Hindutva in the US: The Rise of Fascism in India and Its Implications
Peace Vigil works on peace education. Today, we’ll be talking with Pieter Friedrich, a writer and activist based in the United States. Pieter works on issues related to the rise of Hindutva in India, and especially about connections between hate in India and fundraising in the USA.
Pieter is passionate about his work confronting Hindutva. Our co-founder, Shirin, had the opportunity to ask him about why he chose to work on India and a number of other topics.
Shirin (Peace Vigil): Greetings of peace, Pieter Friedrich. Welcome.
Pieter Friedrich: Thank you, Shirin. I’m glad to be here.
Shirin: You know, there’s a lot that is not right in our world. Why does Hindutva deserve special consideration?
Pieter: Well, I think a lot of things deserve consideration, and certainly we could pinpoint a lot of conflicts that are currently happening all over the place. New conflicts that have broken out, such as between Ukraine and Russia, would certainly be one of them. We also have some older conflicts, such as Afghanistan with the Taliban, and issues in Pakistan, to name a few in South Asia. Of course, we have issues related to the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, and human rights there. Additionally, we have issues related to Africa, espeically Egypt, Syria (which is not technically Africa), but Nigeria is a big one these days, and so on and so forth. Palestine, of course. All of these conflicts are ongoing.
Hindutva in India, however, deserves special consideration, for one reason, because it’s an issue that the broader world is not generally aware of yet. For instance, the Palestine conflict has been on the radar of people all around the globe for decades. everyone knows about the Ukraine conflict which broke out earlier this year. On the other hand, what’s happening in India with Hindutva and the rise of Hindu nationalism, it’s really gone under the radar, almost arguably being brushed under the rug — effectively — by the Hindutva crowd. Brushing it under the rug is precisely what they want to do.
And, throughout the rest of the world, most people, by and large, except for, in many cases, some elected officials and people in those kinds of positions of power, are just not aware of it. That lack of awareness: why is it present? There are a lot of reasons one could argue. As I just mentioned, the Hindutva crowd abroad, which has a broad global network, is very dedicated to keeping the focus away from even the existence of Hindutva or Hindu nationalism. But also, within a lot of the countries outside of India, especially within many of the Western countries, there’s just this general ignorance of the nature of society and politics in India.
Up until the present day, to generalize but by and large, the typical person in the West tends to still view India through that rose-tinted lens of Gandhi, Bollywood, and yoga — and that India consists of nothing more. They’re not aware of the intricacies of the society, the diversity of the languages and cultures, the complexities of the politics, and so on.
Shirin: Any other reasons you can think of?
Pieter: Yes. Well, as far as why it’s so imperative to focus on Hindutva, India is the second-largest country in the world by population, neck and neck with China. It’s one of the most influential countries in the world, growing more so by the day. It’s a massive country with huge influence on the entire South Asian region, which is centered in an area where there are two nuclear-armed powers that are at animosity with each other. In fact, three if you count China — between Pakistan, China, and India. Where India goes, South Asia goes.
The direction of South Asia really has a great influence on the whole globe, especially as we become more of a world community. We’re interconnected. India and the US, for instance, are increasingly unconditional partners, even though they are literally on the opposite sides of the globe from each other. What happens in India impacts all around the globe, as well as 1.4 billion people in this world.
So, with the growth of Hindutva, we can be concerned about other issues in other countries, legitimately so, and we should be paying attention to them, but most of those other issues impact much smaller populations. As India is heading in this direction, with Hindutva being in complete, iron-clad control of the country, it’s on the verge of becoming — if not arguably already has become — the world’s largest fascist country. That’s very concerning. It’s concerning in a way that is not to minimize what’s happening in other places of the world. However, it’s very concerning in much different ways from the concern that we might have about what’s happening in Israel, Syria, Russia, or so on.
Shirin: I do want to understand a little bit more about why people don’t know. Do you think the reason for it could be that it was never a dominant philosophy in Indian politics since 1947? The politicians in India took deliberate steps to keep it at bay. Do you think that could be the reason why, internationally, Hindutva fascism is not understood or people don’t know about it?
Pieter: I think that, yes, that is probably one of the reasons. Hindutva, as a dominant philosophy within India, only really took root after the destruction of the Babri Masjid. I should note that we are recording this on 6 December 2022, which marks the 30th anniversary of the destruction of the Babri Masjid. That destruction was really the point at which the Hindutva movement — with all its entities such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), etc. — began to enter into the public eye and consolidate their power, especially through the propaganda that was propagated alongside that destruction.
Subsequently, after the destruction of Babri Masjid, 1000 to 2000 Muslims across northern India were slaughtered. Impunity was offered for their murder as well as for the destruction of the mosque. All that really allowed and empowered the Hindutva crowd and the Hindutva ideologues to see that if they were not going to get tamped down after committing these blatant atrocities, then maybe they were in a position where it was safe for them to begin expanding more overtly.
Since 1947 — well, the RSS was founded in 1925 while India was still under the British Empire, still within the British Raj. At that time (as many people familiar with Indian politics know), the RSS actively chose not to involve themselves in the freedom struggle. Instead, they wanted to focus on building up their organization, on networking across the country, and on establishing their ideology — which was this ideology of a “Hindu Rashtra” or a Hindu nation where non-Hindus are not welcome. So from 1925 until 1947, when India got independence, they were under the radar because they weren’t doing anything against the British. From 1947 onward, they actively, for the most part, avoided politics and chose to only work within the social arena — except, of course, for that blip in 1948 where the RSS was briefly banned after an RSS member assassinated Gandhi.
Up until 1980, when they finally founded the BJP, they stuck to the social arena. They had, of course, a precursor party, but it was mostly under the radar and didn’t actually do much up until it was replaced by the BJP in 1980. They weren’t involved in politics, they weren’t pursuing political office for the most part. They were simply building their networks and propagating their ideology far and wide.
It’s only really in the past 30 years or so, especially since 1992 when the Babri Masjid was destroyed, that the actions of Hindutva — like the real world, on the ground, physical manifestation of the ideology — have come to prominence in the minds of the public and in the minds of those on an international scale who would have reason to pay attention to these issues. Then it wasn’t even until 1998, when the BJP got a coalition government elected for the first time in India, that the world — especially these international governments — had any particular reason to pay attention to that movement. To the outside observer, Hindutva wasn’t really terribly strong up until the early to mid-1980s, early-1990s, and then of course, 1998.
Shirin: Also, Pieter, just to point out here, that not only did the RSS not support the freedom movement against the colonial rule of the British, but it actually helped the British government to undermine the Indian struggle against them. This is well documented, people can research, and recently, in fact, Mahatma Gandhi’s great-grandson, Tushar Gandhi, made public many of the documents. But also, one interesting thing about Gandhi’s murder, which you just referred to, is that, in a way, it stopped the RSS from expanding. 1947 was an opportunity for them to expand because, since Pakistan had been created, the whole rhetoric — anti-Muslim rhetoric and sort of that Hindu nationalist rhetoric — was in the air. But Mahatma Gandhi’s murder stopped…
Pieter: There was fertile ground for that kind of rhetoric at that particular moment. But yes, then once they murdered Gandhi, I think that, because he was so revered in the minds of the Indian public, his assassination probably very arguably kind of nipped the growth of the RSS in the bud. They shot themselves in the foot, actually.
Shirin: Yes. I think Gandhi, both in his life and in his death, was able to bring people together, which is really amazing. I don’t think he knew that’s what was going to happen, but that’s what happened. People did come together.
Now moving on, Pieter, I know that you’re not Indian. As far as I know, you don’t have any family connection with India. So what prompted you to take up this issue?
Pieter: No, I’m not Indian, not last I checked. I don’t have any Indian family. But what prompted me, well, it’s a long story with a lot of ups and downs, but it began in 2006.
I was about 20 years old. I happened to meet some Sikhs. Actually, Sikhs and Sikhism were my first introduction to anything from the Indian subcontinent. I met them and began talking with them, particularly about issues like the 1984 Sikh Genocide. They were interested — and I was interested when I learned about it — in trying to draw the attention of the West to that atrocity.
That really piqued my interest because, although there are a lot of things that I don’t appreciate about my upbringing, one of the things I do appreciate is that I grew up — as I think a lot of Westerners, a lot of Americans do — on this steady diet of materials about the Second World War, particularly about Nazi Germany. I grew up reading novels about it, especially a lot of novels written in the 1950s to 1970s. I grew up watching a lot of movies about it, especially some of the movies from the 1940s, 1950s, and some of the later movies from the 1970s. One of my favorites, I think, is Lee Marvin in “Dirty Dozen.” I like some of the newer stuff like “Saving Private Ryan” and all that, but the stuff that I particularly enjoyed and especially consumed growing up was all the older stuff, especially pre-1960s. I grew up reading a lot of history books about it. Watching a lot of documentaries about it.
I’d never personally experienced it, of course, and — unlike a lot of Americans — I don’t actually have family that fought in the Second World War. But, as I was consuming all of this, I did grow up with just, like, this innate, general hatred of Nazis, I’m like, “Oh, those are really the bad guys.”
I grew up watching stuff and reading stuff like, in particular, “The Hiding Place,” which is the story of Corrie Ten Boom from the Netherlands. She was unmarried, in her late 50s, and she and her sister lived with their father, who was a watchmaker. As the Netherlands were occupied by the Nazi Germans, Corrie and her family provided a hiding place within their home for quite a number of Jews who were fleeing persecution. They were ultimately discovered, arrested, and sent to concentration camps. Corrie’s sister died in the camp. Her father died in the camp. Corrie survived. After she survived, she wrote books about it and went on speaking tours around the world. That’s one of the things that really touched my heart.
So, hatred of Nazis, just this passion about what happened with the Holocaust, and this horror at it, and this disbelief that something like that could happen. All of that just really sat in my gut, and kind of sank deep into my heart. So then, all that was with me when I encountered Sikhs and learned about the 1984 genocide.
From there, over the next several years, I encountered Dalits and Ambedkarites who introduced me to the anti-caste movement. I began encountering Indian Muslims. I soon learned about 2002 Gujarat. I think that was probably the next major atrocity I learned about. I learned about Odisha 2008 and the pogrom against Christians there. I began to learn about all of this.
I started writing about issues like torture by police in India, and I actually had a submission on that topic which was accepted by the United Nations for their Universal Periodic Review — written at the time under a pseudonym because I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to commit to using my real name on these issues.
So, along the way over several years, I became heavily involved with the Indian diaspora. All of these atrocities really touched my heart, especially in light of my upbringing and my hatred of fascism and Nazism.
I got a chance to do things like in 2012, I was invited to help organize a centennial anniversary celebration for the Stockton Sikh Gurdwara, which is the oldest in the United States. In 2013, I got a chance to help organize a centennial celebration of Dr. Ambedkar’s arrival at Columbia University, and I got a chance to also speak there at Columbia.
I was starting to become very heavily involved with the Sikh diaspora, with the Dalit diaspora, with the Muslim diaspora, and then 2014 hit. Right in 2013 to 2014, I began to get involved with Sikhs and Muslims, in particular, who were trying to get US Congress to pass this House resolution that would have condemned the violence by Hindu nationalists and also would have encouraged the US State Department to continue denying Modi a visa. I got involved in going around to congressional offices and encouraging them to sign on to that. Then Modi got elected. I could go on, but that’s kind of what got me started over the first decade or so.
Shirin: So, Pieter, a couple of things that come to mind after what you’ve explained regarding your background is that your upbringing, or anyone’s upbringing, and the education they’re given, and the things they’re exposed to as they’re growing up, does have a huge impact on how they’re able to see things. Whether they’re able to see similarities and dissimilarities, and figure out for themselves that the things that they have studied or have been exposed to may still be continuing in the world — and so what is it that they want to stand up against or what is it that they want to support?
So, it’s really a question of values, but also a question of analyses. So, for example, many people study about the Second World War, they study about Nazism and fascism, but they’re unable to see the parallels. I think there has to be enough understanding of these issues to be able to see those parallels. But, unfortunately, people are not being exposed even. I mean, forget about analyses, but they’re not even being taught these important historical happenings. So, for example, in India, a lot has been removed from history textbooks. People don’t even know what happened in the past.
Pieter: I speak with a lot of Indians. I don’t mean to over-generalize, but my experience has been that many of the Indians I speak with are very unaware of just how significant the Second World War was, especially for the Western Hemisphere. Many seem unaware of how much it impacted, and to what extent issues like the Holocaust really resonate with, the Western people, even to the present day, and the level of horror that’s connected with that even 70 or 80 years later.
There are a lot of reasons why I think that is. Certainly, one of them would be the colonization by the British. At the time of the Second World War, India was still a colonized territory and so, from that perspective, there’s a rationalization that one can wrap one’s mind around as far as why Indians who were under colonial domination during World War II had, at that time, less sympathy for the Allies, including the British, who were waging war against the fascists — and also why even today many might not quite understand or, maybe in some cases, have empathy for the atrocities that were committed by the Axis powers.
Shirin: You could see the parallel also in the way the Sikhs were treated in 1984. Many people don’t see that because of various reasons, but also because, unfortunately, the Indian government post-1984 riots — or so-called riots, it was really a pogrom — didn’t do enough to condemn these atrocities in the history textbooks. Therefore, I don’t think the kind of anger that should have developed after 1984 happened, and I think that is very sad, but you were able to see that. So, as a peace educator, I see that what happened in 1984 or later in Gujarat are pretty much the same things. It’s just that the victims are different, but it’s really the same philosophy that’s driving it. All the research that has been done about 1984 shows that there were Hindutva elements at the forefront in that pogrom.
Pieter: Yes, I look at 1984. I’ve met survivors. I look at the impunity that was offered for 1984. The impunity for 1984 set the stage for impunity for 1992 with the Babri Masjid, which set the stage for impunity for 2002 with Gujarat, and then — thank God on a smaller scale — set the stage for impunity for 2008 in Odisha, and so on and so on and so forth.
Shirin: So, in fact, if the government had done enough in 1984 to tell people that, “look, this is unacceptable,” and if people had gone to jail, I don’t think that things would have taken the turn that they did.
Pieter: If people had gone to jail. If there’d been an immediate reaction from the government saying, “This is, and this should be, nothing more than an aberration. This can never become a pattern in our country. We’re going to move heaven and hell in order to make sure we arrest and try — justly try but with speed — and convict those who are accused, and make sure they get the maximum penalties. Make sure that this is shown, from top to bottom of our country, as totally unacceptable.” Then I think that there’s a very strong argument to be made that the subsequent atrocities, which were more overtly committed by Hindutva elements — by the RSS and its affiliates — would either never have happened or would have been much more easily nipped in the bud and stopped.
Shirin: So, Pieter, now I would like to discuss something which is actually related to this. That is, if we don’t pay attention to fascism growing, it can actually become a monster that is just almost impossible to tame. Or even if it is tamed, it takes many generations, perhaps. So, I want to discuss now the growth of Hindutva in the US. And I know that you’ve been working very hard to stop that growth from happening and bringing awareness to Americans about it. I would like you to please talk about that. Are there specific organizations that are involved or is it only limited to the individual level?
Pieter: Oh, there are definitely specific organizations. Of course, I like to preface these things — for people that might be non-Desi, non-Indian, or simply unfamiliar — with the general lay of the situation.
In India, of course, you have the Sangh Parivar. That’s the family of Hindu nationalist organizations which is this whole spidery network. At the top, you have the RSS, which is like the Mothership. For any science-fiction fans, you always have a Mothership, and in these sci-fi movies, the Mothership sends out many smaller ships that go do different things on its behalf.
So you have the RSS. Then beneath that, the RSS has dozens of subsidiaries that are special interest. You’ve got them for labor, for judges, for farmers, for attorneys, for students, for anything and everything under the sun. The most important of these are the VHP (the religious wing), the Bajrang Dal (the youth wing of the VHP, which is the religious wing of the RSS), and the BJP (the political wing). All these major ones, in particular, have pretty direct corollaries — or parallel organizations — abroad, which are found around the globe in many different countries.
In particular, here in the US, the RSS has the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), the VHP (the religious wing of the RSS) has the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), the BJP (the political wing of the RSS) has the Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP), and so on and so forth.
Those are really the main particular organizations that I call, again, the Sangh Parivar. I call them the American Sangh Parivar — the American family of Hindu nationalist organizations — or the American Sangh for short. There are five major ones which I refer to as the “name brand” American Sangh organizations. Those are the HSS, the VHP-America, the Overseas Friends of the BJP, Sewa International (which is like the charitable wing), and Ekal Vidyalya (which is like the educational wing). So, to answer your question, yes, there are definitely particular organizations within the US. However, beyond those — and these are harder to identify — there are a lot of affiliated organizations or, rather, ideologically like-minded organizations. One of those actually just came to prominence in Texas a couple of weeks ago, and that’s the Global Hindu Heritage Foundation (GHHF).
The GHHF is a nonprofit registered in Texas. They caused controversy because they organized a fundraiser on 27 November 2022. They put out a flier advertising it. Two of the major things that they said they wanted to raise money for at this fundraiser were shocking.
One was for “Ghar Wapsi,” or “reconversion” ceremonies for people in India. So, raising money in Texas for Ghar Wapsi of Indian citizens in India. By and large, over the years, many or most of these “reconversion” ceremonies involve force or pressure. What happens is that Christians or Muslims or, in some cases, people from other non-Hindu religions, are approached and asked to “reconvert” to Hinduism. The idea is that even if these people and their families have been non-Hindus for generations, they need to return to the faith of their ancestors: Hinduism. And all kinds of pressure and force is used to make them do it.
On their flier, they also said that one of their goals for the fundraiser was to raise money for the demolition of churches, particularly in Tirupati and Andhra Pradesh. Now, they specified “illegal” churches, but within the context of what’s happening in India today, “illegal” has a very nebulous definition. The goal of the RSS, ideologically since its founding, is to eliminate Christians and Muslims, in particular, from the country. And it’s put that goal into actual action many times with physical violence against these communities. So, for instance, when this organization here in America says that they want to raise money to demolish “illegal” churches back in India, the “illegal” can be and should be taken as having a very flexible definition.
Shirin: Plus, I mean, if it is illegal, it should be the state that should be dealing with that, not a nonprofit or a cultural organization.
Pieter: And not a nonprofit or a cultural organization from outside of the country of India! Yeah.
Shirin: Exactly, especially when the Modi government has denied funds to internationally recognized organizations like Mother Teresa’s Foundation and also many of the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) like Amnesty International in India have had to suffer.
Pieter: Which, not a rabbit trail too much, but yes, that whole general issue of what the Modi government has done with a whole host of Christian NGOs in particular. Compassion International is one of the really big ones as well. The Modi government has stripped away their right to send funds and fundraise for causes, for charitable causes, for feeding and clothing the poor, for funding hospitals and educational institutions. The Modi government has stripped that away
Then we have, of course, all of these — oftentimes committed by RSS affiliates like VHP and Bajrang Dal — mob attacks. Constant mob attacks on churches.
And to back up a little bit: I have spent a lot of time this year talking in America, trying to get American Christian clergy to pay attention to the issue of persecution of Indian Christians. And when I talk with them, probably 75 or 80% of them are completely ignorant of the issue.
When I talk with them, one of the questions they oftentimes ask me is like, “Well, what does persecution of Christians in India look like?” And they say things like job discrimination or social boycotting or something. And I’m like, well, yeah, maybe that’s part of it.
But no, what it looks like, what the worst of it looks like is that you, as a Christian, you’re holding Sunday service and minding your own business, you’re in your church, and you’re worshipping. Suddenly a mob of, like, 50 or 100 or 250 or 500 people show up outside of your church. Oftentimes armed, oftentimes accompanied by the police. They burst into the sanctuary. They start smashing up everything in the sanctuary. They start beating the congregants. They drag the congregants and the clergy out into the street. And if the cops aren’t there already, then the mob drags the victims down to the police station, turns them into the police station and gets the police to file charges against the victims, not the perpetrators.
So I tell the American Christian clergy that, and it’s like a light bulb goes off in their head. They’re like, “Oh, like the Nazis?” And I’m like, yeah, exactly.
So you have the mob attacks. You have the stripping away of these NGOs and their right to send funds in to support the least of these, the impoverished people. And you’ve got, of course, this fundraiser here in America, which is just one example of raising funds to demolish churches back in India. The Modi government has a desire to put a stranglehold on the Christian community in India, among others.
Shirin: In addition to being a human rights issue for the world, specifically with regards to the US, it’s also a question of funds being directed from the American soil to a fascist network in India. So that’s very concerning. Do you think that it’s mostly a question of money for the fascist organizations? You know, the reason why they want to be strong in the US? Because there are a lot of Indians who are doing well, there’s also a very large Indian population. What really amazes me is that the HSS was actually founded in Africa in 1947. Yes, in Kenya. And that it’s not until the end of 1980, I believe its 1989 or something, that HSS started in the US.
Pieter: That’s correct, and a point of clarification, but the VHP was actually established first in the US. Some of the historians of this have commented on how this is actually a reversal of the way it’s happened in most of these other countries, where Hindutva groups have been established. In most countries, like the UK, for instance, HSS came first, followed by other groups like VHP, etc. In the US, I believe it was sometime in the mid-70s that VHP-America was established. And so that was established first, and then along the way, the people who established that were the ones who ended up establishing HSS in America, which I think yes, was in 1989.
Shirin: Okay. But I guess it always intrigues me that when a chunk of the population that fits a certain demographic, like in this case, Hindus, like, let’s just loosely do it, because Hindus also come in various shapes and sizes, but let’s loosely call this….
Pieter: And that is a great point. Hindus, no kidding, come in a lot of shapes and sizes, metaphorically. And that is exactly what the RSS and the HSS really want to strip away and tamp down. The goal of the RSS is to turn Hinduism into something that it is not and never has been: a homogeneous religion, where maybe the head of the RSS is like the Pope of Hinduism. And even today, in 2022, if you look on the RSS’s website, in so many words under their “vision” section, they specifically state that their goal is to “engulf” every single aspect of Hindu society. And they list out politics, religion, education, family, and so on and so forth. And that’s their specific goal: to turn Hinduism into like the Borg, where it’s just centrally controlled and where there is absence of diversity.
Shirin: But I think that specifically in terms of caste, it really does divide the Hindu society. And in order to bring all the Hindus together, you do need a point of hate and in this case, it’s largely Muslims and, secondly, Christians. Christians are a much smaller number, so Muslims tend to be the bigger target, but Christians are also a huge target. It’s just that they’re smaller in numbers.
So, Pieter, a couple of things: One is that I find it intriguing that when a community starts to do well, so in this case, Indians and specifically Hindus, the Hindutva organizations are very quick to use that to divert funds back to fascist activities in India. So that’s one thing, and I wonder if you have the same understanding of why the Hindutva lobby is so keen on tapping into the Hindu population in the US, because there are Hindus all over the world. But somehow pro-Hindutva Hindus in the US have become the main funders of this hate in India.
Pieter: So, Shirin, there’s a lot that I could unpack there, but I’m going to try and draw on a couple of thoughts that are coming to my mind.
One of them is that in, I think, the 1960s, that the US immigration really began to open up to the point that Indians could freely travel and emigrate to the US. And from that point in the 1960s, that being the case, those who could afford to emigrate from India tended to be primarily people that were already somewhat moneyed and tended to be also people that were upper cast. So even today, the population of Indian-Americans that we have just tends to be less populated by people who are from the Dalit or Shudra communities. And so that’s one aspect as far as what tends to steer the Indian-American or Hindu segment of the Indian-American population just more in the direction of Hindutva ideology.
Then from there, well, I would argue, perhaps, that within America, where we have pretty liberal, pretty open laws that allow us freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of publication, and especially things like nonprofits, which really allow great flexibility and a great opportunity to raise large amounts of money tax-free — all that might be different from what you find even in a lot of these other Western countries. That might be one factor that impacts why the US would have more of this pro-Hindutva support flowing to India than you find in some of these other Western countries.
But one thing that comes to me also is this. I do believe there is a lot of financial power. Arguably and, I think, pretty conclusively, there’s a lot of money flowing from India or from America back to India from these groups. And that’s a huge factor as far as why they’re useful to the Hindutva movement back in India. But there’s just not the evidence to actually demonstrate it. Tracing that and proving it is very difficult because that has to mostly be done at the level of the state. They have to open up investigations, they have to file subpoenas demanding access to these financial records, and so forth. That’s information not available to the common citizen.
What has also been very useful to the Hindutva movement in India, however, which is available information to the common citizen in America, is the people power of American Hindutva groups and their ability — which they can afford to do because they have so much — to send thousands of people back to India, especially during these times of election, to campaign for the election of BJP. They did this very significantly in 2014, they did it again in 2019. They’ve actually been doing for the past 20 plus years, at least.
But then the financial aspect also is one where I would draw attention to not just the issue of money being funneled from America to India but the issue of the money power of the American Hindutva groups within — and the way they use it within — America.
Because if we look, this is all public record. HSS is a registered non-profit. The Overseas Friends of the BJP was declared a foreign agent in 2020, so they are no longer a non-profit, but prior to that, they were. VHP America is a non-profit. Sewa International and Ekal Vidyalya. They’re all non-profits. And because they’re non-profits, they’re legally required to report how much money they’ve raised year over year, what their net worth is, what assets they have, how much money they raised this year, etc. Their financial records are available to the common citizen.
So if you put all those five together — I’ve looked at them in the past couple of months, and I don’t remember offhand the exact number, but it’s something like $15 or $20 million a year between these five groups. And all these five groups are pretty much interconnected. I mean, they’re legally separate entities, but their leadership tends to be all overlapping. Like Sewa International, for instance. The chairman of Sewa International is the vice president of HSS-USA. And that’s just one example, but there are a lot of examples like that. So basically these five groups all kind of operate in sync, and they have year-over-year assets of probably about $15 million. And as far as I know, most of that is spent in the US.
Shirin: What do they do with this money in the US?
Pieter: Well, one of the things they certainly do is spread their ideology and propagate it within the diaspora. The HSS, for instance hosts training camps for its volunteers and hosts Sunday schools for youth. They host youth camps. The VHP of America, as well hosts youth camps.
Shirin: Any yoga stuff? Because the recent thing about — I think you were very prominently involved with it — the California thing.
Shirin: Yeah. So do you think some of these are more sort of cultural…. You know, like, people see things like yoga as, oh, it’s just yoga. What could be wrong with yoga?
Pieter: I have no criticism to offer of yoga.
Shirin: Yeah, but I mean, using these schools or these events to propagate a bigoted philosophy is the danger.
Pieter: Exactly. So I’ll just focus on HSS as an example. So one of the things that HSS does (and this is what happened in the city of Manteca), is they go around constantly to approach city councils or county boards, in particular. They’ve really expanded this in the past two or three years. I believe in most cases, they’re the ones approaching, like doing the solicitation. And they ask the city council, for instance, “Hey, we’re a cultural religious organization, you know, the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, so would you please pass a resolution or a proclamation from the city that recognizes our work promoting yoga or that recognizes our work doing this charitable thing or that recognizes Hindu Heritage Day? But in recognizing Hindu Heritage Day, make sure to mention HSS by name.”
So they do different things like that. And they stack these proclamations up. They stack up dozens, scores, hundreds of them from around the country. And most of these city councils, county boards are populated by people who don’t know any better. They have no clue what the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh is; unfortunately, they’re stupid enough, or lazy enough, or whatever it is, that they apparently don’t even bother — I conjecture — Googling the organization for five seconds. Because if you did that, you would quickly find out about it. And so they just assume, well, it’s Hindu. It’s a religious group. Yeah, it sounds good — a yoga proclamation and HSS, well HSS is telling us, “We do all this good work around the country.” Yeah, here’s your proclamation. Then HSS goes to the city council meeting. They typically go in their uniforms. They go and they get formally recognized by the city and accept the proclamation.
One of the benefits of that for HSS is that it helps them get their foot in the door of the halls of power of the local government. It helps them to get recognized as a legitimate organization. So, if somebody’s speaking against HSS, HSS can point and say, like, “What’s the problem? We have 500 city councils that have given us proclamations that say we’re great!” So this just generally helps to whitewash them in America, so that pushing back against their activity becomes more difficult.
Now, what happened in the city of Manteca was that one such proclamation was passed for Yoga Day — but not actually for International Day of Yoga, which is, I think, in June or something like that. Not for that, but just for a yogathon being run by HSS in January. For a yoga event which was an HSS yoga event. So, I and some members of the Indian-American Diaspora went, and some others as well, and we spoke at the city council and informed them, “Hey guys, we understand you probably did this in innocent ignorance, but we want to inform you, like, HSS is the international wing of the RSS, and the RSS is a fascist paramilitary that kills minorities in India. And so we understand you didn’t know that, but now that you know that, we’re asking you to backtrack and take back that resolution.”
The city council put it on their agenda to consider our demand by the next meeting. And the HSS got wind of it — that it was going to be on the agenda. So we went there with our people. We had about 50 to 60 people, mostly Indian-Americans. Then HSS showed up, most of them from out of town because they don’t have a stronghold in that particular city. They showed up with about 60 or 70 people. Over deliberations, the city council finally came to a conclusion.
At first they said, “Maybe we can just alter the resolution and take out HSS, which is named in the resolution.” And one of the councillors said, “Well, that’s not a bad idea, but the problem is deeper than that. The problem is that the resolution was actually given to the HSS.” And so he said, “We should just pass a whole new resolution.”
He said, “Nobody has a problem with yoga. What we have a problem with is the HSS and the apparent connection to the RSS. Therefore, how about if — just from the city itself instead of being solicited by an outside group — the city passes a resolution for yoga?” And everybody on the city council said, “That’s a great idea. We’re okay with that.” All the people on our side who were opposing the HSS said, “Yeah, we’re okay with that. We’re cool with that.” But immediately, as soon as that proposal was floated, the HSS people in the crowd started getting boisterous, and standing, and making it very clear that they found it unacceptable to have a yoga resolution which did not name the HSS.
Shirin: So one thing, Pieter, is that this is a victory, really. Because people persisted and also people noticed. Because sometimes these things can go unnoticed and then, you know, after five years we realize, “Oh my God!” This is how they spread. So it’s very good that you were noticing. Many Indian-Americans were noticing. And this is also a point to focus on: that there are many Indian-Americans who are against the spread of Hindutva.
Pieter: I would add not just many Indian-Americans, but many Hindus in America. So this is conjecture, but what I’ve been pointing out frequently is that the HSS itself says it has about 230 branches around the country. And that is not in every state. So, like, guesstimating from there, if they have 230 branches, arguably, to be generous with the numbers, maybe they have 100 members per branch. What is that? That’s about 23,000 people. Now, I’ll be even more generous, say maybe 30,000 people.
Well, if the HSS has — and that’s not including VHP America and some of these other groups, but most of those are all interconnected anyways — let’s say maybe like 30,000 members within the HSS in America. Well, the Indian-American population is, I think, about 1.4 million, about half of whom are Hindus, at least. So that’s like 700,000. I’ve seen more official numbers of the actual population of Hindus in America, which I don’t recall exactly, but it’s like 600,000 to 900,000. Something in that range, I believe. So out of, let’s say, 700,000 Hindus in America, we could conjecture — like an educated guess — that there might be about 30,000 members of the HSS, which is a tiny fringe minority of the Hindu population in America, let alone of the Indian-American population.
Shirin: Very true. We think that these people are very strong, perhaps because they have money and also because I think, as you said, they make inroads into these power structures through the city council and so on.
Pieter: Now, in the case of the HSS, why is there that perception of strength? One reason I would argue is this. If the presumption that I have is true, that the RSS is fascist and by association, the HSS is also fascist or fascistic, well, one of the things that fascists have “going for them — one of the “benefits” of fascism — is that they’re all about uniformity and conformity. They all walk in lockstep. It’s easy to get them all on the same page. They’re all heavily networked. And they end up oftentimes being the most vocal, outspoken, visible — and, because they’re uniformed especially visible — segment. So they might be just a few thousand people, but they look like a lot more. That perception of strength, I think, is really because, I would say, the fascist underlying ideology.
Shirin: True, and the outspokenness is actually more than that. It is really bullying, as I have noticed in many of the videos even when they deal with you. It’s really not allowing you to speak. Pieter, so the thing is that there are many ways to get into power structures to wield power, and you have mentioned how the city councils are often influenced, and the lobbying is done. But what about actual lawmakers? What about members of the Congress, for instance? What happens there? Because from what we understand, Hindutva has tried very hard to put candidates.
Pieter: Well, what we’ve seen is this. In particular, one of the most egregious examples was now former Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard from Hawaii, who took office in January of 2012. And we have a primary system, general system with primary elections followed by general elections here in America. The Hindutva crowd — all of these major players in the HSS, the VHP America, the OFBJP around the country — latched onto her very early on, before she won her first primary (which is when she gets selected as the candidate for her party and goes on to face the candidate from the other party in the general election).
They latched onto her very early. And they found her useful — in particular at the time in 2012 — because these same entities, these same personalities were just then mobilizing to work to get Modi elected in 2014 back in India. Modi, at the time, up until his election, was still banned from America. In fact, he actually is still banned from America. It’s only by virtue of being head of state that he has diplomatic immunity to circumvent that ban. So, leading up to Modi’s election (as these Hindutva supporters and financiers of Tulsi Gabbard were backing her) and then after his election (when he was then allowed to come over here but he was still kind of persona non grata because of his ban and his association with the 2002 Gujarat Program), Tulsi Gabbard did a lot of work both before Modi’s election in 2014 to try and derail attempts to criticize him in Congress or criticize Hindu nationalism in Congress and things like that and then after 2014 by becoming one of the first and most prominent people to publicly embrace him on American soil and welcome him unconditionally.
For a long time, and even until today, she was one of the actually only people in Congress that was an overt person who, I would argue, was basically in the pocket of these people in this Hindutva movement. However, while she was one of the only pro-Hindutva representatives at the time, quickly after she was elected, within weeks of taking office, she became the second-most powerful person within the Democratic Party. The number-two person within the Democratic Party. So while she was pretty much the only person in Congress that was overtly in the pocket, I would argue, of the Hindutva gang, she was in a place of high influence.
Then she went on to run for president and so on and so forth, and that was unsuccessful. I think their ambitions were a little bit bigger than the realism of the situation, because running for president, for her at that time, was not a realistic proposition. But what I do think that they hoped and expected was that she might get a nod for a cabinet position or something like that, which nobody that’s been a Hindutva sympathizer has ever actually gotten at this point.
Now to the present day. Tulsi Gabbard is out of office. Now again, we only have one person in office at the moment in US Congress, at the federal level, which is Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi from Illinois. Again, only one person, but he’s become a fairly influential voice within the progressive side of the Democratic Party. He also sits on the US House Intelligence Committee, which means he’s one of a very small number of members of Congress who are privy to privileged, confidential, and classified information. He also harbors pretty open ambitions to run for the US Senate, the upper house of the legislature. So if he does that, and if he succeeds, then that would be a stepping stone to get another Hindutva ally into what, at that point, would be the highest elected office that any Hindutva sympathizer has reached.
Shirin: We have seen you really follow that because you’ve gone to many events where Krishnamoorthi was being either praised or…
Pieter: I’ve only gone to one event where he was actually physically there, but since about May 2022, I’ve spent at least a good six or seven weeks in his district, trying to raise awareness about his connections to HSS, VHP-America, the Hindutva movement in general. I’ve gone to city councils, participated in protests, and in particular, I got the opportunity to go to a campaign debate where he was at. He was running for re-election. He was debating his challenger, and I got a chance to go in the room and get him on camera for a few seconds, asking him what his opinion is about the RSS. And, this is quite literally, he ran away from me. As soon as I approached him I asked him, “Congressman, what is your opinion of the RSS?” His supporters, who were ringing him around, started shouting at me, and then they put their hands on his shoulders and escorted him out of the room.
Shirin: True, I did see that video. Pieter, what about Aruna Miller?
Pieter: Aruna Miller is kind of new on the scene. Aruna Miller is now the lieutenant governor, or she will be, I think, taking office next month, but the lieutenant governor-elect of Maryland. She’s one of the new on the scene people that is concerning as far as a potential Hindutva sympathizer. Now, I don’t know — when I say that, I have to caveat — if she actually personally sympathizes with Hindutva, but she’s certainly unscrupulous enough, unprincipled enough that she’s willing to rub shoulders with them and take their money even after being repeatedly questioned and challenged about it. She’s had a number of particular incidents, but she’s taken a fair amount of money — well over $100,000 throughout her political career of the past ten years — from, in particular, leaders in the OFBPJ. She’s attended their events in the past. She has also, if I recall correctly, attended HSS events. And just over this past year or so, she’s been repeatedly challenged by both Desi and non-Desi constituents within Maryland about her association with these groups. About her taking money from these groups. Her response has basically been to just turn a blind eye and refuse to offer anything except just flat denial. Basically, she’s asked about this, and she kind of comes back with, “Well, but I love Muslims.”
Shirin: But she has praised Modi quite openly.
Pieter: Yes, that’s correct. It was at this OFBJP event — I think it might have been 2014 itself — at which she actually did praise Modi and she called Modi a “rock star.”
Shirin: But I also know that Democrats have pushed the party to ensure that none of these affiliations or sympathies actually translate into anything policy-wise in support of the Hindutva group.
Pieter: Yes, as they should. And we haven’t seen anything overt policy-wise from the federal government, aside from — which is still very deeply concerning — just the general deepening, the continued deepening of ties between the now Biden, Democrat-controlled US and Modi’s fascist India. That deepening of ties is very concerning because it’s coming faster and faster and it’s unconditional. Like, there don’t appear to be any actual conditions imposed upon that. I’m a strong supporter of deep friendship with India. I think it’s a perfect match for the US, but it should come with conditions. We’re not going to do it if, for instance, you’re slaughtering minorities in the streets.
Shirin: So, Pieter, to wrap up, I have a couple of questions. One is that what would your advice be to people in the US, not just the Indian diaspora but people in general, about being careful when supporting any businesses or giving to charities? How does this whole web, you know, work? Like, where is it that, you know, you may be giving money innocently, or you’re thinking you’re helping a good cause, but it’s actually going towards spreading violence and hate in India? So that’s one. But yeah, let’s handle that first, and then I’ll have the last question for you.
Pieter: That’s a good question. I get people talking about this, but honestly, personally, I’m not a big fan of the BDS-style approach. One reason is that I think that can tend to, in my opinion, veer too quickly into actual prejudice, where it becomes just about not buying from Hindus. Which is the exact same thing that’s happening in India, is they’re making pledges that we will not buy from Muslims. And so it’s difficult to do that, especially because it’s difficult to discern, like, if I go to a store that’s owned by Hindu for instance, I have no idea if they’re a supporter of Hindutva or not. And I’m not going to stand there and interrogate them, and indeed, it would be kind of bigoted for me to do so, to stand there and interrogate them and demand that they prove to me that they’re not. So I’m not a big fan of that.
Shirin: Pieter, just to interrupt, because many people may not know what BDS stands for, and I just want to clarify that it means boycott, divestment, and sanctions, and it was basically started for Palestine.
Pieter: My personal opinion is that I don’t support that approach, in particular, but I support more of a targeted approach as far as, for instance on a domestic level, just being aware of some of these major groups like Sewa International, which is one of the big money raisers with huge deep pockets and which is supported by a lot of people.
I mean, like last year, Twitter CEO — Jack Dorsey at the time — gave $2.5 million to Sewa International. Just as one example. They get a lot of corporate support in America, and I think really, especially for anybody that works for someplace where their company or their corporation might be giving money to support charities, just making sure groups like Sewa aren’t included, because those ones are really easy ones to prove and to knock off the list. Like, if you want to do BDS, at least do it for a couple of major groups like that.
Now, I do support sanctions in one particular way. I don’t support sanctions like against Iraq, for instance, like when the US sanctioned Iraq in the 1990s. What I believe, and what a lot of people have argued, is that it didn’t impact Saddam Hussein. That impacted the common person on the ground, and they’re the ones that suffered as a result of it. You know, the million children estimated to have died because of US sanctions on Iraq. What I do support, an what the US could do, is targeted sanctions against individuals.
We have, in America, this US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which is an independent, autonomous entity of the US State Department, which for the past several years — including this year — has recommended to the State Department that India should be listed as a Country of Particular Concern, which the US State Department just refused to do. But if the US State Department did do that, that would allow the US Government to legally impose targeted sanctions on individuals like, say, Amit Shah, or Modi, or Yogi Adityanath and basically ban them from entry to the US, freeze all of their international assets, etc. Do things like that and apply pressure to the specific individuals.
Shirin: The problem really right now is ,that these people are in power. So when it did happen, for example, there was a sanction against Modi entering the US, it was at a time that he was not the Prime Minister, even though he was the head of Gujarat, the state. So I think that does make it a bit trickier because….
Pieter: It’s with all these lower-level people, however. I think Modi as the PM is kind of the exception. Like Adityanath, for instance, just like Modi was, he could be denied entry to the US, if I’m not mistaken. All these party leaders, basically anybody except the PM, like any chief minister, all of these people, it’s possible to ban them from the US.
Shirin: And also, I mean, people who don’t hold office, like, for example, Sadhvi Ritambhara. You know, I don’t understand why she was allowed entry because she has a very infamous track record of inciting violence. So she should not have been allowed. Yeah, so I do agree, and I think sanctions only work in very specific cases. They did work in South Africa to end apartheid. But they don’t generally work because it’s the poor who suffer. And also, I think that the anti-Hindutva movement is not yet strong enough to even make that possible. So it’s not a possibility, at least right now.
Last question for you, Pieter. You see, diversity and inclusion have become very important. These are words that even corporates use. They have special officers who take care of diversity and inclusion in the organizations. However, without understanding what it actually means, we can do a lot of damage. So, for example, if we oppose Krishnamoorthi or, say, Tulsi Gabbard, we can be accused of racism, which is obviously not the case because the people who are fighting them are also mostly Indian. People who are opposing RSS, in general, are mostly Indians. So it becomes a very tricky subject, and as you said earlier, many people are too ignorant. They don’t understand what the difference is between Indian and Indian. I mean, somebody may look like an Indian and still be doing things that are harming most of the Indians.
Pieter: There is this presumption broadly within a lot of Americans that all Indians are Hindu. And I encounter this all the time and the Indian friends that I collaborate with, who are trying to do outreach to non-Indian politicians especially, they encounter this all the time.
Shirin: Also, as we discussed earlier, there’s not enough information available or people have not been exposed to the fascist trends in Indian politics. So that’s very important. So how does one deal with that? Have you been able to counter that in a successful way, this allegation or accusation that, oh, you are racist or you’re anti-Indian or anti-Asian and so on?
Pieter: Yeah, that’s a good question, and it’s something that I think about a lot. When I go to a lot of these city councils, these days — especially to avoid confusion and muddying the waters for this Western audience which is totally unfamiliar with these issues — I typically give speeches in which I don’t even use the word “Hindu.” So, like, I used to give speeches where I would talk about how the RSS is a Hindu nationalist paramilitary, which it is. But typically in these short, three-minute speeches, I never say that anymore. I say the RSS is a fascist paramilitary, which it is.
Then oftentimes, in most of the city councils where I go, within the following meeting or the meeting after that, HSS will show up to try and tamp things down. After I went, and I was being a troublemaker who was “badmouthing” their organization, they’ll show up. All I have given is a speech like this where I say that RSS is a fascist organization, et cetera, and HSS is its international wing, and not once do I even mention the word “Hindu.” Then HSS will show up as backlash to me and say, “Pieter was there, he was attacking our religion with his Hinduphobic remarks, we feel like, as Hindus, we feel so insulted.” And they just constantly revert to that fallback. All I’m ever doing is naming a organization. I’m talking about an organization, a specific organization, but their constant fallback is, “Oh, my God. Hinduphobia, Hinduphobia, he’s attacking the entire religion.”
So within context of diversity and inclusion and that sort of pluralistic approach, that is a rhetoric, a narrative that they employ, which is difficult to counter but which certainly can and should be countered — at least to some extent can be, I think — by just constantly reiterating:
One, that HSS does not represent the religion. Like I said, it has maybe 30,000 members across the country out of how many hundreds of thousands of Hindus? And two, that RSS — and HSS, by virtue of being the affiliate of RSS — is implicitly against diversion and inclusivity and pluralism and all of these values of a secular society.
Shirin: That’s actually a very good point, because for an organization that believes in homogeneity and pushes for homogeneity to be talking about diversity and inclusion is a joke in itself.
Pieter: And then, in my particular case, with the work that I do: I can’t do it, I won’t do it, I will stop doing it without the support of the Indian-American diaspora and also many citizens of India whom I know living in the country who support what I do. I will stop doing it if I don’t have their support. Also, my preference all the time — I can’t do this every time, unfortunately, because I do this fulltime, and most of the Indian-Americans here that are willing to collaborate with me have jobs that don’t involve fulltime work on the issues of Hindutva, even if they support it — is to do the on the ground work in physical collaboration with members of the Indian diaspora. Because it’s their cause that is deep in my heart and that I want to make my cause on their behalf as long as they welcome me to do so. And so as far as the diversity and inclusion thing, especially being a white man in America, that’s one of the things that I think is very important, is to have constant collaboration with diverse segments of the Indian American community.
Shirin: Well, as part of the Indian diaspora, I certainly welcome what you’re doing. I welcome that support. At the same time, I appreciate that you recognize the importance of saying and believing that, “Look, it is the cause of the Indian people and the Indian diaspora. And I am there to support it, as long as they think that my presence will help in it.” And we saw that even with the struggle against British colonialism. Gandhi actually had a lot of support from Britain. From Ireland. There were people who devoted their entire lives to the struggle against colonialism in India, and they were white. So it’s amazing that people do come together when they see and recognize a cause, when they see the importance of that cause, and when their conscience says to them, “Look, you must act.” So I do appreciate that, Pieter.
Pieter: If I may, if I might butcher it, but what is it? Vasudhaiva….
Shirin: Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.
Pieter: Yes, the whole world is one family, which is is seized upon by the RSS. That’s their go-to quote that, “Well, this is what we believe.” Which my response is, “Well, you may believe that, but what do you believe about how you treat the members of your family?” But, yeah, the whole world is one family. I believe that and it’s crucial for us to come together because we’re all human. We all bleed red. What impacts, what hurts people in India also impacts and hurts people in America and elsewhere.
Shirin: So, Pieter, we will conclude now, and if you have any last words, especially with regards to why you are continuing to do this work despite the challenges, I’d be happy to hear that. And then we will conclude.
Pieter: The “why” is because I’m passionate about it. All of my closest and dearest friends at this point are Indian. I am so deeply involved and entrenched in this work. I’ve been doing this for about 16 and a half years, At this point, I can’t imagine doing anything differently and I don’t want to do anything differently because I love what I do. I am especially deeply grateful for the love that I constantly receive back — far more than the hate that I receive, but the love that I receive back from Indians all around the world, who humble me with what they have to say to me as far as in support of the work that I’m doing.
Shirin: Pieter Friedrich, it was a pleasure to talk to you, and we wish you all the best in the work that you’re doing. We also wish you added strength in this environment, where violence has become so common place. And I know that even though you are in the United States, physical threats are a reality. So we do wish you well, and we hope that this work will continue and more and more people will join, so that India can get its democracy back. As you said earlier, it really is in the grips of a fascist regime. India has been taken over by a fascist regime, but people like you are fighting bravely. So definitely, things will change.
Pieter: Thank you, Shirin. It was a pleasure talking enjoyed the conversations very much.