Rihanna, Massive Protests, and How India’s Tensions Have Landed Stateside


An enormous protest in India has gained worldwide consideration following a Twitter spat between distinguished supporters of its demonstrators, which embrace pop icon Rihanna, and people backing the nation’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. The social media joust has underscored how voices outdoors India, together with these within the Indian-American diaspora, are shaping the talk over human rights in a rustic with a heightened sense of nationalism. 

The protests, largely led by farmers from the Sikh group and meant to pressure the repeal of recent agricultural legal guidelines handed by the Modi authorities that farmers say might destroy their livelihoods, are the biggest demonstrations in world historical past, with an estimated 250 million individuals.

And the farmers’ protests are solely the most recent in recent times to spotlight the worsening scenario of non secular minorities within the Hindu-majority nation. 

There are over 4 million folks of Indian descent within the U.S. and the biggest inhabitants is right here within the New York Metropolis area. 

Modi convincingly gained re-election within the Hindu-majority nation in 2019, however final yr the U.S. Fee on Worldwide Non secular Freedom warned of the potential for “widespread disenfranchisement of Indian Muslims,” who symbolize 15% of India’s inhabitants. Though almost 60% of Indian People view Modi favorably, in keeping with a current survey by two teachers, an more and more vocal left flank has been asserting itself.

Final yr, that translated into protests in New York and 30 different cities, towards a controversial legislation in India that might lead to thousands and thousands of Indian Muslims being “stripped of their citizenship rights.”

Now, Suchitra Vijayan, a New York-based human rights lawyer, stated, “Everyone’s been silenced.”

“Opposition is totally worn out,” Vijayan, creator of “Midnight’s Borders: A Individuals’s Historical past of Trendy India,” defined. “This contains a few of India’s most well-known thinkers, writers, legal professionals, students. So now we’re in an precise authoritarian regime the place everyone has been silenced.” 

Making issues worse for protesters is the Indian authorities’s censorship of the protests, the place they’ve cracked down on a lot of the information media, stopping protection of the farmers’ protests from going out to the world. 

Nevertheless it doesn’t imply that the plight of farmers hasn’t attracted consideration from distinguished figures that embrace environmentalist Greta Thunberg and pop famous person Rihanna. On Tuesday, the songstress—who has 101 million followers on Twitter—tweeted, “Why aren’t we speaking about this?” The tweet had included a CNN article that highlighted India reducing web service close to New Dehli as protesters clashed with police.    

Her tweet served as a workaround to India’s try at muffling voices in assist of the farmer’s protest. It was in the end retweeted greater than 300,000 instances and preferred greater than 892,000 instances. 

That was adopted by a tweet from Thunberg and one other by Meena Harris, the niece of Vice President Kamala Harris. 

The criticism drew swift backlash from Indian authorities officers together with a slew of Bollywood stars and distinguished cricket gamers in a seemingly coordinated response. India’s Minister of Dwelling Affairs, Amit Shah, barked again on Twitter, “no propaganda can deter India’s unity,” and effigies of Rihanna, Thunberg, and Harris were burnt on the streets of New Delhi. All of which introduced much more consideration to the problem.

South Asian People and Muslims have known as upon the Biden administration, together with the U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, to strictly vet appointees and get rid of any candidates with ties to Modi or teams that assist him.

“As India plunges additional into authoritarian rule, the necessity for the American authorities to talk out towards human rights violations within the nation—and take steps to counteract it—will solely develop extra stark,” reads an open letter from a progressive coalition that features the Indian American Muslim Council, Dalit Solidarity Discussion board within the U.S. and College students In opposition to Hindutva Ideology.

“We do not need to wait till it is too late, and someone very senior within the Tony Blinken administration occurs to be pal of Modi,” stated Raju Rajagopal, a member of Hindus for Human Rights, a progressive group that co-signed the letter. “So we now have to take preventive motion in placing it on the desk.”

The coalition has taken goal at particular people, together with Amit Jani, a New Jersey resident whose household is near Modi and who served as Nationwide Asian American Pacific Islander Director on the Biden marketing campaign. One other goal has been Sonal Shah, an economist and improvement knowledgeable who discovered herself on the middle of an identical controversy in 2008, after becoming a member of the transition workforce for President Barack Obama. 

“Shah’s mother and father, Ramesh and Kokila, not solely work as volunteers for these outfits, however in addition they held positions of authority in them,” learn an article by educational Vijay Prashad, within the leftist publication Counterpunch. “Their daughter was not far behind. She was an lively member of the VHPA, the U.S. department of probably the most virulently fascistic outfit inside India.”

In 2018, the CIA named the VHP (Vishva Hindu Parishad), the mom group of the VHPA (Vishva Hindu Parishad of American), a spiritual militant outfit. 

In an interview this week, Shah neither embraced nor distanced herself from the group and its work. She famous that she’d helped the VHP fundraise for victims of a 2001 earthquake in India and steered she has not been related to the group since. Within the early days of the Obama administration, she stated senior officers like John Podesta and Denis McDonough weren’t involved by the allegations.

“They kind of laughed,” she recalled in an interview with Gothamist. “As a result of they thought it was dumb and stated, ‘do not waste your time on that stuff. We have got different work to do.’”

On the time, she issued an announcement, saying “My private politics has nothing in frequent with views espoused by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or any such organisation,” including, “I’ve all the time condemned any politics of division, of ethnic or non secular hatred, of violence and intimidation as a political instrument.”

Quickly thereafter, Shah was appointed the primary director of the Obama administration’s newly launched Workplace of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.

Final yr, Shah served on the Pete Buttigieg presidential marketing campaign. She additionally labored on the congressional marketing campaign of Qasim Rashid, a distinguished Pakistani- and Muslim-American in Virginia. 

“Her not being a Muslim, [and yet] being so diligent and proactive in calling out Islamophobia by working with an American Muslim working for Congress, I believe that motion exhibits simply how real she is,” Rashid stated in an interview.

An official within the Biden White Home stated there isn’t a coverage to impose a litmus take a look at on Indian-American appointees. However the rumor that there’s one has run rampant by the Indian information media, since earlier than Inauguration Day, and has generated anger from supporters of Modi. 

Parag Mehta, a former Obama administration official who served as Chief of Employees to Surgeon Basic Vivek Murthy, stated it’s not simply Hindus who’re beneath scrutiny from progressives however Muslims who’re opposed by Hindu teams aligned with Modi.

This amounted to a “guilt by affiliation,” he argued, “not due to a specific place that they’ve taken, however due to the household they arrive from or due to the connections of their household.”

Dozens of people carrying yellow flags and holding signs saying "Support Farmers" march on Fifth Avenue


Protesters lead a chant whereas gathering on Fifth Avenue outdoors the Consulate Basic of India, within the Manhattan borough of New York on January 26, 2021

John Minchillo/AP/Shutterstock

The more and more poisonous ambiance has additionally affected folks working for public workplace. 

An Indian-American Democrat, Sri Preston Kulkarni, simply ran for Congress in suburban Houston. He outraised his Republican opponent Troy Nehls by a ratio of three to 1. However his donations included hundreds of {dollars} from individuals who strongly assist Modi and are lively in distinguished organizations aligned with the Modi authorities, such because the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

When that got here to mild, sure Muslim teams and South Asians withdrew their assist for Kulkarni. Kulkarni in the end misplaced to Nehls, a Republican who voted towards certifying the electoral faculty vote for President Joe Biden. 

The episode was irritating for Hindu leaders who backed Kulkarni.

“The uncompromising nature of those assaults makes it such that if a Muslim group member tried to lift cash from Hindu group members, would they be ostracized for even reaching out to the Hindu group?” requested Rishi Bhutada, who helped set up the “Howdy, Modi!” celebration in Houston in 2019 and whose household supported Kulkarni.

Bhutada’s household and different Hindu leaders additionally endorsed a Muslim candidate for Metropolis Council in Sugarland, a serious South Asian enclave outdoors Houston. For this, they have been excoriated by different Hindus. Considered one of them argued, on a personal e mail thread obtained by Gothamist, “Let’s work to empower Hindus and Hindus solely,” and that it was improper to “appease Mullas,” a slur referring to Muslims.

Bhutada argued that current occasions would solely additional exacerbate tensions between the 2 communities.

“There needs to be a manner for our communities to have the ability to work collectively realizing that we’ll have some variations on some international coverage points, however recognizing within the home coverage realm that our points are very a lot aligned.”

In New York Metropolis lower than two weeks in the past, supporters of the farmers in India protested outdoors the Indian Consulate. 

On Wednesday, the U.S. State Division issued an announcement calling for dialogue between the federal government and farmers, and noting that peaceable protests are a “hallmark of any thriving democracy.”

Arun Venugopal stories for the Race & Justice Unit at Gothamist/WNYC.