TROY, MI, USA—On November 6, the day after New York City-based newspaper India Abroad published the headline, “Michigan State House candidate’s writings assailed as anti-Christian, anti-Muslim,” Padma Kuppa was elected to the 41st district of Michigan’s House of Representatives with 1,147 out of 43,487 votes — a narrow margin of just 2.64 percent.
“Her writings reflect shades of Hindu nationalism and anti-Muslim and anti-Christian stance,” reported TwoCircles.net, a Massachusetts-based media outlet which focuses on issues affecting marginalized Indian communities such as Dalits, tribals, Muslims, and women. The article continued, “She is said to support Indian laws which criminalize people who change their religion without government permission…. Like all the Hindutva nationalists, she too believes that all Indians were once Hindus and now they need to come back to Hinduism.”
As a columnist and activist, Kuppa has been outspoken about Indian issues. In 2015, she stated, “Religious conversion to Islam and Christianity has long been a sensitive issue in India. This is especially true in recent times.” That same year, she argued, “Faced with aggressive conversion tactics, some Hindus may become intolerant or defensive.” In a 2012 article, she claimed, “India sought to defend against unethical tactics by passing its Anti-Fraudulent Conversion Laws.”
More commonly called “anti-conversion laws,” such legislation typically requires those desiring to change their religion to first obtain permission from local authorities. In 2014, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Heiner Bielefeldt said the laws place converts in the position of “exposing themselves and explaining the reasons [for their conversion] as if the State were in a position of being able to assess the genuineness of conversion.”
“Padma Kuppa manipulates her status as a minority in a free country, using rhetoric about religious pluralism and interfaith cooperation, to support tyrannizing minorities in India,” comments Arvin Valmuci, a spokesperson for Organization for Minorities of India (OFMI). “Would she suggest changing the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to allow for government regulation of religion? We are certain that Padma Kuppa would support passage of a national anti-conversion law in India, which has been suggested by members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party such as Vice President Venkaiah Naidu.”
Valmuci notes a 2015 article by Kuppa in which she praised Nepal’s newly-adopted constitution for implementing a national ban on conversion. “Because it seeks to ban religious conversion, it will likely draw challenges from religious freedom hawks everywhere,” wrote Kuppa. However, she stated, “Nepal’s draft constitution seeks to protect and nurture that energetic engagement of religious diversity, something inherent in the ethos of this mostly Hindu nation.”
“Support for laws criminalizing religious freedom is a key agenda item for Hindu nationalists whose political campaigns are premised on fear-mongering,” explains Pieter Friedrich, an analyst of South Asian affairs. “They claim that being an Indian means being a Hindu, and thus question the patriotism of non-Hindus, especially Christians and Muslims. They spread conspiracy theories claiming that aggressive minorities are an existential threat to the majority and tell voters that a safe and stable society requires declaring India as a Hindu nation. This poisonous rhetoric inevitably inspires some people to engage in militant action against minorities to protect a supposedly besieged Hindu society.”
Arul Kanagaraj, a Dalit activist from Michigan, remarks, “Conversion has historically provided a refuge to hundreds of thousands of Dalits and other marginalized communities in India who are seeking a path to social uplift. Many Dalits fled persecution in India to make their homes in the United States because we view it as a free country. Padma Kuppa’s support for the policies of Hindutva, which is Hindu supremacism, are of great concern to us considering her election as a representative of the people of Michigan.”
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) reported, “States with these laws have higher incidents of intimidation, harassment, and violence against religious minorities.” Odisha, which was the first Indian state to adopt an anti-conversion law, was the site of one of the most recent incidents of mass violence against Christians. In 2008, members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) — a group recently declared by the CIA as a “religious militant organization” — killed dozens of Christians, burning their churches and homes.
More recent violence has occurred in Uttar Pradesh (UP). India’s most populous state, it is currently ruled by BJP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu monk. A former Member of Parliament, Adityanath had in 2014 announced plans to introduce a national anti-conversion law. Describing conversion as an “anti-national act,” he stated, “An aggressive campaign is required for ghar wapsi [reconversion] of those Hindus who had converted to other religions in the past.” While UP does not currently have a state anti-conversion law, local authorities reportedly operate as though one is in place.
On April 7, 2017, for instance, police in the village of Dathauli invaded a worship service acting on a complaint by Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV), a group founded by Adityanath, that conversions were taking place. “Innocent and illiterate Hindus were being converted,” stated HYV leader Krishna Nandan, who surrounded the church with his followers until police promised to conduct an investigation.
On October 30, 2018, a mob of approximately 25 men invaded a multi-church meeting being hosted in the city of Agra to plan upcoming Christmas celebrations. The mob beat several pastors with hockey sticks as well as tore the clothes off women and dragged them by the hair. Local VHP leaders claimed responsibility.
“We got information about religious conversion and sent two karyakartas [workers] to the congregation,” said VHP Regional Vice President Sunil Parashar. “They tried to record the proceedings and report the matter to us but it got out of hand after they were spotted by the church-goers.” According to the local VHP Communications Chief, Ravi Dubey, “We were conducting inquiries into the church after they made contact with some poor people in several localities. They distributed medicines and textbooks to them. We cannot tolerate this as this is a clear ploy of conversion, which is why the fight took place.”
While police did arrest several of the attackers on various charges of assault, they also arrested seven pastors, charging them with “promoting enmity between different groups” and “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings.”
The VHP was founded by M.S. Golwalkar in 1964 while he was serving as Sarsanghchalak (Supreme Leader) of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist paramilitary. According to the RSS’s “Vision and Mission” statement, “A mechanism to reconvert all those who had been knowingly or unknowingly proselytized to alien faiths and are now desirous of coming back to the Hindu fold was needed. The VHP was founded in 1964 to fill this need.” The RSS further states, “It is this determination of the VHP that has instilled a spirit of righteous militancy in the Hindu society.”
The VHPA most recently courted controversy in September 2018 when it hosted the World Hindu Congress (WHC) in Chicago and invited as its keynote speaker RSS Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat, who has repeatedly called for India to be declared a Hindu nation.
Other speakers at the WHC included RSS Sarkaryavah (Joint General Secretary) Dattatreya Hosabale and Ved Nanda, Sanghchalak (President) of the North American branch of Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), which is the international wing of the RSS. Also speaking was Indian Vice President Naidu, who had in 2014 praised Odisha’s anti-conversion law and declared, “Let there be anti-conversion laws in all the states.”
On several occasions, Kuppa has worked as panelist and organizer for the annual Hindu Mandir Executives Conference, a project of VHP-America (VHPA). She has published articles with VHPA’s magazine, Vishwa Hindu, on more than one occasion.
“We are very disturbed by Representative-Elect Padma Kuppa’s support for government interference in the human right to freely change one’s religion,” says Balbir Singh Dhillon, president of West Sacramento Sikh Gurdwara. “Calls to criminalize freedom of religion are anti-American, anti-liberty, and anti-human. Kuppa’s writings aid and abet egregious, rampant, systematic, and ongoing violations of the human rights of India’s non-Hindu populations. It is very unfortunate that she has taken advantage of the American public’s lack of knowledge about the appalling human rights situation in India to obtain a position of power.”
As a member of Michigan’s House of Representatives, Kuppa will serve a two-year term and receive a $71,685 annual salary.