New Jersey marks ground zero for growing US resistance to Hindutva

OFBJP marching in front of the bulldozer during the Edison, NJ parade. | Picture: American Kahani

Modi’s regime’s American support base suffers multiple defeats in the Summer of 2022. 

Pieter Friedrich |

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UNITED STATES — After the Old Paramus Reformed Church in Ridgewood, New Jersey cancelled a 10 September 2022 speech by infamous Hindu nationalist demagogue Sadhvi Ritambhara, it sent shockwaves felt on the other side of the Atlantic.

Throughout the Summer of 2022, from New Jersey to California, organized resistance against the influence of Hindutva (that is, Hindu nationalist) politics in the US resulted in multiple victories. The most recent victory started in the small village of Ridgewood, but it soon took on international dimensions.

Ritambhara’s multi-state US tour was shrouded in protest from the outset.

Beginning in Atlanta, Georgia on 30 August, she faced protest by an interfaith crowd of over 100. “She has openly called for the massacre of Muslims and Christians in India,” warned protestor Rahim Shah Akhunkhail. “We reject it. America rejects it. We call people of all faiths to reject and denounce such people.”

Ritambhara — who is the founder of Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which is the religious wing of India’s fascist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) paramilitary — next went to New Jersey. There she faced her first defeat. Over two days, the Ridgewood church reported receiving over 100 calls and 1,000 emails requesting it de-platform her. On the eve of the event, the church’s pastor finally revoked permission.

The protest continued clouding Ritambhara’s US tour as she travelled to Los Angeles, where a large multi-faith crowd again rallied outside the venue hosting her. “She does not represent the Hinduism of inclusion, justice, and service to humanity,” declared protestor Tahil Sharma. “She is focused on a narrative that is trying to hurt those that are minorities in India. Her focus is on hatred rather than uniting people.”

Ritambhara soon faced total defeat. After completing her US tour in mid-September, she was scheduled for a multi-city tour of the UK. It didn’t go as planned.

She was still in America when British Members of Parliament launched demands to deny her entry to the UK. In letters to the Home Minister, MPs denounced her “xenophobic” and “Islamophobic” rhetoric, warning that it could stoke communal tensions in their constituencies. Within days, her entire UK tour was scrapped. “Just prior to her planned visit to the UK, she was disinvited from speaking in a church in the US, thanks to the campaigning by progressive groups in America,” noted British journalist Amrit Wilson. “She obviously did not wish to face a similarly humiliating situation in the UK.”

Some sources suggest Ritambhara’s cancellation was not voluntary but rather the result of Britain’s Home Office, responding to the “coordinated action of concerned citizens and civil society group” demanding it, actually revoking her visa. Whatever the case may be, shifting focus back to New Jersey, the Ritambhara drama was not the end of the anti-Hindutva resistance’s recent successes in that state.

“America, especially New Jersey, is a stronghold for Hindu nationalist groups who provide financial support and ideological guidance for the larger global movement,” explains Dr Audrey Truschke. Many anti-Hindutva activists ruefully refer to the state — in reference to the Indian city where the RSS is headquartered — as the “Nagpur of America.” Yet, surprisingly, New Jersey is ground zero for most of the latest victories against the movement.

Since 2014, Hindutva ideologues have dominated India through Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s regime. Through his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which serves as the political wing of the RSS, Modi and his devotees are unleashing an authoritarian nightmare upon a country once celebrated as the world’s largest democracy. Although mainstream America has been slow to realize it, the RSS-BJP’s rise to power in India was aided and abetted by an immense US support base.

The collection of affiliated Hindutva groups in India — which includes the RSS, VHP, and BJP — is commonly known as the “Sangh Parivar” (Family of Organizations). All three outfits have American affiliates, namely: Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh USA (HSS-USA), Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), and Overseas Friends of the BJP USA (OFBJP-USA). Although all three are legally distinct entities, their leadership and membership — just as it is in India — is heavily cross-pollinated. 

Notably, the HSS-USA is registered as a nonprofit in New Jersey. Up until at least 2019, after which it was compelled to register as a Foreign Agent, so also was the OFBJP-USA.

While this American Sangh Parivar has supported the Hindutva agenda in India in many ways, one of the most notable was their mass mobilization efforts to get Modi elected in 2014 and re-elected in 2019. During both election cycles and in coordination with leaders from both HSS-USA and VHPA, the OFBJP-USA reportedly deployed thousands of volunteers to India to campaign for the BJP.

Striking back against the American Sangh, therefore, has great potential to undermine the agenda of the regime in India.

The current series of struggles in New Jersey began after a 14 August parade hosted in the city of Edison to celebrate India’s Independence Day, an event in which many city and state elected officials enthusiastically participated. Organized by the India Business Association (IBA), the event was overtly partisan from the start as organizers invited BJP Spokesperson Sambit Patra to serve as the event’s grand marshal. Other participants in the event reportedly included the HSS-USA and VHPA.

Controversy soon erupted.

The parade’s centerpiece was a bulldozer bedecked with photos of Modi as well as the BJP Chief Minister of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath. Leading the way for the bulldozer, their banner proudly stretched out for all to see, was a contingent of the OFBJP-USA. 

The symbolism was beyond inflammatory. “To those who understood its symbolism, it was a blunt and sinister taunt later likened to a noose or a burning cross at a Ku Klux Klan rally,” reported The New York Times. It represented an open endorsement of one of the BJP’s most egregious current anti-Muslim tactics.

The bulldozer, in short, was a symbol of hate.

A foundational ideological aspect of the RSS-BJP is its devotion to transforming India into an exclusively Hindu nation where all minorities — particularly Christians and Muslims — are either subjugated or eliminated. The bulldozer has increasingly come to symbolize that goal. Under the chief minister’s regime, the machine is being used to routinely and extrajudicially demolish the homes, businesses, and religious sites of Muslims, particularly those known for dissenting against him. The New York Times reports that bulldozers have become “a symbol of oppression” while France24 explains that “bulldozer justice” is now perceived as an example of “an unlawful exercise in collective punishment.”

The RSS-BJP wants to crush the spirit of Indian minorities, especially the vocal Muslim population, and the physical manifestation of that is currently the bulldozer.

In Spring 2022, Adityanath embraced the symbolism in his campaign for reelection, welcoming slogans hailing him as “Baba Bulldozer” (Daddy Bulldozer) — a slogan displayed alongside his photo on the bulldozer in Edison. The message at the New Jersey parade was clear: Indian minorities are as unwelcome there as they are under RSS-BJP rule in India. Rather than be intimidated, however, locals pushed back hard — and won.

Resistance was swift and successful.

Throughout Edison Township Council meetings on 22 and 24 August, dozens turned out to register their protest in the public comments session. The backlash soon sparked reactions by elected officials ranging from Edison Township all the way to the US Senate.

“This was a tipping point for us,” one woman in hijab told the council. Tasim Ansari warned that the bulldozer is being “used to dehumanize people,” explaining that anyone who saw it in the parade would be disgusted. “India Day Parade is supposed to be for all the Indians who are living in the US, not for only 30-35 per cent of Hindutva ideology, those who are growing, spreading hate in India, and now sending it overseas in America,” said Nasir Ahmed. “Modi, the current prime minister of India, came from RSS. They’re the ones who acquired ideology from Hitler.” Taj Shaikh claimed the bulldozer represented “fascism and the BJP,” noting, “Hindutva is not Hinduism. It is a murderous, socially and culturally backwards, bigoted ideology.”

“This is clearly giving a message of intimidation to American Indian Muslims and other minorities that ‘hey, we are here, we are in control, you can’t do anything, even in America’,” explained Dylan Terpstra of CAIR-NJ. Comparing what a bulldozer symbolizes for Indian Muslims to what a noose symbolizes for African-Americans, he continued: “It needs to be understood what this bulldozer really means. Homes, mosques, businesses, and churches, are being demolished in India because people speak up and out against Baba Bulldozer and other Hindutva leaders.” As Bishop Nikolaos Brown concluded: “This act of hatred and injustice not only has repercussions here in Edison but across the state, across the country, and across the world.”

In response, all but one of the township’s nine councillors — many of whom actually attended the parade — vehemently condemned the incident. 

“I would not have participated in the parade had I known [about the bulldozer],” said Council President Joseph Coyle. “I would have walked right off the street.”

Council Vice-President Joyce Ship-Freeman was even more emphatic, declaring, “Had it been the noose, would we all have been walking behind it and following it? No. This is not the Edison we should accept. We should all stand out against it because if it’s on one group today, it will be on another group tomorrow.” Councillor Margot Harris called the incident “absolutely hideous and unacceptable.” Councillor John Poyner stated, “We do not want that type of divisiveness and that type of hatred, quite honestly, spread about the township.” Councillor Nishith Patel — noting that he’s a Hindu of Indian origin — denounced the bulldozer as representing “intolerance of culture, division, hatred.”

Simultaneously, the controversy spilled over into the neighbouring township of Woodbridge, some of whose officials had also attended the parade. It didn’t end at the borders of the townships, however, but soon reverberated across the entire state.

On 25 August, a day after the final showdown at Edison Township Council, five members of the New Jersey State Legislature — four assemblymembers and one senator — issued a joint statement condemning the inclusion of the bulldozer in the parade, describing it as “a symbol of division and hate.”

The following day, US Congresswoman Bonnie Coleman, declaring that “hate has no place in New Jersey” and warning that Modi’s regime is targeting Muslim properties with bulldozers, stated, “The inclusion of a bulldozer with a picture of Modi at the India Day parade in Edison was a display of bigotry.” Finally, in early September, the state’s two US senators issued a joint statement. Noting that many local South Asian Americans were “angered and deeply hurt” by the incident, Senators Cory Booker and Bob Menendez declared, “The bulldozer has come to be a symbol of intimidation against Muslims and other religious minorities in India, and its inclusion in this event was wrong.”

Inexplicably, two politicians who participated in the event have maintained their silence. Neither New Jersey Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin nor US Congressman Frank Pallone (founder of the powerful Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans) have offered any comment.

Initially, the IBA stubbornly refused to apologize, insisting that “it had not done anything wrong” and calling complaints about the bulldozer “prejudiced.” Yet it took less than a week for them to reverse course and, in the face of mass pressure, offer their “sincere apologies” for having “offended the Indian American minority groups, especially Muslims.”

Ultimately, the IBA probably deserves a heartfelt thank you from the US’s anti-Hindutva resistance for — unintentionally — creating a golden opportunity to direct the attention of American elected officials not only to the growing human rights crisis in Modi’s India but also to how his authoritarian regime is backed by radical elements from abroad.

Shifting focus from the East to the West Coast, a similar — though smaller-scale — victory occurred after HSS-USA activity in the small city of Manteca, California also offered an opportunity to educate local officials about the realities and dangers of the global Hindutva movement. On 3 August, the Manteca City Council unanimously rescinded and apologized for a proclamation they had passed earlier in the year to honour the US wing of the RSS.

The HSS-USA routinely solicits such proclamations from city councils around the country. Taking advantage of the general American ignorance of even the existence — let alone the nature — of the Sangh Parivar, it stacks up dozens, scores, and hundreds of these official recognitions, then publicize them through its networks to build up its veneer of legitimacy. After all, the outfit seems to think, if it can show that it has been praised and platformed by local governments all around America, people will be far less likely to heed concerns about how the HSS-USA’s leadership and membership systematically work to help prop up the RSS-BJP back in India.

Pushback in Manteca began on 19 July when approximately 50 people gathered during a city council meeting to raise placards and speak in protest during the public comments session. Their appeals were heard. By the following council meeting, a resolution to rescind the HSS-USA proclamation was on the agenda. During a nearly four-hour meeting, dozens from both opposing sides commented. Eventually, the council — while noting that the HSS did, by all appearances, seem to be linked to the RSS — voted to rescind the proclamation.

It was the first time ever that an American city has overturned one of their recognitions of the HSS-USA, and it has great potential to set a precedent as other neighbouring cities are now considering doing the same. Just as in Edison, NJ, the incident offered the anti-Hindutva resistance a chance to turn the eyes of American officials to the situation in India.

In New Jersey, the Edison incident and the Ritambhara drama are now helping to escalate broader regional action against Hindutva.

On 12 September, 40 miles north of Edison, the Democratic Party unit in the township of Teaneck passed a resolution condemning Hindu nationalist groups which operate in the US with “direct and indirect ties” to the RSS. The resolution urged members of US Congress to request the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency to investigate “foreign hate groups that have domestic branches with tax-exempt status” and called for changes to the visa process to prevent speakers like Ritambhara from entering the country. With any luck, and according to feedback from talking to activists on the ground, this may be just the first of many such resolutions to come.

Indeed, since May 2022, we have seen anti-Hindutva activism expand from the confines of the South Asian American community as it is taken up by progressive groups in both Illinois and Maryland. However, while these kinds of efforts are needed nationwide, there are few places in the country where such pushback is of greater urgency than in the Hindutva hub of New Jersey.

The risk of allowing Hindutva-aligned entities to operate in the US without oversight is that they may not stop short of bigoted displays of intimidation — such as with the bulldozer — but stoop deeper to commit actual atrocities. This was most vividly illustrated in 2021 in Robbinsville, a small town less than 40 miles south of Edison. 

The religious group Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS), while building a giant temple in the town, was raided by the FBI in May 2021. BAPS was accused, essentially, of using slave labour for construction. For years, they had allegedly lured mostly low-caste men from India, reportedly confiscating their passports upon arrival, housing them in guarded complexes, and forcing them to work up to 13 hours a day for less than $500 a month.

BAPS reportedly has “strong ties” with Modi (who has called its founder his mentor) and has been described as holding both a “close link” with the BJP as well as being “widely suspected of having some connection” with a 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in the Indian state of Gujarat, which is both Modi’s home state as well as the site of the sect’s founding.

The FBI raid coincided with the filing of a federal lawsuit on behalf of the allegedly exploited labourers. By November 2021, the lawsuit expanded to include BAPS properties in Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, and Los Angeles — all cities which, alongside New Jersey, serve as major hubs for the Hindutva movement in the US.

Even more recently, peaceful American protests against Hindutva have faced outright violence. On the same day that the bulldozer rolled through Edison, protestors in Anaheim, CA were assaulted by participants in an India Independence Day Mela. 

As the group of mostly young South Asian American protestors, holding placards calmly walked through the event at Anaheim’s La Palma Park, a mob formed and screamed at them to leave.

“Open your hearts,” said one sign. Another asked: “Where is your empathy?” Yet another stated: “Protect India’s Muslim Lives.” Even as the protestors exited the public event, the enraged mob continued to pursue them, shoving them, swinging at them, and stealing and destroying their signs. Frightened protestors cried out, “Don’t touch me. Get away from me.” In response, at least one of their assailants shouted, “Stupid Muslim, get out!”

The greatest concern prompted by the Hindutva violence in California — although it is already perhaps the most egregious witnessed in the US during the Modi regime’s reign — is that unchecked, it could escalate to the higher levels already occurring in other countries where the movement has gained strong footholds. 

In October 2021, for instance, Australian resident Vishal Jood was deported to India after being arrested and jailed for multiple armed assaults on Sikhs who had protested Modi’s policies. Upon returning to India, he received a “hero’s welcome,” complete with a street parade in his honour.

In September 2022, far more organized violence broke out in the streets of Leicester, UK.

The city, which is reportedly home to the largest population of British Indians outside of London, has seen brewing tension between Hindu and Muslim communities for several months. One of the flashpoints allegedly occurred in May, when a gang of 30 apparently Hindu youth savagely beat a young Muslim man with baseball bats, breaking his arm while demanding to know if he is Muslim. 

As conflict successively escalated, it came to a head on 17 September when a mob of approximately 200 masked and hooded men — many of whom appeared armed with metal rods or pipes — marched through the city chanting, “Jai Shri Ram.” As British criminologist Chris Allen notes, the phrase has become “synonymous with Hindu nationalist violence”; or, to quote British journalist Faisal Hanif, it is “a Hindu chant that became ‘a murder cry’ in India.” As the mob marched through the streets, scuffles broke out that bled over into the next day.

Nearly 50 people were ultimately arrested, with authorities reporting that a large number of them hailed from outside the region.

Should US authorities continue to ignore the spread of Hindutva influence in the country, the risk that the same sort of street violence witnessed in Australia and the UK will spread to the US grows. The bulldozer incident — an example of hateful intimidation — was handled peacefully through proper civic channels. Yet the incident in Anaheim is an entirely different story.

In fact, when I spoke with organizers of the peaceful protest in Anaheim (who chose to remain anonymous), they expressed fears about even registering a case with the local police, even though their attackers, their violent actions, and their faces were all clearly caught on camera and even personally witnessed by a Los Angeles Times journalist.

So extensive is the network and influence of the American Sangh Parivar, it seems, that when its apparent sympathizers begin enacting physical violence, their victims don’t feel safe to even file a police report. If that’s the case now, imagine what the situation — left unchecked — will look like over the ensuing years, particularly considering that the RSS-BJP appears likely to remain in power in India (probably thanks, in part, to continued backing from its overseas support base) for quite some time to come. As Indian academic Pratap Bhanu Mehta notes, Hindutva has become “a global ideology of hate and asserting cultural dominance.” Thus, he warns, “It is bizarre to think you can have this much dissemination of hate without it having violent political consequences. Now that inhibitions have been broken, brace for more conflict.”

It is well past time that the American public — especially the nation’s elected officials, from city to state to federal level — wake up not only to the threat that the Hindutva movement poses to the citizens of India but even to those living abroad who would dare to oppose it. Successful resistance like that seen in New Jersey with Ritambhara, the bulldozer, and one small political party chapter rising up must be applauded and replicated throughout the US — as must be the victory over the HSS-USA witnessed in California.

Can New Jersey remain the ground zero for such resistance?

For the sake of saving lives, action is urgently needed. International experts are sounding the alarm, warning that India is edging closer and closer — day by day — to the brink of genocide. Let it not be said that we live abroad stood silently by while that impending atrocity unfolded. 

Let it certainly not be said that we allowed violence in India to be supported by elements within our own countries — let alone bleed over to touch and harm anyone within our own nations.

Dr Truschke — who herself is a professor at New Jersey’s Rutgers University — says that Hindu nationalists in the US are contributing to the “alarming trend” of anti-Asian hate crimes in the country. “If we are to confront and begin to counter such hateful assaults, we must recognize Hindutva’s deep roots and long-standing harms in New Jersey,” she writes. “A hard truth is that while many New Jerseyans are only now learning the basics of Hindu nationalism, many of our state’s minority communities — especially South Asian Muslims — have lived for decades with the spectre of fear and intimidation imposed by purveyors of this intolerant ideology. It is time for that era to end, and for us to say together — Hindutva hate has no home in New Jersey.”

With any hope, New Jersey — that “Nagpur of America — will shine forth as one of the most gloriously victorious battlegrounds against the fascism of Hindutva.

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