Defending Modi, Indian Americans work to educate Americans and their media

LOS ANGELES (RNS) — Five Indian American Angelenos gathered at the request of a reporter earlier this year at a family dentistry office in Bellflower, a Los Angeles suburb, all of them members of Hindu American and Indian American organizations and all committed to supporting the political agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party, headed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Modi’s broad popularity in India, and the polarization that comes with it, has already spilled over into parts of the diaspora. The Indian prime minister, who rose to power on the promise to make India a Hindu nation, has pushed an ideology that makes the faith central to the Indian identity. Simultaneously, with legislation such as the recently implemented Citizenship Amendment Act, he has attempted to sideline Muslims and other religious minorities.

But as Modi marches toward a third term as prime minister this month, these Angelenos were concerned that charges of Hindu nationalism — some say Hindu supremacy — will impede India’s progress as a country. They are working to convince the American media to get the story right.

“When India was weak, there was no issue,” said Neeraj Kashalkar, an advocate with the Overseas Friends of BJP. “India is becoming a superpower, it is getting into technology, it is getting economically powerful, it is getting politically powerful and it has influence in the region. And I think there is a group of people here in America … who are still in a Cold War mentality.”

Neeraj Kashalkar, from left, Kamlesh Chauhan, Geeta Sikand and Rangaesh Gadasalli pose together in Los Angeles. Gaurav Bhargava is not pictured. (Photo by Jules Feeney)

There seemed to be consensus among the five that the problems in India are the result not of Modi’s policies, but with fears that India is becoming a superpower. While the nation is on the rise, said Gaurav Bhargava, a businessman who works with the United Indian American Association, the opposition is thinking, “How do you break their legs?”

To combat misperceptions, some have begun educating their Los Angeles neighbors on their own. Kashalkar helps organize weekly Zoom meetings to discuss India’s future with Americans. Geeta Sikand, a registered dietitian nutritionist originally from New Delhi and a communications director for Americans 4 Hindus, a pro-Hindu super PAC, said she’s submitted at least 35 “rebuttals” to the Los Angeles Times, none of which have been published. 

“They’ve all been publishing these false narratives over the last few years,” said Sikand, accusing the paper of Hinduphobia.

She took particular issue with the media’s coverage of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, in northeastern India, where Modi delivered on a long-standing promise by consecrating a massive, ornate temple complex on the former site of a 16th-century mosque.

“What the media didn’t tell is that 500 years before, the Muslim invaders demolished a large Hindu temple of Lord Ram,” Sikand said. “It comes across as a journalistic malpractice.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives to lead the opening of a temple dedicated to Hinduism’s Lord Ram in Ayodhya, India, Monday, Jan. 22, 2024. The magnificent temple lies at the site of a 16th-century mosque that was destroyed by a Hindu mob in December 1992, sparking massive Hindu-Muslim violence. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives to lead the opening of a temple dedicated to Hinduism’s Lord Ram in Ayodhya, India, Jan. 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)

These Angelenos are not alone in their efforts to defend the Modi regime. National organizations such as the Coalition of Hindus of North America campaign for schools and local government to recognize anti-Hindu discrimination in the United States, while arguing, in such videos as “Busting Myths About Oppression of Indian Muslim Minority,” that India treats its Muslim and Christian minorities well.

Sikand cited a 2021 Pew Research Center study that found Indians across all religious backgrounds “overwhelmingly say they are very free to practice their faiths.”

Rangaesh Gadasalli, a former vice president of the Overseas Friends of BJP’s Los Angeles chapter, from Mysore, India, said that India is a religious country that respects all religions, making a distinction between mere “tolerance” and actual respect.

For this reason, the Modi supporters said that “nationalist” is an inaccurate description for Modi’s politics. “This is a very offensive label,” Sikand said. “If you look at Wikipedia, it says very negative things about ‘nationalist.’ It means they’re racist, they’re bigots.”

The phrase “Hindu nationalist” struck an even deeper nerve. “That’s like telling us a four letter word,” said Sikand, who added,“The Hindu ethos is automatically secular. We feel that all religions are paths to the same goal to achieve nirvana or salvation.”

Heidi Beirich, an expert on far-right movements in the United States and abroad, said complaints about media depictions of Modi are politically driven. “What this comes down to is they don’t like more accurate descriptions of Modi’s regime. They want the ‘Modi is the greatest thing since sliced bread’ narrative to be out there,” said Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism.

“It’s not the LA Times’ fault or The New York Times’ fault for bringing up Modi’s track record,” Beirich added. “It’s Modi’s fault.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, shows the indelible ink mark on his index finger after casting his vote during the third phase of general elections, in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shows the indelible ink mark on his index finger after casting his vote during the third phase of general elections, in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, May 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)

A U.S. State Department report the same year showed that 65% of Hindus and Muslims thought violence between religious groups was a problem in India.

“I find generally that supremacist movements will make those kinds of claims that ‘we love everybody,’ but it’s a front,” Beirich said. “People have a hard time accepting that they may have bought into an ideology that demonizes and harms people.” 

Kashalkar, born in Pune, India, has worked in Southern California for 24 years and for most of that time has been politically active in the Hindu community. Besides serving as Overseas Friends of BJP’s Maharashtra state representative, he is director and secretary for the American Hindu Federation.

His weekly Zoom sessions bring Indian Americans together to hear speakers from India. Each meeting is held in one of the country’s more than two dozen languages.

He said that Indian Americans can have a better sense of Indian politics than Indians themselves. “When you’re in the box, you don’t know what is going on,” Kashalkar said. “But as Indian Americans stay away from India for many years, we see the development, we see where it is going, where it is moving.”

Kashalkar also hosts Zoom meetings with constituents in India, making nearly 100 calls in a matter of weeks, during which his organization gleans information about the day-to-day political happenings directly from Indian voters.

He relays this information to the media in California. “What we are trying to do is for the local media and also the local people,” Kashalkar said.

Gadasalli, who said he’s active in too many pro-India and pro-U.S. organizations to count, said Western news organizations push “total nonsense” and “lies” about Modi, the culture and the Hindu religion.

Yet he implicitly admitted that the Indian media operates under its own strictures, offering advice for a forthcoming reporting trip to India: Don’t write anything that can be perceived as anti-Hindu.

“Love everybody, respect everybody, but do not hate anybody, that is very, very bad,” he said. The exception was “jihadis, terrorists, yes, we can hate them because they don’t have mercy, they kill everybody,” Gadasalli said.

Previous ArticleNext Article