South Asian group looks to spread awareness of right-wing nationalism

By Igor Studenkov For Chronicle Media

SACRED co-founder Pushkar Sharma explains the organization mission at the March 5 launch event. (Photo by Igor Studenkov/for Chronicle Media)

No immigrant community is ever a monolith.

Immigrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other countries in the South Asian region represent a wide variety of ethnic groups, religions and political beliefs. Different segments take different positions on issues. But activists behind South Asian American Coalition to Renew Democracy argue that this subtlety is often lost when political groups lobby elected officials.

SACRED board member and former Chicago 39th Ward candidate Denali Dasgupta said that this makes it easy for proposals that may be discriminatory, such as the proposals that favor Indian Hindus over Indian Muslims, to slip under the radar.

“It garbs itself in religion, it garbs itself in culture,” she said. “A lot of people don’t know South Asian cultures very well. A lot of those organizations — what they are presenting as part of our broader South Asian culture — it promises supremacist ideology.”

What SACRED is doing, Dasgupta said, is creating a “vaccine,” so that politicians become more aware. And the organizers argue that the issue isn’t just about Chicago area’s large South Asian population. They see the right-wing, Hindu-supremacist ideology of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party as part of the larger nationalist, right-wing populist phenomenon that include Donald Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Urban. That is why SACRED is interested in working with groups across ethnic and religious lines.

SACRED was founded in 2022 and did some lobbying in 2023, but on March 5, it held a press conference announcing its official launch. During the 2024 elections, they are encouraging all candidates to sign a pledge saying they would reject donations from organizations and individuals linked to right-wing Indian nationalist groups.

The landmass that currently includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nelal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka has been historically known as the Indian subcontinent. In recent decades, “South Asian subcontinent” has been increasingly used as a more politically neutral alternative. As of 2017, India had the third-highest number of Muslims in the world, but Hindus ignorantly outnumber the Muslims, accounting for 79.8 percent of the country’s population.

BJP, which has been India’s ruling party since 2014, follows the Hindutva ideology. According to a spring 2020 article published in Association for Asian Studies think tank’s Education About Asia journal, the ideology takes a Hindu-centric view of Indian history, seeing Islam and Christianity as a legacy of foreign colonizers and downplaying the ethnic groups who lived on the subcontinent before the arrival of Indo-Aryan people,  BJP is closely allied with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing militant organization whose member Nathuram Godse assassinated Mahatma Gandhi,

A 2020 annual United States Commission on International Religious Freedom report stated that, after the 2019 election, “national government allowed violence against minorities and their houses of worship to continue with impunity, and also engaged in and tolerated hate speech and incitement to violence.” It listed the Citizenship Amendment Act, which fast-tracked citizenship applications for non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, as a major example of state-sanctioned discrimination.

“Violence against Christians also increased, with at least 328 violent incidents, often under accusations of forced conversions,” the report adds. “These attacks frequently targeted prayer services and led to the widespread shuttering or destruction of churches.”

SACRED co-founder Pushkar Sharma said that two incidents inspired the organization’s formation. In winter 2021, Chicago City Council considered a non-binding resolution that would have recognized Indian Independence Day and condemned human rights abuses against minorities.

“The Consul General of India in Chicago and Carol Stream-based U.S. India Friendship Council, whose website described its mission as “educating the public about Hindus and Hinduism,” spoke out against it. The Times of India quoted the latter’s founder, Dr. Bharat Barai, as saying that the resolution was “full of hatred for India and rants against India’s elected government and criticism of India’s internal matters.” The resolution failed by an 18-26 vote.In 2022, Illinois General Assembly created the Illinois Indian American Advisory Council. The eligibility requirements defined Indian as “a person descended from any of the countries of the subcontinent that are not primarily Muslim in character, including India, Bhutan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.”

“This was a discriminatory language that excluded the Muslim community,” Sharma said.

While the language would have theoretically allowed Muslim Indian citizens on the council, it targeted all citizens of majority-Muslim Pakistan and Bangladesh.

SACRED lobbied to change the text, while it led the state to change the council’s name to Illinois South Asian American Advisory Council and open the membership to anyone who has roots in any South Asian country.

In 2023, SACRED contracted three research fellows to look through public election records to track where campaign contributions from right-wing organizations are going — something that, Sharma said, they will continue to do this year.

During the March 5 launch event, SACRED organizers touted what they are calling the Illinois Nonviolence Pledge. The pledge itself doesn’t actually address the violence — the name is a reference to Ghandi’s philosophy and RSS’ ties to many right-wing organizations, Instead, it simply asks the candidates to agree to “not to accept any donations from people or organizations who are linked to anti-democratic and discriminatory agendas, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates.”

“Seventy-five years after the assassination of Gandhi, the ideology that killed him and the ideology that killed hundreds of others is on the rise,” Sharma said. “This is the ideology that perpetuates violence no matter what your faith is, what your caste is.”

Throughout the press conference, the speakers argued that SACRED’s cause goes beyond South Asian communities.  Stevie Valles, the executive director of Chicago Votes, a nonprofit that lobbies to remove barriers to voting, recalled that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took inspiration from Ghandi’s philosophy. With Trump potentially winning a second term, he said, it was important for organizations to combat right-wing nationalism together.

“Hopefully, together, we spark the new generation of this movement for the future,” Valles said.

Civil rights attorney and SACRED board member Kalman Resnick, said that three of his family members died in Auschwitz. When he and his wife visited India in 2019, he said, he was “shocked” by the violence and “the degree with twitch the democracy was threatened.”

“There, I experienced gross nationalism that reminded me of what my family experienced within Nazi [occupied] Europe,” Resnick said. “We have to remember that all our struggles are connected.”