A massive protest in India has gained international attention following a Twitter spat between prominent supporters of its demonstrators, which include pop icon Rihanna, and those backing the country’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. The social media joust has underscored how voices outside India, including those in the Indian-American diaspora, are shaping the debate over human rights in a country with a heightened sense of nationalism. 

The protests, largely led by farmers from the Sikh community and intended to force the repeal of new agricultural laws passed by the Modi government that farmers say could destroy their livelihoods, are the largest demonstrations in world history, with an estimated 250 million participants.

And the farmers’ protests are only the latest in recent years to highlight the worsening situation of religious minorities in the Hindu-majority nation. 

There are over 4 million people of Indian descent in the U.S. and the largest population is here in the New York City region. 

Modi convincingly won re-election in the Hindu-majority nation in 2019, but last year the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom warned of the potential for “widespread disenfranchisement of Indian Muslims,” who represent 15% of India’s population. Although nearly 60% of Indian Americans view Modi favorably, according to a recent survey by two academics, an increasingly vocal left flank has been asserting itself.

Last year, that translated into protests in New York and 30 other cities, against a controversial law in India that could result in millions of Indian Muslims being "stripped of their citizenship rights."

Now, Suchitra Vijayan, a New York-based human rights lawyer, said, “Everybody's been silenced.”

“Opposition is completely wiped out,” Vijayan, author of “Midnight's Borders: A People's History of Modern India,” explained. “This includes some of India's most well-known thinkers, writers, lawyers, scholars. So now we are in an actual authoritarian regime where everybody has been silenced.” 

Making matters worse for protesters is the Indian government’s censorship of the protests, where they’ve cracked down on much of the news media, preventing coverage of the farmers’ protests from going out to the world. 

But it doesn’t mean that the plight of farmers hasn’t attracted attention from prominent figures that include environmentalist Greta Thunberg and pop superstar Rihanna. On Tuesday, the songstress—who has 101 million followers on Twitter—tweeted, “Why aren’t we talking about this?” The tweet had included a CNN article that highlighted India cutting internet service near New Dehli as protesters clashed with police.    

Her tweet served as a workaround to India’s attempt at muffling voices in support of the farmer’s protest. It was ultimately retweeted more than 300,000 times and liked more than 892,000 times. 

That was followed by a tweet from Thunberg and another by Meena Harris, the niece of Vice President Kamala Harris. 

The criticism drew swift backlash from Indian government officials along with a slew of Bollywood stars and prominent cricket players in a seemingly coordinated response. India’s Minister of Home Affairs, Amit Shah, barked back on Twitter, “no propaganda can deter India’s unity,” and effigies of Rihanna, Thunberg, and Harris were burnt on the streets of New Delhi. All of which brought even more attention to the issue.

South Asian Americans and Muslims have called upon the Biden administration, including the U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, to strictly vet appointees and eliminate any candidates with ties to Modi or groups that support him.

“As India plunges further into authoritarian rule, the need for the American government to speak out against human rights violations in the country—and take steps to counteract it—will only grow more stark,” reads an open letter from a progressive coalition that includes the Indian American Muslim Council, Dalit Solidarity Forum in the U.S. and Students Against Hindutva Ideology.

“We don't want to wait until it's too late, and somebody very senior in the Tony Blinken administration happens to be a good friend of Modi,” said Raju Rajagopal, a member of Hindus for Human Rights, a progressive organization that co-signed the letter. “So we have to take preventive action in putting it on the table.”

The coalition has taken aim at specific individuals, including Amit Jani, a New Jersey resident whose family is close to Modi and who served as National Asian American Pacific Islander Director on the Biden campaign. Another target has been Sonal Shah, an economist and development expert who found herself at the center of a similar controversy in 2008, after joining the transition team for President Barack Obama. 

“Shah’s parents, Ramesh and Kokila, not only work as volunteers for these outfits, but they also held positions of authority in them,” read an article by academic Vijay Prashad, in the leftist publication Counterpunch. “Their daughter was not far behind. She was an active member of the VHPA, the U.S. branch of the most virulently fascistic outfit within India.”

In 2018, the CIA named the VHP (Vishva Hindu Parishad), the mother organization of the VHPA (Vishva Hindu Parishad of American), a religious militant outfit. 

In an interview this week, Shah neither embraced nor distanced herself from the organization and its work. She noted that she’d helped the VHP fundraise for victims of a 2001 earthquake in India and suggested she has not been associated with the group since. In the early days of the Obama administration, she said senior officials like John Podesta and Denis McDonough were not concerned by the allegations.

“They sort of laughed,” she recalled in an interview with Gothamist. “Because they thought it was dumb and said, ‘don't waste your time on that stuff. We've got other work to do.’”

At the time, she issued a statement, saying "My personal politics has nothing in common with views espoused by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or any such organisation,” adding, “I've always condemned any politics of division, of ethnic or religious hatred, of violence and intimidation as a political tool."

Soon thereafter, Shah was appointed the first director of the Obama administration’s newly launched Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.

Last year, Shah served on the Pete Buttigieg presidential campaign. She also worked on the congressional campaign of Qasim Rashid, a prominent Pakistani- and Muslim-American in Virginia. 

“Her not being a Muslim, [and yet] being so diligent and proactive in calling out Islamophobia by working with an American Muslim running for Congress, I think that action shows just how genuine she is,” Rashid said in an interview.

An official in the Biden White House said there is no policy to impose a litmus test on Indian-American appointees. But the rumor that there is one has run rampant through the Indian news media, since before Inauguration Day, and has generated anger from supporters of Modi. 

Parag Mehta, a former Obama administration official who served as Chief of Staff to Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, said it’s not just Hindus who are under scrutiny from progressives but Muslims who are opposed by Hindu groups aligned with Modi.

This amounted to a “guilt by affiliation,” he argued, “not because of a particular position that they've taken, but because of the family they come from or because of the connections of their family.”

Dozens of people carrying yellow flags and holding signs saying "Support Farmers" march on Fifth Avenue

Protesters lead a chant while gathering on Fifth Avenue outside the Consulate General of India, in the Manhattan borough of New York on January 26, 2021

Protesters lead a chant while gathering on Fifth Avenue outside the Consulate General of India, in the Manhattan borough of New York on January 26, 2021
John Minchillo/AP/Shutterstock

The increasingly toxic atmosphere has also affected people running for public office. 

An Indian-American Democrat, Sri Preston Kulkarni, just ran for Congress in suburban Houston. He outraised his Republican opponent Troy Nehls by a ratio of 3 to 1. But his donations included thousands of dollars from people who strongly support Modi and are active in prominent organizations aligned with the Modi government, such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

When that came to light, certain Muslim groups and South Asians withdrew their support for Kulkarni. Kulkarni ultimately lost to Nehls, a Republican who voted against certifying the electoral college vote for President Joe Biden. 

The episode was frustrating for Hindu leaders who backed Kulkarni.

“The uncompromising nature of these attacks makes it such that if a Muslim community member tried to raise money from Hindu community members, would they be ostracized for even reaching out to the Hindu community?” asked Rishi Bhutada, who helped organize the “Howdy, Modi!” celebration in Houston in 2019 and whose family supported Kulkarni.

Bhutada’s family and other Hindu leaders also endorsed a Muslim candidate for City Council in Sugarland, a major South Asian enclave outside Houston. For this, they were excoriated by other Hindus. One of them argued, on a private email thread obtained by Gothamist, “Let’s work to empower Hindus and Hindus only,” and that it was wrong to “appease Mullas,” a slur referring to Muslims.

Bhutada argued that recent events would only further exacerbate tensions between the two communities.

“There has to be a way for our communities to be able to work together knowing that we will have some differences on some foreign policy issues, but recognizing in the domestic policy realm that our issues are very much aligned.”

In New York City less than two weeks ago, supporters of the farmers in India protested outside the Indian Consulate

On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department issued a statement calling for dialogue between the government and farmers, and noting that peaceful protests are a “hallmark of any thriving democracy.”

Arun Venugopal reports for the Race & Justice Unit at Gothamist/WNYC.