Has Silicon Valley Congressman Ro Khanna Abandoned His Principled Stand Against Hindutva?

Silicon Valley Congressman Ro Khanna has been instrumental in inviting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to address the joint session of US Congress on June 22, 2023. This came as a surprise to many of his constituents who voted for him after he declared in 2019: “It’s the duty of every American politician of Hindu faith to stand for pluralism, reject Hindutva, and speak for equal rights for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhist & Christians.”  

L to R: Narendra Modi, JOe Biden, Ro Khanna

What caused this change of heart?  Is it the donation of $110,000 to his campaign by Hindu Nationalist donors in the United States, as reported by The Nation?  Fellow Indian-American Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal has also supported Modi's invitation. She will be among members of Congress who will escort Modi to the podium. Ro Khanna and Pramila Jayapal are both supposedly "liberal" Democrats.   

While Khanna says that he “strongly opposes any form of caste discrimination”, he has not endorsed California SB 403, a bill sponsored by Senator Aisha Wahab and supported by Dalit activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan, that outlaws caste discrimination in the state. 

Modi’s US visit comes at a time of rising state persecution of religious minorities, including Muslims and Christians.  Modi's BJP-affiliated politicians have called for genocide against Indian Muslims, attacked mosques and churches, and demolished homes, according to The Nation.  The Biden administration has been silent on these issues, choosing instead to try and strengthen the US-India relationship and deepen the ties between the countries’ military and technology sectors.  For the last four years, the Biden Administration has ignored the USCIRF (US Commission on International Religious Freedom) recommendation to designate India as a “Country of Particular Concern” and impose strategic sanctions on Indian government officials and agencies involved in religious freedom violations. 

On the eve of Prime Minister Modi's visit to Washington, the USCIRF has urged President Biden to discuss with him its concerns about the lack of religious freedom in India. “With India’s upcoming state visit, the Biden administration has a unique opportunity to explicitly incorporate religious freedom concerns into the two countries’ bilateral relationship,” said USCIRF Commissioner David Curry. “It is vital the U.S. government acknowledge the Indian government’s perpetration and toleration of particularly severe violations of religious freedom against its own population and urge the government to uphold its human rights obligations.”

Instead of condemning India for allowing the oppression of minorities and denying media freedom, US officials have applauded the Modi government.  US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo has described Modi as “unbelievable, visionary” and “the most popular world leader.” Donald Lu, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, has praised press freedom in India: “You have India as a democracy in part because you have a free press that really works.”  This is in sharp contrast with the findings of the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders 2023 World Press Freedom Index, which has ranked India 161, out of 180 countries due to its crackdown on the press. India's neighbor Pakistan ranks 150, 11 places above India, on this Index. 

Khanna's recent about-face is seen as a betrayal by many of his constituents who supported him because of his rejection of Hindutva. South Asian social justice activists Anu Mandavilli, Deepa Iyer, Karthikeyan Shanmughan and others have strongly criticized Khanna. 

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Riaz Haq said…
Modi's Gaffes in US Congress

In a humorous scene during PM Modi's address to the US Congress, the Indian prime minister made a faux pas by switching the word 'Investing' with 'Investigating'. During his speech, PM Modi said, "I believe that investigating in a girl child lifts up entire family," instead he was supposed to say "Investing in a girl child lifts up entire family." Modi was seen trying to read out his speech from a teleprompter.

Congress Sevadal, grassroots frontal organisation of Indian National Congress took it to their Twitter and took a jibe at PM Modi's slip of tongue and shared the video with a humourous caption. Higlighting PM Modi's earlier blunders during his speech, Congress Sevadal captioned the post as, "After reading Mrs. from teleprompter MRS and explaining extra 2ab in a plus b whole square formula, here comes 'INVESTIGATING' in a girl child..!"



Prashant Bhushan
He should have stuck to Hindi. You can be a Viswaguru, yet refrain from showing off your English. Reading English from a teleprompter can also be difficult for an MA in 'Entire political science'



Ashok Swain
This guy can’t even read from teleprompters but claims that he has a Master in Entire Political Science!



Netta D'Souza
Modi ji —

▪️We must 𝐒𝐧𝐯𝐞𝐬𝐭 in our girl child never 𝐒𝐧𝐯𝐞𝐬𝐭𝐒𝐠𝐚𝐭𝐞 her

▪️Hope we have laid nearly 400,000 miles of 𝐨𝐩𝐭𝐒𝐜𝐚π₯ fiber and not 𝐩𝐨π₯𝐒𝐭𝐒𝐜𝐚π₯ fiber

▪️Hope we have a 𝐫𝐞π₯𝐚𝐭𝐒𝐨𝐧𝐬𝐑𝐒𝐩 with the United States and not 𝐫𝐞π₯𝐚𝐭𝐒𝐨𝐧𝐬𝐬𝐒𝐩𝐩𝐒.

Riaz Haq said…
Satish Acharya
We don't discriminate on the basis of religion-PM Modi in the US.

Riaz Haq said…
See new Tweets
Derek J. Grossman
Me: "What the US is really looking for is access to India, in the case of a conflict against China. The hope is that over time, as we continue our security cooperation, India will kind of bend a little bit, to be more flexible and maybe allow us access...


Why the US is selling India so many weapons
Prime Minister Modi visits the White House, and arms deals follow.

By Jonathan Guyer


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Washington for a state visit this week. Beyond the black-tie dinner at the White House and a speech to Congress, there have been a lot of arms deals.

Jets, drones, cyber capabilities, and more.

It’s a significant list, and builds on an expanding military partnership. The US has partnered with India more and more in response to China’s rise, seeing New Delhi as a valuable counterweight. This is happening as India advances grievous human rights abuses against minorities, against journalists, and against political critics — all in contradiction of America’s stated values.

And yet this week, the White House is promoting a “next generation defense partnership” with India. This includes the co-production of cutting-edge technologies like jet engines and semiconductors, the prospect of new arms sales, and agreements that would allow the US to have its navy ships repaired in India. The country will also purchase 31 advanced drones from General Atomics in a deal that will cost some $3 billion. And the Pentagon and the Indian Ministry of Defense have established a new military-tech incubator called INDUS-X.

Experts point out that India under Modi increasingly does not share American values, and some of the advanced military technologies that the US is providing the country could be used against dissidents or journalists.

“If we’re just going to go full-on countering China with India as a realist approach to things, that can come back and bite us,” says Derek Grossman, a defense analyst at the RAND Corporation. “Because, as we saw during the Cold War, a lot of the dictators or semi-authoritarian regimes that we cozied up with, they were not our friends in the long run.”

US-India defense cooperation, very briefly explained
India built a relationship with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and to this day, most of the Indian military’s weapons come from Russia. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that India started buying arms from the United States, growing from around nothing in 2008 to $8 billion of US sales to the country by 2013, and to $20 billion in 2020.

Now, the new agreements will help create capacities for India as an arms producer. The Pentagon’s top Asia official, Ely Ratner, says the US was helping modernize the Indian military. The US Embassy in New Delhi described an initiative to “fast-track technology cooperation and co-production in areas such as air combat and land mobility systems, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, munitions, and the undersea domain.”

India wants to manufacture military and aerospace products. In this respect, the prospective General Electric engine deal represents a major change. Export controls and trade regulations have previously been a challenge for forging advanced production lines in India. “Engine technology is pretty sensitive,” says Vikram Singh of the United States Institute of Peace and the consulting firm WestExec Advisors. “This is a big, ambitious agenda.”
Riaz Haq said…
Why the US is selling India so many weapons
Prime Minister Modi visits the White House, and arms deals follow.

By Jonathan Guyer


Both countries are eyeing China’s growing military and technological prowess, and the US is particularly concerned about the perceived threat of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

But Grossman, who previously spent a decade working on China policy at the Pentagon, says that the US goal of bolstering India’s defense is less about creating a partner who would actively participate in any US-China confrontation and actually more about India providing safe harbor on the continent. “What the United States is really looking for is access to India, in the case of a conflict against China,” he told me. “But the hope is that over time, as we continue our security cooperation, India will kind of bend a little bit, to be more flexible and maybe allow us access at certain times to certain places that can help us conduct operations.”

The US Navy established ship repair agreements with India that would enable the US to service its boats in Indian shipyards, with more agreements forthcoming, according to the White House. Grossman also emphasized that, in 2020, US Navy aircraft refueled on India’s base in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. “They’re letting us do that in peacetime; why wouldn’t they let us do that when the stakes are much higher?” he said.

But even beyond the democratic issues, there are limits to how close this partnership could get in the near term. India remains non-aligned: It hasn’t taken a side in the Ukraine war, nor signed on to the sanctions against Russia. While India is a member of the “Quad,” an informal partnership with the US, Japan, and Australia, it is not a treaty ally of the United States. Grossman said that many in the Defense Department would like to see the US move toward a formal alliance with India.

That would be messy, notably because Pakistan is India’s prime rival and Pakistan is a close partner of the United States. Both countries have nuclear weapons, so if the US were to establish a treaty with India, the dynamics of a potential India-Pakistan conflict would be staggeringly complex for the US and dangerous for the world.

Nevertheless, the US military partnership with India has become a pillar of the Biden administration’s policy toward Asia. Interestingly, the US goes out of its way to not say it has anything to do with China, although analysts uniformly agree that it’s all about China. “The strategic environment that we’re facing in the Indo-Pacific challenges to peace and stability, I think those have animated a sense of Indian purpose more generally,” a senior US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told reporters.

The defense sector, unsurprisingly, is thrilled. Just ask the Asia Group, a consulting firm that advises clients like General Electric, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon and was founded by Kurt Campbell, who’s now the Biden White House’s point person on Asia policy.

Campbell’s former firm says the time is now to invest in India. “Companies that postpone entry or expansion in India might miss opportunities to maximize their long-term returns,” Gopal Nadadur, an Asia Group executive based in India, wrote recently. “Defense and aerospace companies like Airbus, Boeing, Dassault, General Electric, General Atomics, Raytheon Technologies and Pratt & Whitney have boosted their engineering and manufacturing operations in India.”
Riaz Haq said…
Why the US is selling India so many weapons
Prime Minister Modi visits the White House, and arms deals follow.

By Jonathan Guyer


Will defense innovation make Asia safer?
Bringing in military-tech startups and investment firms has been a core strategy of the Pentagon in recent years, and that’s also now going to play a part in the US-India relationship. On Wednesday, the Chamber of Commerce hosted what it called an “innovation bridge” — the INDUS-X event.

US and Indian startups that focus on the military, aerospace, and satellites attended, alongside venture capital firms and major defense contractors like Raytheon and Boeing. The proceedings were sponsored by General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, and one of the big Indian companies, Mahindra Defence. The INDUS-X joint initiative will be “a catalyst for India to achieve its target of $5 billion in defense exports by 2025 and for India to diversify its defense supply chain,” according to the Chamber.

One of the keynote speakers, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall, told attendees that he expected “huge growth,” in the two countries’ defense partnership, “the hockey stick curve that all entrepreneurs dream of.”

Participants did not directly discuss China, according to Pushan Das of the US-India Business Council, but it was the impetus for the gathering. “The reason why we’re doing all of this — the reason why there is the US-India defense-industry road map — it is because both countries have a common threat. They face a common challenge,” he told me. “And that’s pushing the defense relationship forward.”

But the focus on business interests has often meant that less attention has been paid in the commercial community to how increased military production and surveillance technologies in India could embolden Modi.

Modi is a Hindu nationalist leader who journalist Fareed Zakaria says is responsible for the decay of Indian democracy. His attacks on political rivals, the press, and minorities call into question the strategic benefits of growing military cooperation with the country. To cite a recent example, India arrested Vivek Raghuvanshi, a contributor to the US-based outlet Defense Times, in May.

Senior Biden administration officials told a press conference that raising human rights concerns would be part of President Biden’s private conversations with Modi, but declined to provide specificity. Human rights concerns did not come up in the conversations at INDUS-X, according to Das, and Air Force Secretary Kendall did not raise them in his remarks.

Singh, who worked in the Obama Pentagon, says that pragmatism is necessary to counter China. “We look at Prime Minister Modi, like a lot of other complicated partners, be it in Southeast Asia, like Vietnam or Thailand, or in Europe, like Poland, or Hungary, or Turkey,” he told me. “But I think we’ve reached a point where American leaders are able to talk to Indian leaders about these sorts of concerns.”

There’s also another risk of flooding India with arms that Campbell, who served in the Obama State Department, warned of in his 2016 book The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia.

“China and India both remain under 2 percent of GDP for defense spending, while, for comparison, between 2009 and 2013, US Defense spending averaged 4.4 percent of GDP,” he wrote. “If Asian powers were to devote the same proportion to defense spending as the United States, the region would quickly become even more dangerous.”
Riaz Haq said…
The Biden-Modi Meeting Was a Failure for Democracy | Time


by Knox Thames

When a journalist asked Modi at the White House about declining respect for human rights and democracy, he dodged, saying, “I’m actually really surprised that people say so.” While Biden acknowledged our shortcomings, demonstrating humility but a commitment to civil rights, Modi offered no such concession, saying Indian democracy has delivered for all “regardless of caste, creed, religion, gender.” He added, “There’s absolutely no space for discrimination,” which would surprise religious minorities in India.

As the visit approached, many feared officials would overlook these issues, and 75 Democratic Members of Congress wrote Biden to urge him to raise human rights. To his credit, the President did so repeatedly, but always as a joint endeavor. For instance, he said, “Equity under the law, freedom of expression, religious pluralism, and diversity of our people—these core principles have endured and evolved, even as they have faced challenges throughout each of our nations’ histories, and will fuel our strength, depth, and future.” At another point, he noted, “Indians and Americans are both peoples who … cherish freedom and celebrate the democratic values of universal human rights, which face challenges around the world and each—and in each of our countries but which remain so vital to the success of each of our nations: press freedom, religious freedom, tolerance, diversity.”

While understandable Biden wouldn’t be too pointed with his guest, Modi is savvy enough to know that nods towards human rights will be shunted aside for commercial and military relations. He’s seen it before, as silence towards problems in India is not unique to this administration. Then-President Trump ignored riots against Muslims in New Delhi during his 2020 visit, and his administration resisted calls to designate India a “country of particular concern” for the persecution of Christians.

Consequently, to counter India’s drift away from shared values, the U.S. must decide to visibly support Indian civil society, publicly discuss our concerns, and establish consequences for abuses. Aakar Patel, Chair of Amnesty International’s India Board, stressed to me the importance of U.S. human rights advocacy. Amnesty’s India office was forced to close in 2020, and the Indian government tried to prevent him from traveling internationally in 2022. Patel underscored how “India’s friend must press it to do the right thing because often it works.” Jesuit Priest Cedric Prakash, a long-time human rights and peace activist, also agreed. Despite our complicated history in the region, Fr Prakash said, “it’s imperative that the U.S. raise these sensitive issues with the PM and stop pretending that all is well in India.”

India is too important for U.S. policymakers to ignore these trends, and Modi’s damaging policies should not lead to self-censorship. The U.S.’s recent criticism of important partners like Poland, Bangladesh, and Israeldemonstrates we can raise concerns and deepen relationships simultaneously. In addition, we can learn from our disastrous all-carrots-and-no-stick approach to China in the early 2000s. Many believed preferential trade could encourage China in a positive direction when the Senate voted for most-favored-nation status in September 2000. Instead, the Chinese Communist Party gained technology and resources while nose diving on human rights and consolidating power. Modi’s windfall of trade policies absent consequences for rights abuses risks repeating the same mistake.

Riaz Haq said…
What’s fueling the rise in Hindu nationalism in the U.S.


To some, Modi represents the face of a new, better India. To others, his human rights violations are ushering in an era of Hindu nationalism — and it's rapidly spreading in the U.S.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s official state visit turned the nation’s capital into a microcosm of Indian politics on Thursday. Thousands of South Asians of every creed and community flooded the city’s landmarks — some to support the controversial leader, others to protest his visit, while many attended to simply take in the historic moment.

Chants of “Go Modi” and “Jai Hind” (“Long live India”), juxtaposed against “Killer Modi” and “no justice, no peace,” echoed through the streets and buildings. The South Asian American diaspora cares about Indian politics like never before, experts say, and the common denominator is Modi.

After nearly a decade in office, Modi, 72, is cited as the most popular leader in the world, according to a Morning Consult poll. But the diaspora has mixed feelings.

While his supporters credit him with making India a presence on the global stage, his critics accuse him of fanning the flames of Hindu nationalism in India and abroad. At its most extreme, the nationalist movement seeks to create a Hindu India, perpetuating the narrative that Hindus are oppressed in the country, and abetting violence and discrimination against Muslims and other minority groups, experts told NBC News.

In the U.S., Hindu nationalism can take the form of cultural youth groups, but also online doxxing and harassment campaigns against dissenters. Charity work might operate parallel to lobbies against bills aimed at protecting those born into lower castes in India’s caste system, according to experts.

“There is something that is very distinct about what’s happening now,” said Sangay Mishra, an associate professor at Drew University in New Jersey and author of “Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans.” “There’s something very specific about Narendra Modi: He wants to be liked in the Western world.”

Modi’s government and those that surround it — like his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the right-wing Hindu nationalist organization the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — have focused specifically on Indian Americans as the new frontier of political mobilization, Mishra, who teaches political science and international relations, said. And they’ve invested resources into spreading the word in schools, government offices and on social media.

India is now the most populous country in the world, with 1.43 billion people, and it also has the world’s largest diaspora, with 32 million living abroad. Modi’s government is trying to get the world on board in making India a global player, Mishra said.

Leading Hindu nationalists “always thought that Hindus anywhere are a part of India,” he said.

And the government's efforts seem to be effective, he said. Those who came to Washington to see Modi told NBC News that they simply love his energy and positivity. While many feel tied to the BJP, others lining the streets were less politically motivated, dressed in their best to witness the prime minister like they would any other celebrity.

But to those concerned about India’s direction, the historical significance of Modi’s visit isn’t the growing U.S.-India ties, but rather the human rights violations they say has defined his time both as chief minister of the state of Gujarat and now as prime minister. It’s an agenda supporting upper-caste Hindu supremacy, they say, and it’s seeping into Indians around the world.

“We claim as a diaspora we’re very connected to our heritage and we want to celebrate our culture,” said Harita Iswara, 23, who works with Hindus for Human Rights and protested during Modi’s visit. “But when people’s identities are under attack in India, we have to do as much, if not more, to speak up to protect them.”

Riaz Haq said…
Dr. Audrey Truschke
Read for thinking about Hindu nationalist influences in US politics and how some “progressives” are quite the opposite, to the point of pushing far-right interests.



The Indian American congressman says he has a duty to reject Hindu nationalism. But does his record stand up to scrutiny?


When India was subject to intense international scrutiny following Narendra Modi's decision to annex Indian-controlled Kashmir in late August 2019, an article in The Caravan, India's premier long-form magazine, began doing the rounds on social media.

The long read, written by activist Peter Friedrich, detailed the role of the Hindu nationalist lobby in American politics, and focused on then-Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard from Hawaii.

Friedrich forensically outlined how the Hindu right-wing paramilitary organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), had funded Gabbard in exchange for helping rehabilitate Modi's image in the United States.

But it wasn't just the article that caught the attention of South Asian Americans.

Instead, it was the unprompted interjection by an Indian American lawmaker from California.

"Important article," tweeted Congressman Ro Khanna from the 17th district in California, widely known as Silicon Valley, the only district in continental America with an Asian majority.

"It's the duty of every American politician of Hindu faith to stand for pluralism, reject Hindutva, and speak for equal rights for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians. That is the vision of India my grandfather Amarnath Vidyalankar fought for," the Congressman added.

Vidyalankar was an Indian activist who became a member of the Indian National Congress and later an MP in post-independent India.

Until then, the question of rising Hindu nationalism in India under Modi was mostly limited to segments of the Indian-American community, particularly Muslims, Dalits and Christians, as well as the Kashmiri diaspora.

But in a single tweet, the pro-union Khanna, known for pushing for stronger gun legislation and a key voice, along with Senator Bernie Sanders, in pushing for an end to US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, had taken the spectre of the role of Hindu nationalism in US politics to the very seat of the US government.

Amar Shergill, an executive board member of the California Democratic Party (CDP) and chair of the CDP Progressive Caucus, described the moment as a "political shift" in the South Asian American community.

"It reverberated from its origin in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party with implications for the United States, India and world geopolitics," Shergill wrote.

Predictably, Khanna endured a blitz of criticism from Hindu nationalist groups and individuals. More than 200 Indian American organisations would go on to register complaints against him, forcing him to hold a town hall to address the allegations.

Khanna was even asked to resign from the Congressional Pakistan Caucus.

At the time Khanna stood firm. He called his detractors fringe elements and Trump supporters.

"I have no tolerance for right-wing nationalists who are affiliating with Trump. And let me tell you something - they're in an echo chamber, but their bigotry, their right-wing nationalism, their support for Trump or for white supremacy is a minority," Khanna said.

"But they will see that our district is pluralistic and I have no problem standing up against them," he added.

Riaz Haq said…
The Indian American congressman says he has a duty to reject Hindu nationalism. But does his record stand up to scrutiny?


Four years later, activists and observers say, Khanna appears to have adopted a more realist approach to the rise of Hindu nationalism.

When it became known that Modi would be travelling on his first state visit to the US in June, Khanna in his capacity as co-chair of the India Caucus, wrote a bipartisan letter calling for Modi to address a joint seating of Congress.

Ahead of the visit, activists and observers warned that Khanna's invitation was as good as an endorsement of Hindu nationalist policies.

Shergill, chair of the CDP Progressive Caucus, told Middle East Eye that although he understood the need for the US to strengthen ties with India, it was a mistake to have honoured Modi with a state dinner and an address to Congress.

"The India Caucus, the Sikh Caucus, and all South Asian congressional representatives have a special duty to hold Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accountable," he said.

"Representative Khanna must do better," Shergill added.

Activists pointed out that during the four years where Khanna had pointedly rejected Hindu nationalism, the Hindu nationalist project had reached the higher echelons of the Indian state, in which it had become routine for right-wing Hindu monks to call for ethnic cleansing without consequence.

Several indicators, too, showed freedom of speech, along with religious and minority rights, were now in free fall. Indian democracy is now characterised as "flawed," according to the Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Indiex, and in its latest World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders has ranked India 161 out of 180 countries due to media suppression.

In response to the volley of criticism for his now purported endorsement of Modi, Khanna found himself repeating one of the central tenets of his approach to foreign policy: respecting and engaging a democratic elected leadership did not preclude speaking out on human rights.

"I believe that the prime minister is an elected leader of 1.4 billion people and the way to make progress on human rights is to engage with the Indian PM," Khanna told Democracy Now.

But it is an approach that has left activists facing up to Hindu nationalism perplexed.

American interests
Since joining Congress in 2016, Khanna has straddled a fine line between satisfying Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and the employees who work for them.

Not only has this allowed Khanna to position himself as a "progressive" politician, he has skillfully backed himself as an almost indispensible interlocutor between the tech giants and their needs in Washington.

Khanna describes himself as "a leading progressive voice in the House working to restore American manufacturing and technology leadership, improve the lives of working people, and advance US leadership on climate, human rights, and diplomacy around the world."

As a “progressive capitalist”, Khanna proselytises the benefits of democratising access to technology as a means to resurrect the innovative character of the American economy.

He also sees it as the United States' best chance to remain a world leader. As his bio reads: "Silicon Valley's CA-17. New economic patriotism & restoring American manufacturing. Pro working families. Ending endless wars. No PAC $. He/Him."

In an op-ed in 2018, he wrote about his journey from a small town in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to congressman of the "most economically powerful congressional district in the world".

Riaz Haq said…
Sex scene with Cillian Murphy and Florence Pugh in ‘Oppenheimer’ becomes latest target of India’s Hindu nationalists


New Delhi

Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster movie “Oppenheimer” has sparked controversy among the Hindu-right in India, with some calling for a boycott and demanding the removal of a sex scene in which the titular character utters a famous line from the religion’s holy scripture.

The film tells the story of the atomic bomb through the lens of its creator, Robert Oppenheimer, and the scene in question depicts actor Cillian Murphy, who plays the lead role, having sex with Florence Pugh, who plays his lover Jean Tatlock.

Pugh stops during intercourse and picks up a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, one of Hinduism’s holiest scriptures, and asks Murphy to read from it.

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” Oppenheimer’s character says, as they resume intercourse.

The scene has caused outrage among some right-wing groups, with a politician from India’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) calling the film a “disturbing attack on Hinduism” and accusing it of being “part of a larger conspiracy by anti-Hindu forces.”

In a statement Saturday, India’s Information Commissioner, Uday Mahurkar, said the scene was “a direct assault on religious beliefs of a billion tolerant Hindus,” likening it to “waging a war on the Hindu community.”

He added: “We believe that if you remove this scene and do the needful to win hearts of Hindus, it will go a long way to establish your credentials as a sensitized human being and gift you friendship of billions of nice people.”

The film has been received well in most quarters in India, which conducted its first nuclear test in 1974, with critics giving it rave reviews and people flocking to cinemas to watch it.

Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie in "Barbie"
The 'Barbie' and 'Oppenheimer' double feature shouldn't be a one-off

“Oppenheimer” grossed more than $3 million in its opening weekend in the country, according to local reports, higher than filmmaker Greta Gerwig’s highly anticipated “Barbie,” which released on the same day and grossed just over $1 million.

India’s film board gave “Oppenheimer” a U/A rating, which is reserved for movies that contain moderate adult themes and can be watched by children under 12 with parental guidance. There are so far no bans on the film in any of the country’s states and union territories.

This isn’t the first time that the Hindu-right has taken offense to films, television shows or commercials for its portrayal of Hinduism. Some have been boycotted or even forced off air following outcry from conservative and radical groups.

In 2020, Netflix (NFLX) received significant backlash in India for a scene in the series “A Suitable Boy” that depicted a Hindu woman and Muslim man kissing at a Hindu temple. That same year, Indian jewelry brand Tanishq withdrew an advert featuring an interfaith couple following online criticism.

Meanwhile, analysts and film critics say there has been a shift in the tone of some Indian films, with nationalist and Islamophobic narratives gaining support from many within India, as well as the BJP.

Last year, filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri’s box office smash “The Kashmir Files,” based on the mass exodus of Kashmiri Hindus as they fled violent Islamic militants in the 1990s, polarized India, with some hailing the film as “gut-wrenching” and “truthful,” while others criticized it for being Islamophobic and inaccurate.

Similarly, the release this year of “The Kerala Story,” about a Hindu girl who is lured into joining ISIS, angered critics who called it a propaganda film that demonized Muslims.

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