HOUSTON, TX, USA—As U.S. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) joined the first presidential forum of the 2020 election, she was protested for the second time in a month by demonstrators disturbed by her ties to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary that founded India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“Tulsi, Mascot of India’s KKK,” declared signs held by approximately 30 demonstrators outside the She the People forum hosted on the campus of Southern Texas University (TSU) in Houston, Texas. The diverse group included Indian-Americans from Buddhist, Muslim, and Sikh backgrounds, as well as African-Americans. Gabbard, one of eight presidential candidates participating in the forum, was the only one protested.
TSU is the largest historically black university in Texas, and the forum focused on issues affecting women of color. “Women of color are expecting to be represented here today,” said demonstrator Jada Bernard. “But the only thing that Tulsi Gabbard represents is the people that are financially backing her, which is the RSS. Also known as the KKK of India, the RSS is responsible for violating and slaughtering India’s women of color.”
The RSS is accused of engaging in organized violence against India’s religious minorities as well as Dalits (those historically considered as Untouchables within the caste system). Notably, it is linked to a 2008 pogrom against Christians in Odisha and a 2002 pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat. The United Nations has called the RSS an “ultranationalist” group that promotes “Hindu extremism,” and the U.S. State Department reports that it is “implicated in acts of violence and discrimination against Christians and Muslims.”
Other candidates attending the She the People forum included Senator Cory Booker, Former Secretary Julián Castro, Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Former Congressman Beto O’Rourke, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Senator Elizabeth Warren. The demonstration outside caught the attention of Harris at one point. “Tulsi, Tulsi’s Got to Go,” chanted demonstrators as the senator from California walked by.
Inside the forum, Gabbard was asked about how she would work to protect the civil rights of Muslims if elected president. “All of must stand up and condemn this hatred, and bigotry, and violence, whether it be based on religious reasons, or the color of your skin, or your ethnicity, or where you come from,” she said. “We have to speak with one voice to condemn this bigotry. To make it so it is not okay, whether it be a slur or, worse yet, an act of violence.”
“We had hoped that Tulsi Gabbard would prove to be the peace president that Americans are yearning for,” says Arvin Valmuci, a spokesperson for U.S.-based Organization for Minorities of India (OFMI). “But how can we trust that Tulsi stands for peace when she celebrates religious nationalists who commit acts of violence in India? She cannot sincerely condemn bigotry when she collaborates with American affiliates of RSS and BJP who organize her campaign financing. Just one of many examples is the BJP victory party Tulsi attended in 2014.”
In August 2014, Gabbard was the keynote speaker at a banquet in Atlanta, Georgia organized by the Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP) to celebrate the party’s victory in India. Other speakers at the banquet praised Gabbard for using her office to push a pro-BJP foreign policy and urged the audience to donate to her re-election campaign. Vijay Jolly, head of the OFBJP’s Foreign Affairs Cell, told her that “your victory later this year is a foregone conclusion.” She then wore a BJP-branded scarf while posing for pictures with Jolly.
At the Houston forum, Gabbard was asked about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. “I think Russia, what was done, as well as any other country that seeks to interfere in our democracy and in our elections, is unacceptable, and it has to be taken seriously for the threat that it provides,” she answered.
Bhajan Singh, who joined the demonstration in Houston, asks, “If we are investigating Russian interference in our elections, shouldn’t we also be concerned about an American politician who gets money in exchange for backing a fascist outfit like the BJP? Why didn’t Tulsi protest when leaders of a foreign political party came on to American soil and instructed people to give her campaign donations? Why was she praised for helping Modi become India’s Prime Minister?”
“The BJP just nominated a candidate for Parliament who is accused of organizing a deadly terrorist bombing in 2008,” stated a flyer distributed by demonstrators. “The executive of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, just had his campaign for re-election suspended by the Election Commission after he called Indian Muslims a ‘green virus.’ Last year, two BJP ministers joined a rally in Kashmir to support a gang accused of raping an eight-year-old girl. The BJP’s president is accused of ordering the assassination of a hitman he hired to assassinate a minister who was threatening to disclose proof that Narendra Modi of the BJP sanctioned a pogrom against Muslims in 2002 in Gujarat.”
“There are, unfortunately, a lot of bad people in the world,” said Gabbard while describing her foreign policy. As she spoke, an audience member (later identified as Californian civil rights attorney Zahra Billoo) called out, “You’re one of them.” As the controversial congresswoman concluded her remarks, another unidentified audience member called out, “What about the Sikhs in India?”
Gabbard previously faced protest at a May 30 town hall event in Los Angeles, California. At that event, around 25 demonstrators waved signs calling her “princess of the RSS” and distributed flyers asking why she has never made any statement acknowledging the suffering of India’s Christians, Dalits, Muslims, and Sikhs.