NEW DELHI — A tweet by Tulsi Gabbard, the only woman remaining in the US presidential race, about experiencing “Hinduphobia” in the US has added fuel to escalating communal tensions in India.
“Unfortunately, Hinduphobia is very real,” Gabbard wrote, “I've experienced it directly in each of my campaigns for Congress & in this presidential race."
Gabbard quote-tweeted a US-based psychiatrist from Kashmir, who shared a screenshot of an anonymous Facebook post with the comment: “Blatantly biased news & anti-Hindu propaganda has real-world consequences for innocent people.”
The anonymous Facebook post described an alleged encounter between two women and their Uber driver, who blamed Indian Hindus for “killing Muslims in New Delhi,” when he learned the women were Hindu. The driver then allegedly asked the women to get out of his car. BuzzFeed News has reached out to Gabbard and the woman she retweeted to find out more about the Facebook post, which could not be independently verified or located online.
Gabbard’s tweet has since been shared on right-wing news websites in India and discussed on news channels.
It comes at an especially tense time in India, which has witnessed a week of horrifying communal violence in its capital, New Delhi.
The violence began as a series of skirmishes between Hindus and Muslims on Feb. 23, a day after a member of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s Hindu nationalist ruling party, threatened to displace a group of Muslim women protesters by force. The women were protesting a discriminatory new citizenship law passed by the BJP.
On Feb. 24, as Modi welcomed Donald and Melania Trump for a 36-hour visit, entire neighborhoods of northeast New Delhi were burnt down, and at least four mosques desecrated.
The number of people killed as a result of the rioting is still rising — a hospital in New Delhi estimated the death toll was over 50. As of last week, bodies are still being recovered from of a drain in the neighborhood where the worst of the violence occurred.
Yet by Monday, these skirmishes had escalated into an attack on northeast New Delhi’s Muslim residents. A growing body of evidence — including video footage of police rioting alongside Hindu men — suggests members of New Delhi’s police chose to side with the Hindu community.
Indian Twitter has been deeply divided over whether the violence was in fact anti-Muslim, or a spontaneous outburst that affected “both sides.”
Hindu and Muslim lives have been lost in the violence. But the the footage of the police suggests the Hindu mobs acted with an impunity stemming from the belief that they had the support of the state. In recent weeks, BJP leaders appeared to prepare the ground for precisely such a confrontation, making several speeches across New Delhi asking citizens to “shoot the traitors.”
Stories like the one Gabbard retweeted, where Hindu or Muslim working-class people enact a kind of “revenge” on their employers or customers, abound on Indian Twitter.
On Feb. 7, an Uber driver took a poet who had protested the citizenship bill to a police station instead of his actual destination, where he was interrogated for two hours. The driver was suspended but then reinstated by Uber — before that he was given an “Alert Citizen Prize” prize by the BJP. This week, another alleged report about a “Muslim maid” mixing spit and urine into her employers’ food went viral on right-wing Twitter, but it was later discovered that the video was nine years old and the woman in the footage was not Muslim.
These stories are frequently accompanied by calls for economic boycotts of Muslim businesses.
Gabbard was raised in Hawaii by a Catholic father and a Hindu mother. She has said she was immersed in the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita, and reportedly kept her childhood copy of it with her when she was deployed as a medical administrator to Iraq. Later, she gifted the same copy to Modi himself.
While Gabbard has some progressive domestic politics, these views are at odds with her support for authoritarians, including Modi, Egyptian President Fatth El-Sisi, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. She also has a long history of courting the right wing in India, profiled extensively in the Indian magazine Caravan.
Ram Madhav, then a BJP spokesperson but previously a longtime executive of a paramilitary Hindu supremacist group that is widely regarded as the parent organization of the BJP itself, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, delivered gifts to Gabbard from Modi on her wedding day in April 2015.