Money trail: Diaspora diplomacy’s financial whitewashing of Hindutva
Pieter Friedrich is a freelance journalist specializing in analysis of South Asian affairs. He is author of Saffron Fascists: India’s Hindu Nationalist Rulers and co-author of Captivating the Simple-Hearted: A Struggle for Human Dignity in the Indian Subcontinent.
With a meticulous reconstruction of the flow of campaign donations to US Democratic candidate Sri Preston Kulkarni, Pieter Friedrich exposes the systematic efforts of affiliates of the RSS and the BJP to influence the perception of Modi and his hyper-nationalistic agenda through what they call “diaspora diplomacy.”
Sri Preston Kulkarni and Ramesh Bhutada were repeatedly asked their perspective on the issues tackled in the article, but neither returned any attempt to contact them.
When India’s Hindu nationalist movement began facing staunch criticism in the US in the 1990s, it found it expedient to develop a presence in the halls of US Congress so as to tell its side of the story. After Modi was banned from the US in the early 2000s, the movement’s Indian-American affiliates realized they needed advocates within Congress itself, who could push their agenda while stifling their critics. As Hindu nationalist sympathizers within the diaspora usually found that the pro-immigrant Democratic Party offered space and scope to easily enter and expand, they have typically focused their efforts on supporting candidates on the left even as they champion a chauvinistic and majoritarian agenda in India.
As Hindu nationalist sympathizers within the diaspora usually found that the pro-immigrant Democratic Party offered space and scope to easily enter and expand, they have typically focused their efforts on supporting candidates on the left even as they champion a chauvinistic and majoritarian agenda in India. The reason why I’m running for US Congress today is because of what happened one year ago today in Charlottesville,” said Sri Preston Kulkarni on the anniversary of the August 2018 Unite the Right rally in Virginia.
When neo-Nazis marched at the Charlottesville, VA rally, Daniel Friberg — clad in a three-piece black suit and dark sunglasses — joined the summit of supremacists. Friberg embodies white supremacy’s attempt to globalize. Founder and CEO of Arktos Media, the largest alt-right publishing house in the world, he is based in Europe. Before moving Arktos to Hungary, however, he incubated his company in India.
Friberg took advantage of his time there to network with the country’s supremacist movement months before it rose to national power in 2014. In October 2013, he met with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s BL Santhosh, who later made the headlines as he threatened to “play a role in the presidential elections” in response to Senator Bernie Sanders comments about a February 2020 anti-Muslim pogrom in New Delhi. In December 2013, Friberg visited Delhi to meet with the BJP’s Ravi Shankar Prasad as well as Ram Madhav, then spokesperson of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the all-male paramilitary — or, as Arktos termed it, “the grassroots Hindu nationalist organization” — which produced the BJP.
The RSS has interested other white supremacists before Friberg. In his 2011 manifesto, Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik describes “right-wing Hindu nationalism” as India’s “resistance movement” and analogizes it to European supremacism. Praising the “Hindu right wing” for how they “dominate the streets […] and often riot and attack Muslims,” he recommends that “the European and Indian resistance movements learn from each other and cooperate as much as possible.”
The Unite the Right rally revealed global intersections among supremacist movements from East to West. For some in America, however, it was a wake-up call. In Houston, Texas, it inspired Indian-American Sri Preston Kulkarni to run for Congress.
In an August 2020 Zoom interview with Dr. Shama Rasheed, denouncing “the Charlottesville Nazi rally,” Kulkarni explained: “Three years ago, I did not think I would be here. This was never in my plan. Politics was not part of my career. I was in the Foreign Service. […] I was overseas, watching, on TV, images of actual Nazis with swastikas and torches, chanting ‘Jews will not replace us.’” In December 2017, he resigned from a 14-year US Foreign Service career and began his first of two campaigns for Congress in Texas’s 22nd congressional district.
Kulkarni ran as a Democrat against incumbent Republican Pete Olson but lost by just five points in November 2018. He was back on the campaign trail by April 2019 as three months later Olson announced his retirement, leaving the race wide open.
Diaspora diplomacy served as a key concept behind Modi’s multiple mega-receptions in the US, all of which have been organized by leaders of the American Sangh, including the 2019 Howdy, Modi in Houston. Preston Kulkarni now faces off against Sheriff Troy Nehls. The district has been a Republican stronghold for decades, but recent polls rank the two neck and neck. Hoping to flip the district, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is targeting the seat for its “Red to Blue” program.
Kulkarni seems like the one for the job. Warm, charismatic, and distinguished, he speaks six languages. He is a political novice but a seasoned diplomat who served from Russia to Jamaica and beyond. The district is not only the country’s second-largest by population but one of the most diverse. “What we are trying to do that’s different from other campaigns I’ve seen is to build the most inclusive, grassroots campaign in the country,” Kulkarni told Dr. Rasheed. He has campaigned — through phone-banks, mailers, and precinct walks — in 27 languages (at least 10 of them major Indian languages).
As he constantly affirms the importance of service before self, he is applauded for his sacrifice by Pakistani supporters like Dr. Rasheed. “When your country’s values are being threatened, the most patriotic thing to do is to fight for them,” he told her in their August 2020 conversation. “I was offered a great position in this administration, to be a spokesperson of our Embassy in New Delhi. It would have been great for my career. It would have been a comfortable lifestyle, but how could I possibly serve representing our government overseas in India and defend things like banning all Muslims?”
With the Charlottesville Nazi rally and President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban motivating him to run a diverse campaign for Congress, it is puzzling that the RSS’s number two man in America is not only credited for getting Kulkarni’s first campaign “off the ground,” but also described by the candidate as “like a father to me.”
Enjoying increased name recognition and a surge of financing for his second bid, Kulkarni handily won the March 2020 Primary. He had faced an uphill battle in the 2018 Primary, however. The race went to a May 2018 run-off, where he won the nomination after beating out Letitia Plummer, a Black Muslim who later became a Houston City Council Member.
At the height of his victory speech on 22 May 2018, Kulkarni effused over a group who has been with him “from the very beginning.” Thanking Vijay Pallod, Ramesh Bhutada and his son, Rishi, he announced: “They’re the ones, without them, this campaign literally could not have happened. […] They have been pushing so tremendously hard. My father passed away a long time ago, but Ramesh Bhutada has been like a father to me on this campaign. I really want to appreciate everything that the Bhutadas have done.”
Days later, on 2 June 2018, Kulkarni attended an event where the limelight was on someone else. Ramesh Bhutada was on stage to felicitate the guest of honor, Ved Prakash Nanda, for recently receiving the Padma Bhushan — India’s third-highest civilian award. The event was hosted by the international wing of the RSS, the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS). Nanda is the president of HSS-US while Bhutada is the group’s vice-president.
Owner of the successful Star Pipe Products (a manufacturing company which also employs Vijay Pallod and Rishi Bhutada), Ramesh Bhutada is best known for his activism with the Sangh Parivar. His father was “active” in the RSS and, in the 1970s, was even imprisoned in India for his RSS links. Ramesh had already emigrated to the US, but his father’s arrest inspired him to get “closer to RSS for the first time in his life” and he founded Houston’s first HSS branch. Pallod, his cousin-in-law and fellow activist, reports seeing a “steady stream” of RSS workers at Bhutada’s home over the decades, which even included current RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat.
While the RSS inspires white nationalists like Friberg and Breivik, its founders espoused exactly the sort of anti-pluralistic ideology which Kulkarni claims to be campaigning against.
Founded in September 1925 — two months after Adolf Hitler published Mein Kampf and five months after he founded the Schutzstaffel (SS) — the RSS’s first chief, KB Hedgewar, said its goal was to create a “Hindustan of Hindus,” which he compared to a “Germany of Germans.” After his mentor BS Moonje traveled to Italy in 1931 to meet Benito Mussolini, he argued that India needed institutions similar to the Italian fascist groups and declared: “Our institution of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh of Nagpur under Dr. Hedgewar is of this kind.” In 1938, VD Savarkar — who articulated “Hindutva” as the ideology embraced by the RSS — threatened that Indian Muslims may have to “play the part of German-Jews.” MS Golwalkar, the second and longest-serving RSS chief, taught that Indian Christians and Muslims were “internal threats.” Calling them “foreign races,” he claimed that they must either be “fused into the Hindu way of life” or else be stripped of citizenship rights. Looking to Germany, he praised the Nazis for manifesting “race pride at its highest” by “purging the country of the Semitic races — the Jews.” He concluded that it was “a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by.” Today, Golwalkar is revered as the Guru of the RSS, and his picture is routinely displayed at RSS — and HSS — gatherings.
“The traditional muscle power of the BJP has always been the RSS,” says former US ambassador to India David Mulford. Flexing that muscle power from America, Bhutada has served as a key organizer for the Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP), which mobilized thousands of Indian-Americans to travel to India in 2014 to help elect Narendra Modi as Prime Minister. In Houston, he oversaw a 700-person phone bank working “round the clock to motivate voters in India.” Meanwhile, Pallod joined a team of 30 sent to India with Bhutada’s blessing that “this is the moment to pay our debt to our motherland.”
In the American political scene, Bhutada and Pallod were the earliest RSS-affiliated campaign donors to Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and have kept close association with her — even flying to Hawaii in 2015 to attend her wedding, where they were joined by Ram Madhav of the RSS.
Shortly before attending Gabbard’s wedding, Madhav articulated a concept of “diaspora diplomacy.” He argued that the Indian diaspora “can be India’s voice even while being loyal citizens in those countries.” Diaspora diplomacy served as a key concept behind Modi’s multiple mega-receptions in the US, all of which have been organized by leaders of the American Sangh, including the 2019 Howdy, Modi in Houston.
While most Indian-American lawmakers spurned Howdy, Modi, Sri Preston Kulkarni attended it — despite the thousands of protestors outside chanting: “Modi, Modi, you can’t hide, you committed genocide.” The 22 September event was billed as a public relations bonanza where over 60 US lawmakers would lay out the red carpet for Modi. Only 24 — mostly Republicans — ultimately participated. Congressman Brad Sherman, days after receiving $5,600 in campaign donations from the Bhutada family, circulated a letter to the entire House urging them to attend. Yet after pressure from interfaith and human rights groups, he himself dropped out. Only one of the five Indian-Americans in Congress showed — Raja Krishnamoorthi, who is known for associating with the HSS and received thousands in campaign donations from the Bhutadas a month before.
While most Indian-American lawmakers spurned Howdy, Modi, Sri Preston Kulkarni attended it — despite the thousands of protestors outside chanting: “Modi, Modi, you can’t hide, you committed genocide.” Notably, the Howdy, Modi organizers are among Kulkarni’s largest donors; at least 45 key organizers have donated over $166,000 to his campaigns for Congress, approximately $94,000 of which was donated in 2018, the year before the reception.
Jugal Malani, chair of the Howdy, Modi organizing committee — as well has the brother-in-law and business partner of Ramesh Bhutada — has (along with his wife Rajkumari) donated nearly $16,000 to Kulkarni. Other donors include Vivek Kavadi, who believes that the BJP has been “needlessly demonized” and, aside from donating $4,500 to Kulkarni’s campaigns, has also hosted fundraisers for him. Another donor is Bharat Barai, who serves an executive in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA, the international wing of the VHP, which the CIA has labeled a “religious militant organization”). Barai, who has donated $3,800 to Kulkarni, spent years organizing video conferences to promote Modi to the diaspora while the future Prime Minister was banned from entering the US. Yet another donor is Ashok Danda, former president of the US wing of Ekal Vidyalaya, a VHP project to establish “single-teacher” schools throughout India where teachers are reportedly “selected only if they subscribe to the RSS way of thought.” Aside from donating over $4,500 to Kulkarni, Danda has hosted fundraisers for him and coordinated outreach to Telugu speaking voters. Kalpalatha Guntupalli, an OFBJP activist and sponsor of local talks by the BJP’s Subramanian Swamy (who recently declared that there is “no such thing as equal rights” for Muslims), has donated $2,000. Meanwhile, Vijay Goradia and his wife Indrani, honorary co-chairs of Howdy, Modi, have donated over $16,000.
However, the Bhutadas themselves are the most generous of all. Ramesh Bhutada (a patron of Howdy, Modi) and Rishi Bhutada (an honorary co-chair and the official spokesperson) — along with their wives Kiran and Shradha — have donated nearly $54,000 to get Kulkarni elected.
“When we started in 2018, I was just one person, working out of my cousin’s living room,” Kulkarni told Dr. Rasheed. That changed after he met the Bhutadas, apparently through Pallod, who encountered the candidate at a local temple “in the early months of the campaign.” Kulkarni “was all by himself” before they came in to support him, Pallod (who, along with his family, has donated over $4,000) told Indo-American News. “We raised $30,000 to get his campaign off the ground in the first month.” Describing Bhutada’s role, Pallod explained: “Ramesh met with community stalwarts, regardless of their party affiliation, to bring their financial power to help Kulkarni.”
Bhutada and his pro-Hindutva fellow travelers (such as Barai) have a long track record of bringing their financial power to support candidates — irrespective of party affiliation — who are willing to help whitewash the Sangh and obstruct congressional efforts to censure its violence. While Modi was still banned from the US, for instance, Barai backed Republican Joe Walsh, donating to him when the congressman keynoted a press conference where he called it an “outrage” that Modi was denied a visa. Barai has also donated over $22,000 to Democrat Brad Sherman, an influential member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who led an effort to allow Modi to address a joint session of Congress shortly after the pogrom-tainted BJP leader’s 2014 election. Bhutada has donated thousands to Republican Pete Olson, who — days after a congressional hearing where representatives expressed concern about the lockdown in Kashmir — spoke on the House Floor about the need to “stand with” Modi “as he works to bring peace to the region.” A few weeks after Sherman issued his letter urging the entire House to attend Howdy, Modi, the Bhutadas donated thousands to his campaign.
Beyond the Howdy, Modi organizers, others whose financial power Bhutada tapped to help Kulkarni include HSS-Houston President Subhash Gupta, OFBJP activists Shekhar Agrawal and Subroto Gangopadhyay, and Ramesh Shah, an HSS activist, founder of Ekal, and former president of OFBJP. Another donor is Mihir Meghani — once “an activist in the VHPA and the HSS,” Meghani has praised how “Hindutva awakened the Hindus to the new world order where nations represented the aspirations of people united in history, culture, philosophy, and heroes.” His current organization, the Hindu American Foundation, has worked to “undermine anyone in Washington who is critical of Modi.” Collectively, they have donated nearly $23,000.
Between December 2017 (when Kulkarni first began raising funds) and 6 March 2018 (when the Primaries occurred), nearly 40 percent of his itemized individual campaign donations — over $39,000 — came from just 25 people distinctly identifiable as either affiliated with the Sangh Parivar or pro-Modi or both. By 22 May, when he secured the nomination in the primary run-off, approximately 27 percent — over $61,000 — of his donations had come from a total of 32 people linked to such sources. The financial foundation they laid for his battle in the Primaries confirmed Kulkarni’s claim that his “campaign literally could not have happened” without the Bhutadas.
The funds, reported Arab American News, came from “an influx of supporters of Indian nationalist Prime Minister, and friend of President Trump, Narendra Modi, presumably due to Tlaib’s support of human rights in the Kashmir.” Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) secured her party’s nomination for a second term on 4 August 2020. Yet in the days before the election, challenger Brenda Jones received a surge in donations from out-of-state donors hoping to see her unseat one of the first two Muslim women ever elected to Congress. The funds, reported Arab American News, came from “an influx of supporters of Indian nationalist Prime Minister, and friend of President Trump, Narendra Modi, presumably due to Tlaib’s support of human rights in the Kashmir.”
Donating from Texas was Ramesh Bhutada, his wife, and his son. Donating from Indiana was Bharat Barai. Donating from California was Mihir Meghani. Donating from Florida was Shekar Reddy, an advisor to the state’s Ekal chapter who has also donated generously to Kulkarni. Their donations to Jones, all made on the same day and at the maximum legal amount, totaled $16,800. All four — Reddy, Meghani, Barai, and the Bhutadas — are known for generous donations to overt associates of Hindu nationalism. During the 2020 election cycle, they have all dug deep for Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), who, in October 2019, headlined an HSS event celebrating the RSS’s founding and, in September 2018, attended a VHPA event where the RSS’s Mohan Bhagwat was the keynote speaker. They have also all been long-time supporters of Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), donating extensively to both her campaigns for Congress and for President.
“Gabbard has been crucial to revamping the image of the Hindu nationalist in the United States, and has in turn received crucial financial support from the Indian-American far right,” stated media watchdog Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) in October 2019. “Gabbard’s most troubling attribute is her documented connection to the far-right Hindu nationalist, or Hindutva, movement known as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.”
FAIR’s report relied heavily on an August 2019 cover article that I wrote for Caravan magazine. That article inspired Congressman Ro Khanna (D-CA) to declare: “It’s the duty of every American politician of Hindu faith to stand for pluralism, reject Hindutva, and speak for equal rights for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Christians.” Khanna’s short statement sent shockwaves through the Indian-American diaspora. Over 230 Hindu and Indian-American groups sent him a letter denouncing his statement, while groups like Hindus for Human Rights and Indian American Muslim Council met him to applaud his stance. The statement inspired a group, allegedly fielded by the HSS, to protest Khanna outside a constituent town hall while it also inspired Ritesh Tandon, a Republican who celebrates his father’s RSS background, to challenge the congressman for his seat.
Rather than denouncing the RSS (or Hindutva), Kulkarni has simply denied that he is influenced by them. In a recent policy statement, for instance, he stated: “This campaign […] does not accept support from any foreign entities, nor is it connected to or influenced by any foreign organizations, such as RSS.”
In subsequent interviews, he was asked about allegations that – in the words of Dr. Muqtedar Khan – he has “strong connections to ideological groups in India like the RSS.” Replying to Khan, Kulkarni declared: “Let me just be clear to anyone out there. We have no connection, I have no personal connection, the campaign has no connection to RSS or any foreign organizations or foreign ideologies.” In a later interview, Shariq Ghani asked about “claims that you have received funding from the RSS,” to which Kulkarni replied: “We do not get any funding from RSS, or HSS, or any foreign organization whatsoever.” When Ghani enquired about “some of the donors,” Kulkarni argued that it’s necessary to create a “coalition of supporters,” stating: “The implication is that if someone supports our campaign, that means that we support exactly what they support, and that’s just not true.”His responses, however, failed to persuade Emgage, a political action committee which describes itself as the “political home for American Muslims.” The group, noting that it previously endorsed Kulkarni’s 2018 campaign, refused to issue a re-endorsement. His responses, however, failed to persuade Emgage, a political action committee which describes itself as the “political home for American Muslims.” The group, noting that it previously endorsed Kulkarni’s 2018 campaign, refused to issue a re-endorsement, explaining: “Since then, Emgage has discovered that some of Kulkarni’s largest donors and closest supporters are leaders of organizations promoting Hindutva. This far-right ideology, whose early founders openly praised Nazism, is completely antithetical to the inclusive and pluralistic values espoused by Emgage.” While acknowledging that he claims he has no affiliation with “foreign ideologies,” the group pointed out that he has been “unwilling to publicly condemn Hindutva-inspired organizations such as RSS, HSS, and BJP, or repudiate his donors linked to these organizations.” Furthermore, they said, Kulkarni has refused to denounce anti-Muslim “atrocities” committed by Modi’s BJP-led government.
In response, Kulkarni lashed out at Emgage, accusing them of being “under attack by nefarious actors to the point that they don’t feel they can safely stand by their own past assessment.”
Meanwhile, Ramesh Bhutada has remained a key figure in Kulkarni’s campaign. In April 2019, when speaking at the candidate’s second campaign launch, Bhutada was described as one of “two individuals who have a strong emotional bond with Sri” — the other being his mother. “Sri is well placed for this job as a foreign service officer, who has worked for 14 years in Washington, DC and in different countries,” said Bhutada at the event.
Kulkarni’s primary qualification for Congress is his lengthy foreign service career. He appears well-positioned for a Foreign Affairs Committee appointment if he wins — and yet, although he has issued policy positions on healthcare, energy, criminal justice reform, and more, he is tight-lipped about his foreign policy.
Meanwhile, progressive Indian-American congressional representatives like Ro Khanna and Pramila Jayapal are increasingly vocal about the growing human rights crisis in Modi’s India.
So why does Kulkarni remain silent not only on the issue of foreign policy but also the situation in India at a time when his own fellow Indian-Americans in Congress are so outspoken? While, as a candidate, he takes in large donations from the American affiliates of the RSS who worked to get Modi elected in India, Kulkarni’s loyalties and priorities if elected — despite his rhetoric — remain an open question.
As Sri Preston Kulkarni maintains his silence on the issue of Hindu nationalism and its violent outcomes, one is reminded of his words on the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville: “If we don’t have the moral courage to speak up when we see this happening in front of us, like some of our political leaders, then we don’t deserve to be in office.”