“When we embrace ahimsa, we recognise there is no place for prejudice, no place for violence, no place for hate — not here in America, not in India, not anywhere in the world, and not in Hinduism,” said Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi in September 2018.
Krishnamoorthi — who first took office in January 2017 — was speaking at the World Hindu Congress (WHC) in Chicago, Illinois. However, ahimsa (the concept of nonviolence) was sometimes in short supply at the event. Billed as a religious gathering, one would not have expected it to be protested. Yet it was. Intensely.
A few hours after a keynote speech by Mohan Bhagwat — chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist paramilitary — a group of young South Asian American protestors who had infiltrated the event disrupted it, chanting: “RSS, turn around, we don’t want you in our town.” They were immediately rushed by a mob of audience members. “They choked, kicked, and spat on us,” reported the protestors, most of whom were young women. As they were hustled out, Vijay Jolly — an Indian politician who previously headed the Overseas Friends of BJP (OFBJP), the international wing of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party — shouted, “We should have bashed them up.”
Over the following two days, hundreds of protestors from a wide variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds — including Hindus — gathered outside the WHC. Protests centered on two issues: first, the presence of the RSS chief; second, that the conference was organized by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), the international wing of the VHP of India, which is itself the religious wing of the RSS. Just three months before the event, the US government had labeled the VHP a “religious militant organization.”
“I must tell you that some of my friends and constituents were very concerned with my presence here today,” said Krishnamoorthi when he finally spoke. “I decided I had to be here because I wanted to reaffirm the highest and only form of Hinduism that I’ve ever known and been taught — namely one that welcomes all people, embraces all people, and accepts all people, regardless of their faith — including all my constituents.”
Some of Krishnamoorthi’s fellow Hindu office-holders felt differently and publicly declined invitations to attend.
Ram Villivalam — then a candidate but now an Illinois State Senator — announced that he could not participate or “stand by silently” because of the “nationalist individuals and organisations” affiliated with the event. Even Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, despite her long track-record of association with the RSS-BJP, backed out. Originally slated to chair the WHC, Gabbard officially announced her withdrawal just days before, calling it a “partisan Indian political event.”
Nevertheless, Krishnamoorthi’s rationalisation for attending might have withstood scrutiny were it not for a few inconvenient facts.
It was not his first time speaking at a VHPA event. Nor was it his last time rubbing shoulders with US affiliates of the Sangh Parivar — or “Family of Organizations,” as the RSS and its various affiliates are known. Furthermore, his congressional campaign coffers have been filled with hundreds of thousands of dollars from donors linked to various outfits of the American Sangh.
In September 2017 — a year before the WHC — Krishnamoorthi spoke at a VHPA conference in Indiana on the topic of “political engagement for promoting Hindu interests outside of India.” Other speakers at the event included a number of donors to his congressional campaign. One was Nainan Desai, President of the Tampa Bay chapter of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), the international wing of the RSS. Another was Shamkant Sheth, an advisor to the Chicago chapter of VHPA. The event itself was actually co-hosted by VHPA-Chicago.
Executives in VHPA’s Chicago chapter have played an important role in Krishnamoorthi’s campaigns for office. Sheth, for instance, has donated $1750 over the years. Vinesh Virani, a vice-president of the group who has been described as a “close supporter,” has not only donated $1500 but also hosted events for the congressman. Nirav Patel, the group’s president, has donated $300. No one from the group has been a greater supporter, however, than VHPA-Chicago Advisor — and former VHPA Governing Councillor — Bharat Barai.
Barai and his wife Panna have donated nearly $32,000 to Krishnamoorthi’s campaigns for Congress. Yet Barai has done more than just give money. Days before the March 2016 primary, for instance, Barai — joined by OFBJP activists like Vijay Prabhakar and Jitendra Diganvker — rallied behind Krishnamoorthi while he was still just a candidate seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for Illinois’s 8th congressional district. The event was hosted, reported India Life and Times, “with a shared mission to collectively propel” him into office.
The timing was perfect. Had Krishnamoorthi run in the primary election just two years earlier, Barai would likely have been far too busy to help as he was, in April 2014, leading a team of 650 volunteers who traveled to Gujarat, India to back Narendra Modi’s campaign for prime minister.
Barai — described as Modi’s “longtime friend and confidante” — is one of America’s leading champions of the pogrom-tainted Hindu nationalist politician.
Modi, a lifelong member of the RSS who was reassigned by the paramilitary in 1987 to work within its political wing, the BJP, travelled to the US twice in the 1990s. The second time, in 1998, he was “dispatched by the BJP… to review the activities” of the OFBJP. Both times, he stayed with Barai. In 2002, after Modi was appointed Chief Minister of Gujarat, he was implicated in an anti-Muslim pogrom that left approximately 2000 dead at the hands of RSS and VHP workers. When he was subsequently banned from entering the US for his role in the pogrom, Barai went to work to keep Modi connected with the diaspora. From 2007 to 2014, he hosted regular video conferences with Modi, renting out halls in the US, packing them with hundreds and thousands of attendees, and beaming the events to audiences in cities around the country. Modi was “the rising son,” said Barai, who did everything possible to promote him in America.
When Krishnamoorthi spoke at the VHPA conference, he had just recently returned from a “maiden trip” to India in August 2017. Meeting personally with Modi to “discuss strengthening the special relationship between the United States and India,” he was pictured grinning from ear to ear as he sat with the man who just a few years earlier was banned from entering the US. Upon his return, he immediately hosted an HSS delegation in his district office.
Just eight months later, in April 2018, Krishnamoorthi made a second trip to India to again meet with Modi. In his second photo-op, he grinned even bigger than the last time. “The meeting with the prime minister only underscored that at the heart of our friendship with India are the values that we share: a commitment to freedom, democracy and the rule of law,” he reported.
Aside from Modi’s past involvement in the 2002 Gujarat Pogrom, his supposed commitment to such values was contradicted by the realities of his regime.
“Despite Indian government statistics indicating that communal violence has increased sharply over the past two years, the Modi Administration has not addressed the problem,” reported the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom — an independent body of the State Department — in 2018. “His administration also has done little to provide justice for victims of large-scale past incidents of communal violence, often caused by inflammatory speeches delivered by leaders of Modi’s party…. Massive violent incidents are more likely to reoccur if the Modi Administration and state governments continue to fail to punish individuals who engage in violence and incitement to violence against religious minorities.”
While Modi’s regime faced censure from the US government, Krishnamoorthi dug in deeper with his key US backers. The day after returning from his second trip to India, he was in Houston, Texas to keynote a banquet where he presented an award to OFBJP activist Gitesh Desai. That very same day — 7 April — Desai made his first of several donations to Krishnamoorthi’s campaign.
Other speakers at the banquet included Sri Preston Kulkarni (who was in the midst of his first campaign for Congress and had just been endorsed by Krishnamoorthi two months earlier) as well as Rishi Bhutada.
Kulkarni is facing his own allegations of support by the American Sangh. When he won the Democratic Party’s nomination for Texas’s 22nd congressional district in May 2018, he credited Rishi and his father, Ramesh, saying, “Without them, this campaign literally could not have happened.” Aside from the endorsement and their sharing of the stage at the April 2018 banquet, Kulkarni and Krishnamoorthi — the congressional candidate and the congressman — are linked by the Bhutada family. While the Bhutadas have given $39,000 to support Krishnamoorthi, they have donated over $50,000 to Kulkarni’s congressional campaigns
Ramesh Bhutada, founder of the first HSS chapter in Houston, is currently national vice-president of the group. As far back as 2011, he helped organize training camps for OFBJP activists in Texas to support the BJP’s election efforts in India. In 2014, while his cousin-in-law Vijay Pallod — also a donor to Krishnamoorthi — joined a team of 30 Houstonians who traveled to India to campaign for the BJP, Bhutada oversaw a phone-bank of 700 volunteers who called Indians to urge them to support the Hindu nationalist party.
Five months after Krishnamoorthi keynoted the Houston banquet, he spoke at the WHC in Chicago, where his donors Ramesh Bhutada and Vijay Pallod were also in attendance.
After the congressman “withstood the pressure and made an appearance” at the WHC, Bharat Barai — who had spoken at the controversial Chicago event — keynoted a fundraiser for him in June 2019. OFBJP’s Prabhakar — who had recently been in India to campaign for the BJP — attended, donated, and wrote about the fundraiser. Modi had just won re-election the previous month and it was, reported Prabhakar, a chief topic.
“Barai spoke of Indo-US relations post the landslide victory of Modiji and BJP,” wrote Prabhakar. “Barai recalled his personal association with Prime Minister Modiji and the transition to a corrupt free, efficient people oriented government for India…. Everyone got a first hand update on what is currently happening in the US Congress and in New India under Modi.”
Three months after the fundraiser, the congressman was back in Houston to keynote another banquet — this one, on 8 September, hosted by Sewa International, an RSS-affiliated charitable organization whose US branch is chaired by Bhutada.
After the banquet, Krishnamoorthi soon returned to Houston for a third time that year when, on 22 September, he was among two dozen lawmakers — most from Texas — who attended the “Howdy, Modi” mega-reception.
‘Howdy” marked Krishnamoorthi’s third meeting with Modi in two years. This one was particularly noteworthy because all of his fellow Indian-Americans in US Congress skipped the event, which was fiercely protested by tens of thousands who rallied outside chanting: “Modi, Modi, you can’t hide, you committed genocide.” Perhaps for that reason, although 60 lawmakers were originally predicted to attend, only 24 showed up.
Key organisers of the event were all Bhutada family members. Jugal Malani — Ramesh Bhutada’s brother-in-law and business partner — chaired the event committee while Rishi Bhutada was the event’s official spokesperson. The senior Bhutada was a patron of the event. Meanwhile, Bharat Barai was also in attendance.
How could Krishnamoorthi have skipped when some of his chief financiers are champions of Modi like Barai and Bhutada?
Just as with the WHC, the congressman faced heavy criticism — this time even from his 2020 Democratic Primary challengers — for participating in what was perceived as a celebration of Modi.
As usual, however, the criticism failed to make an impression upon him. Either he hadn’t read the reports of rising human rights abuses or he hadn’t believed them. Or perhaps receiving massive donations and free multi-state promotion from people who had worked to elect Modi mattered more to him than avoiding association with an increasingly authoritarian foreign regime.
“The government failed to prevent or credibly investigate growing mob attacks on religious minorities, marginalized communities, and critics of the government — often carried out by groups claiming to support the government,” Human Rights Watch had reported in January 2019. “At the same time, some senior BJP leaders publicly supported perpetrators of such crimes, made inflammatory speeches against minority communities, and promoted Hindu supremacy and ultra-nationalism, which encouraged further violence.”
Such reports, however, didn’t deter the congressman from speaking at yet another Hindu nationalist event later that year. In October 2019, Krishnamoorthi keynoted an HSS event in Chicago which was hosted to celebrate the 94th anniversary of the founding of the RSS. As he spoke, the congressman stood before a saffron flag — the symbol of the RSS — as well as pictures of first RSS chief KB Hedgewar and second RSS chief MS Golwalkar.
Hedgewar co-founded the RSS in 1925 — the same year that Adolf Hitler wrote Mein Kampf. The goal of the RSS, he said, was “to put in[to] reality the words ‘Hindustan of Hindus.’” Insisting that India was “a nation of Hindu people” which he compared to a “Germany of Germans.”
In his 1939 manifesto, published at the outset of the Second World War, Golwalkar celebrated how “the ancient Race Spirit, which prompted the Germanic tribes to over-run the whole of Europe, has re-risen in modern Germany.” It was, he said, “even so with us” — “our Race spirit has once again roused itself.” Arguing that “only the Hindu has been living here as the child of this soil,” he declared that non-Hindus have no other choice but “to merge themselves in the national race and adopt its culture, or to live at its mercy so long as the national race may allow them to do so.”
Describing non-Hindus in India — particularly Christians and Muslims — as “internal threats” and even “traitors” who had joined “the camp of the enemy” and left their “mother-nation in the lurch,” Golwalkar said that they must “lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race” or else be stripped of citizen’s rights. Pointing to the Nazis, he applauded them for having purged Germany of Jews “to keep up the purity of the race and its culture.” Praising such Nazi policies as “race pride at its highest,” he concluded that they were “a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by.”
Since taking office, Krishnamoorthi swiftly began speaking at what is now a total of at least four Sangh events. He has met Modi at least three times. No criticism has deterred him. No protest has humbled him. He appears devoted to safeguarding the cause of his premier donors and promoters — who are RSS-BJP activists dedicated to advancing Narendra Modi’s agenda.
That puts Krishnamoorthi in the position of whitewashing the ongoing atrocities of the Modi regime. As the minorities, the marginalized, and the dissidents in India feel the walls closing in on them, he has closed his ears to their cries for help as he continues touting for Modi’s Hindu nationalist regime from his ivory tower in Chicago.
Raja Krishnamoorthi is — and apparently unashamedly so — the RSS’s man in the US Congress.
Pieter Friedrich is a South Asian Affairs analyst who resides in California. He is the author of Saffron Fascists: India’s Hindu Nationalist Rulers and co-author of Captivating the Simple-Hearted: A Struggle for Human Dignity in the Indian Subcontinent. The views expressed are personal and ‘Clarion India’ does not necessarily share or subscribe to them. The article first appeared in Medium.