Are Pakistani Leaders in Maryland Targeting Critics of Aruna Miller’s Hindutva Ties?
Sources claim powerful Pakistani-Americans are “collaborating” with Hindutva-tied Miller and going after local anti-Hindutva activists
Maryland (United States) — As allegations about ties to Hindu nationalist elements continue to dog newly-elected Maryland Lieutenant Governor Aruna Miller, activists who have called her out are now sounding the alarm about a strange twist in the story: ever since Miller’s ties were first widely exposed during her campaign in mid-2022, some of the most powerful Pakistani-American Muslim political party leaders and civil rights activists in Maryland have reportedly — and inexplicably — circled the wagons around her to quiet the outcry and cut out the critics.
In the months leading up to Miller’s election in November 2022, local activists began red-flagging how, over years of campaigns, she has taken tens — if not hundreds — of thousands of dollars from donors who are leaders in organizations like the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) and the Overseas Friends of the Bharatiya Janata Party (OFBJP). The HSS is the international wing of India’s fascist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) paramilitary and the OFBJP (now a registered foreign agent in America) is the international wing of India’s ruling BJP. The BJP itself is the political wing of the RSS.
Aside from my own original reporting in June 2022, Miller’s ties to these elements have been extensively covered in stories by The Intercept and The Huffington Post.
Opposition to her over the issue came to a head during her 18 January 2023 inauguration when a diverse coalition protested outside the event, hoisting a banner declaring: “Aruna! Cut ties with BJP/RSS.” Yet, as activists steadfastly continue drawing attention to Aruna Miller’s Hindutva ties, many are now frustrated that some key Pakistani-American leaders in the state have not only declined to take up the issue but seem to be targeting those who refuse to keep silent.
Many sources in Maryland would only speak to me anonymously out of fear of retaliation.
Local activists particularly named Pakistani-Americans like Saman Qadeer Ahmad and Zainab Chaudry as major figures who — despite being repeatedly apprised of the local Muslim community’s concerns about Miller — have reportedly not only responded dismissively but allegedly acted to undermine anyone raising the issue. Chaudry is director of the Maryland chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-MD) while Ahmad is chair of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee (MCDCC). Sources additionally flagged deep-pocketed donors like Sajid Tarar (curiously, the founder of Muslims for Trump) and business consultant Anwer Hasan.
Hasan and Zainab are both linked to Miller’s transition team, even joining a call shortly after the election to recommend appointments for her new administration under then Governor-elect Wes Moore. Tarar, meanwhile, co-hosted one of the last major pre-election fundraisers for the Moore-Miller campaign. Tarar’s fundraiser was partly co-organized with longtime Miller supporter and OFBJP activist Sudhir Sekhsaria as well as attended by OFBJP President Adapa Prasad.
Politics has always made strange bedfellows, but some of the strangest may be the mix of Hindu nationalists with Pakistani-American activists.
“I think for a lot of Pakistanis, the idea of having a South Asian as Lieutenant Governor is way more exciting to them than fixing things back home,” Ashraf Meer told me. An Indian-American attorney who was raised in Maryland, Meer is the grandson of one of India’s first high commissioners to Canada — Dr. M.A. Rauf — and the son of a US diplomat to India. “For them, for the older generation like me, back home seems quite far away. It’s not. I think this generation understands, because of social media, how close different parts of the world actually are and how easy it is for organizations with a bad intent to reach anywhere in the world that they want now.”
Indeed, in the case of Aruna Miller, the problem of the rising Hindu nationalist movement in India is not confined to that country’s borders — to “back home” — but touches the shores of America. So why aren’t top Muslim leaders in Maryland worried about it?
Saman Qadeer Ahmad
Ahmad, according to my sources, sticks out as one of the most prominent and politically powerful figures who is reportedly carrying water for Miller.
Two Democratic Party activists who have been vocal against Miller claim that, post-election, Ahmad may have used her position to block them from political positions. At a 14 February 2022 MCDCC meeting, both Scott Webber and Susan Kerin were passed over for offices which were to be filled by the committee’s vote. Webber, a long-time Democratic activist, had applied to fill a vacancy in the State Senate. Kerin, Director of Peace Action Montgomery, had applied to fill a vacancy on the committee itself.
In an open letter sent to Ahmad hours before the vote, grassroots organization No Separate Justice wrote: “We have learned from multiple sources (including several members of your central committee) that you and others have abused your positions of power to disparage candidates seeking an appointment to higher office from being rightfully considered for the electoral vacancies before the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee.” The letter went on to claim that “the rationale for their disparagement by you and others so far stems from their public efforts to highlight Lt Governor Aruna Miller’s deep and intimate ties to Hindutva.”
Webber agreed with that analysis.
“While I was running to be a state senator, to fill a vacancy, I’d been warned by people that I’m making enemies because of Aruna,” Webber told me. “After calling out her Hindutva [Hindu nationalist] associations, there’s essentially a smear campaign calling me unfaithful, untrustworthy, and not a team player. I have maybe a dozen people telling me that if I have any kind of interest or desire in trying to further my political career, I really need to keep my mouth shut about Aruna and her Hindutva ties.”
Multiple sources, speaking anonymously, claimed that the MCDCC’s closed door session on 14 February included extensive discussion of Miller’s Hindutva ties, with Ahmad even allegedly going so far as demanding that committee members “swear fealty” to the lieutenant governor or else risk consequences.
Directly bringing Miller’s Hindutva ties to Ahmad’s attention has reportedly had zero effect.
According to Webber, he spoke with Ahmad about the issue at a January 2023 MCDCC meeting. Upon witnessing her “gushing” about getting a South Asian into such a high office, he asked about her friendship with Miller. Ahmad reportedly told him: “We’re very close. We go back years. We align on every issue.”
Webber then asked if Ahmad supports Hindutva, to which she replied, “You mean like the BJP and RSS? No, not at all.” When he questioned why she isn’t concerned about Miller’s “deep Hindutva associations,” Ahmad said that Miller “denies all that, and there isn’t any proof.” Then she asked to continue the conversation later and swiftly excused herself.
”It floored me that a highly-educated, Pakistani Muslim — who purports to be a progressive Democrat — would so unabashedly support a politician who is an intimate associate of Hindutva’s staunchest US representatives,” Webber concludes. “Why is it that a Muslim woman in a position of authority as the chair of MCDCC is not speaking out about Hindutva coming into her state but, in fact, is actually celebrating the election of the Hindutva candidate?”
After Webber raised the issue with Ahmad once again in late February 2023, he told me, “So far, she has not responded, but that silence only adds to the perception that she’s hiding something.”
“I’ve reached out on multiple occasions, asking Chair Ahmad to clarify her relationship with, and view toward, now Lieutenant Governor Aruna Miller and her close anti-Muslim Hindutva ties,” he explains. “From my conversations with her, it’s clear they’ve discussed it, but she does not seem to care, which is extremely frustrating. For many of us non-Muslims fighting so hard against global fascism and Islamophobia, having a Muslim role model being perceived as a Hindutva cheerleader and collaborator, doing the bidding of Ms. Hindutva Maryland, and doing so to the detriment of Muslim advocates and allies, makes one wonder what secret backchannel deals are being offered to have her betray Islam and her Muslim brothers and sisters.”
“Here in Maryland, countless Muslim and non-Muslim activists have been targeted in recent months and weeks for protesting against Aruna Miller’s ties to Hindutva,” concluded No Separate Justice in their letter to Ahmad. “For your committee to penalize any Democratic activist for their commitment to democracy above party shows that the plight of marginalized communities is simply not a concern for Montgomery County’s political elite (in other words: for you). Simply put: your actions so far are the antithesis of democracy itself, and put into question the Democratic Party’s commitment to combating bigotry and Islamophobia as core values.”
Ahmad, however, is not the only one whom local sources accuse of “collaborating” with Miller. According to multiple sources who have had direct interaction with her, Zainab Chaudry is similarly celebrating Miller’s victory as well as allegedly actively working to impede anyone who criticizes the new lieutenant governor for her links to Hindutva.
Every source I spoke with about Chaudry requested anonymity.
“I’m scared to speak publicly about her role in all this because I’m frightened by her tendency to smear people whom she finds inconvenient and the massive social media following she can employ to do that,” one Muslim-American activist (whom I’ll call “Arsalam”) told me.
A seasoned Democratic activist (whom I’ll call “Ruth”) told me that she had crossed paths with Chaudry many times while working on past anti-Islamophobia and pro-Muslim campaigns. “In not just this particular issue about Miller, but others, I’ve found that she’s done harm,” says Ruth. Describing Chaudry as a “combination of helpful and a roadblock,” she claims that the CAIR-MD director has often “dismissed or undermined” past allies and impeded “coalition building,” noting, “It’s not just the campaigns, but sometimes individuals as well who suffer.”
“Zainab seems concerned about Hindutva in a national and general sense, but in terms of the specific Maryland connection, not at all,” Ruth told me. “We didn’t trust that she had the Indian minority community at heart. We think she might have other allegiances. We were building tension and creating pressure with the hope that Aruna would turn the money back. Last July, we were having an impact, and I think we were actually reaching critical mass. Then, when Aruna issued a statement, Zainab released all the tension by thanking her and accepting her ridiculous response. All our work sort of fell apart.”
The statement in question, issued by the Moore-Miller campaign, purported to be the “facts” about Miller’s support for Muslim communities, but side-stepped one crucial question: what is Miller’s position on Hindutva?
She “condemns all forms of religious persecution and violence and all of the hateful ideologies that perpetuate it,” the statement declared. A beautiful sentiment. Yet it read like someone responding to questions about their position on white supremacy by saying, “I oppose all forms of supremacy.” There was no criticism of Hindutva within the entire statement. Nor did it address why Miller has repeatedly spoken at events organized by Hindu nationalist leaders in America.
In a July 2022 WhatsApp group conversation with Chaudry (which was leaked to me), she expressed apparent satisfaction with Miller’s response. After Chaudry shared a link to the statement with the group, an activist responded by saying Miller should directly “denounce the ideology.” Chaudry responded: “It could be stronger but this was affirmed.” Another activist replied: “Zainab, this statement carries no weight.”
Meer is among those who are dissatisfied with Miller’s reaction to the allegations.
“I want her to, first of all, denounce the BJP movement — at least that aspect of it, the Hindu nationalist parts of it,” he says. “I want her to return the money from people with Hindutva ties. I would prefer if she actually gave the money to one of the organization that’s actually working against nationalism in India.”
Yet, as Miller seems unlikely to take such a stance, questions persist about why Pakistani-American figures like Chaudry and Ahmad continue supporting her. Moreover, why are they reportedly attacking Miller’s critics? My sources insist that Chaudry, for instance, has not just been disinterested in the issue but is on the offensive against those who remain concerned.
“I’ve directly raised the issue of Miller’s Hindutva ties with Zainab over many years,” says Arsalam. “Her response is pure gaslighting. We present the evidence of Miller’s donations from Hindutva leaders, her attendance at their events, and more. Zainab dismisses it, tells us it’s not credible, demands more evidence on top of the piles we already have, and then goes after us for bringing it up. She has launched campaigns to disparage and discredit Muslim critics of Miller in our own community in retaliation for criticizing a pro-Hindutva politician.”
Arsalam claims that Chaudry has, on several occasions, ventured beyond the political arena to silence Miller critics. In fact, more than one source I spoke to in Maryland alleges that Chaudry has targeted critics on a professional and personal level which damages not just their political influence but their livelihoods and, some sources claimed, even their safety.
“She’s actively trying to disgrace anyone saying anything about Hindutva as though they’re a crackpot or a dirtbag,” a young Democratic activist (whom I’ll call “Elijah”) told me. They claim that Chaudry has started a “whisper campaign” to blacklist anyone — Muslim or non-Muslim — who raises awareness about Miller’s Hindutva ties.
Numerous sources indicated that Zainab has told multiple political leaders that CAIR-MD isn’t concerned about the Hindutva issue.
“I’m convinced that she’s systematically using her clout to convince elected officials in Maryland that there’s ‘no proof’ of the allegations against Aruna, then working to scorch the earth beneath the feet of the hardcore critics who refuse to give up,” Elijah explains. “We’ve been approaching officials at the city, county, and state level about Miller, but most of them respond: ‘If this is an issue, then why is Zainab not working on it already?’”
“Even within the Muslim community, she’s spreading the word that any non-Muslim ally who is worried about Hindutva cannot be trusted,” concludes Elijah. “I’m not a Muslim, but I’m still terrified of what Zainab might do to destroy my reputation in Maryland if she knew I was telling you this. While we’re risking all this, what is she gaining by supporting Miller?”
Arsalam points out that Chaudry — at both a personal and organizational level — was busy issuing congratulations to Miller while they were protesting her during the inauguration.
“Even as we hit the streets to protest against Hindutva taking root here at home in Maryland, Zainab was on her personal Facebook applauding Miller,” he says. “We were raising signs denouncing fascism at the same time that CAIR-MD was issuing a press release praising the ‘historic’ inauguration. Zainab has never been there for us in our struggle against Hindutva abroad and its influence in America, but instead is allying herself with the very people who are in the pocket of a movement that wants to commit genocide against Indian Muslims.”
In contrast to Chaudry, just two weeks after the inauguration, CAIR National shared The Huffington Post article about Miller on Twitter. Noting that “Miller has a history of relations with far-right Hindutva groups,” they called it “disturbing.”
Several other sources who have worked for and with Chaudry all confirmed that she is unwilling to confront Hindutva in Maryland.
Meanwhile, Chaudry continues to embrace collaboration with Miller. At a 27 January 2023 “Maryland Muslim Lobby Day” hosted by CAIR-MD, Miller was given prime time as the opening speaker. Claiming in her remarks to stand “in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of the Muslim faith,” Miller made no mention of how one can do so while simultaneously keeping ties with Hindutva.
For her part, in the same press release noting that Miller “opened the event,” Chaudry thanked the “the Moore-Miller administration for their warm greetings affirming religious pluralism,” adding that “many concerned faith communities face hate and persecution from white supremacist and right-wing Hindutva groups.” Why she apparently chose to include Hindutva-linked Miller as their opening speaker while simultaneously acknowledging the hate and persecution some groups face by Hindutva groups was not addressed.
When contacted for comment (post-publication of this article) about the allegations, Chaudry bluntly stated that such requests aren’t “even worthy of a reply.” Asked about her views on Aruna Miller’s Hindutva ties, she said her “position on this is clear and consistent” — though she neglected to specify what exactly that position is and it can only be surmised via a combination of the sources, leaked conversations, and actions made available to me. Queried about allegations that she has contacted political officials in Maryland and advised them that Miller’s Hindutva ties are not a concern, she claimed this article is a “hit piece” and declined to comment unless it was taken down.
Conclusion: Who Benefits?
So how do these Pakistani-American leaders benefit by aligning with Miller?
“Hindu nationalism has the ability to present itself as being universalist and, in context of the South Asian diaspora, as minority pride which might seem inclusive to other minorities,” reflects Indian political scientist Dr. Anuradha Sajjanhar. “Of course, as we know, this hides undercurrents of exclusion and supremacy. Hindu Americans are the wealthiest and, in most cases, the most powerful minority in the US, so that could be a reason for this group of Pakistani-Americans supporting Aruna Miller and dismissing her ties to Hindutva. Mostly it’s naive. It furthers a false narrative of Hindu persecution in India and abroad and an attached solidarity to that. Their support and involvement show the fissures within the diaspora, particularly the contradictory parts of feigning inclusion while actively participating in a system of deep exclusion and underlying violence.”
Most of the on-the-ground activists I spoke with in Maryland speculate that figures like Chaudry and Ahmad are motivated to overlook Aruna Miller’s Hindutva ties for two primary reasons: guaranteed access to political power as well as personal self-interest and ambition.
“I’m not shocked to hear this is happening,” Ahmad Abuznaid of US Campaign for Palestinian Rights told me. “We’ve seen different examples in the past of our folks doing damage to their own community. Just because someone is Muslim doesn’t mean they will have politics that adequately and reasonably represent the Muslim community. Human beings often operate from a very individualistic mindset, but if a great majority of Muslims in Maryland are taking a different position on Aruna Miller, it’s clear these local Muslim leaders don’t represent the community. I think they have to answer as to why they feel so different from the rest of us.”
Abuznaid emphasizes the need to oppose American collaboration with Hindutva.
“Anytime there’s a relationship between elected US officials and fascists abroad, we should be concerned,” he says. “Concerned not just because of what Hindutva is doing to Muslims in India but, speaking as a Palestinian-American, also concerned because of Hindutva’s ties to the Zionist movement. Our concern should be about this growing global alliance of fascist governments and how the US is embracing so many of them.”
As the strength and malevolence of the Hindu nationalist movement in India swells to the point where Indian Muslims — and even other minorities — face genocide, international voices are needed now more than ever if it is to be averted. The global Muslim community, especially, has a chance to take a stand that may just help stem the tide of fascism in India.
Calling out and opposing the influence of Hindutva abroad, such as in Maryland, is one of the easiest but most effective ways for Muslims — or, indeed, any humanitarian-minded people — to undermine that movement’s grip on power in India. Yet doing so requires putting principle over politics and personal gain. In the case of Aruna Miller, hopefully figures of influence in her state will do just that before she acquires even greater political power.
Referring particularly to Chaudry, Elijah asks: “Why is a Muslim civil rights leader our biggest roadblock to exposing the influence of Hindutva in our state?” If the allegations are to be believed, then why indeed?
At the very least, one would hope that those unwilling to speak will not stand in the way of those brave enough to do so.
Disclaimer: I have immense respect for the work of CAIR, an organization which has been vocal in speaking out about both the rise of Hindu nationalism in India as well as its activities in the US. I’ve been invited to speak at numerous CAIR events by its leadership and also jointly participated in direct action with CAIR chapter leaders. The allegations laid out in this article are about a particular individual and do not reflect upon the organization itself. The reason I am running this article is because the evidence about both Chaudry and Ahmad, provided by a dozen sources (many of whom were scared for their safety), checks out and holds up to scrutiny.