Exclusive: Hindu nationalist groups to assemble at India Day rally in New Jersey
At least two Hindu nationalist organisations will be participating in this week's India Day rally in the same New Jersey towns that saw anti-Muslim symbols paraded through the streets during a rally a year ago, Middle East Eye can reveal.
According to several sources in New Jersey, the Hindu Swayamsewak Sangh (HSS) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), designated by scholars as the overseas branches of their right-wing counterparts in India, will participate as part of a cohort of 21 organisations taking part in the annual India Day parade that marks Indian Independence Day on 15 August.
The parade, in its 19th year, organised by the Indian Business Association (IBA), is set to take place Sunday afternoon in Woodbridge and Edison.
The IBA confirmed to MEE that both the HSS and VHPA would be participating in the parade.
Until 2018, the VHP was considered a “militant religious organization” by the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) World Factbook.
The HSS did not reply to MEE's request for comment.
Ajay Shah, president of the World Hindu Council of America (VHPA), told MEE that his organisation was an "independent non-profit America[n] Hindu organization" and was "not part of any organization in the US or anywhere else in the world".
Meanwhile, several Indian Muslims living in central New Jersey, as well as activist groups like Hindus for Human Rights (HfHr) and the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), told MEE that they were disappointed with the decision to allow the groups to participate given what they called their affiliation with their parent groups in India as well as the events of August 2022 in which a bulldozer was included as a float in the India Day rally.
The bulldozer, decorated with posters of Indian PM Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath, the state governor of Uttar Pradesh, rolled down the streets of the township in 2022.
Adityanath is known for spreading conspiracy theories about Muslims as well as for his moniker "Baba Bulldozer" due to his penchant to use bulldozers to destroy the homes of Muslims and other minorities as a means to intimidate and silence dissent.
Several local politicians as well as the national spokesperson of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), were present at the rally in which attendees chanted "Jai Shri Ram", a chant that has now become a rallying cry for Hindu supremacists in India.
Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of HfHr, said the inclusion of the HSS and the VHPA was akin to bringing a bulldozer to the rally.
"The HSS and the VHPA are Hindu nationalist organisations with explicit roots in and links to Hindu nationalist organisations in India. It is their Hindu nationalist ideology that is fuelling India's democratic decline.
"So having HSS and VHPA in the rally is no different, for us, than including a bulldozer," Viswanath told MEE.
Likewise, Mohammad Jawad, president of IAMC, said his organisation felt slighted by the continued presence of the HSS and VHPA at the rally.
"We are extremely uncomfortable with the inclusion of HSS and VHPA in the parade. What happened last year on the streets of Edison was the result of hate and bigotry sowed by Hindu nationalism, the ideology that both these groups support and align with," Jawad told MEE.
"Their inclusion also raises concerns within our community, as their presence perpetuates an environment that goes against the values of inclusivity and diversity that our society upholds," Jawad added.
Shah from the VHPA described the IAMC's accusations as "baseless".
"We are not sure what they are referring to when they say “concerned about what happened to the parade last year”.
"We can categorically state that our participation in the parades have been positive and well received by the community through the years. In fact, based on the anti-India and anti-Hindu agenda IAMC espouses, we are a bit surprised that they are even participating in the Indian Day parade," Shah said.
"In keeping with the core Hindu beliefs of inclusion and diversity, we welcome them and hope that their participation in the parade reflects their change of heart about taking pride in their Indian roots.
"We look forward to partnering with them to celebrate India for the betterment of the Indian diaspora," Shah said.
Several activists told MEE that they had approached both mayors of Edison and Woodbridge to discuss arrangements ahead of this weekend's rally, but only Mayor John McCormac from Woodbridge showed interest in listening to their concerns and a meeting between different stakeholders took place with him earlier this week.
According to one source with knowledge of the meeting in Woodbridge, the mayor said he understood the concerns of the Muslim community, but given that the VHPA and HSS were not banned organisations, it would amount to blocking their freedom of speech if he tried to stop them from participating.
The source added that not only is the HSS tied to the parent organisation, the RSS, they adamantly support BJP policies "despite knowing what the government is doing".
"This is why they should not be there," the source said.
The mayor and local police department assured activists that no symbols of hate would be tolerated at the event.
Harshad Patel, president of the IBA, said his organisation considered the bulldozer matter to be resolved and said his organisation was comitted to ensuring that nothing untoward would happen at the rally.
He told MEE that his organisation did not have any problem with the presence of the HSS and VHPA, and insisted that the IBA wouldn't tolerate any hate speech at the rally.
Raqib Hameed Naik, the author of the VHPA report published by the Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University, said it was understandable that Muslims and Christian Americans of Indian origin would feel unsafe with the groups' presence.
“Some VHPA leaders have a history of making anti-Muslim remarks. Considering what happened last year, it's shocking to see the inclusion of such a belligerent and hateful group in this year’s parade," Naik told MEE.
"It will only make it a very unsafe, unwelcome, and hostile space for diasporic Muslims and Christians who had plans to participate," Naik added.
Viswanath from HfHR, said that her group was not satisfied by the arrangements, adding they would "be on high alert for what takes place at this year’s rally".
"It is utter hypocrisy for groups actively destroying our secular and pluralistic home country - groups whose ultimate goal is a Hindu nation where non-Hindus will be second-class citizens without equal rights, unsafe and unwelcome - to participate in this Aug 15th rally [in New Jersey]," Viswanath said.
Edison's mayor, Samip Joshi, and Mayor John McCormac's office did not reply to MEE's repeated requests for comment.
Tensions were high in Edison in the weeks and months following the bulldozer's appearance at the India Day Rally in August 2022.
The story turned Edison into a national spectacle and highlighted the town and district as a hotbed of Hindu nationalism in the United States.
Following public outrage and at least two boisterous and tense town hall meetings in Edison, the IBA finally apologised for including the bulldozer as a float.
In January 2023, the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office concluded that the incident was properly reported and classified as a biased incident but stopped short of initiating criminal charges against the organisers of the event.
Even though Edison's Mayor Joshi had condemned the incident, activists say he has not been very cooperative in considering their concerns.
"I wish he would be more cooperative with us on this matter. But he hasn't been," the activist said, noting his disappointment that Joshi did not reply to their letter to discuss the upcoming rally in his town.
In June, Joshi was part of a delegation that welcomed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the White House. He also attended Modi's address to a joint sitting of Congress, which several US lawmakers boycotted on account of Modi's record on human rights in India.
Since Narendra Modi became India's prime minister in 2014, human rights groups have reported an increase in abuses against minorities, including Muslims and Christians. Since 2020, the US Commission of International Religious Freedoms (USCIRF) has called for India to be called a “country of particular concern” or CPC, over its "systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom in the country".
The US state department has so far refused to change Delhi's status.
Modi enjoys support among Indian Americans, with his BJP specifically courting the estimated 4.2 million people of Indian origin living in the US for support.