On a sunny September afternoon in Manhattan, a motley group of Indian Americans stood behind blue wooden police barriers across the street from the United Nations Plaza, chanting vigorously.
“Pakistan is terroristan, terroristan is Pakistan.”
“Where was Bin Laden? Pakistan, Pakistan.”
“Free, free Balochistan.”
“Who is a rogue state? Pakistan, Pakistan.”
Indoors, at the UN General Assembly, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called the world’s attention to the plight of Kashmiris.
The protest was organised by the American Friends of Balochistan and the Overseas Friends of the Bharatiya Janata Party, along with other Indian-American groups. The Overseas Friends of the BJP is Hindu nationalist party's foreign arm. The US chapter of the Overseas Friends of the BJP, with more than 4,000 members, was well represented at the September 21 protest.
The demonstration aimed to highlight alleged human rights violations by the Pakistani army in Balochistan, a resource-rich Pakistani province bordering Afghanistan and Iran, for long wracked by a separatist war.
“This is something we have to do as Indians,” said Krishna Reddy Anugula, president of the Overseas Friends of the BJP US chapter, speaking on the sidelines of the protest. “Pakistan is exporting terrorism throughout the world.”
Not everyone in attendance was there purely out of empathy for Balochistanis. Tensions between India and Pakistan reached a crescendo recently. For the past few months, the Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been trying to bring attention to the tumult in Balochistan, as a tactical response to Pakistan’s raking up of the turmoil in Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian diaspora has been key to that effort.
“Pakistan, which is talking about Jammu and Kashmir every morning and evening, doesn’t want the world to take notice of what’s happening in its own backyard,” said Vijay Chauthaiwale, a former microbiologist who looks after foreign affairs for the BJP and coordinates the Overseas Friends of the BJP’s various chapters. “It is our duty to show the mirror to Pakistan. This can be best done, not only in India but also all over the world.” Similar protests have been held in Germany, Switzerland, and Australia, said Chauthaiwale, who is based in New Delhi.
The protest is the latest example of the growing voice of Overseas Friends of the BJP, which has transformed into a vocal advocate of India’s interests across the globe. Limited to acting as a social and cultural platform for the Indian diaspora for many years, the group has taken up active advocacy, particularly in the US, since the BJP came to power in 2014.
Back to Babri
In 1992, the BJP’s “Ram Janmbhoomi” movement was in full swing. The campaign aimed to reclaim the site where the Babri mosque was built, which it claimed was the birthplace of the Hindu deity Ram.
“The BJP was getting a lot of bad press all over the world and particularly in the US,” recalled Adapa Prasad, vice-president of the Overseas Friends of the BJP in the US. To counter this, Lal Krishna Advani, then BJP president, decided to launch an overseas wing “to educate American lawmakers, the American people and the Indian American community about the true principles of the BJP,” he said. That April, the first chapter of the Overseas Friends of the BJP was launched in the US. Months later, in December 1992, a large mob of Hindu right-wing activists brought down the 16-century Babri mosque.
At the time it was formed, Overseas Friends of the BJP mostly sent out flyers to American lawmakers about what the BJP stood for and attempted to counter the negative publicity it garnered due to the Ram Janmbhoomi movement. Even today, the group’s foremost goal is to project a positive image of India in the American press and correct any alleged distortions in the international media’s reporting on India.
When the BJP came to power between 1998 and 2004, the Overseas Friends of the BJP became more active. In 1998, for instance, after India conducted nuclear weapons tests, the country faced American sanctions. At the time, Prasad said, the Overseas Friends of the BJP leaders played a role in talking to congressmen and senators in Washington DC.
In 2001, when terrorists allegedly sponsored by the Pakistani government attacked the Indian parliament, Prasad, who acts as the Washington liaison for the organisation, led a group of 200 people in a demonstration before the White House. The Overseas Friends of the BJP also made a presentation to 30 American lawmakers to convince them of the “duplicitous nature” of the Pakistani intelligence services, he said.
Call to action
From 2004 until 2014, while the rival Congress party was in power in India, activities of the Overseas Friends of the BJP in the US were largely limited to arranging community outreach and holding events whenever BJP leaders came visiting. But in June 2009, one month after the BJP suffered a staggering loss in the national election, 250 Overseas Friends of the BJP members gathered at the Home Wood Suites hotel in Herndon, Virginia.
At that meeting, its executive committee agreed that BJP supporters living in America should make a more robust contribution during the next election in 2014. They began preparations and produced a white paper that described how the Indian media had allegedly humiliated the BJP and proposed a press strategy for the party, which was presented to BJP leaders in India. “We resolved to activate the Indian American community,” Prasad said.
Over the next few years, the Overseas Friends of the BJP in the US worked with the group’s chapters in UK, Canada, and Australia to formulate plans for the upcoming campaign. By 2013, the organisation had established chapters in about 40 countries, and began to hold meetings and Google hangouts with BJP leaders in India, to discuss campaign strategy.
In the months leading up to the election campaign, the group held several chai-pe-charchas (discussions over tea), yoga events, and charity runs. It also organised volunteers to call voters in India – where many of the group’s members, friends, and family stay – and apparently reached out to half-a-million people on the telephone.
It did not raise funds, but members spent their own money on campaigning. Upto 3,000 volunteers, Prasad among them, travelled to India, taking time out from work. Significantly, the 2014 national election was also the first general election when the 10 million non-residents Indians who have retained Indian citizenship were allowed to vote, but would have to travel back to cast their ballot.
In May 2014, when the party won the election with a clear majority and Modi became prime minister, the Overseas Friends of the BJP’s contribution was widely acknowledged in Indian media.
India’s voice abroad
The Overseas Friends of the BJP’s transformation is part of the renewed importance given to the Indian diaspora by the Indian prime minister. Part of this push has been the mega events during Modi’s foreign visits.
On his first visit to the US after being elected, Modi addressed a crowd of 19,000 Indian Americans and more than two dozen members of Congress at a large event at Madison Square Garden. The Overseas Friends of the BJP, along with 540 other Indian American organisations, put together a theatrical show more fitting for a rock star than a political leader.
As a cheering crowd chanted his name and waved the Indian flag, Modi thanked the Indian American community for its support. To roars of approval, he announced that he would simplify visa procedures for foreigners of Indian descent. “I might live miles away from you, but I do understand your issues,” said Modi to a cheering crowd.
“It is not that the diaspora was disengaged during the previous regime. It simply was not harnessed in quite the same way,” said Milan Vaishnav, senior associate for the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There was NRI investment, deep people-to-people connections, and political engagement with India – but Modi has taken what he inherited and turned up the volume.”
Now, with the party at the head of the national government, the Overseas Friends of the BJP’s national chapters are redirecting their efforts to act as pressure groups in their home countries. While these efforts are being made in several countries where there is a big Indian diaspora, such as Canada, UK, Australia and Kenya, the group’s biggest presence is in the US.
The group is trying to spread information about the government’s development and reform agenda by holding meetings with local diaspora members, sending out emails and newsletters, and interacting with members of the media. They have also begun to arrange personal meetings with local lawmakers, political leaders, and congressmen. “The members of Overseas Friends of the BJP were meeting them in the past, but now we are doing it more systematically and it is giving us good results,” said Chauthaiwale.
“It is almost, in some sense, a parallel structure to official government channels as represented by Indian embassies and consulates abroad,” said Vaishnav. “Right now, the two seem to be working together – because the political leadership has sent a strong signal.”
In America, the Overseas Friends of the BJP has begun to have an active presence on Capitol Hill. Prasad said he interacts with Republican and Democratic party think-tanks, lawmakers, and the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans to discuss subjects such as economic cooperation between the US and India, global terrorism, and relations with Pakistan. “If there is a hearing going on related to Pakistan, such as America sending F-16 (jet fighters) to Pakistan, we work with other Indian organisations to block those F-16s,” said Prasad.
As India becomes a strategic partner of the US, Prasad says his work in Washington is ever more important. “India is a very sought after brand and basically projected as an alternative to China in the United States,” he explained. “Now, we have a more visible role in the world community.”
High on the agenda in the US is also promoting investments, trade, tourism, and philanthropy in India. “We are also reaching out to Americans to tell them how easy it is to do business in India, how things are changing,” said Reddy Anugula, the Overseas Friends of the BJP US chapter president.
The group also works on promoting the Hindu religion and helps to conserve and build temples in India, said Raju Batheja, a member of the group, at the protest outside the UN. “We try to make it very clear that we are Hindus, we are promoting Hindutva,” said Batheja. “There are so many educated intellectuals who are trying to squash Hinduism.” She added that group members often work closely with the Hindu American Foundation on these goals.
Modi’s efforts to connect with the diaspora have not been for naught. “We feel like we have a government that values us that cares about us,” said Reddy Anugula.
The importance given to them has also helped change the perception of the diaspora in their home countries. “The diaspora has gained a new identity and prestige and they also felt that they are also part of the overall good things that are happening in India,” said Chauthaiwale. “That has also raised their station in their own countries. Suddenly people are taking a note of the presence of the diaspora as a technological and intellectual force, and in some cases even a political force to reckon with.”
In between chants at the Sept. 21 protest outside the UN, members of the group handed out snacks and refreshments, catching up with each other and calling friends who hadn’t yet made it there. “We want to do anything we can to help Mr. Modi from here,” said Batheja, holding up a sign that said, “Save world from Pakistan terror”.
“I think we care more for India than the people who are living there. People think that ‘oh they have left India’. No, we were born there. After all, it is our motherland.”
This article first appeared on Quartz.