The sunny Sunday morning in San Francisco happened to be St. Patrick’s Day. But the crowd of around 30 mostly middle-aged men didn’t unite by wearing green, but saffron — specifically, bright orange t-shirts branded with “NAMO AGAIN,” shorthand for Indian Prime Minister “Narendra Modi again.” Each shirt was emblazoned with a white lotus flower, symbolizing India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
They lined up at the edge of the lookout point’s parking lot and introduced themselves one by one, as the Golden Gate Bridge peaked above their heads. A fellow team member recorded their introductions on his cellphone. Hindi, Kannada, Telugu, Bengali, Tamil, and so on. They spoke in their native tongues but ended with a common Hindi refrain: Main bhi chowkidar. “I too am a watchman.”
The phrase is Modi’s campaign slogan in India’s general election this year, a multi-phase voting process that started April 11 and lasts until May 19. With campaign season underway, the members of the Northern California chapter of the Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP), the international arm of India’s Hindu nationalist party, had gathered to showcase their leanings.
Their priority: making sure their support for Modi reverberated from their karma bhoomi to their janma bhoomi. “You are born there, that is your janma bhoomi. Here, you are working, that is your karma bhoomi,” chapter coordinator Chandru Bhambhra told me, using Hindi to describe the land of birth and the land of work, respectively. “Both places are very important. So we should be nationalist to both,” he continued. His definition of a nationalist, he said, is one who puts the nation first.
Bhambhra echoed a sentiment many OFBJP members and other India-born Modi supporters later expressed to me, one that mixes nationalist fervor with Hindutva ideologies. Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva, advocates for Hinduism's history, culture, and nationhood. It’s a powerful mix, as Indian academic Suhas Palshikar wrote in an August 2018 essay: “While many people may not have any emotional connect with the idea of Hindutva, a majority certainly has emotional investment in the idea of nation.”
The crowd spent close to an hour recording and photographing themselves holding up posters of Modi and a wide white banner with the slogan “NRIs 4 Modi 2019” printed in blue. “NRI” stands for Non-Resident Indian. The Indian government uses the term to refer to Indians residing outside of India who hold Indian citizenship, but in parlance, it can sometimes be a catch-all title for any Indian outside the country — India-born, immigrant, foreign-born.
The Pew Research Center, analyzing the 2015 American Community Survey, reported that nearly four million Indians — both US citizens and non-citizens — live in the US. According to India’s Ministry of External Affairs, last December, over a million NRIs — Indian citizens eligible to vote in Indian elections — were a part of that group.
Thanks to a series of immigration waves beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the San Francisco Bay Area has long been a bastion for Indians. The culinary scenes of Bay Area desi destinations like Berkeley, Fremont, San Jose, and the greater South Bay are proof: Vik’s Chaat opened in 1989, Bombay Garden expanded in the late 1990s and early aughts, and the more recent food truck and home delivery meal services offer sabzi, paranthas, chaat, and more. Increasingly, more affluent cities like Cupertino and San Ramon are also becoming hubs. The 2010 census revealed that the total Indian population in those cities grew by 199% and 490%, respectively, from 2000 to 2010. Due in large part to the growth of the tech and IT sectors, the Indian diaspora was the fastest-growing Asian group in the Bay Area in the last census and is the fastest-growing major demographic in the US.
As Bay Area Indian immigrants have evolved, and India has undergone dramatic transformations, their politics to their homeland have also naturally changed — at least, based on their discussions, actions, photos, and other messaging. The University of California Berkeley students who donned brown paper bags over their heads to protest then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s suspension of civil liberties during India’s Emergency in the 1970s are a distant memory from the techies boasting selfies in their NAMO shirts.
Though the Bay Area is also home to a number of Indians who are against Modi and his policies, the loudest voices are heard most — and, like Modi, they’re often nationalists.
“Bharat bharat mata ki!” one person shouted, as the group finished recording their introductions. “Jai!” came the immediate chorus to the nationalist slogan. They repeated the chant. “Bharat bharat mata ki! Jai!” “Hail Mother India!”
When the chanting ended, they organized themselves into their carpools and drove their Siennas, Odysseys, and Accords 25 minutes to the morning’s second landmark: San Francisco’s Union Square. They continued sloganeering, picture-taking, and video-making to post to their WhatsApp groups and social media accounts, and to send to their media contacts in India for hopeful publication. Nearby, a woman named Ana Victorson was selling matted illustrations underneath an oversized umbrella. She asked, “What’s a Modi?” She patted the comfort dog sitting on her lap as I explained that he was India’s prime minister. “Is he a good guy or a bad guy?”
It depends on who you ask, I responded. Modi came to victory five years ago with the promise of “acche din,” or good days, for India. Indians across the world hailed Gujarat, the state he governed from 2002 to 2014, as a model for development and growth for the nation.
But, though India’s economy has grown, a leaked official survey showed unemployment at a 40-year high. Analysts point to events like 2016’s demonetization, which rendered certain bills worthless overnight, as amplifiers of financial distress. And Modi’s reputation as a Hindu nationalist has made him a divisive figure among certain communities, particularly minorities and liberals, who argue that he has emboldened and legitimized right-wing activists and policies that contradict India’s commitment to pluralism and secularism. Although about 80% of Indians are Hindu, around 14% are Muslim, making India’s Muslim population its largest religious minority, at 190 million people. Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Christians, and Jews round out India’s other religious groups.
Under Modi, an aggressive push for Hindutva has emerged. Modi’s government has appointed Hindu nationalists to rewrite textbooks that glorify Hindu history. Governments have replaced cities and landmarks with Muslim names with Hindu-centric ones. State bans against the slaughter of cows and selling of beef have intensified.
Reports of “cow vigilantes” lynching people — mostly Muslims and Dalits — suspected of eating or butchering beef have also spiked since 2014. In nearly all the cases, police officials stalled investigations or were even complicit in the killings or cover-ups; several Hindu nationalist politicians, including BJP officials, defended the attacks. For many, Modi’s delay in responding to these attacks is reminiscent of his silence and the state’s complicity during the 2002 Gujarat riots, when over 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, died. Modi was acquitted of all charges.
Modi hasn’t condemned his close aides who employ polarizing jingoistic rhetoric. Nor has he repudiated the Hindu nationalists who expect him to erect a Hindu temple in Ayodhya, also the site of Babri Masjid, an ongoing flashpoint for Hindu-Muslim tension. In fact, the BJP has promised expeditious construction of the temple. Meanwhile, cross-border airstrikes with Pakistan after a terrorist attack in Indian-administered Kashmir this February, which killed 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers, warmed many Indians to Modi’s muscular demonstration of power.
That includes Indians abroad. Day-to-day, few NRIs in the Bay Area want to discuss Hindu aggression. Some insist the reports of religious violence in India are blown out of proportion by so-called liberal media; others say they are downright fabricated. These Indians are more interested in discussing India’s promise, and believe Modi just needs a second term to bring the acche din.
Khanderao Kand, a US citizen who calls Cupertino home, responded to Victorson’s inquiry about Modi without pause. “He’s a good administrator, good for prosperity of India, development of India,” he told her. “And now a lot of people consider India with respect. We go outside, we feel proud.”
Indian citizens, regardless of where they reside, must return to the Indian constituency where they’re registered in order to vote. In August 2018, India’s lower house of parliament passed a bill to allow NRIs to vote by proxy, but it’s largely considered too big of a logistical challenge to take seriously.
The US Indian diaspora is a distinct population. In their book The Other One Percent: Indians in America, US-based academics Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur, and Nirvikar Singh contend that most Indians in the US have been “triply selected.” They’ve been able to navigate a hierarchical education system in India that privileged caste and class, as well as an exam and education-financing system that further narrowed who might be eligible for emigration. In the US, where 75% of all H-1B professional visas are granted to Indians, Indians have been able to navigate an immigration system that favors high-skilled labor.
Indians are the richest minority group in the US. Many regularly travel to India and maintain strong networks, properties, and investments in the country — they also actively consume Indian content and maintain pride in their culture while away from India. This fuels an understanding that the diaspora’s impact during Indian election season is less about being a vote bank, and more about its money and influence.
Rohit Chopra, an associate professor of communications at Santa Clara University, who has studied and written about the intersection of Hindu nationalism and technology, says wealthy Indians are more politically valuable in India than others, despite the Indian community’s complex history in America. “It’s not the cab driver in New York, right? It's not the undocumented migrant or the asylum seeker. It’s the software programmer in Silicon Valley,” he said. “Because they have some money. And they also donate to a number of Hindu right causes.”
The US Indian population’s distinction also extends to Indians’ varying citizenship statuses — and sometimes contradictory political viewpoints on India and the United States. Indians in the US are US citizens, visa holders, undocumented, American-born, Indian-born, and might also trace their roots to other countries. In the Bay Area, the stereotypical Indian might be a software engineer on an H-1B visa, but she may be paying more attention to who will win the Democratic primary than to who’s campaigning in her home constituency in India.
But Indians in the US, who are increasingly recent arrivals, have also nurtured their relationship with politics in a different context. “These are people who really grew up in India, and their political identities were formed in India,” said Chakravorty, a professor at Temple University. “Many of them probably carry on their political identities that were formed in India.”
Though there is an awareness of nuance within the diaspora, the absence of solid data opens the door to those who are quick to label its nationalism. But Indians do recognize each other’s linguistic, regional, and ideological distinctions, Chakravorty pointed out, even if they appear to be a single community to non-Indians. “There isn’t any single thread running through the whole country [of India],” he told me. “So I am doubtful that there is a single Indian nationalism in the diaspora over here.”
Still, many Indians maintain strong convictions about India, just as members of other diaspora groups do for their home countries. Long-distance nationalism, according to Nina Glick Schiller, a professor emeritus at the University of Manchester who has studied the phenomenon, spans generations but hinges on a few specific factors. “This is a sentiment or an interest that rises and falls in relation to the political situation in the country of settlement, including degree of racialization, the strength and possibilities in the homeland country, and the ways in which the political parties in both places get engaged in these transnational processes,” she said.
As Dr. Bharat Barai, Modi’s confidant and an organizer of the diaspora’s 2014 Madison Square Garden celebration for Modi, told me when I was reporting on the diaspora’s reaction to Modi’s 2014 win, if Indians in the US had been allowed to vote in 2014, Modi would have won with an 85-90% mandate.
Chandru Bhambhra has been a fan of the BJP since he was a child. Born and brought up in Mumbai, he began participating in party activities at the age of nine, when the BJP was still known as the Bharatiya Jana Sangh Party. His father was involved, and Bhambhra got to know fellow party members who would visit his home.
A few years after Bhambhra moved to Fremont in 1989, he joined the OFBJP. Lal Krishna Advani, then president of the BJP, had launched the OFBJP in 1992 to “correct the picture of the BJP and India” among lawmakers, think tanks, and the broader American community, Adapa Prasad, the national vice president of the OFBJP, told me. It was the first Indian political party to leverage the diaspora in such a campaign, “because there are certain organizations, agencies who want to picture and paint BJP as some kind of extremist party...or extreme right wing,” Prasad explained.
By 1993, Mukund Modi, then the president of the OFBJP, was speaking on panels on behalf of Hindu nationalists. Pradeep Sreekanthan, an advertising manager, wrote about one at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology headlined, “India: One year after the demolition of the Babri Masjid,” for The Tech, a campus newspaper. The discussion took place on the anniversary of the 1992 razing of Babri mosque in Ayodhya by Hindu hardliners, who believed the land it stood upon was the birthplace of the Lord Ram and therefore belonged to Hindus.
The panel discussed why Hindu nationalism was sweeping India and replacing the civic nationalism that had been rooted in secularism. Alongside Modi, economist and philosopher Amartya Sen and then New York Times correspondent Sanjay Hazarika “presented the views of the secularists,” Sreekanthan wrote. The late political scientist Myron Weiner moderated the panel. Weiner offered his view that the proponents of Hindutva, including the BJP, were “clearly nationalists, and not fundamentalists,” tapping into a distinction that remains blurry over 25 years later.
In the world of the OFBJP, members may discuss politics in India or shared ideologies among themselves, Bhambhra told me. Their public activities and events — whether large meetups with songs and speeches, rituals over fire, protests, car rallies, tea parties, or “phone-a-thons” to rally those in India — typically take place in their home communities, and are meant to have implications in India. Today, the OFBJP also occasionally hosts panels on Capitol Hill and works with lawmakers to promote their vision of positive US-India relations. While India’s Congress Party also has an international presence, its international membership is miniscule compared to the OFBJP, Prasad said.
The OFBJP, which started with roughly 50 founding friends in New York, now has approximately 5,000 members paying dues across the US and is active in 32 countries. Of the group’s 18 American chapters, its northern California chapter, which spans Bakersfield in central California to the tip of the state’s border with Oregon, is the third largest. New York-New Jersey’s chapter, the largest, has over a third of the group’s total membership, whereas northern California has around 400 to 500 members, Prasad told me.
The vast majority of those members in northern California live within a 60 mile radius of Fremont, California, Bhambhra told me. It’s the city he still calls home.
A few hours after the OFBJP rally ended, I met Bhambhra again at a strip mall in Fremont that included a tea house, a dumpling restaurant, and a banquet hall befitting a proper Indian wedding. It was at the banquet hall that US Representative Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic primary candidate for the 2020 US election, was hosting a town hall, and where Bhambhra told me he would be.
He wore a smart sports coat over his orange NAMO shirt and a round, gold-rimmed pin with a saffron lotus in its center affixed to his lapel. A few other OFBJP members from the morning’s rally were also present. The demographics of the town hall attendees reflected the demographics of Fremont, which is to say that there were many Asians, including South Asians, in the half-filled hall. Gabbard has obtained 44% of all campaign contributions from the Indian-American community, about $237,300. Nearly half of her Indian-American donations were from California. This number doesn’t include Indian citizens — foreign nationals cannot donate to American political campaigns.
Gabbard is a longtime supporter of Modi, which some people theorize has helped her gain traction among Hindu Indian-Americans who support him. A January 2019 article connected the Indians who support Hindu nationalist politics in India to those who have donated to her campaign. Gabbard later said questions about her commitment to her country is a double-standard non-Hindu leaders don’t face, and has called the connection a “false narrative of intrigue.”
Bhambhra seemed to know many at the town hall. A handshake here, a head nod or a prayer gesture there. Bhambhra has known Gabbard since 2012, the year she was elected as the first Hindu in Congress, and began cultivating more connections within the Indian and Hindu communities in the US. But he is not especially close to her, he told me. He was at the event to support his friends who support her, and because he is a known community leader in the city.
From 2013 to 2015, before Bhambhra became the chapter coordinator for the OFBJP, he served as the Bay Area’s coordinator for the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, or HSS. The HSS was founded in 1989 as an American organization based upon the “guiding force,” as Prasad put it, of India’s RSS, or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. While the RSS is known as a paramilitary Hindu nationalist organization that governs the BJP, HSS frames itself as a nonpartisan social and cultural nonprofit instilling Hindu culture and values to children and adults. Like its Indian counterpart, it employs volunteers and hosts meetings called shakhas. Over half of HSS’s listed California shakhas are in the Bay Area.
Before Gabbard entered the town hall, two suited students from San Ramon took the stage. They spoke of Gabbard’s support of their campaign to better represent Hinduism in California middle school textbooks, a controversial debate Hindu activists have championed in order to curb anti-Hindu bigotry. Critics argue their goals parallel Hindu nationalist efforts in India to rewrite history.
During the Q&A of the town hall, a young man posed a question to Gabbard that also hinged on interpreting Hindu nationalism.
“There has been a mischaracterization of individuals and groups, like Narendra Modi and the BJP party in India, as right-wing Hindu nationalists due to media bias and false reporting in English Indian media and under-researched American news articles,” the young man spoke into a microphone. “Your association with groups like this has lead to the extension of a” — he paused slightly — “false Hindu nationalist title to you. How do you intend on educating voters about this issue when there is such a shallow understanding of Indian politics in much of the United States?”
The crowd erupted in loud cheers of approval. Gabbard maintained a smile. “I think it’s important first and foremost to increase engagement with American politics, right here at home,” she said. She cast her eyes downward, admitting she needed to search for the right words to answer further. It wasn’t long before she knew what to say.
“These claims, as you said, of Hindu nationalism are Hinduphobic attacks levied by people who are trying to weaponize my religion against me.”
After the town hall wrapped up, I asked Bhambhra what he thought of those who distance themselves from the “nationalist” label. He frowned at the question.
“I don’t understand, why do they do that? Why do they try to keep away from nationalist?” he asked. “Nationalist is the best thing. America also, we are here. We are eating here. We are staying here, living here...So, it is our country.”
“Right,” I responded.
“And we should not do anything to this country.”
“That’s called nationalist."
Under India’s Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, political parties cannot accept money from “foreign sources.” But Indian citizens living abroad occupy a gray area, said Jagdeep Chhokar, the founder of the Association for Democratic Reforms, a New Delhi-based election watchdog group. Though there is a risk of being questioned since their money is earned overseas, Chhokar told me, “under the law, an Indian citizen can donate money to political parties.” What matters more is citizenship over country of residence.
And it’s widely assumed that Indians abroad — whether they are Indian citizens or not — donate money to political causes in India. They do so both knowingly and unknowingly, often through less explicit means and informal affiliations, such as sending remittances to family members, using electoral bonds, or donating to NGOs or charities managed by the broader constellation of Hindu nationalist groups that would support the BJP during election season.
To what extent and influence financial contributions take place, however, is still questionable, even if the overall mood suggests support for Modi and the BJP.
“I cannot say with authority that the BJP is funded by the diaspora of the US and UK because I cannot prove it,” said Ingrid Therwath, a political scientist and journalist who has studied Indian diaspora networks, adding that the majority of Indians in North America and Europe are generally middle to upper class, high caste Hindus whose politics would find a home with the BJP. “Because election funding, in practice, is very opaque. But everybody would agree the BJP receives more funds from the UK and US than any other political group.”
Indians don’t necessarily deny this claim. During the 2014 election, the NRIs who traveled to India to campaign and vote were proud to be known as BJP supporters. They received both Indian and international media attention, including headlines proclaiming them the BJP’s biggest donors. Media has also caught on to their long-distance campaigning for this year’s election. Their political support, whether financial or non-financial, isn’t hindered by the fact that they’re foreign residents. Their investment to what’s happening in India is unquestioned, especially when they can effectively recreate a sense of India in a place like the Bay Area.
That’s why the idea of a nation emerging out of the Bay Area doesn’t always need to distinguish between their karma bhoomi and janma bhoomi. Although NRIs often frame their relationship to Indian politics as an emotional desire for India’s economic rise, it undoubtedly dovetails into what’s taking place in India.
In India, two strands of nationalism now operate simultaneously under the BJP, said Milan Vaishnav, a senior fellow and director of the South Asian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the lead author of a new report on religious nationalism and India’s future. The first is a Hindu nationalism which broadly believes Indian culture is Hindu culture, and can take extremist forms. The second is a nationalism underpinned by a strong sense of patriotism and a commitment to protecting India’s sovereign boundaries, which has also included a controversial bill to make religion a requirement for refugee citizenship, similar to the way Israel is a country for Jewish citizens.
“In the national theater of BJP politics, the BJP has chosen the latter,” Vaishnav said, adding that it’s a more sanitized version of nationalism that puts fewer people off. But the reason people still worry about it, he said, is that “it’s just a stone's throw away from saying a good Hindu equals a good national...Eventually these two strands, one is going to lead to another.”
About a half hour south of Fremont later that afternoon, off of a quiet road in Cupertino, a handwritten sign outside a nondescript suburban office complex advertised yet another election-related event: “CHAI PE CHARCHA,” a discussion over chai. The gathering is named for Modi’s personal history as the son of a tea seller. Three arrows ↑ ↑ ↑ underneath the words “INSIDE [UPSTAIRS]” told attendees where to go.
Upstairs, about 40 people sat at long tables in a room with low ceilings and navy blue walls. By their personal introductions, they mostly hailed from the South Bay Area and the Peninsula, areas home to many tech companies and their workers. Many had arrived from India in recent years and were on professional visas. But at least one person, a woman named Rakhi Singh wearing a navy blue Tulsi Gabbard volunteer shirt, whom I had also seen at the earlier town hall, was born and brought up in the US. She told me she was from Houston.
“I want to get the feel for how I can contribute,” one man explained during the introduction. Most people echoed his views; these were Modi supporters, if not BJP fans.
Over chai and samosas, a few men led a Powerpoint presentation outlining how they could do just that. Since most people would not be able to go back to India to campaign and vote, these chai pe charcha organizers, who did not respond to my requests for follow-up interviews, encouraged the use of digital means to engage their friends and neighbors to vote for the BJP. Spending just 15 to 30 minutes broadcasting messages on WhatsApp, retweeting messages of the day on Twitter (Twitter highlights the tweets with the most engagement at the top of the platform, they explained), sharing public Facebook posts, and making one to two personal calls a day could go a long way, they insisted. “Don’t yell at people and don’t spam!” the organizers warned. That includes “no capital letters on Twitter,” they said with a knowing grin. The audience chuckled.
One person, Nihar Sashittal, introduced “India’s Toilet Revolution,” a YouTube video he had created under a channel called “PerspecTV” to highlight Modi’s Swachh Bharat Mission to eliminate open defecation. Sashittal encouraged the crowd to create similar citizen journalism videos highlighting Modi’s achievements. That would be part of a systematic contribution the discussion leaders categorized as “josh on high” — Hinglish for “high on energy.”
Meanwhile, a man in a long orange kurta who bore a trim mustache that curled up at the ends, Shobhit Gupta, spoke of the positive changes he had seen in his home constituency of Varanasi, including mud homes that were now concrete homes. Gupta had moved to the US seven years ago, and had taken a sabbatical from his job in Silicon Valley to work for the BJP office in Delhi during election season. He was at the chai pe charcha to offer updates from India during his brief visit back in the Bay Area.
One person who didn’t immediately nod along with the organizers’ strategies was a man named Ram Vanpati. Vanpati is a green card holder from Sunnyvale, meaning he has permanent residency in the US but is still an Indian citizen. He didn’t know any of the organizers personally; he assumed they obtained his contact information from HSS to send him a direct email, he later told me, because the non-profit organization generally seems to support the BJP.
Vanpati was last involved with HSS to celebrate Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley in 2015, which had culminated in a stadium rally in San Jose attracting close to 18,000 people. At the event, which also attracted anti-Modi protests, Modi told the audience, in Hindi, that he thought of India’s “brain drain” as more of a “brain gain.” Attending that event was the only other time he had actively engaged in Indian politics while home in the US, Vanpati told me.
Under US law, any organization registered as a 501c(3) must remain non-partisan, whether in public elections in the United States or internationally. When I emailed HSS for comment on its affiliations, spokesperson Vikas Deshpande responded by offering a link to HSS’s website. He did not respond to a follow-up request about any political organizing HSS might engage in, whether in the US or India.
Reflecting on the American stadiums full of screaming supporters for Modi, Vanpati remarked that Modi’s focus on the diaspora is more about perception than reality.
“It’s just like some kind of propaganda,” he said. “And he would show this support to people inside India, and tell them… ‘See, those who are living outside of India, they’re supporting me. Why not you guys?”
I asked Vanpati his thoughts on the reports of mob lynchings and religious intolerance under the current regime. He seemed puzzled; he hadn’t come across those reports in the news he consumes on Facebook, YouTube, and the Indian news apps on his phone, he said.
At the end of the meeting, a man who wanted to identify himself only by his first name, Bhavin, noted that the meetup’s purpose was really about the “nationalist cause.”
I remarked how “nationalist” and “nationalism” seem to have different connotations depending on who uses it, and the way its current tensions are understood.
Bhavin shook his head. “That makes no difference,” he told me, adding that it was like the difference between what I know myself to be, and how others perceive me. He asked me what I thought of nationalism.
Many understandings flashed through my mind. I ultimately decided to offer a definition I knew would suffice for the moment, and was the most immediate one that popped into my mind: Chandru Bhambhra’s definition. “Nation first.”
At the sound of my words, Bhavin nodded in agreement.
Sonia Paul is a freelance journalist and audio producer from the San Francisco Bay Area, and a senior fellow with the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism.
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