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US Polls 2020: Is It Time We Acknowledged Ruling Party BJP’s Role In US Politics?

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Houston Is Becoming Ground Zero For The Struggle On US Soil Over Politics In India

As India’s political battles rage fiercer than ever under Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration, they are spilling over into Houston.

Sri Preston Kulkarni is an ex-diplomat who now finds himself in one of the country’s most competitive congressional races during his second campaign to represent Texas’s 22nd district. Yet Indian-American disputes over the polarizing Modi — and his Hindu nationalist agenda — have thrown a curveball into the race. At issue is Kulkarni’s association with Ramesh Bhutada, a local business magnate whom he describes as “like a father to me.”

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Houstonians last saw the conflict over Indian politics play out in their city during the September 2019 “Howdy, Modi” reception. While the extravaganza inside the NRG stadium drew 50,000, up to 15,000 in the streets outside raised chants of “Modi, Modi, you can’t hide, you committed genocide” — a reference to Modi’s alleged role in a 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom, for which he was banned from entering the US until he became the prime minister. Although four of five Indian-Americans in the US Congress skipped the controversial event, Kulkarni attended.

Ramesh Bhutada was a main mover and shaker behind “Howdy.” He was a patron, his son Rishi was the official spokesperson, and his brother-in-law and business partner Jugal Malani chaired the organizing committee. The family’s central role in the event was predictable considering their active involvement in India’s electoral politics.

In 2014, Bhutada oversaw a 700-person phone bank of volunteers who called from Houston to India to sway voters to support Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. His cousin-in-law and fellow activist, Vijay Pallod, even joined a team of 30 who traveled to India to campaign for the BJP. When the BJP’s Modi was elected in 2014 and re-elected in 2019, Bhutada and associates organized victory parties in Houston.

“My identity is of a Hindutvavadi,” says Modi, meaning he is a proponent of “Hindutva,” which Amnesty International defines as a “political ideology of an exclusively Hindu nation.” That’s the common cause uniting him with his Indian-American support base. Modi is a lifelong member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary which provides the BJP’s muscle power. Bhutada, who praises Modi’s “upbringing in the culture of RSS,” is Vice-President of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh USA, the American counterpart of the RSS.

Not only has Bhutada actively campaigned for India’s BJP, but he’s a major donor to various political campaigns in the US.

For instance, he and Pallod hosted Houston area fundraisers for Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. The two (along with their immediate family members) have donated over $41,000 to her campaigns for Congress and President. Before Modi was elected, Gabbard worked to derail congressional efforts to highlight the rising problem of Hindu nationalist violence in India.

Sri Preston Kulkarni, American diplomat and politician who is the Democratic nominee for Texas’s 22nd congressional district in 2020.

Speakers at several victory parties organized by the Overseas Friends of the BJP — a registered foreign agent controlled by BJP officials — urged celebrants to donate to her in gratitude. One speaker argued they should support her because Modi could only succeed if they “influence the foreign policymakers in the United States.”

For supporters of Modi, the ideal US foreign policy towards India is one that turns a blind eye towards human rights violations.

That’s what BJP officials want — at the threat of foreign interference. In February, for instance, Senator Bernie Sanders denounced “widespread anti-Muslim mob violence” in New Delhi, criticizing President Trump’s comments on the issue as “a failure of leadership on human rights.” That prompted BJP General Secretary BL Santhosh to snap back, “How much ever neutral we wish to be you compel us to play a role in Presidential elections.”

The Bhutada family incentivizes such “failure of leadership on human rights.” In July, they donated $8400 to Rashida Tlaib’s primary challenger after the Michigan congresswoman introduced a resolution condemning human rights violations in Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority region which Modi’s government annexed a month before “Howdy.” Although Sanders himself, a day before the mega-reception, warned against “a deafening silence when it comes to a human rights crisis unfolding right before our eyes,” the Bhutadas appear intent on sidelining critics of Modi.

“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 the office,” said Kulkarni on the first anniversary of the Charlottesville Nazi rally.

Kulkarni has been outspoken against rising extremism in America, yet silent about the current situation in India. That’s surprising considering his 14-year US Foreign Service career is his primary qualification for office. If elected, he appears poised for a Foreign Affairs Committee assignment, but one wonders what he would do in such a position considering his staunchest backers are the Bhutadas.

“Without them, this campaign literally could not have happened,” said Kulkarni when he first won the Democratic Party’s nomination in May 2018. “They have been pushing so tremendously hard… Ramesh Bhutada has been like a father to me on this campaign.” Pallod explains, “We raised $30,000 to get his campaign off the ground in the first month… Ramesh met with community stalwarts, regardless of their party affiliation, to bring their financial power to help Kulkarni.”

Bhutada’s support for Kulkarni is causing a split in TX-22’s large Indian Muslim community. Many, despite being lifelong Democrats, are reportedly breaking party ranks and throwing their support behind the Republican because they view Kulkarni — whose donors include at least 45 “Howdy” organizers — as RSS-backed. As the Kulkarni drama plays out, it vividly illustrates how Houston is becoming ground zero for the struggle on US soil over politics in India.

The US is grappling with questions about foreign interference by Russia and now even by China. Debates over Israel’s influence over US politicians have raged for decades. Is it time to start paying attention to the role that India — or, more specifically, India’s ruling BJP — has played and seeks to play in US elections?

The above article was first published here.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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