A congressman’s ‘Dharma Caucus’ stirs suspicion for Hindu and Sikh organizations

The joint statement echoes a growing trend among some Hindu Americans who are concerned with the American political courtship of members of the Bharatiya Janata Party of India — a political party they say has contributed to a rise in oppression of religious minorities.

Rep.-elect Shri Thanedar, D-Mich., speaks during a news conference with Congressional Progressive Caucus members at AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington on Nov. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades)

(RNS) — A Democratic congressman’s attempt to form a Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh American congressional caucus has left some members of the religious groups concerned about its true purpose.

U.S. Rep. Shri Thanedar, of Michigan’s 13th Congressional District, formally launched the caucus last month with what he said was bipartisan support from 27 lawmakers of the four faiths,  sometimes called the Dharmic religions.

There are three known Hindus among the five Indian American members of Congress, including Thanedar. None would confirm that they were among the 27 Thanedar said belonged to the caucus. There are two current members of Congress who are Buddhist, but none are Sikhs or Jains.

The caucus “is a statement of commitment to stand against religious discrimination, to propel the wheels of inclusion, and to cultivate a nation where diversity is not only tolerated, but celebrated,” Thanedar said in an address Sept. 30.

Leaders of several South Asian American advocacy groups were surprised by Thanedar’s announcement. On Oct. 3, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim Americans put out a press release complaining that Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh organizations were not consulted about the caucus. Without input from the broader community, they said, the caucus may be less responsive to all its constituents’ concerns. 

Hindus for Human Rights, an organization dedicated to resisting Hindu nationalism, had deeper worries, noting that when Thanedar announced a plan for a Hindu American caucus at an inaugural Hindu American Summit on Capitol Hill in June, Hindu nationalist-allied organizations were present. A few days later, Thanedar, who was born in India, escorted Prime Minister Narendra Modi, head of India’s BJP Party, to Modi’s address to Congress. 

“Because it’s a federal caucus, it could be a place for Hindu nationalists to organize lawmakers against holding the Indian government accountable for human rights concerns that the broader Indian community has,” said Ria Chakrabarty, Hindus for Human Rights’ policy director.

There is also a worry that a caucus dominated by Hindus, especially Hindus with ties to Modi, will further what some say is a tendency among right-wing Hindus to view Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism as mere branches of Hinduism.

“There’s this effort by Hindu nationalists to say, ‘These other Dharmic religions are just other iterations of Hinduism,'” said Chakrabarty. “We don’t want a caucus that is treating all of these different religious groups as the same.”

In the weeks after Thanedar’s announcement, too, some in Congress have raised questions about his fitness to lead. In an October barrage on X, formerly Twitter, Thanedar’s former communications director, Adam Abusalah, alleged that the congressman had a “hard time retaining staff,” noting that six people quit from the congressman’s office within two weeks, including an intern.

“He’s the most ignorant, self-centered, and uninformed human I’ve ever worked with,” tweeted Abusalah.

On the same day, Thanedar came under fire by fellow Democrat and Detroit-area Rep. Rashida Tlaib after he criticized her use of the word “resistance” in a statement on Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

“While he is busy posting memes, his residents are calling my office asking for my assistance because he is absent from doing his job,” said Tlaib in an interview with Detroit News. “He isn’t putting in the work of a public servant and is leaving his working-class communities across his district with no real advocate.”

In an article published Oct. 12 in The Daily Beast, Thanedar wrote that he was renouncing his membership from the Democratic Socialists of America for the group’s “palpable support for the violence committed against Israel by Hamas.”

But the Metro Detroit DSA, the local branch Thanedar belonged to, said it had voted to expel him from the DSA more than a month prior because of his close relationship with Modi.

“Thanedar’s views are not, and have never been, representative of Detroit DSA,” the group said in a press release. “His sensationalist statement renouncing a membership he is not entitled to is a selfish distraction from the tragedy unfolding in the region.”

Thanedar’s office did not respond for comment, but on X on Friday, he fired back: “Since I denounced DSA and Hamas, there have been baseless accusations against me. Don’t believe everything you read on twitter.”

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Members of the Sikh Coalition and the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund say they are unsure whether the new caucus is necessary, pointing to a caucus looking out for American Sikh issues, like military discrimination and the right to hold articles of faith, led by California U.S. Reps. John Garamendi and David Valadao, a Democrat and Republican, respectively.

“We’re concerned that the caucus will be promoting some exclusionary views or values that would undermine some of the existing work that we’re trying to do through our coalitions and other interfaith initiatives,” said Kiran Kaur Gill, the executive director of SALDEF, the oldest Sikh American national civil rights advocacy organization.

Sikh Americans who come from similar ethnic and linguistic backgrounds as other Indians have also offered their support for Dalit Americans in California’s anti-caste legislation. 

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“There should be a Hindu American caucus, but one that is reflective of all the diversity of the Hindu American community,” said Chakrabarty. “If it is a truly inclusive Hindu American caucus, it would be a forum for having more honest conversations.”

A truly inclusive caucus, other advocates say, would include the voices of Indian Muslims and Christians, who make up the second and third largest religious groups in India. 

“If he had included Indian Muslims and Indian Christians, then he probably would have addressed a need for that unity or that harmonious culture of various faiths,” said Rasheed Ahmed, executive director of the Indian American Muslim Council, referring to Thanedar. “A caucus like that can set an example that irrespective of our faith backgrounds, we can come together and bring some greater harmony.”

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