Admin | On 28, Oct 2018
Human rights group calls Kuppa’s writings on India “an assault on the fabric of a free society”
TROY, Michigan: Oct. 28, 2018 — Longtime Indian-American activist Padma Kuppa is running for Michigan’s State House of Representatives, but some Americans of Indian origin are concerned that her prolific writings represent an endorsement of India’s religious nationalists.
“Padma Kuppa’s support for Indian laws which criminalize people who change their religion without government permission is an assault on the fabric of a free society,” remarks Arvin Valmuci, a spokesperson for Organization for Minorities of India (OFMI). “The United Nations and the U.S. State Department have warned about these laws, which lead to violence and pogroms, especially against Indian Christians. But it doesn’t matter to Kuppa: she’s busy demanding American votes and seeking the $70,000 salary of a Michigan state representative.”
Kuppa has written multiple articles about what she calls “predatory proselytism” in India, arguing, “Faced with aggressive conversion tactics, some Hindus may become intolerant or defensive.” In a 2012 article for Hinduism Today, she claims that “proselytization tears apart the fabric of the communities where it occurs.” One example she gives is that a Christian convert’s “daughters now wear Western clothing.” As a source, she cites a book by Arun Shourie, a former Member of Parliament from India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Comparing proselytism to sexual harassment, she endorses India’s anti-conversion laws.
Nine Indian states have adopted anti-conversion laws, which typically require notification or even permission of local authorities before a person is allowed to change their religion. In 2012, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) reported, “States with these laws have higher incidents of intimidation, harassment, and violence against religious minorities…. The laws require government officials to assess the sincerity of conversions.” In 2014, Heiner Bielefeldt, who was then the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, called such laws “disrespect of freedom of religion or belief.” He said that converts “have to undergo, I’d say, a humiliating bureaucratic procedure, exposing themselves and explaining the reasons [for their conversion] as if the State were in a position of being able to assess the genuineness of conversion.”
In 2018, watchdog group Open Doors USA ranked India as the world’s 11th most dangerous country for Christians, stating, “While the source of Christian persecution in India depends on the location within the country, most of it comes from a variety of Hindu radical groups and organizations, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Shiv Sena and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).” One of the most recent incidents of large-scale violence against Christians occurred in 2008 in Odisha, which was the first Indian state to pass an anti-conversion law. Over a several week period, at least 40 Christians were killed, churches and homes were burned, and tens of thousands were made refugees. Odishan Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, who was in office during the pogrom, reported in 2009, “Members of RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal were involved in the violence that took place last year.”
“Laws which empower the government to permit or deny a person’s right to convert are the very definition of a denial of religious freedom,” says Valmuci. “Yet there is much more about Kuppa that worries us. Not only does she excuse intolerance in response to people exercising their right to free speech by promoting their religion, but Kuppa glamorizes Hindutva and justifies Prime Minister Modi’s 2002 Gujarat Genocide, which killed thousands of Muslims.”
Hindutva, reports USCRIF, is an ideology “which holds non-Hindus as foreign to India.” Conceived in 1923 by V.D. Savarkar, it became the foundational ideology of the RSS in 1925. The RSS, the largest paramilitary in the world, entered politics in the 1980s with the formation of the BJP. Modi, who joined the RSS at the age of eight, declared in 2014, “My identity is of a Hindutvawadi (follower of Hindutva).” As of 2016, a third of Modi’s cabinet ministers were from the RSS; the BJP regularly holds coordination meetings with the RSS to plan policy. The RSS and its affiliates have been implicated in multiple incidents of large-scale violence against minorities, especially Christians and Muslims, since the 1980s. It has also been linked to acts of terrorism such as a wave of bombings from 2006 to 2008 as well as assassinations, such as the 2017 killing of journalist Gauri Lankesh.
According to Kuppa, however, the experts are wrong for “attempting to attribute sectarian divisions in India to the BJP or Hindu nationalism.” She especially criticizes the media for being “focused primarily on the 2002 violence against Muslims in Gujarat — making it the centerpiece of any story on India or its newly elected prime minister, Narendra Modi.” She highlights a preceding incident, the deaths of 59 Hindus when a train in Godhra, Gujarat caught fire, allegedly after being set ablaze by a Muslim mob. This incident, she says, caused “retaliatory violence in Gujarat, where both Hindus and Muslims were killed.”
Kuppa’s position puts her in conflict with Human Rights Watch (HRW), which stated in 2002: “The Gujarat government chose to characterize the violence as a ‘spontaneous reaction’ to the incidents in Godhra. Human Rights Watch’s findings, and those of numerous Indian human rights and civil liberties organizations, and most of the Indian press indicate that the attacks on Muslims throughout the state were planned, well in advance of the Godhra incident, and organized with extensive police participation and in close cooperation with officials of the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party, BJP) state government.” According to Amnesty International, approximately 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed, while figures from the U.S. State Department suggest that up to 2,500 Muslims were killed.
“Even if the Godhra train was actually burned by a Muslim mob, that’s just as irrelevant to justifying a state-sponsored genocide of an entire community as the 1938 assassination of a German diplomat by a Jewish refugee is irrelevant to justifying the Kristallnacht pogrom against German Jews,” comments Pieter Friedrich, an analyst of South Asian affairs. “It’s despicable to justify an anti-minority massacre on the basis of provocation of a majority population. Kuppa’s writings appear to be lifted directly from the RSS’s talking points. For instance, just two weeks after the Gujarat Genocide ended, the RSS passed an ominous resolution warning, ‘Let Muslims understand that their real safety lies in the goodwill of the majority.’ When Kuppa excuses the genocide as ‘retaliatory,’ she sounds a lot like the RSS.”
Since the BJP took power in 2014, there has been a sharp rise in violence targeting religious minorities as well as India’s 200 million Dalits (formerly known as Untouchables or outcastes). According to 2018 reports by HRW, “Vigilante violence aimed at religious minorities, marginalized communities, and critics of the government — often carried out by groups claiming to support the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — became an increasing threat in India in 2017. The government failed to promptly or credibly investigate the attacks, while many senior BJP leaders publicly promoted Hindu supremacy and ultra-nationalism, which encouraged further violence.”
However, Kuppa again contradicts HRW. She dismisses concerns that a conservative Hindu nationalist government would lead to increased violence, saying such worries are “misrepresentative at best, and are also easily debunked.” She insists that religious conversion is a greater threat than nationalism, denouncing “the Western bias that incites fear of Hindu activism and attack[s] Hindu nationalism while glossing over the challenges that conversion creates in developing nations such as India.”
“Padma Kuppa’s support for anti-conversion laws is a great offense to the First Amendment freedom of religion we have as Americans,” says Balbir Singh Dhillon, the current president of West Sacramento Sikh Gurdwara. “These anti-conversion laws treat people who just want to change their religion like criminals. I know from my own experience of fleeing religious persecution in India that it puts religious minorities in danger to require them to ask the government for permission to convert.” Dhillon explains that, during a 1996 pilgrimage to holy sites in India and Pakistan, he was arrested under false charges, jailed for three months, and tortured. “If I wasn’t an American citizen, I would have been killed for my faith,” says Dhillon.
He was only released after over 50 U.S. congressional representatives signed a letter to the U.S. State Department which pressured India to admit it had no proof he committed any crime.
Besides endorsing anti-conversion laws, Kuppa also criticizes how “a hue and cry is raised about Ghar Wapsi,” which she calls “the effort to bring Hindus ‘back to the fold.’” Campaigns of “Ghar Wapsi” — meaning “homecoming” — are attempts to “reconvert” non-Hindus to Hinduism under the premise that India is the land of Hindus, that the ancestors of all Indians were Hindus, and that all Indians should be Hindus.
Reconversion campaigns have drawn staunch support from BJP politicians like Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who has boasted of leading “purification drives” to “reconvert” thousands of Dalit Christians and Muslims. In 2015, while serving as a Member of Parliament and drafting a bill to introduce a national anti-conversion law, he declared, “An aggressive campaign is required for Ghar Wapsi of those Hindus who had converted to other religions in the past.” After a December 2014 Ghar Wapsi conversion of several hundred Muslims (who later reported they were threatened with violence and told they had to convert to receive government ration cards), Adityanath said the new converts will “be placed in the same caste and gotra [clan] to which their Hindu ancestors belonged.”
“We’re deeply concerned that Kuppa embraces the idea that Indian equals Hindu,” says Maryam Mirza, a Kashmiri Muslim from Michigan. “She has called herself an ‘ethnic Hindu,’ which is not a real thing, and says that India’s Republic Day is part of the Hindu religious heritage — can you imagine a candidate calling America’s Independence Day part of their Christian heritage? She defends use of the ‘Hindutva’ word, and I’ve seen she even quotes from sources like Koenraad Elst, an Islamophobic writer who wants to uproot Islam from India.”
“Hindutva is a Sanskrit compound word, Hindu + tva… which a century ago didn’t have any negative implications,” writes Kuppa. She also quotes from Koenraad Elst’s book, Decolonizing the Hindu Mind, in which he asserts that Hinduism’s “enemies” include “Islamic and Christian religion, along with secular ideologies like Nazism and Marxism.” Elsewhere, Elst writes that “Islam is reprehensible” and states, “The liberation of the Muslims from Islam should be a top priority for all those who care about India’s and the world’s future.”
Furthermore, Kuppa writes, “While I often use the term Hindu-American to identify myself, I am nearly as likely to use the term Indian-American. The two terms have much overlap for me as an ethnic Hindu, since faith and culture are so intertwined.” She adds, “India and Hinduism are so intertwined that I must reconsider the importance of celebrating India and in identifying as an Indian-American.” She additionally claims that “proud Hindus of Indian origin” can “celebrate India’s Republic Day as part of their religious heritage.”
In another article, she criticizes an event where Hindu women wore hijab while Muslim women wore sari. “There are many women in America who choose to wear a hijab, but there are activists who don’t – voices from within who may push beyond what people in the Islamic community want to hear,” she writes. “There is in fact no choice for Muslim women in many parts of the world about wearing not only a hijab, but a burka.” Saying the activists should not “sell out” by wearing hijab, she claimed that Muslim women “cannot escape a culture that oppresses them.”
Valmuci concludes, “Does America truly want or need elected representatives who pen apologetics for religious nationalists, endorse the Hindutva agenda of supremacy, and justify violence against religious minorities and marginalized peoples?”