(RNS) — When Democratic U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard announced this month that she is planning to run for her party’s 2020 presidential nomination, Mike Figueredo took to his progressive podcast and YouTube show, The Humanist Report, to separate what he viewed as legitimate criticisms of Gabbard from the plain old political smears.
Gabbard, the first Hindu to serve in Congress, earned Figueredo’s admiration for supporting Bernie Sanders in 2016, but some of her choices cause liberals concern: An Iraq war veteran, she insists on using “radical Islam” to describe Middle East terrorism, a phrase some reject as legitimizing terrorists’ claims to Islam. In 2017, she made an unannounced trip to Syria to meet the country’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad.
The 31-year-old Figueredo, like many progressives, is willing to give Gabbard the benefit of the doubt. Openly gay, he even accepts her renunciation of her teenage activism with the Alliance for Traditional Marriage, a nonprofit founded by her father, a Hawaiian state senator, that supported gay conversion therapy.
But on a recent show, Figueredo told his 200,000 listeners that Gabbard’s connection to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is “just weird.”
Before leading the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to victory in India’s national elections five years ago, Modi was chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat. In 2002, under his tenure, riots erupted there that killed more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslim. While never directly implicated for the pogrom, Modi was barred from entering the U.S. for years afterward as a violator of religious freedom.
Admitting he knows little about Indian politics, Figueredo finds Gabbard’s closeness to those involved in the Hindu nationalist cause difficult to grasp. “Clarification about this issue from Tulsi would be really appreciated,” Figueredo told Religion News Service in an interview.
Like American Catholics in the 19th century and American Muslims or Hindus today, members of minority religions in the U.S. are often judged by the religious and political upheavals in countries where their faiths are in the majority. In the past two decades especially, the Hindu faith and Hindu nationalism, its often violent political arm, have been twisted and wielded against each other.
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Sangay Mishra, an assistant professor of political science at Drew University, said even groups formed entirely in America can’t divorce themselves from what happens in India, since most American Hindus trace their origins there and the majority of the 4 million Indians living in America are foreign-born. Ties to the home country, especially for that first generation, are still very emotional — and, most importantly, wealthy Hindus contribute to parties and politicians here and in South Asia.
As Gabbard readies to launch her presidential race in early February, her links to Indian Hindu politicians and other leaders are already turning into one of her biggest obstacles.
Recent events suggest Gabbard is only now becoming aware of how complex the politics of Hinduism can be. Last September, she signed on as chairperson of the World Hindu Congress, an event every four years where Hindus gather, network and celebrate their successes. At this year’s gathering in Chicago, the keynote speaker was Mohan Bhagwat, head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of several Hindu nationalist, or Hindutva, organizations in India.
While several U.S. elected officials had turned down invitations to the congress, Gabbard backed out only after activists and justice groups like Sadhana, a coalition of progressive Hindus, voiced their horror and campaigned against it, according to Gautam Reddy, a Sadhana board member.
“It is kind of shocking for any U.S. candidate to stand on the same platform as Mohan Bhagwat,” said Reddy. “We think Tulsi Gabbard is going to be bringing a lot more visibility to our community, and we hope that she continues to distance herself from Hindutva.”
Gabbard has a unique Hindu lineage. Her parents were followers of an offshoot of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, popularly known as the Hare Krishnas. Founded in 1965, the group gained a following among Westerners in the counterculture movement of the ’60s and ’70s. The branch her family followed is called the Science of Identity Foundation; in a 2017 New Yorker article, some former followers described it as an abusive cult.
Gabbard told the New Yorker that she grew up with the principles of the mainstream Vaishnava Hindu tradition, which emphasizes devotion to God and selfless service. Her father eventually distanced himself from the Science of Identity Foundation and returned to his Catholic roots in 2000. Mitch Kahle, founder of the Hawai‘i Citizens for the Separation of State and Church, said in a 2004 interview with Honolulu Magazine that it was better for his political career.
But Gabbard’s connection to the Krishnas makes her an outsider even to many Hindus, said Claire Robison, a lecturer of South Asian religions at the University of Pittsburgh. “Because they have a history of proselytization, people tend to think of them to this day as predominantly white, western or not authentically Hindu,” Robison said.
Add that to Gabbard’s mixed Samoan and Caucasian heritage, and she becomes a figure who has to navigate being out-of-the-box on multiple fronts.
“My sense is, Tulsi Gabbard is a woman of color, she is the first Hindu in Congress, she is outside the political corps of America in Hawaii, and she has been happy to accept the support of the Hindu community in whatever support she can take,” Robison said.
Indeed, Gabbard’s relationships with various Hindu groups such as the Hindu American Foundation, a nonpartisan group that voices Hindu concerns and educates Americans about Hinduism, and the Overseas Friends of the BJP, the international body of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party, have largely come since her election to Congress in 2012. These and other U.S. Hindu organizations often serve as resources for politicians looking to understand the Hindu community, or for direction in developing positions on India.
While Gabbard is hardly the first politician to cozy up to Modi despite his connection to Hindutva — memes abound of President Obama’s “bromance” with the Indian leader, for example — Gabbard has extended herself to India’s prime minister.
In 2013, she forcefully opposed a House bill condemning India’s record on religious freedom, and she has maintained that the decision to deny Modi a visa in the wake of the Gujarat riots was a “great blunder.” She met Modi personally when he visited the U.S. shortly after he was elected in 2014.
In early January, The Intercept cited reports alleging that Gabbard has disclosed donations from “names that are of Hindu origin” that also turn up in publicly available materials linked to Hindu nationalist organizations, such as event announcements and websites. (The Intercept recently removed the sentence from the story online and apologized for questioning “the motives of the donors.”)
In a defiant statement released to RNS on Saturday, Gabbard called the criticism “a false narrative of intrigue.”
“To question my commitment to my country, while not questioning non-Hindu leaders, creates a double standard that can only be rooted in one thing: religious bigotry. I am Hindu and they are not,” Gabbard wrote.
Responding to earlier questions from RNS, Gabbard’s campaign manager, Rania Batrice, wrote in an email, “The fact that they hired someone to sniff out ‘Hindu-sounding names’ and then tried to make a correlation with nationalism is offensive at best and completely bigoted. I’m Palestinian and have an Arab name — what would their stereotype for me be?”
Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, said the reports about campaign funds amount to guilt by association. “The question should not be about what I make of current allegations but ‘What exactly is a Hindu nationalist?’ or ‘Where’s the proof?’” she said. “I don’t have an answer to either question, except that there’s enough innuendo by the reporter to tell a story that says, ‘They’re foreign, dangerous and un-American.’”
Vineet Chander, director of Hindu life at Princeton University, said people should be wary of conflating Hindu support and Hindu pride with a right-wing political agenda. His own program, he pointed out, is almost entirely university-funded, but it does accept individual donations, as do Princeton’s centers for Jewish life and Muslim life. “Am I a Hindu fundamentalist because I am accepting a check from someone who had made a check to another group?” he asked. “That to me is very different than a term like funneling funds.”
For South Asian activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan, however, the issue is not Gabbard’s religion but her relationship with what Soundararajan calls “bad actors.” Nearly two years ago Soundararajan helped launch a #TulsiGottaGo social media campaign to draw awareness to concerns Muslim, South Asian and Arab advocacy groups had about Gabbard’s foreign policy — from her vote in favor of additional restrictions on Syrian and Iraqi refugees to the U.S. to her tolerance for authoritarian figures like Assad and Modi and use of the phrase “radical Islam.”
“To be honest, if she wants to address these issues, she can apologize to Indian religious communities the way she has to the queer community, and she can advocate that human rights and religious freedom can become part of the Indian dialogue,” Soundararajan said, adding that doing so may cost support from some Hindus.
Whatever the nation hears from Gabbard in the coming days, plenty of people will be listening. “My thought is that I want to hear from her and her thoughts on the issue,” Mike Figueredo said.
On Twitter last week, he posted a response to a viewer’s reaction of his critique of Gabbard. “I like Tulsi. I also like Bernie. Neither of them is perfect, and we should push them to do better and adjust their positions based on progressive criticisms.… If your goal is to sweep negatives aside, you’re hurting us all.”
(This story has been updated to reflect that The Intercept altered its story about Gabbard’s supporters.)