How suburban influence defeated a resolution to condemn the Indian government | Feature | Chicago Reader

How suburban influence defeated a resolution to condemn the Indian government 

The fiery opposition warned of "outside agitators," but most were weighing in from outside the city themselves.

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The first public comment at February’s City Council meeting wasn’t about vaccine access, or the Office of Inspector General report on the Chicago Police Department’s brutality during last summer’s protests, or even the mayor’s decision to ease business capacity and social distancing restrictions while the pandemic raged.

First was Nirmala Reddy, who spoke against Resolution R2020-583, which would recognize India’s Independence Day and condemn human rights abuses in the country. The next speaker, Cyrus Rabb, spoke in support of the resolution, noting that India’s Prime Minister Narenda Modi, “presided over a pogrom where over a thousand Indians were killed, mostly Muslims,” saying that, “this is not some outlier for him—Modi belongs to a militant, xenophobic organization called the RSS, which explicitly draws inspiration from Adolf Hitler.” Then actor Michael Shannon, best known for roles in Boardwalk Empire and The Shape of Water, testified in support of the resolution, quoting Martin Luther King Jr.’s “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere.” None of this was an anomaly. The previous month’s meeting was also dominated by debate on the resolution.

In December 2019, the Indian Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which excluded Muslims from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh from being granted citizenship in India and made religion a factor in citizenship decisions for the first time under Indian law. This was the latest Hindu nationalist policy to be implemented in the country and many Muslims, indigenous populations, and more feared that the CAA, along with a new state identity register with stringent proof requirements called the National Register of Citizens (NRC), would eventually render them stateless.

Shortly after, Seattle passed a resolution condemning the human rights abuses in India. Then Albany, New York; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Alameda County, California, passed similar resolutions. In Chicago, people across the South Asian American community working on getting a similar resolution passed here formed the Chicago Coalition for Human Rights in India. Pushkar Sharma, a member of the Coalition and 49th Ward resident who works as a consultant for the United Nations, approached his alderman Maria Hadden in July to bring the issue to her attention.

Over 100,000 Indian Americans live in Chicago and Hadden’s 49th Ward is one of the most diverse in the country. The ward overlaps with the Devon Avenue area, where a large proportion of the city’s South Asian Americans live and work. “What we called for is that we should not have religious oppression in democracies—it's something here in our country that we work on and have to hold ourselves to higher standards on, and we want that accountability in other places as well,” Hadden told me.

Since many, if not most, Chicago City Council resolutions are nonbinding and require no subsequent action on the part of the city, resolutions often pass through a vote at a City Council meeting without a committee hearing. Hadden prepared the resolution for vote in July, ahead of India’s August Independence Day.

“The Consul General of India became aware of the resolution, raised some concerns, and didn't want it to pass through the agreed calendar,” explained Hadden. “The mayor’s office got involved and we decided to introduce it to committee and go through the more robust democratic process to allow more people to voice their opinions.” Before the resolution was reintroduced, the mayor’s office mandated that the Coalition revise the text of the resolution in response to the backlash from the Indian Consulate. At the end of November, the mayor’s office revisited the resolution, holding a series of meetings to revise the text.

The changes the deputy mayor informed Coalition members that “the other side” had requested included removing the names of any elected official and specific references to former President Donald Trump or Prime Minister Modi. To the Coalition, this seemed like a doable concession. The mayor’s office then sent the Coalition a revised, significantly shortened version of the resolution, which included cuts to paragraphs six and eight. The Coalition felt they couldn’t compromise on these edits.

These two paragraphs, in particular, should have been some of the least controversial of the resolution. Paragraph six quoted word for word from a statement from the federal government's Commission on International Religious Freedom and paragraph eight was directly copied and pasted from President Joe Biden’s statements on human rights abuses in India.

“It is abnormal for this type of back-and-forth negotiating compromise on resolutions and it's especially unusual for foreign governments to have such a say in a legislative process for the city of Chicago,” said Hadden. Coalition members agreed, telling the mayor’s office that while they were happy to discuss the text with other Chicago residents and City Council members, they did not want to negotiate with a foreign government or nonresidents.

Meanwhile, the Coalition—whose members span from college students to uncles and aunties, and are affiliated with organizations like Hindus for Human Rights, Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, the Sikh Seva Foundation of Chicago, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), Human Rights Watch Chicago, Amnesty International USA, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and more—was kept largely in the dark about who exactly they were negotiating against.

The mayor’s office said in a statement to the Reader that “the City heard from a wide range of stakeholders regarding this resolution including, but not limited to, human rights advocates, the South Asian diaspora, and the Indian government.” Similarly, the Indian Consulate said in a statement that “the Consulate has conveyed its concerns and provided the necessary facts, context, and background to appropriate interlocutors.”

Dr. Bharat Barai of the US India Friendship Council, an organization opposing the resolution, said that any statements about conversations between the mayor’s office and critics of the resolution are “an absolute lie,” contradicting both the mayor’s office and the consulate. “This is being propagated as a lie, there was no consultation with the Consul General, because I do talk directly to the Consul,” said Barai, who is based in Indiana. “There were no negotiations with our organization, or for that matter any Indian organization that we know. This is an absolute lie. And you can quote me on that, this is an absolute lie.”

There are currently no South Asian Americans, or even Asian Americans, in City Council. Ameya Pawar, the first and only Asian American alderman, retired in 2019 but was vocal about his support for the resolution and concern about who was getting a say in whether it would pass. “In the CAA, it wasn't just Muslims who were excluded from citizenship,” explained Pawar. “It was also Jews. And my wife is Jewish and my daughter's Jewish. This hits me on a personal level.”

He continued. “I find it surprising that an emissary or foreign government would directly lobby elected officials in a different country. It is one thing to give your stated opinion or the Indian government's official opinion. It's another thing to directly lobby legislators—I find that to be a troubling precedent. I would encourage them to check the city’s ethics ordinance.”

When the resolution finally made it to the Committee on Health and Human Relations on February 11, Sharma spoke in favor, as a constituent of the sponsoring alderman.

“Having a Hindu speak about this versus, say, a Sikh or Muslim makes a big difference,” said Jasvir Singh, who supported the resolution as a member of the Sikh Religious Society of Chicago. “If it was a Muslim or a Sikh or Dalit testifying, we would definitely have been targeted, we have family back home and they would have been targeted.” Singh wasn’t exaggerating: from Australia to California, Sikhs have been attacked by Hindu nationalists for speaking out against the Indian government over the last few months. And given the power the Indian Consulate has over visas, travel, and immigration, many feared direct retaliation from the government.

An Indian American from a northwest suburb spoke against the resolution. “They had someone from Bartlett who parroted the Indian government's propaganda and then referred to supporters of the resolution as ‘hijacking’ the public comment period, which was just a racist dog whistle,” said Sharma. “The public comment is a lottery.” Prospective speakers submit their requests in advance of the meeting and are chosen through a random number selection by the city’s sergeant-at-arms. Other dog whistles included the public commenters’ frequent references to CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, as leveraging the money of terrorist groups to advance the resolution, stoking the flames of Islamophobia in the Hindu community.

CAIR’s endorsement of the resolution, as just one of over 150 organizations and businesses who expressed their support, came up so often during public comment at City Council meetings that I was not surprised when Barai directed the conversation to CAIR during our interview. “The Council on American-Islamic Relations is the organization that has done this all over the country. They are the ones who are drafting it, they are the ones who are moving it,” he says. “CAIR is enjoying little bit of honeymoon relationship because Joe Biden thinks that, ‘oh yeah this guy's delivered 3.1 million votes to us.’”

According to City Council members, even having someone at a committee hearing to speak against a resolution is extremely rare. But in the weeks prior to the meeting, retired Alderman Joe Moore of the 49th Ward, Hadden’s predecessor, had written an e-mail to the mayor’s office as a privately funded lobbyist for the US India Friendship Council objecting to the resolution. In a post on Facebook, Moore claimed that Hadden’s advocacy for the resolution was a sign that Moore was, “living rent free in [Hadden’s] head.”

The Friendship Council was founded in 2020 and is explicitly and primarily concerned with maintaining a positive portrayal of Hindus abroad, according to its website. When I asked Barai, a “longtime Modi friend and confidante,” about this, he responded, “I don't read my website, OK? Because I don't make the website.”

The Friendship Council is located outside of the city in Carol Stream, Illinois, a city which is a hub for right-wing Hindu nationalist organizing. Just a few years ago, organizations like India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu nationalist group responsible for acts of violence and harsh policies against minorities in India, helped host the World Hindu Conference in the suburb, where attendees used religious slurs against and violently attacked human rights advocates. The Republican Hindu Coalition, which was co-chaired by Steve Bannon, is also headquartered in Carol Stream.

I asked Moore whether the Friendship Council was based in the city. “I don’t know what you mean by ‘based,’” he said. “But my answer is, ‘so the hell what?’ Who cares where their address is? I really fail to see how residency matters, to me that's a red herring.” Meanwhile, the City Council, Moore’s former employer, states on its website that its function is, “representing the interests of ward residents.” During their campaign against the resolution, the Friendship Council also held a press conference in Elk Grove, another nearby suburb.

Moore said that there were “outside agitators” promoting the resolution and that he was approached by old Indian friends to oppose it. He later clarified that these friends were paying him as a lobbyist. He was paid $2,500 a quarter.

In the e-mail to the mayor’s office, Moore claimed that two paragraphs of the resolution were “offensive,” specifically paragraphs eight and nine, which discuss the importance of ensuring that international human rights law is upheld, condemning religiously motivated violence, and disavowing violence against protesters and journalists.

“There are people, you know, good people who have differing opinions . . . I have a lot of friends in the Muslim community. Some of my strongest supporters are Muslims,” said Moore when I asked him about this. “There's probably, you know, stain on everybody's hands and there's also good intentions from everybody.”

I asked which well-intentioned events he was referencing, perhaps the rape and murder of a Dalit girl in 2020 or the mob lynchings of Muslims that have become common among Hindu nationalists in Delhi in recent years. “I'm not going to be any more specific,” Moore said.

When I asked Barai the same question, he felt similarly. “People try to weaponize it and try to say that because five incidents of lynching occurred in India, the whole country is against Muslims—there are more Hindus that have been killed in United States by haters than the number of Muslims killed in India.” (This is not true.)

He continued, explaining, “Nobody gives divine right to everybody to interfere in everybody. If there is something going on in my neighbor's house and I don't like that, I can report it to the police, but I cannot take law into my hand and start lecturing my neighbor, ‘don’t spank your kid.’ So I can't start interfering in my neighbor's house or my neighborhood, because ‘injustice to one person is injustice to everybody.’ These are all nice catchy slogans to win elections and get votes, but try to do that to your neighbor, he will shoot you.”

In the end, the resolution passed unanimously through committee.

“I've gotten lots of e-mails and phone calls, I've had meetings with people,” said Hadden. “And one of the big things people want to bring up is human rights violations in other countries, like, ‘What about Pakistan?’ or ‘What about this other country?’ That’s outside the scope of this resolution.”

Indeed, at the City Council meetings Shashir Shetty asked, “Why maliciously corner India?” insisting that human rights abuses in countries like Tibet and against Uyghurs in China need to be included too. Kiran Gajendra compared protesting Sikh farmers in India to the Capitol insurrectionists and claimed that India should not be criticized, since the government is not actively and officially withholding vaccines from any of its populations.

But perhaps the most interesting element of these testimonies was the ability of those who did not support the resolution to cloak statements supporting policies that will hurt already marginalized populations in the language of social justice.

One speaker called the resolution “microagression 101” and accused Hadden of “discrimination against Brown-skinned Indians,” notwithstanding the Brown-skinned Indians who strongly supported the resolution and brought the issue to Hadden’s attention. Another claimed that the CAA “protects the rights of persecuted religious minorities . . . Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and other minorities are constantly discriminated against in theocracies,” never mind the fact that Hindus are clearly not discriminated against in India, where the law is to go into effect.

Another speaker warned that the passage of the resolution would be a forebearer of “cancel culture increasing throughout Chicagoland, the land of Lincoln.” Unless the Indian government could be “canceled” with the passage of this resolution (it can’t), it is not accurate or honest to say that calling for the government to cease the subjugation of religious and ethnic minorities is a form of cancel culture. Yet another speaker instructed, “I sincerely hope the City Council will not gaslight our conscience.”

Replies on Hadden and Pawar’s social media accounts range from threatening to insulting, making racist comments about the representatives’ appearances, spouses, and more. Other comments show Indians making false claims that Hadden is “supporting terrorists instead of the victims,” and is “in the pocket of shadow groups who have done actual violence in the US.”

But these messages didn’t deter Hadden. “Alderwoman Hadden and a lot of these folks who supported the resolution in City Council sat down and spoke to the other side. And yet, the opposite wasn't true, Aldermen [Raymond] Lopez and [Howard] Brookins, they weren’t even willing to sit down at the other side,” says Singh. “That speaks volumes.”

“I think the bigger point is this,” said Moore. “Is it really the place of the Chicago City Council to weigh in on the domestic affairs of another democracy, and in a far corner of the world?”

“What's going on there is not as clear cut and horrible as say apartheid in South Africa or, you know, the atrocities in Nazi Germany.” Moore referenced the many times that the City Council did weigh in on matters of foreign policy, and also mentioned the City Council statement against the invasion of Iraq.

“Millions of people would be kicked out of the country,” explains Brian Citro, an international human rights lawyer. “It's completely uncontroversial and is the literal core of the international human rights regime that excluding people from citizenship based on religion is wrong.”

“It's the norm in international human rights and when we embrace international principles, to call out what's happening in other parts of the world,” he says. “India is an outlier in having never signed the Refugee Convention and the Refugee Protocol. Part of why this matters is when something like this happens and they decide to use the law to exclude a group based on religion, they're not a part of any overarching legal regime that can show it to be wrong.”

I ask Pawar about the same issue. “We have immigrants, refugees, asylees, people from all over the country moving here with different experiences, different backgrounds, and this resolution is not just about weighing in on international issues,” he said. “The politics of Narendra Modi is prevalent in how Indian Americans engage in the political system. When Hindu nationalist policies and thinking starts to become part of life in the suburbs, which they have in places like Hanover Park and Schaumburg, it becomes more than a symbolic measure to condemn violence and persecution.”

As usual, the March City Council meeting opened with public comment on the resolution. The first speaker, an employee at Rush Hospital, described his experience witnessing the 2002 Pogrom, a massacre of Muslims in Gujarat, India. “Imagine a mob is burning your house and trying to enter to kill your family and no one is responding to 911,” he remembered, urging the aldermen to vote “yes.” The next speaker told the City Council that using words like “fascism” and “nationalism” was “hurtful” and that they should “focus on positives.” He referred to Hadden and the other resolution cosponsors as “religious extremists.”

The next speaker referred to the condemnation of murders of journalists and Muslims as “unwarranted and harsh criticism,” and complained that the resolution is “polarizing the South Asian community.” This speaker, and the next one speaking against the resolution, who accused the resolution of preventing people from “coming together as South Asians,” come perilously close to hitting the nail on the head.

Indeed, the resolution has been “divisive,” as Alderman Lopez accused in City Council last week, but the division in our South Asian American community is not one created or exacerbated by Hadden or this resolution. It is the centuries-old divide of those who are subjugated and those who benefit from this system of oppression, one that has shown up in different forms across the world for longer than Chicago has even been a city. It is one that has existed for years, as South Asians have been deeply and fundamentally divided into two groups—those who believe at best that second class citizenship for non-Hindus in India is desirable and acceptable or at worst that violence against caste, ethnic, and religious minorities in India should not be criticized, and those who don’t.

The City Council voted 26-18 against the resolution, but South Asians across Chicago aren’t likely to soon forget the support of aldermen like Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, Matt Martin, Byron Sigcho Lopez, Daniel La Spata, and more. The Coalition also got the support of Representatives Jesús "Chuy" García, Marie Newman, and Jan Schakowsky. Notably absent was the endorsement of Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, whose attendance at events sponsored by Hindu nationalists has drawn ire from progressive activists.

Krishnamoorthi’s office told me that the congressman did not endorse or oppose the resolution. Notably, many prominent Indian Americans who lobbied against the resolution have donated tens of thousands of dollars to Krishnamoorthi’s reelection campaigns. Barai and his wife alone have given Krishnamoorthi $32,000.

But in the end, detractors’ involvement may have actually drawn more attention to the actual text of the resolution and the issue of human rights abuses in India. “The Consul General's Office has called almost every single one of our colleagues in City Council and I've had some conversations with folks who took a look at it just because the Consul General's office called. Upon reading it, they are like, ‘Well, this just says that we think religious oppression is bad. Right, I support that,’” explained Hadden.

“While there was a very vocal opposition, most of the opposition was from people outside of the city. In conversations with Chicagoans and with people here, people here support[ed] this resolution and I'm a representative leader,” Hadden said. “It's almost a little bit of a David and Goliath case I'll say, because we had 123 small business owners and residents of all these different wards, literally just residents, calling their alderpeople and asking them to support it, and on the other side, there is the Consulate General of a foreign nation and outside business interests from the suburbs.”

And for the Coalition, the connections forged and groundwork laid for future campaigns are invaluable victories. “The Sikhs, the Muslims, the Hindus, Jews, Christians coming together to support this is very powerful,” says Singh. “And the beauty is that a lot of the people who were involved are young, and I find it so encouraging that these young people that got together have such strong convictions that we need to fight against oppression and speak up for the minorities whose voices are not heard. And they’re not going to stop.”   v

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