the only Indian American congressman in attendance.
A U-turn On the CAA
Finally, in our January 2020 conversation, I had touched on the serious implications of the CAA and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which could render tens of thousands of India’s Muslim citizens stateless, as had already happened in the state of Assam.
He opined that if something like the CAA were to ever come up in the U.S., it would be “struck down as unconstitutional.” He also confided that some people he knew in the Indian government too were hoping that the Supreme Court of India would strike down the CAA as unconstitutional.
Two years after that conversation, it is astonishing that Raja seems to have made a complete U-turn on the CAA. Sponsors of the Chicago resolution believe that he actively collaborated with the local Indian Consulate and the Mayor’s office to defeat that resolution. In the process, he may have forsaken the interests of his own Muslim constituents in favor of doing the bidding of an authoritarian foreign power.
The Democratic Party and Hindu Nationalism
In the summer of 2020, as America was paying tributes to Rep. John Lewis, Alabama GOP State Rep. Will Dismukes was participating in a celebration marking the birthday of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the founder and first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The celebration was held at Ford Dixie, Alabama, just miles away from Rep. Lewis’ birthplace, Troy, where Alabamians were paying their last respects to the civil rights icon.
Rep. Dismukes was quickly chastised by both Democrats and Republicans, and some even demanded that he resign. Despite its being obvious, Rep. Dismukes denied that his event was meant to mock the Rep. Lewis memorial event, and he went on to condemn the KKK: “The very atrocities and action they committed are a disgrace to our country.”
The Dismukes episode underscored that most American politicians still do not dare cross the Rubicon by making common cause with White nationalist groups.
Substitute the Democratic Party for the GOP; Raja for State Rep. Dismukes; the RSS for the KKK; and replace the grand wizard’s birthday celebration with the 94th birthday celebration of the RSS. What we see is a three-term Indian American Democratic congressman who condemns White nationalist bigotry, but is willing to break bread with Hindu nationalists who are openly calling for a majoritarian state, which would turn religious minorities into second-class citizens.
However, there is one important difference: While Rep. Dismukes was rebuked even by the Chair of the state GOP and was forced to distance himself from the KKK, we are yet to see any reaction from either Democratic or Republican colleagues to Raja’s unholy nexus with Hindu nationalism.
The Democratic Party is either clueless about the dangerous presence of Hindu nationalists in its ranks or simply does not care. It is now up to Indian American voters in June to decide if they wish to re-elect a congressman who repeatedly espouses American democratic values, but refuses to apply the same values to the world’s largest democracy, which is falling apart under his friend Modi’s leadership and may be heading towards a genocide.
Raju Rajagopal is a co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR), USA, an advocacy organization dedicated to the human rights of all communities in India and the U.S. Details at www.hindusforhumanrights.org. The above views are personal.