Aruna Miller, the new Democratic lieutenant governor of Maryland, is stirring concern in the state due to her decade-long ties to advocates for far-right Hindu nationalist groups.
Miller, a former state legislator, assumed office last month alongside Gov. Wes Moore (D). Since then, activists and voters have sounded the alarm over Miller’s history of brushing shoulders with nationalist groups and dodging questions about her ties to a violent ideology that has long cracked down on minorities. She and Moore have also faced questions about collecting thousands of dollars in political donations from people sympathetic to Hindutva, a far-right nationalist ideology that mirrors white supremacy.
The Moore-Miller campaign site said there was “not one dollar in this campaign that has anything to do with the Hindutva movement or international politics.” But activists and voters told HuffPost that they’re concerned Miller’s political career seems to have benefited from donors and other supporters with strong ties to far-right Hindu nationalist groups. Miller’s capacity to win her race and enter public office, they said, signals an ominous trend of questionable donations in Democratic races and the potentially dangerous impact on marginalized communities in the U.S.
“It’s bigger than [Miller]. It’s an example of how there’s an encroachment into the Democratic Party by a fascist entity,” said Susan Kerin, the chapter chair for Peace Action Montgomery, the local chapter of the human rights advocacy group Peace Action. “[Miller’s case] is a little bit more egregious, but it’s really something that we have to watch out for.”
A spokesperson for the Moore-Miller campaign told HuffPost that Miller “consistently and unequivocally condemns all forms of religious persecution and violence and all of the hateful ideologies that perpetuate it,” and further noted that she had won her race with the highest number of individual votes in Maryland lieutenant gubernatorial history.
“While it’s unfortunate that some have continued to mischaracterize Aruna’s remarks, she will continue to be a leader in protecting all Marylanders from any form of religious persecution and violence,” the spokesperson added.
Initially inspired by European ethnonationalism more than 100 years ago, far-right Hindu nationalism advocates for Hindu supremacy through violent political and extremist means. Advocates for Hindutva — which is not Hinduism the faith — have long viciously targeted members of other religious groups, including Muslims, Christians and Sikhs.
Over the last couple of decades, the ideology has increasingly been creeping into global politics.
But after he was elected prime minister of India in 2014, Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party — a Hindu nationalist political party that believes the country is fundamentally a Hindu state — were able to circumvent that ban and allowed entry to the U.S.
Support for Modi’s government remains strong, and not just in India. Nearly half of all Indian Americans approve of his performance as prime minister, with one-third of respondents favoring the ruling BJP party, according to a 2020 study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Miller’s support of Modi and the BJP dates back nearly a decade.
In 2014, as Modi was mobilizing support ahead of the election, Miller attended an event in Virginia hosted by the Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP), the international wing of the BJP. Sudhir Sekhsaria, an allergist in Maryland, was one of the hosts of the event. Sekhsaria has donated to Miller’s campaigns since at least 2011, according to public records.
Miller, a Maryland state delegate at the time, commented about looking forward to seeing Modi in New York after he won the election.
“The last time I was at the Madison Square Garden in New York I think I saw a rock show. Now there’s going to be a new rock star there on September 28, Prime Minister Modi,” she said in an interview with The American Bazaar, an Indian American news publication.
“While some create transformation through music Prime Minister Modi and his team is gonna create transformation through their leadership and new vision, not only for India but also with the relationship they will have with the United States,” she added.
Miller has since attempted to distance herself from the BJP, tweeting in March 2022 that she attended the 2014 Modi event “before any authoritarian action he took as Prime Minister.”
“I have stood for the rights of Muslims in Maryland and abroad for my entire career, and that will continue,” she said.
But activists say the tweet was disingenuous since Modi was involved in Hindu nationalism prior to the 2014 event. And they point out that Miller has continued to receive support from figures with close ties to Modi and the Hindutva movement.
When she launched her race for Maryland’s 6th Congressional District in 2018, Miller brought on Sekhsaria as her treasurer. Sekhsaria hosted a fundraiser for Miller in Houston that was attended by several Hindu nationalists. Among them was Ramesh Bhutada, the long-time vice president of Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh USA, the American arm of a Hindu nationalist paramilitary volunteer organization in India called Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS. The BJP is the political arm of RSS.
Members of the Bhutada family helped with Modi’s 2014 election and were among the organizers of the 2019 “Howdy, Modi” event in Texas where more than 50,000 people gathered to see the prime minister speak.
Miller’s run for U.S. Congress was not successful.
She later joined Moore’s gubernatorial ticket in December 2021. Along with the leaders of two organizations that once supported former President Donald Trump, Sekhsaria co-hosted a fundraiser for the Moore-Miller campaign in September 2022. He also donated at least $14,000 in 2022 alone, according to campaign finance records.
One of the attendees at the September event was Adapa Prasad, the national president of the OFBJP. The organization registered as a foreign agent in 2022 due to a federal requirement that people or groups who are engaged in political activities on behalf of a foreign country publicly report their activities and finances to combat foreign influence in the U.S.
Scott Webber, a Democratic activist in Maryland, told HuffPost that he approved of Miller’s platform as a state delegate — until he learned about her ties to far-right Hindu groups.
“She is not anti-immigrant. She talks about being pro-female. She talks about religious pluralism. She talks about tolerance and she talks about the need for having open dialogue and being anti-violence,” Webber said. “She talks about all those things but supports the BJP.”
“It’s an absolute incongruent position to take as somebody who gets put into positions of power. It’s one of those ‘Don’t just listen to what I say, watch what I do,’” he added.
Webber now joins a coalition of activists and voters who are increasingly concerned about the influence of Hindutva and are calling for Miller to unequivocally and publicly denounce the movement. They also want Miller to return donations she received from people with Hindutva connections and redirect those funds to human rights groups.
And they’re worried that the Democratic Party may become increasingly accepting of candidates who get support from extremists. Former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a former Democrat who is now an independent, and Sri Preston Kulkarni, a Democratic congressional candidate in Texas, have also faced scrutiny for having donors with ties to Hindutva and for courting members of right-wing Hindu groups.
“It’s a racist movement. It’s a caste-ist movement. It’s a supremacist movement. It’s an antisemitic movement. It’s an Islamophobic movement. That is something all of those things are going to be affecting people who are already vulnerable and marginalized in the U.S.,” said Gayatri Girirajan, a member of Peace Action Montgomery. “We should start looking at the Hindutva movement as a really potent, slow-boiling, long-term sort of foreign interference that really does have a tangible impact.”