If you want to get the pulse of the global India diaspora today, you need to be on WhatsApp.
The service, and its parent company Facebook, allows millions of immigrant Indians to consistently connect with their families back home. Many establish familywide group chats to keep in touch (I’m in a few of these myself). More than 400 million Indians use the service to communicate with one another and their relatives and friends in faraway countries, making the subcontinent the app’s largest market. Indian Americans also have their own insular WhatsApp and Facebook networks, through which they can share news and memes about the immigrant experience in America.
But Indian American voters, activists, and journalists across the country are noticing a darker side of these groups. Some forwarded me messages and screenshots from WhatsApp and Facebook groups they or others they knew personally were involved in. The tenor of these posts is remarkably similar to that of political WhatsApp messages within India, which tend to discuss domestic issues with vitriol. Both WhatsApp and Facebook are, infamously, primary sources of disinformation in India, having been leveraged by far-right institutions to stoke conflict and grievance, leading to mass death and tragedy.
The world has watched India’s politics turn increasingly ugly over the past few years, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi rose to power with a demagogic campaign of resentment against the country’s marginalized communities, helped in no small part by social media. This rage-filled animus trickled down into all branches of domestic life, turning every issue into a culture war, with far-right officials at all levels and of all political parties only happy to oblige. But what many have missed is how this same sentiment has infected Indian communities around the world, including those in the U.S. in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election.
This is not to say most Indian Americans are engaging in the same kinds of violent mob tactics, paramilitary exercises, and harassment campaigns that many in India have carried out, or doing it at anywhere near the same scale. But we’re seeing the ugliness of virtual Indian political discourse reach over the Atlantic, and it’s turning at least some Indian Americans far to the right.
The level of emotion shouldn’t be surprising. There has probably never been a U.S. election more significant for Indian Americans. Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris is a Black Indian American, the first person of South Asian descent to ascend to this role. Her running mate, Joe Biden, has released what is reportedly the first-ever U.S. campaign policy document aimed exclusively at Indian Americans. On the other side, Donald Trump has been the most publicly affectionate U.S. president toward any Indian political leader in history, and he’s proudly showed off his Indian American staffers and appointees; his former U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, spoke at this year’s Republican National Convention and touted her family story. Contra expectations for a solidly blue desi voting bloc, Trump and the GOP’s gambit could capture more Indian American votes this year—not enough to win even a plurality but possibly enough for a significant shift.
While the vast majority of Indian Americans are Democrats, there’s a turn happening at the margins. According to polls taken of the Indian American electorate by APIA Vote, the 2020 election could see the largest percentage of desis voting Republican ever. APIA Vote claims 28 percent of Indian Americans plan on voting Republican in November, a 12-point increase from 2016. A recent report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace finds the GOP-leaning voting portion to be significantly smaller—22 percent—but still notes a net increase of Republican voters and decrease of Democratic voters in this bloc, and sharp polarization between both groups.
The driving reason for this seems to be that a small but significant portion of the Indian American community is convinced that the Democrats are anti-Indian. The best place to see this argument in action is on social media. Go to a Facebook group of Indian Americans that features nonspecified political discussion, and you’ll likely find right-wing talking points sprinkled everywhere. Private groups that were brought to my attention, like Political Indian in America and Indian Community Group, as well as regional groups, like Desis in the Bay Area and Indians of DFW—Dallas–Fort Worth—feature links, videos, and memes of a far-right, “pro-Hindu,” and even pro–Donald Trump stance. Some are things you’d see in any Republican meme group: Dinesh D’Souza videos, Ben Garrison cartoons, and infographics bashing mainstream media outlets. But in this context, they also come with tributes to the Indian nationalist experience.
Anand Rao, a playwright who’s addressed Islamophobia in his work, told me over email that “all Trump-supporting Hindus are fans of Fox and other right-wing media outfits. Some Alex Jones and Breitbart goes around too.”
Political candidates sometimes drop in, too: Republican Nisha Sharma, who is running against incumbent Rep. Mark DeSaulnier for California’s 11th Congressional District, shared a rally post from her campaign’s Facebook page in the IACUS—Americans of Indian Origin group.
Some of these messages come with an undercurrent of anti-Black racism. Justine D’Souza, an Indian American grad student from New Jersey, informed me of anti–Black Lives Matter messages that were sent by WhatsApp and Facebook profiles she personally encountered, including images of racist memes made of George Floyd and other Black men.* She noted they were shared by older Indian Americans.
Another Indian American woman who forwarded WhatsApp messages to me and wished to remain anonymous told me over email that many older Indian Americans seem to believe that President Barack Obama “was not that good as he was black. … They think that he didn’t do anything for India. Many, because of his middle name and father being Muslim, didn’t trust him either.”
This sort of racist, Islamophobic distrust is spilling over to Biden and Harris, and the Democrats in general. Rao explained further: “One of my social media acquaintances is convinced that Kamala Harris is an ISIS stooge. They point at Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib as the justification for such beliefs. Also, I have seen people repeatedly bring up [Hawaii Rep.] Tulsi Gabbard and how she is ‘sidelined’ by the Democrats because of her Hindu beliefs, thus concluding that Democrats are ‘Hinduphobic.’ ”
Overall, polls show that Harris is popular among Indian Americans. It’s for that very reason that those who oppose her are ramping up the attacks as much as possible, to try to dissuade possible voters. As Karthik Soora, an organizer with the Houston branch of the liberal Indian American organization Desi Blue, told me, “People see that she’s extremely powerful in terms of incorporating and bringing in so many South Asians that are desis into Democratic politics. That’s why we’ve seen so many WhatsApp memes ensuing against her, attacking her political views.” The Hindu nationalist case against Harris includes her stance on India’s revocation of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region’s special status (which led to an oppressive lockdown and was internationally condemned) and her speaking out against the Citizenship Amendment Act, a blatantly Islamophobic law preventing certain Muslims from becoming Indian citizens.
Harris and the few Hindus and Muslims in Congress are frequent targets of WhatsApp and Facebook memes being shared among Indian Americans:
The political divide among Indian Americans is also a generational one. First-generation Indian immigrants, perhaps because their ties back to India are still so fresh and strong, are more likely to share such vitriolic messages, according to Hindutva researchers I spoke with. With second-generation Indian Americans, who may break away from their parents’ politics or have fewer firm ties to India, this is less the case. Older Indians are also much more frequent users of Facebook and WhatsApp, making them more susceptible to such information.
“WhatsApp culture with Indian parents is like … [forwarding] stuff and not thinking about it,” Justine D’Souza wrote me.* “There’s very little analysis; they’ve normalized sharing content for the sake of sharing it. At a certain point, it’s unclear how much they believe it and how much they just feel like they’re trying to pass on information or content.”
But, because of first-generation Indian Americans’ strong ties to India, and how much they keep up on news back at home (which has increasingly grabbed international attention as of late), the way their adopted homeland refers to their native land is of utmost importance. Thus, they view Harris’ stances on native issues on equal footing with U.S. policy: “There is a growing concern about Biden-Harris taking an anti-India stance about Kashmir and [the Citizenship Amendment Act],” Rao told me, noting the implication that it’s “anti-India” to take an opposite stance to the Modi administration’s actions.
One example of this phenomenon is the group Americans4Hindus, a “nonpartisan independent political action committee” established in December that advocates for a “Hindu Way of Living.” Despite this supposedly impartial stance, it has explicitly endorsed Trump, claiming that the left “bash[es] Hinduism” and that “members of the Progressive Caucus of the Democratic party … have aggrieved a large swath of the Hindu-American community.” (This is likely referring to progressive caucus co-chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s consistent efforts to have Congress take action on India’s human rights abuses.) The PAC was part of a #Hindus4Trump virtual rally in July, to which more than 100,000 Indian Americans tuned in.
Another link shared often in desi social networks is Hindugenocide.com, which purports to bring attention to “the untold Holocaust of Hindus,” which is apparently “ongoing” due to “massacre[s], forced conversions, Jihad.” (The site collects various, often unrelated news stories and “estimates” from Christian organizations to make this dubious point.)
And those who go after Harris are not afraid to go after her family as well. I recently came upon a Change.org petition by Global Hindu, a California-based religious network whose Facebook page header calls Christianity a “lunatic asylum,” that demanded “the Biden-Harris campaign … issue an apology to the Global Hindu community for the desecration of Goddess Devi Durga, especially during the auspicious and sacred time of Navaratri.” This refers to a now-deleted tweet by Meena Harris, Kamala’s niece, which displayed a painting of the Hindu goddess Durga riding a lion and about to kill the demon Mahishasura, but with Kamala’s face in place of Durga’s, Biden’s in place of the lion’s, and Trump’s in place of Mahishasura’s. The tweet was meant to mark the first day of Navaratri, an auspicious festival for Hindus. Many of them took umbrage with Meena’s tweet, sending tweets attacking her as well as using the incident as further grist for general broadsides against the Biden-Harris campaign. In addition to the petition, a WhatsApp group called #Harris Durga Desecration was set up to circulate the petition, request boosts of angered social media posts, send anti-Democratic graphics for sharing, and strategize about the best ways to mobilize Hindus and counter the Biden-Harris campaign, leading to plenty of arguments and infighting.
It’s worth taking a big-picture look to see why all this is happening. Indian Americans may not be a hefty portion of the electorate—there are a little over 4 million in the U.S., only about 1 percent of the population—but they are a high-turnout group, growing quickly in both size and influence. And, while the largest population of Indian Americans resides in California, significant communities are also found in Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas. All happen to be swing or battleground states this year, places where even a marginal shift among one bloc of voters could not only tip states but the national election itself.
Indians are also more visible on the national political stage. There are more desis in Congress and statehouses than ever before, with many up for reelection, and still others running for their first seats. Indian Americans are playing significant roles in both Democratic and Republican campaigns. Issues pertaining to India, even outside of direct U.S.-India relations, have consistently become high-stakes sources of conflict on the Hill. As Sruti Suryanarayanan, of the Asian American social justice group South Asian Americans Leading Together, told me, “This election season’s going to be really wild because we’ve never seen Indian Americans so specifically pandered to by two electoral candidates in such different ways.”
The Hindu nationalist influence in American politics has been growing for several years. One example last year was seen in the “Howdy, Modi” rally in Houston, a joint event for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Trump that featured more than 50,000 attendees and was funded by the Texas India Forum—which, as reported by the Intercept, has direct institutional and financial ties to the Nazi-inspired, Hindu supremacist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh organization, a group Modi was once a member of that provided the basis for India’s current ruling coalition, the far-right Bharatiya Janata Party. There are multiple reports of funding flowing from political organizations in India toward their international branches in the U.S., with that money then going toward campaign donations, lobbying, event planning, and general Indian American organizing. It’s part of a new soft power approach by the BJP, which is hoping to make its hard-right ideology, only recently a dominant force in Indian politics, representative of India as a whole.
Biden will almost certainly win more Indian American votes, but it should still be concerning to Democrats that this voting bloc seems to be showing creeping shades of red as of late. Even if the GOP doesn’t win most desi hearts this time, certain Indian Americans are heeding the messages coming from overseas branches of right-wing Indian institutions and are currently setting the stage, through social media and other outlets, to turn more Indian Americans to the right. Already, domestic desi political organizers are leveraging WhatsApp to their advantage: “Groups like Indians for Trump and the Republican Hindu Coalition have done WhatsApp campaigns in the past,” freelance journalist Kiran Misra told me over email.
It hasn’t worked—yet. But it isn’t going unnoticed.
Correction, Oct. 22, 2020: This piece originally misidentified Justine D’Souza as Justine House.