HONOLULU, HI, USA—A month after a coalition called on U.S. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) to publicly disassociate from the upcoming World Hindu Congress (WHC) in Chicago, she has released a statement calling the WHC a “partisan Indian political event.”
The WHC 2018 has been generating controversy for months, especially after it announced that Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat will be the keynote speaker. The RSS is implicated by the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, and Human Rights Watch as an instigator of violence against Indian minorities. Provoking further controversy is that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which was declared a “religious militant organization” by the 2018 CIA World Factbook, is organizing the Chicago conference.
In a November 2017 video, Gabbard announced, “I am so honored to be joining you as the chair of the upcoming 2018 World Hindu Congress.” A September 4, 2018 article published by The Sunday Guardian, however, quotes a statement attributed to Gabbard’s office which says, “Rep. Tulsi Gabbard withdrew from her participation in that event over four months ago on 26 April 2018 when it became apparent that the event was going to be a partisan political event.” The article also features a letter from Gabbard to Abhaya Asthana, president of VHP-America, stating, “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.”
On August 8, a coalition of 11 South Asian diaspora groups had issued a letter detailing “Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s association with extreme right wing hate groups in India & the U.S.” The letter noted, “VHP-A is the American arm of the nefarious Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an organization whose role in various incidents of communal violence in India is very well documented.” The signatories demanded that Gabbard not attend the WHC and issue a public statement to the effect.
Controversy surrounding the WHC has increased over the past week. On August 24, a scheduled WHC 2018 speaker named Sankrant Sanu sparked outrage after calling critics of the RSS “cockroaches” and “insects.” On August 30, the Alliance for Justice and Accountability (AJA), which describes itself as “an umbrella organization of progressive groups across the United States,” issued a statement calling for a boycott of WHC 2018. On September 3, WHC founder Swami Vigyananand was revealed as a supporter of the VHP’s “trishul distribution” program who claims that carrying the short-handled trident trains the mind to kill.
Responding to Gabbard’s statement, Organization for Minorities of India (OFMI) spokesperson Arvin Valmuci remarks, “Other elected officials scheduled to speak at the World Hindu Congress should take note. Tulsi Gabbard is the first Hindu to serve in the U.S. Congress, and she’s not of Indian origin, yet our hard work to influence her has finally resulted in her publicly acknowledging that the WHC is not a benign religious event but rather a platform for promoting supremacist Hindutva ideology.”
Valmuci urges other elected officials to also drop out. “We are especially calling on U.S. Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, State Representative Niraj Antani of Ohio, and State Senator Jay Chaudhuri of North Carolina to follow Gabbard’s example, refuse to attend the WHC, and issue public statements that they will not attend,” says Valmuci. “Any elected official who attends WHC will forever link their reputation to support for the RSS and VHP and, implicitly, support for their violence against minorities.”
Others, however, find little to praise in Gabbard’s statement. Pieter Friedrich, an analyst of South Asian affairs, comments, “This is too little and too late from Tulsi Gabbard. 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.”
Friedrich thinks he knows why the Hawai’ian representative was reluctant to publicly announce her resignation. “Gabbard’s political career exists because of financing and promotion provided by U.S.-based affiliates of the RSS and VHP. She has spent the past five years serving as the handmaiden of Hindutva — appearing at events organized by Overseas Friends of the BJP, speaking at the RSS-organized India Ideas Conclave in Goa, inviting former RSS spokesperson and current BJP spokesperson Ram Madhav to her wedding, speaking at events organized by the RSS’s overseas branch, the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, and using her position as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to influence policy in favor of violent extremists in India who stage pogroms.” He concludes, “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.”