India’s Hindu nationalist movement intrudes into Maryland’s gubernatorial election

File photo of Aruna Miller. | Photo: India Abroad

Lieutenant Governor candidate Aruna Miller’s association with US supporters of the RSS-BJP prompts outcry from Maryland voters.

Pieter Friedrich | 

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MARYLAND (UNITED STATES) — Maryland gubernatorial candidate John B. King and his running mate, Michelle Siri, made history in June 2022 when they became the first known US political campaign to publicly reject a donation from someone with ties to India’s Hindu nationalist movement.

“The King-Siri campaign was made aware of a potential donor with ties to Islamophobia and the Hindutva fascist movement,” announced the campaign on 7 June. Having identified the donor, who gave $1,500, they responded by donating the same amount to the national civil rights group Muslim Advocates. Their action marked perhaps the first time ever that a US political donor linked to Hindutva — a religious nationalist political movement in India — has been publicly rejected, but has also amplified attention to the Hindutva ties of a competing gubernatorial campaign.

In December 2021, Maryland gubernatorial candidate Wes Moore selected Aruna Miller, a former state House of Delegates member, as his running mate. While King remains a dark horse candidate in the state’s Democratic Primary, the Moore-Miller campaign is currently neck and neck with fellow Democratic frontrunners Tom Perez and Peter Franchot. Yet, as Miller angles to become Lieutenant Governor, she is coming under the radar for her long history of not only taking money from Hindutva donors but even participating in their events.

US Air Force veteran Andrew Messick didn’t expect to see Miller (along with her husband) at a community festival in Gaithersburg, MD on 18 June 2022, although he wasn’t terribly surprised that she showed up there to promote her campaign. “With everything going on with the Supreme Court,” he told me that he was concerned because her campaign — like those of some other local candidates — had failed to include any position on LGBTQ rights in its official platform. So he approached her to ask why that was. “Her answer was to kind of brush it off and say that they’re working on it,” Messick says. “Which, of course, is kind of the answer you come up with when you don’t have anything else.”

“That answer, obviously, was very unsatisfying,” explains Messick. “So, I asked the LGBTQ question first, and the unsatisfactory answer kind of led me to the follow-up. She was saying she was an advocate and all that, but couldn’t explain why they don’t have it on the website, so then I decided to ask her about her ties to Hindutva donors. John King had just released a statement on it after returning $1,500 he’d gotten from the same people, so I just brought that up, and how she’s gotten money from the same people. She didn’t even let me finish the full question before she went from kind of a bubbly, smily person to a very angry person, almost instantaneously.”

Messick says Miller began “waving her finger” in his face and saying, “These are very dear, close personal friends of mine that I’ve known for years. They’re trying to connect them to these Hindutva fascists over any little connection.” He notes, “In this case, that answer was also unsatisfactory because she not only basically blew up in my face but it’s also not true that people are tying her donors to Hindutva over ‘any little connection.’ These donors are leaders of the BJP in America.”

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been India’s ruling party since 2014, is the political wing of a fascist paramilitary known as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Serving as the fountainhead of Hindutva, the RSS-BJP promotes an agenda which seeks to turn India into an officially Hindu nation where non-Hindus — particularly Christians and Muslims — are relegated to second-class citizenship or even eliminated from the country.

“These Hindutva groups are clearly anti-LGBTQ,” adds Messick. “They think that all of us need to be ‘fixed.’ This is from their mouths, not mine. So it’s one of these moments where you go from one sentence saying you’re an LGBTQ advocate to then saying that these RSS and BJP leaders in America are your close personal friends that you’ve known for years. I wasn’t planning on asking her that question, but one led to the other very well due to that reason. I mean, it affects me personally, both as a gay man and a Catholic, especially since these groups think that people from every other religion should be killed.”

The issue of Hindutva influence in US politics received little attention until 2019 when my own investigation of (now former) Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign financing revealed extensive funding by leaders in the US wings of the RSS-BJP. Since then, several other candidates and elected officials have been linked to the same American network of Hindutva donors. Notably, congressional candidate Sri Preston Kulkarni ultimately lost his 2020 campaign due to such ties while Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, in his 2022 race for reelection, has come under pressure for the same reason.

Miller served in Maryland’s House of Delegates from 2010 to 2019. In 2018, she ran for the state’s sixth congressional district. It was an open seat, but she lost to competitor David Trone. In 2021, as Trone flirted with the idea of running for governor instead of for reelection to Congress, Miller initially planned to again run for the sixth district. She abandoned that idea when Trone decided to stick with his seat while she herself was picked up by Moore to run for Lieutenant Governor. Now, as she faces increased scrutiny while pursuing the state’s second-highest executive office, her ties to RSS-BJP entities in America have become an issue in the race. 

Aruna Miller’s association with Hindutva

“Today’s press event is going to focus primarily on Aruna Miller’s deep, rather intricate ties to the largest fascist organization currently in the world,” said Scott Webber of Maryland Progressive Voices at an 11 July 2022 press conference. Describing it as an “intrusion of the Hindutva movement into Maryland politics,” Webber explained. “It didn’t take long to see she was very actively involved and actively seeking their money.” He and other speakers then detailed how her association with Hindutva donors and their events traces back over a decade, extending to all of her four campaigns, including her current race for Lieutenant Governor. 

The Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP) is the international wing of India’s ruling BJP. Leading up to the 2014 election of the BJP’s Narendra Modi as Prime Minister of India, the OFBJP provided him with crucial campaign machinery as, from America, they mobilized thousands of volunteers to travel to India to work for his election. After they were successful, they began working to bring him over to the US to build his popularity among the diaspora. It was a particularly notable goal because Modi had been banned from the country due to his involvement in a 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom. After he was elected prime minister, however, he now had diplomatic immunity, as a head of state, to circumvent the ban.

In mid-August 2014, Vijay Jolly — an Indian politician who was then the OFBJP’s Global Coordinator — arrived in America for what he called a “whirlwind tour” in which he visited ten major US cities in 12 days to promote Modi’s upcoming first visit to America since his ban.

One of Jolly’s stopovers was in Atlanta, GA, where he keynoted a 24 August OFBJP banquet celebrating Modi’s victory. Joining him was Congresswoman Gabbard, who praised her audience for their “hard work” to get Modi elected. Jolly, meanwhile, told the congresswoman — who was then running for reelection to a second term — that her victory was a “foregone conclusion.” Gabbard posed for pictures with Jolly while wearing a BJP scarf, an act that seemed to symbolize her endorsement of the foreign political party.

Although few other US politicians rubbed shoulders with Jolly during his tour, Gabbard was not the only one who did so. On 30 August, Jolly was in Vienna, Virginia for another OFBJP banquet. This time he was joined by then Maryland State Delegate Aruna Miller.

“The last time I was at the Madison Square Garden in New York I think I saw a rock show,” said Miller at the event. “Now there’s going to be a new rock star there on September 28, Prime Minister Modi. While some create transformation through music, Prime Minister Modi and his team is gonna create transformation through their leadership and new vision.”

It was bizarre, next-level flattery to offer a man whose sole career prior to assuming political office was as a lifelong, full-time missionary for the RSS, who had been banned from entering the US for nearly 10 years due to his involvement in “particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” and who — upon arriving in America in September 2014 — faced a federal court summons demanding he answer for having “committed both acts of intentional and malicious direction to authorities in India to kill and maim innocent persons of the Muslim faith.” Miller’s fawning remarks, however, may have had something to do with the identity of the OFBJP banquet’s organizers, Sudhir Sekhsaria and Gurpreet Takhar.

Sekhsaria and Takhar had both been donating to Miller’s state delegate campaign since at least December 2011, a year after she first took office. By August 2014, Sekhsaria (and his wife) had given her $3625. Takhar, meanwhile, had contributed $2750 — most of it in the form of an “in-kind” contribution made by providing her campaign with office space.

Apparently, in return for their contributions, the two OFBJP activists got Miller’s enthusiastic participation in an event celebrating the pogrom-tainted Modi’s election. Yet it was not a one-off association. Over the ensuing years, Miller’s financial ties to both deepened extensively, as did her public involvement with Sekhsaria. 

In 2017, Miller announced her candidacy for Maryland’s sixth congressional district. When she threw her hat in the ring, Sekhsaria was entrusted with the purse strings as her official campaign treasurer. He soon called on his experience as an event organizer to host a fundraiser for her — not in Maryland, but in Texas. 

The Houston, TX event, organized in December 2017, was hosted not just by Sekhsaria but also by Ramesh Bhutada, the long-time vice-president of Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh USA (HSS-USA, the American wing of the RSS). Bhutada, notably, had partnered with the OFBJP in 2014 to work from America to help elect Modi in India. He and his family had also poured tens of thousands of dollars into Tulsi Gabbard’s congressional campaigns and, by January 2018, began doing the same for Sri Preston Kulkarni.

Other co-hosts of the event included Jugal Malani (Bhutada’s brother-in-law and business partner) and Vijay Pallod (Bhutada’s relative by marriage and employee). Both Malani and Pallod have a long track record of financing the same candidates as Bhutada (particularly people like Gabbard, Kulkarni, and Krishnamoorthi) as well as participating in pro-Hindutva activities, with Pallod actually physically travelling to India in 2014 to work for Modi’s election.

Miller left Texas with over $5700 in donations from the Bhutada, Malani, and Pallod families alone. She additionally pocketed nearly $11,000 from Chowdary Yalamanchili and his wife; he was, in September 2019, an honorary co-chair of the organizing committee for “Howdy Modi,” the Houston event which was the prime minister’s most recent “rockstar reception” in America.

Meanwhile, the Sekhsaria family invested heavily, pouring over $23,000 into her (ultimately failed) 2018 campaign as well as her (short-lived) 2020 campaign. The Takhar family, for their part, has given nearly $11,000.

The two OFBJP activists were joined (particularly during the 2018 campaign) by a host of characters whose names — as Hindutva-affiliated donors to US political campaigns — first surfaced in relation to Gabbard’s fundraising. These included Venkata Rao Mulpuri and Raj Bhayani (at the time, both listed as national OFBJP executives), Avadhesh Agarwal (then listed as an executive of OFBJP’s Los Angeles chapter), Subhash Gupta (president of HSS’s Houston chapter), Shekar Reddy (an advisor to the Florida chapter of Ekal Vidyalaya, a controversial educational project founded by a US-based RSS affiliate), Vinod Jhunjhunwala (a former president of Ekal), Narsimha Koppula (a long-time executive in Sewa USA, a Sangh-affiliated charity chaired by HSS’s Ramesh Bhutada), and Mihir Meghani (a former HSS member who had, in 2013, suggested the Indian-American diaspora should only support congressional candidates who were sympathetic to Modi). Together, they donated over $14,000.

Perhaps the most interesting donation to her 2018 campaign — if not the most generous — came from then OFBJP president Ramkrishna Anugula. Giving over $400, he was later compelled in 2020 to declare his past donation on filings for the US Department of Justice made under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Considering these donors are all deep-pocketed individuals who not only possess long track records of personally making campaign donations but are also all organizational leaders with influence across national networks, it’s probable that these particular personalities inspired many others to similarly donate to Miller and are thus, arguably, responsible for generating tens of thousands more in support for her campaign.

Curiously, as Miller collected large sums from Hindutva-linked donors in her race to represent the voters of Maryland’s sixth congressional district, over two-thirds of her entire fundraising haul from 2017 to 2021 — nearly $1 million out of a total of $1.5 million raised in itemized individual contributions — came from out-of-state donors. Without the financial backing of a national network of donors living not only outside the district but also in the state in which she was running, she would probably not have been a financially viable candidate for US Congress.

As Miller now campaigns for Lieutenant Governor, OFBJP activists Sekhsaria and Takhar have continued throwing large sums behind her. The Sekhsaria family have given $11,500 to date (including from Sudhir’s medical practice). The Takhar family has given $6,500. Meanwhile, Narsimha Koppula of Sewa USA has given $6,000.

All told, across four campaigns since 2011 (for the state legislature, US Congress, and now statewide office), Miller has received, at a bare minimum, nearly $100,000 from donors who are identifiable as distinctly pro-Modi or, more commonly, are actually leaders (or close family of such leaders) in Hindutva-aligned organizations like HSS, OFBJP, Ekal, and Sewa. A full accounting would likely reveal the actual amount to be much higher.

One important question is how many of Miller’s out-of-state donations for US Congress — as well as for her current campaign for lieutenant governor, which has similarly received a surprisingly large amount of such donations — have come from fundraisers or bundling organized by her major Hindutva donors. Yet, although that question ought to be answered, the King-Siri campaign has already set a precedent demonstrating that (in a sense) the answer doesn’t actually matter all that much. One donation of $1,500 from a single Hindutva-aligned donor, after all, was enough to prompt the King campaign to issue a public statement rejecting the donor and their money.

It’s not necessary, therefore, to identify every single Hindutva-aligned donor who may have given to Miller but, rather, it’s necessary for her to accept responsibility for those donors who are already identified. If the King campaign can publicly reject what is, honestly, a rather negligible amount, why can’t Miller do the same for donations which run into many tens of thousands of dollars? What’s stopping her?

Conclusion: Miller Refuses to Sever Hindutva Ties

Instead of giving up the campaign donations and, what’s more, making amends for associating with OFBJP and HSS leaders, Miller has reacted to criticism with self-justification. In May 2022, referencing the August 2014 OFBJP banquet where she lauded Modi as a “rockstar,” she argued, “I attended an event a decade ago before any authoritarian action he took as Prime Minister.”

It was a disingenuous response. While Modi had, arguably, not yet then engaged in any authoritarian actions as Prime Minister, his tyrannical record as Chief Minister — which had earned him the nickname “the Butcher of Gujarat” — was not only well known but was, as mentioned, the very reason he was banned from the US. Moreover, Miller offered no rationale for why she would even attend an event hosted by the OFBJP, which is a partisan Indian political outfit that, in August 2020, was compelled to register as a Foreign Agent in America.

Meanwhile, she continues to pocket huge amounts from the same people who organized that event. While she may offer lip service to the idea that Modi has engaged in “authoritarian action,” the sincerity of her statement seems contradicted by the ongoing support she accepts from activists in a group which helped to elect him in the first place.

Indeed, nailing down her genuine position on Modi — a position in which her participation in an OFBJP event where she praised him as a “rockstar” now demands she provide — is further complicated by her sometimes angry and sometimes downright dissembling responses when confronted about her Hindutva ties.

Webber, at the 11 July 2022 press conference hosted by Maryland Progressive Voices, described his own personal experience of confronting Miller about such ties. The first time, he said, he asked about her support for the BJP. “She had a dismayed look of horror,” he said. She flatly denied association with the BJP and claimed to be “far more associated” with the opposition party, the Indian National Congress. “I could never support the BJP,” Webber says she told him. Noting that he asked her while already knowing that she had spoken at an OFBJP event, he said it was “already a red flag, where you had a politician who was willing to lie about something so serious directly to one’s face.”

“I confronted her later at a point and said, ‘There seems to be ties of all this money that’s coming to you from certain associates tied into this’,” added Webber. “She looked at me quite frankly and said, ‘Listen, I have to fund my campaign…. I just need their money.’ So this was red flag number two, that she didn’t really care who she was associating with as long as she got their money.”

“These ties are not ties that she wants to part with at all,” warned Muslimah activist Sana Qutubuddin at the press conference. “In fact, she says that these people — referring to top BJP leadership in the United States who, by the way, were the ones who got a genocidal leader, Modi, elected as Prime Minister in India — ‘are my very near and dear friends.’ This isn’t just about money. This is about her deep connections to these people and to these fascist networks that she has no intention of parting with. That is incredibly dangerous for the State of Maryland, the state of democracy in Maryland, and the future of this country, frankly.”

Qutubuddin added that Hindutva has been “compounding” with white supremacy, calling it a “very dangerous concoction, something we have never seen on a world stage before.” The connection between the two ideologies, in fact, traces back to the origins of Hindutva. “The founders who codified this hatred into an organized group in the 1930s took inspiration from Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler,” explained Gayatri Girirajan, a member of Peace Action Montgomery. “One founder of the movement, MS Golwalkar, asserted that the country’s minorities should be treated along the lines of Nazi treatment of Jewish people.”

Susan Kerin, Chair of Peace Action Montgomery, further warned at the press conference, “We know that if she had a tie with the Proud Boys, or the KKK, this would get a lot of attention and, for some reason, it’s not getting as much attention. I’m not sure why — if because it’s an international issue? But we know that international fascism, throughout history, is really something that we need to worry about, even within our national borders.”

For Andrew Messick, the issue is not only one that he’s now paying close attention to but also one that hits close to home.

After confronting Miller in June, Messick left the event to return home. Night had already fallen. “As I’m driving home, I noticed that there’s a white Mercedes behind me,” he says. “It turned its lights off, and got up on my bumper. It was like they wanted me to see them doing it. I changed lanes a couple times, they changed lanes with me.” As the car continued following him, its lights remaining off, he says, “I turned to go in to where I live, they turned to go into where I live.” He pulled over, and the vehicle stopped and sat watching him for several minutes before turning its lights back on and driving away. Before it left, Messick got a glimpse of the driver.

“It was all a little suspicious, especially right after I had just asked a question,” he says. “Of course, it also is interesting because Aruna Miller and her husband own that very make and model of white Mercedes. I do know that the driver was a middle-aged, balding white man, and that is the exact description of her husband. And I had just talked to her, and her husband was standing there. There’s a little too much there to not mention.”

Reportedly, other people known to question or criticize Miller over her Hindutva ties have allegedly experienced similar incidents of apparent harassment and intimidation.

Meanwhile, groups like Maryland Progressive Voices and Peace Action Montgomery report that they have repeatedly reached out to the Moore-Miller campaign with a simple ask: she must denounce Hindutva and return any contributions she’s received from Hindutva-aligned donors. Thus far, their ask has been ignored.

The King-Siri campaign, however, has shown no such hesitation. “John King and his running mate Michelle Siri are firmly committed to ensuring religious freedom for Muslims, Dalits, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus of all castes, Jews, and all faiths and creeds,” they declared. “John and Michelle strongly condemn the Hindutva movement, and the campaign will not accept funds that come from a donor with ties to it and will return any funds that were contributed without our knowledge from a donor with ties to it.”

After one American political campaign finally took such a strong — and historic — stance, perhaps other politicians, both in Maryland and throughout the US, may be inspired to follow a similar principle. To date, unfortunately, it seems that Aruna Miller will not be one of them.

Pieter Friedrich is a freelance journalist specializing in the analysis of South Asian affairs. He tweets at @FriedrichPieter