Using fake conference passes, six activists snuck into the main ballroom at the Westin Hotel in the Chicago suburb of Lombard, Illinois, on Friday, September 7. In the room were hundreds of attendees of the 2018 World Hindu Congress who were gathered to listen to a plenary panel that included Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu nationalist organization responsible for many harsh policies and acts of violence against India’s religious minorities.
Before Bhagwat began speaking, the activists disrupted the panel, chanting, “RSS turn around, we don’t want you in this town.”
The six activists, mostly young South Asian women, were immediately attacked by attendees and choked, kicked, punched and spat on as the entire crowd began their own coordinated chant of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai,” which means in Hindi, “Victory to Mother India.” The activists, many from upper-caste Hindu families, have chosen to remain anonymous in interviews with the press due to safety concerns.
“When we first walked in, I thought, ‘It’s just a bunch of aunties and uncles,’ and then those uncles and aunties turned into a mob and attacked us,” one activist said.
“They called me a ‘dirty Muslim’ and threatened death,” another protester said. “I had people who looked like aunties screaming, ‘Bitch, bitch, bitch,’ over and over again. One lady outside yelled she wished my mother was killed and I was never born.”
“Even when disrupting Donald Trump rallies, I’ve never had anyone put their hands on me like that, or respond with so much aggression, pushing and obscenities,” said one activist who was choked.
Two of the protesters were arrested for trespassing and disorderly conduct. One of the conference attendees was also arrested for battery.
The activists were protesting this year’s World Hindu Congress, a global gathering of Hindus. On the surface, the event appeared to be a fairly civil cultural and religious event, but the facade of peace and dialogue quickly unraveled. The violent response in the room mirrored the broader patterns of violence that the Hindu nationalist groups attending and organizing the conference perpetuate in India — one of the most diverse countries in the world — against Muslims, Sikhs, Dalits (Hindus in the lower part of India’s caste system) and other religious minorities. Also in attendance at the conference was Indian Vice President Venkaiah Naidu.
The groups’ ideology, known as Hindutva, believes that India should be a Hindu nation, and adherents often resort to violence to enact this vision. One of the largest organizations pushing this ideology is the RSS.
According to a report by the Coalition Against Genocide, the RSS was founded in 1925, and over the next several decades, produced several hundred affiliated organizations that are together referred to as the Sangh Parivar (or the Sangh family of organizations). “These include the Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP), its parliamentary front; the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, its cultural wing, and the Bajrang Dal, its goon squad, to name just a few,” the report notes. The BJP currently has a majority in the Indian government.
Many of these Indian organizations have counterparts in the US which helped organize the 2018 World Hindu Congress, such as the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh and Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, whose members fund Hindutva activities in India.
Collectively, the Sangh Parivar have been responsible for the world’s largest military occupation in Kashmir, the desecration of mosques in India, discrimination against Sikhs, mobilizing mobs to beat and kill Muslims and Dalits, and recently, stripped the citizenship of 4 million Bengalis, most of whom are Muslims in the state of Assam.
Current Indian Prime Minister and RSS member Narendra Modi has also been accused of being complicit in the massacre of more than 1,000 Muslims in riots when he was chief minister of the state of Gujarat in 2002.
As the activists were removed from the ballroom by police, senior leader and former BJP lawmaker Vijay Jolly shouted, “We should have bashed them up,” according to The Hindu.
The World Hindu Congress denied this reporter a press pass to attend the conference and officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The six activists were members of Chicago South Asians for Justice and part of a coalition of South Asian-American organizations named the Alliance for Justice and Accountability (AJA), which coordinated several actions in addition to the disruption.
Sikhs, Muslims, Kashmiris and Hindus also mobilized their various communities for a protest outside the conference.
“The different groups of people coming together and having a recognition and compassion for everyone as well as a shared horror … I thought it was really amazing,” said an organizer with AJA who wished to remain anonymous due to harassment following the protest.
In addition, the coalition also pressured several US politicians to withdraw their participation in the event prior to the Congress.
Tulsi Gabbard, representative for Hawaii and first Hindu member of the US Congress, stepped down as honorary chair of the World Hindu Congress due to “ethical concerns and problems that surround my participating in any partisan Indian political event in America,” she said in a statement.
Ram Villivalam, who in January 2019 will be sworn in as the first South Asian-American member of the Illinois General Assembly, also refused to attend the Congress. “I do not support any group and/or an event arranged or led by organizations that intimidate minorities, incite discrimination and violence, commit acts of terror based on race or ethnic background, promote hate speech, and/or believe in faith based nationalism,” reads his statement. “As a Hindu American, I stand with my brothers and sisters in the Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Sikh, and other religious and ethnic minority communities against hate, discrimination, and persecution.”
Chicago Alderman Ameya Pawar also declined his invitation and tweeted: “I’m a proud Hindu and the first Indian-American elected to Chicago City Council. I’m extremely disappointed and ashamed @WHCongress would invite speakers and organizations that promote discrimination, Islamaphobia, and Hindu nationalism. This is not who we are.” Pawar also expressed support for the protesters and tweeted that he was “disgusted” by the violent behavior of attendees.
A statement released by Chicago South Asians for Justice expressed gratefulness for the support from Pawar and other politicians, but also included in their demands that Pawar come out against the “Cop Academy” that has been proposed on Chicago’s West side. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been pushing for a $95 million police training compound in the majority-Black neighborhood of West Garfield Park that has been criticized by Black-led organizations, which argue that the area needs investment in education and mental health services instead. In May 2018, the Chicago City Council voted 39-2 to approve the purchase of land for the academy for $20 million. Pawar voted yes.
“If he [Pawar] claims to be a progressive Hindu, then that requires him to be in solidarity with other communities and challenge anti-Black violence as well,” one activist told Truthout.
Notably, despite the emails, meetings, calls and social media blasts from organizers, Raja Krishnamoorthi, who represents Illinois in the US House of Representatives, did not withdraw participation and gave a speech at the Congress, which took place in his district.
During his speech, Krishnamoorthi told the attendees, “I wanted to reaffirm the highest and only form of Hinduism that I’ve ever known and been taught — namely one that welcomes all people, embraces all people and accepts all people, regardless of their faith — including all my constituents. I reject all other forms.”
Despite Krishnamoorthi’s call for peace, activists are not pleased. “He can’t choose to go to this event and share space with folks like Bhagwat and top officials in the RSS and Indian government and think that that speech is enough,” one local activist said. “Him being there is condoning the event and condoning Hindutva violence.”
Following Krishnamoorthi’s appearance at the World Hindu Congress, the organization South Asian-Americans Leading Together (SAALT) rescinded the congressman’s invitation to their annual congressional briefing around the anniversary of 9/11, in which they invite lawmakers and organizations to speak on national security, detention, the Muslim Ban, and other discriminatory policies against Muslims, Arabs and South Asians.
Considering that Krishnamoorthi’s district has one of the highest concentrations of South Asian-Americans in the country, “We thought it was important to hear his perspective,” said SAALT Executive Director Suman Raghunathan. “We could not continue to have that invitation open to speak at our briefing, given the concerns that people have raised.”
“We are concerned about the increasing connections between the US anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim movements and those same ideas being manifested with the voices involved with the World Hindu Congress,” Raghunathan added.
“So many in the Indian diaspora community in the US are anti-Trump and against what he does, but in the same breath, they’re pro-Modi and think that the BJP have a different set of ideals,” an activist said. “In reality, we need to hold a mirror to ourselves and see that they [Modi and Trump] are cut from the same cloth.”