This article was originally published on 24th January 2019
"For too long, the U.S. has turned a blind eye to the atrocities being committed against civilians in Yemen by the Saudi-U.S. coalition…[a] genocidal war that has killed tens of thousands of Yemeni civilians with bombs and mass starvation, creating the worst humanitarian crisis in the world…The time for crocodile tears and baseless platitudes is over. Enough is enough. The U.S must end its support for Saudi Arabia and stop waging interventionist wars [unauthorized by Congress] that increase destruction, death and suffering around the world…"
You wouldn’t be surprised if this was a speech given by Vladimir Putin or Bashar Assad. But this isn’t a quote from the Kremlin or Damascus. It part of a speech by a member of the U.S. Congress who’s joined the running to be selected as the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee: Tulsi Gabbard.
U.S. politicians criticizing imperialist U.S. foreign policy interventions, this time in the Middle East, and helpfully excluding other major world powers’ own interventions, is exactly the message Russia seeks to amplify through its propaganda channels. On cue, Russia's 24 hour English news channel, RT, serially posted Gabbard’s video clip on their YouTube channel with the headline that read: "Speeches that still matter: Rep Gabbard on bringing an end to U.S. interventionism."
Was Gabbard’s speech a genuinely passionate plea on humanitarian grounds, to the powers that be, to end the humanitarian crisis in Yemen? Or was it carefully constructed political opportunism? One clear way to triangulate the authenticity of her call would be to test how consistently Gabbard has called out state-led humanitarian crises and deaths around the world.
The death and destruction in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere is heartbreaking. It’s difficult for any conscientious human being to be insensitive to grotesque acts of war where civilians are bombed or gassed to death. But what is perplexing is Tulsi’s selective geographic umbrage on this issue.
On the one hand, she condemns the Saudi-U.S. led coalition as complicit in a genocidal war, but she welcomes India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been called the "man with a massacre on his hands" with open arms.
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Some background: In 2002, Modi was chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat when fire broke out in a train full of Hindu pilgrims. This is how The Guardian’s Aditya Chakrabortty describes what followed:
"Within hours and without a shred of evidence, Modi declared that the Pakistani secret services had been to blame; he then had the charred bodies paraded in the main city of Ahmedabad; and let his own party support a state-wide strike for three days.
"What followed was mass bloodshed: 1,000 dead on official estimates, more than 2,000 by independent tallies. The vast majority of those who died were Muslim. Mobs of men dragged women and young girls out of their homes and raped them…One [of the ringleaders] boasted of how he slit open the womb of a pregnant woman."
There were clear signs that the attackers benefitted from state-level support. The attackers, armed with swords, machetes or iron bars, carried computer print-outs listing the addresses of Muslim families, shops and businesses, according to a report in The Telegraph.
Across Gujarat, 180 mosques were destroyed or damaged along with thousands of Muslim-owned businesses and homes. Callers to police stations were told: "We don't have orders to save you," and "We cannot help you, we have orders from above." Survivors called for this to be recognized not by the over-used term of ‘intercommunal riots’ but rather a pogrom, or attempted genocide.
The U.S. government’s belief in Modi’s complicity was clear when it rejected his request for a U.S. visa in 2005, by which time he had become leader of India’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP). He was excluded under a provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act that "makes any government official who was responsible for or directly carried out at any time particularly severe violations of religious freedom ineligible for a visa."
President Obama overturned the visa ban in 2016. India’s courts have exonerated Modi. He has, on numerous occasions, says he has "moved on." But the ghosts of Gujarat haven’t moved anywhere.
Tulsi Gabbard has an exceptional appreciation for Modi.
Hers is a very personal rapport. She presented him with her own copy of the Bhagavad-Gita, on which she took her Congressional oath of office, when he visited the U.S. Modi sent her with "a beautiful message of Krishna" for her wedding. Gabbard then presented him with a CD of music from her wedding.
Upon Mr Modi’s invitation, she took a trip to India where she was widely regarded as the "darling of the BJP and the RSS" – the RSS (a right-wing, Hindu nationalist, paramilitary volunteer organization) being the BJP’s ideological "parent." Both groups, which wield enormous power in India, take pride in a narrow, chauvinistic view of India as a Hindu country where Muslims and other minorities should be considered second-class citizens.
Such was her affinity that Tulsi opposed House Resolution 417 - "Praising India’s rich religious diversity and commitment to tolerance and equality, and reaffirming the need to protect the rights and freedoms of religious minorities" - that was seen as a veiled criticism of Modi. She even tried to brush away the Gujarat pogrom by saying, "There was a lot of misinformation that surrounded the event in 2002."
When it comes to Modi, Gabbard seems to have no pangs of conscience about "destruction, death and suffering" and comfortably wipes the blood off the hands of those complicit in murder.
Why would Tulsi Gabbard damn what she sees as America’s complicity in Yemen but embrace an authoritarian foreign leader with blood on his hands? Why does she openly support and endorse Modi’s poor track record on human rights? What distinction does Gabbard draw between the thousands of Muslims massacred in Gujarat and the thousands of Muslims who died in Yemen? Why isn’t she making a similarly passionate plea to Prime Minister Modi to stop the ongoing mob lynchings and rapes in India?
One obvious reason she won’t do that is the financial and electoral benefits she accrues from openly supporting Modi. By displaying her carefully cultivated public support for Modi, she has won the support of many Indian Americans - particularly those with links to the RSS - by flaunting her 'loyal' Hindu identity.
Though not of Indian origin, Gabbard has been warmly embraced by pro-Modi elements of the Hindu-American diaspora in the U.S., many of whom came forward and donated generously to her campaign. According to The Intercept, "Nearly one-third of Gabbard’s overall donations - $1.24 million - came from more than 800 individual donors with names…of Hindu origin, many of whom made repeat donations."
It’s not just the Hindu right who love Gabbard. America’s resurgent hard and far right agrees, not least because she was an outspoken critic of the Obama administration’s alleged reluctance to recognize that "Islamic extremists are our enemy."
Steve Bannon "loves Tulsi Gabbard." He thinks she "gets the foreign policy stuff, the Islamic terrorism stuff." Tucker Carlson loves her Assad-as-genocidaire skepticism, David Duke loves how she’s realigning U.S. politics, and Richard Spencer lauds her "bravery" in the diplomatic field.
Her own aunt, Caroline Sinavaiana Gabbard, has noted her discomfort with this mixed bag of endorsements, in low-key language: Gabbard "has a notably mixed voting record, and associations that veer from certain progressive causes to the apparent courting of strongmen such as Narendra Modi, Bashar al-Assad, and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (not to mention Trump) - this zigzagging path through positions is vexing."
Bannon was so impressed with Gabbard as a potential ally that as he brokered a meeting between her and the newly-installed President Donald Trump. Tulsi jumped at the opportunity: in her own words, "I walked out thinking that there may be some opportunity to work with this administration to shift our foreign policy in a more positive, less destructive direction."
Amongst other obvious obstacles to a Democratic congresswomen freelancing coordination with the White House, her dream of a foreign policy "shift" getting a presidential stamp burst when she went to Damascus, met Bashar Assad, and claimed that she was "skeptical" of claims that Assad’s government was to blame for Syria’s genocide.
Those Assad apologetics are rightly one reason why Gabbard’s once-rising-star among Democrats is stalling. But her pro-Modi apologetics, far less examined and far more seldom interrogated in the U.S. media, should have been just as good a reason to repudiate her candidacy.
A fellow at the University of Oxford's Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and a graduate of the London School of Economics, Shrenik Rao is a digital entrepreneur and filmmaker. Rao revived the Madras Courier, a 232-year-old newspaper, as a digital publication of which he is the editor-in-chief. Twitter: @ShrenikRao