The Princess of the RSS and Me
The downfall of Hindutva’s Handmaiden, Tulsi Gabbard
I was in New Delhi when it all started.
It was August 2018. For several months, I’d been aware of US Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard’s strange intimacy with India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and her effusive praise of BJP Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whom she called “a leader whose example and dedication to the people he serves should be an inspiration to elected officials everywhere.” It was an odd accolade for an American politician to give a pogrom-tainted Indian politician, but I quickly glossed over it as the natural fawning of a co-chair of the House India Caucus.
I was enjoying exploring the ruins of Tughlaqabad Fort, Jahaz Mahal, and Begampura Masjid — all while planning an excursion to Goa — so I didn’t give it much more thought at the time.
Then someone sent me a picture of Tulsi Gabbard wearing a BJP scarf while posing with the former head of the BJP’s Foreign Affairs Cell. And then I learned that Gabbard was intended to chair the World Hindu Congress in Chicago, a co-production of the violent Hindu nationalist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (which the CIA had just named as a “religious militant organization) and the group’s US affiliate, VHP-America. The WHC’s scheduled keynote was Mohan Bhagwat, head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the mothership of Hindu nationalism.
Around the same time, some of Gabbard’s constituents in Hawaii began contacting me to express concern about her association with Hindu nationalist organizations. They alleged that she had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from US-based members of those groups. I asked for more information but, reluctant to expose themselves, they declined to share it.
So I started digging.
It only took me a few hours of researching Gabbard’s congressional campaign donations on the Federal Election Commission website to discover that some of her earliest top-dollar donors — before she was first elected — included people like Ramesh Bhutada (Vice-President of Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, the international wing of the RSS), his cousin-in-law Vijay Pallod (HSS and VHPA), Mihir Meghani (HSS and VHPA), Chandrakant Patel (President of the Overseas Friends of the BJP), and a host of other executives from HSS, VHPA, OFBJP, and affiliated groups.
Along the way, I discovered that Gabbard had invited RSS spokesperson Ram Madhav to her wedding in 2015.
Soon after, I was invited for an interview with a Hawaiian radio show. “Gabbard is spending her time working as hard as possible to bring the Hindu nationalist agenda to American soil,” I told the host. Speaking from a sweltering, sticky, mid-monsoon New Delhi, I continued, “Her stance is not only empowering extremists in India to continue engaging in violence against ethnic minorities there, but she’s also using her political platform to deliberately conceal the reality of the situation for Indian minorities, as well as to help to bring Hindu nationalist figures who promote violence — such as the head of the RSS, Mohan Bhagwat.”
A few days later, when a coalition of 11 South Asian organizations released a letter calling on Gabbard to disavow her ties to Hindu nationalist groups, I was asked to comment.
“The RSS is India’s version of the KKK,” I said. “They press an agenda of Hindu supremacy which is practically indistinguishable from white nationalism. Unfortunately, the RSS has gained far more ground in India than the KKK has in the United States. Sangh Parivar groups preach that India is, and always has been, a Hindu nation for Hindu people and that non-Hindus don’t belong in the country unless they glorify Hinduism. Bhagwat’s comments over the past several years reveal that he advances this exact ideology. Appearing alongside Bhagwat is comparable to taking the stage with David Duke.”
Finally, in September 2018, just days before the WHC began in Chicago, Gabbard released a statement disassociating herself from it. “Due to ethical concerns and problems that surround my participating in any partisan Indian political event in America, effective immediately, I respectfully withdraw myself from serving as Honorary Chair of the World Hindu Congress 2018,” she said.
I wasn’t satisfied, however. “This is too little and too late from Tulsi Gabbard,” I said. “She is trying to back-paddle out of choppy waters only after it became too politically inexpedient to keep surfing the Hindutva wave of hate. Gabbard’s political career exists because of financing and promotion provided by US-based affiliates of the RSS and VHP. She has spent the past five years serving as the handmaiden of Hindutva…. It’s great that Gabbard issued this statement, and hopefully it throws a monkey wrench into the gears of the WHC, but she certainly did it because of external pressure rather than true principles.”
So I set out to document, in pain-staking detail, exactly how Gabbard was funded by Hindutva groups, who gave, when they gave, where they gave, and, most importantly, why they gave.
It was a snowy January of 2019 in Zagreb, Croatia. Gabbard had just announced her campaign for president. I had holed up in an Airbnb in a high-rise apartment in the suburbs to research and write for weeks.
As I pieced the story together — tracking down HSS or VHPA events Gabbard had attended, identifying OFBJP leaders who donated to her, and locating videos where Hindu nationalists praised her for supporting Modi before his election — a friend reached out to me. “We need to do something about Tulsi Gabbard,” she said. “Somebody has to write something.” I agreed, asking, “What if I’ve already written something?” That’s when she put me in touch with Caravan magazine. Soon after, they commissioned the article for publication.
Soon after, someone contacted me with a crucial piece of the puzzle. They had the name of the person who originally put Gabbard in touch with the RSS. Michael Brannon Parker, a former resident of Hawaii, who had worked for the RSS’s Ram Madhav.
By March 2019, I’d returned to my native California, where I got wind that acquaintances in the South Asian diaspora were planning to protest Gabbard at one of her presidential town hall events in Los Angeles. I also learned there would an open mic for the audience to ask her questions. It was too good of an opportunity for me to pass up, so I showed up — arriving early, sitting near the front and, aware that my negative remarks about her over the past several months might make me too easily identifiable if I wore my distinctive leather flat cap, wearing a baseball cap and eyeglasses.
After she spoke, they began taking audience questions. My hopes dropped for a moment when emcee Jimmy Dore — a comedian turned political commentator — announced that they would only take three questions. Armed with a written question, I shot my hand up anyways and was shocked when Dore pointed at me first. “Let’s take this gentleman right here in the hat,” he said. I stood, greeted Gabbard with an “aloha,” and removed my hat and glasses.
“He’s taking the hat and glasses off now,” said Gabbard. “It’s getting serious.” It was indeed.
“Hawaii resident Michael Brannon Parker says he has known you since you were a child and he introduced you to the RSS, a violent paramilitary in India,” I said. As she began to scowl, I continued: “Vijay Pallod of Texas is a leader in RSS-affiliated groups in the USA, and he confirms that he met you through Michael Brannon Parker. In you first two terms in office, you also met the RSS spokesperson at least three times. And you spoke at many RSS events, including two in India. When did your collaboration with the RSS and how much money have they given you?”
Gabbard paused for several seconds before answering, then declared, “I’m a soldier, and I took an oath. One oath in my life. That was an oath to serve and protect this country. To put my life on the line for the people of this country. We stand for aloha. We stand for diversity. We stand for peace and bringing people together around these shared ideals of freedom and opportunity for all people…. It is this kind of attacks that are rooted in religious bigotry.”
She completely side-stepped the content of the question, of course, something she would continue to do as the issue arose again and again over the next year of her presidential campaign.
By then, I had identified over 50 executives in US-based Sangh groups (HSS, VHPA, OFBJP, etc) who began donating to Gabbard in her first two terms (2011–2014, leading up to Modi’s election in India), approximately 200 donors identifiable as active members of such groups, and about ten different Sangh events which she had attended. It was more than enough to confirm my thesis that Gabbard’s congressional career was financed by US affiliates of India’s ruling party. And yet I wanted to compare notes with someone else — just to make sure.
Encouraged by Caravan to get into the field, I flew to Hawaii in April 2019. It was my first time in the Aloha State. Landing in Maui, I rented a room from a Jewish chiropractor in his 70s who had emigrated from New Jersey. My days I spent meeting with a constituent of Gabbard who had researched her financial links with the American Sangh. It must have taken her years, but she had compiled meticulously organized and color-coded databases of donations. As I swilled black coffee, we corroborated names, Sangh affiliations, dates, and amounts. Everything matched — the only difference was that she had dug up a bit more than even I had.
I flew from Maui to the “Big Island” to attend the Hawaii County Democratic Party Convention, where I met and interviewed State Senator Kai Kahele, who had recently stepped forward to challenge Gabbard for her seat in Congress. Waking at 5am in a hotel in Kona, I was picked up by a local who drove me across the island to Honokaa, stopping along the way for eggs, donuts, and coffee. After a long, rainy day spent inside the convention, I flew back to Maui in the evening. The next morning, I sat on the porch of my host, palm trees swaying in the breeze behind me, and reported:
I have made strong allegations about how her congressional career was financed, from the earliest days, by American affiliates of India’s fascist paramilitary organization, the RSS.
My fieldwork in Hawaii not only confirms this, but suggests that the extent of Gabbard’s ties to this violent paramilitary group are far deeper than even my own independent research has already established.
But I also discovered that a large segment of her constituents are disturbed by the congresswoman for another reason.
Yesterday, I was at the Hawaii County Democratic Party Convention in Honokaa on the Big Island.
Over 200 people attended the all-day event. Several state senators and state representatives were there. The Lieutenant Governor even attended. One man, a local from Honokaa, told me that Gabbard was also invited. Showing no interest in interacting with her constituents, however, she refused to attend.
Instead, she was in Los Angeles campaigning for president. She showed up to do a photo-op for a park clean-up — in LA. Gabbard billed it as a “service before self” event. But a lot of her Hawaiian constituents seem to feel that it was more of a “presidential ambitions before congressional representation” event.
They think that Gabbard is a power-hungry politician who is never in her district to care for and represent her own constituents.
Why is Tulsi Gabbard so ambitious? What is the driving force behind her ambitions? If not her constituents, then who does she really represent?
I’ve always remembered my father’s account of his visit to Hawaii. He said that it’s an incredible place with an unbelievably beautiful climate, but that it takes two weeks to acclimatize. As I came to the end of my week-long visit, the heat and humidity had given me a sore throat and I was losing my voice. I spent my last day there in bed as my host made me herbal tea. We chatted about Judaism and oddball families as he prepared to depart for New Jersey to join his family for Passover celebrations and I prepared to return to California — and from there to the Netherlands — to complete my composition.
My editor, Puja Sen, told me that journalistic integrity required I at least attempt to contact some of the Sangh members mentioned in my article. I was reluctant to do so, but when I finally bit the bullet and started making calls, I was surprised that several of them were willing to talk at length. I secured several fascinating interviews, including with Vijay Pallod — the first Sangh leader to donate to Gabbard — who disclosed his family’s intimacy with RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat.
The calls, however, soon provoked the first smear article against me. When I called Mihir Meghani, he declined to answer questions over the phone — or schedule a time to do so — and insisted I email the questions instead. He never responded. Instead, on 28 July, three days before Caravan went to print with my article, Meghani’s organization, Hindu American Foundation, published a letter to the magazine in which they accused me of, among other things, “verbally harassing Hindu American children and their parents,” stated (without evidence) that I have claimed that Gandhi “allied himself with Adolf Hitler” (which I have not), and described me as “an activist who not only associates with, but promotes the ideology of those who espouse violent separatism in India” (which is nonsense).
Shoot the messenger, thus, was the strategy. It didn’t matter what I was reporting. It only mattered who I was — or, more accurately, accused of being.
Nevertheless, while I was on vacation in France near the city of Toulouse, my article was published. Ashok Swain, a professor at Uppsala University in Sweden said it revealed how Gabbard was “being promoted by India’s Hindu Supremacists.” Richard Fox Young, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, called it “a deep probe.” Journalist Anjali Kamat described it as “a timely reminder of Gabbard’s deep ties to the diaspora Hindu right.” And then Congressman Ro Khanna took notice.
It was a hot August day and I was relaxing on a bench on the banks of Lake Zurich — hours after speaking at a rally in support of freedom in Kashmir — when I checked my Twitter account to discover that Khanna, one of only five Indian-American in US Congress, had replied to my posting of the article. Publicly, he wrote, “Important article. It’s the duty of every American politician of Hindu faith to stand for pluralism, reject Hindutva, and speak for equal rights for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhist & Christians.” Privately, he messaged me, writing, “Fascinating article. I have been quite critical of Modi and haven’t met him since being elected. I also got extraordinary heat recently for joining the Pakistan caucus. How we navigate the issue of right wing nationalism is the challenge of our time. Thanks for your article.”
Not everyone expressed the same gratitude. The day before, on 28 August, diaspora newspaper India Herald reported on the “elaborate hit piece on Tulsi Gabbard’s presidential bid” that painted Gabbard as a “nominee of the right wing Hindu nationalists.” Vinod Prakash, the founder of RSS-linked India Development and Relief Fund wrote described it as “a glaring example of malicious journalism” and insisted my mention of IDRF was “based solely on the smear campaign against us led by avowed Left/Marxist anti-Hindu forces.”
Sacramento attorney Amar Shergill, however, believed that Khanna’s comments about my article represented a “seismic shift in Indo-centric politics.” Declaring that “Khanna’s statement breaks new ground for South Asians and for all in the progressive movement,” he praised the congressman for having “stated in decisive moral terms that the dominant political ideology of India must be rejected as a matter of fundamental human rights.” Shergill concluded:
The full measure of Khanna’s words is yet to be felt. Modi and the Indian government are certain to be dismayed by this challenge to the inroads they have made within certain sectors of the Indian community in the US.
In the coming months, we will see a debate within the South Asian American community and the Democratic Party regarding the morality of Hindutva and how the party can reach consensus given the political crisis in India. Khanna’s statement goes to the heart of this debate by laying bare the obvious hypocrisy of Hindutva’s American supporters.
South Asian Americans simply cannot claim to support civil rights and equality for all Americans while simultaneously advocating for religious supremacy that results in the rape, torture, murder and oppression of minorities in India.
About two weeks later, Terrence McNulty — a writer of unknown screenplays — denounced my article as “a smear piece,” claiming, “Pieter Friedrich has his own political agenda and sees Tulsi Gabbard as a convenient conduit through which to raise awareness of his cause.” Two weeks after that, Dr. Ramesh Rao — a professor at Columbus State University who had previously described me, during my protests against the WHC, as a “rabble-rouser” — announced that Khanna’s affirmation of the importance of my article represented support for “the terrorist-affiliated Pieter Friedrich.” A week after that, the HSS itself staged a protest against Khanna — or, more accurately, against me.
At a 3 October town hall for Khanna’s constituents, approximately 25 members of HSS stood outside holding placards bearing my picture alongside slogans reading: “Ro, Stop Supporting Anti-Gandhi Racists.” Inside the event, Khanna was quizzed about why he tweeted in response to my article, to which he answered: “I responded to one of his articles saying that I believe in pluralism. There were a few groups in the community who got offended by that. I have no tolerance for right wing nationalists who are affiliating with Trump. And let me tell you something — they’re in an echo chamber, but their bigotry, their right wing nationalism, their support for Trump or for white supremacy is a minority. But they will see that our district is pluralistic and I have no problem standing up against them.”
Meanwhile, Gabbard — who was on the campaign trail — kept violating the first law of holes: if you find yourself in one, stop digging.
At a 1 October town hall for her campaign in New Hampshire, an audience member challenged her about her support for Modi. Specifically, they mentioned Modi’s orchestration of the 2002 Gujarat Pogrom. Gabbard shot back: “Do you know what instigated those riots?” “Imagine someone saying that about Kristallnacht, the first Nazi pogrom against the Jews,” I noted in response — a reference to the fact that the assassination of a German diplomat in Paris by a Jewish teenager was used by the Nazis as an excuse to stage the pogrom. Gabbard continued digging, however. “Hindu nationalism is a term that many people are using frequently without being specific about what they mean by that,” she said in a 13 October interview “Why is expressing pride in one’s religion a bad thing?”
Why, indeed, should mingling religion with nationalism be considered problematic? That’s a rhetorical question.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Dore — the erstwhile comedian who was, no doubt, bitter about picking me to ask Gabbard a question at her town hall earlier that year — interviewed Khanna. “That guy Friedrich, you know, he’s not a real writer,” said Dore in the 3 October interview. “You know that he has sketchy background, he’s an activist involved with a terrorist organization.”
Dore’s last-ditch effort to bolster Gabbard’s failing political aspirations by defaming me were destined to fail.
On 24 October, less than a week after I celebrated my birthday on the Seine in Paris, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting reported, “Gabbard’s most troubling attribute is her documented connection to the far-right Hindu nationalist, or Hindutva, movement known as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organization of India’s ruling BJP party.” Describing my article as “the best chronicle of her affiliation with the Indian right,” the watchdog group explained, “The RSS draws much of its power from its followers in the Diaspora, and Gabbard has been crucial to revamping the image of the Hindu nationalist in the United States, and has in turn received crucial financial support from the Indian-American far right.”
The next day, Gabbard announced she would not seek re-election to US Congress.
She continued her campaign for the presidency, however. Entrenching herself in New Hampshire, the first state in the country to hold presidential primaries, she invested everything she had in a strong performance in that election. Not ready to retire the issue until Gabbard herself shuttered all of her electoral campaigns, however, I decided to fly to New Hampshire and make a little bit of noise.
On 6 January 2020, speaking at the city council meeting of Londonderry — the city where Gabbard had asked about what instigated the riots in response to a question about her whitewashing Modi’s orchestration of the 2002 Gujarat Pogrom — I referenced her keynote speech at an OFBJP in 2014, stating, “The BJP’s Foreign Affairs Cell Chief discussed her campaign for re-election to a second term. The foreign politician told the American congresswoman: ‘Your victory later this year is a foregone conclusion.’ Then Gabbard posed for pictures wearing a scarf with the BJP logo.”
My remarks followed a 5 January town hall by Gabbard at which my friend, Jada Bernard, quizzed her about why she had worn the BJP scarf, to which she replied: “Sometimes, as we’re standing … people come up and they want to take a picture. Somebody put something around my neck and snapped a picture without my knowing what it was.”
Two days later, I attended a Gabbard town hall at which she was scheduled to appear — but backed out last minute upon announcing that she had to return to Washington, DC for crucial votes. As the organizers conducted a virtual interview with the congresswoman, I and others unfurled signs regarding her affiliation with India’s Hindu nationalist movement. As I hoisted a sign reading “Tulsi whitewashes India’s KKK,” her staffers — including her Deputy National Campaign Director — charged me, grabbed me, pushed me, shoved me, and hustled me out of the room.
Hindutva’s handmaiden had fallen. The princess of the RSS had lost her crown. And the figurehead of Hindu nationalism in America had failed at her absurd attempt to obtain the presidency.