Is Hindu Nationalist Money Making Its Way Into Maryland’s Governor Race?

Maryland’s Democratic gubernatorial ticket, Wes Moore and Aruna Miller, held a fundraiser with Trump supporters and people linked to the Hindutva movement.

President Joe Biden speaks, with Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wes Moore, left, during a rally for the Democratic National Committee at Richard Montgomery High School, Thursday, Aug. 25, 2022, in Rockville, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
President Joe Biden speaks with Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wes Moore, left, during a rally for the Democratic National Committee at Richard Montgomery High School on Aug. 25, 2022, in Rockville, Md. Photo: Alex Brandon/AP

Maryland’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wes Moore is widely expected to blow out his Republican opponent Dan Cox. But that won’t stop Moore from welcoming support wherever he can get it. Lately, the list of Moore’s supporters even includes the leaders of two organizations founded to support former President Donald Trump.

Last month, Moore, a political newcomer, and his running mate, former state Del. Aruna Miller, held a high-dollar fundraiser at the home of Jasdip “Jesse” Singh, the founder of Sikhs for Trump. The event was co-hosted by one-time Trump adviser Sajid Tarar, who founded Muslims for Trump and delivered a prayer for the then-candidate at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Singh and Tarar have strong connections to the current Republican governor, serving on his commission for South Asian issues.

The fundraiser was also organized in part by Dr. Sudhir Sekhsaria, a local allergist who referred to himself at the event as one of the campaign’s “finance chairs” and has given at least $12,000 to Moore and Miller since January. Sekhsaria had previously helped Miller as treasurer during her unsuccessful congressional run in 2018, soliciting thousands of dollars in donations from people affiliated with Hindu nationalism.

“It’s a very profitable method to tap into the Hindutva sectors of the community.”

Adapa Prasad, the national president of the group Overseas Friends of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the U.S. outreach wing of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party, also attended the fundraiser. The group, which Sekhsaria has also been linked to, was required in 2020 to register in the U.S. as a foreign agent.

A spokesperson for Moore and Miller’s campaign did not say how much money it raised from last month’s event, but the local news site Next TV reported a total haul of more than $100,000.

The fundraiser in Maryland for Moore and Miller appeared to be the latest instance of Hindutva, or a Hindu nationalist political ideology, creeping into American politics. As the global far right gathers power, Indian policy issues and Hindutva-affiliated money have increasingly shown up in U.S. elections. In Maryland, the combination of cozying up to allies of both Trump and Modi has raised questions among local activists and South Asian Americans as to what interest they might have in helping Democrats take back the governor’s mansion.

“We see this as a stepping stone for more folks with these right-wing connections to come into office,” said Gayatri Girirajan, a member of Peace Action Montgomery, a local chapter of the grassroots peace organization that has been advocating for transparency and accountability around the Moore campaign’s affiliations. “These are people who have a lot of influence, community power, money, and lobbying power to put policies in place that would have a significant effect on marginalized communities.”

Donors who are prominent members of groups associated with the U.S.-based Hindu right have funded Democratic politicians in recent years, including backing former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii; former Texas congressional candidate Sri Preston Kulkarni; and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill.

A spokesperson for the Moore campaign told The Intercept that the campaign is happy to accept support from people across the aisle, and that its success depends in part on bringing Republicans into the fold. They also said Sekhsaria is not employed by the campaign.

“In order to win elections, you have to build a broad coalition, and that often includes people who’ve previously supported Republicans,” the spokesperson said. “These donors have given to many Democrats here in Maryland and across the country, including every Democrat currently running for statewide office.”

Neither Singh nor Sekhsaria responded to requests for comment. Tarar confirmed that he is the founder of Muslims for Trump, but did not respond to other questions.

Tapping into the resources of the small but wealthy and well-connected part of the Maryland South Asian community can be the key to political success, said Girirajan, a Maryland resident who grew up in the local Hindu community.

“It’s a very profitable method to tap into the Hindutva sectors of the community,” she told The Intercept. “If you are able to really appeal — whether you truly believe the ideology or not — there’s so much money in Maryland, particularly among the upper-caste Hindu community.”

Sajid Tarar (L), founder of Muslim Americans for Trump, and Jassee Singh (R), head of Sikh Americans for Trump, are seen upon their arrival in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York, USA, 5 January 2017. Photo by: Albin Lohr-Jones/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Sajid Tarar, left, founder of Muslims for Trump, and Jasdip “Jesse” Singh, right, head of Sikhs for Trump, arrive at Trump Tower in New York City on Jan. 5, 2017.

Photo: Albin Lohr-Jones/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Ahead of the Maryland gubernatorial Democratic primary in July, Peace Action Montgomery launched an effort to raise awareness about Miller’s financial ties to people involved in right-wing Hindu politics, said Susan Kerin, the chapter’s chair.

In an email shared with The Intercept, a constituent contacted the Moore campaign to express concern about Miller’s ties to the Hindutva movement. Brian Adam Jones, the campaign’s director of communications, replied and asked whether similar requests were being made of other candidates in the primary, particularly John King, whom Jones claimed “has accepted thousands of dollars from BJP supporters.”

King, who served as education secretary under President Barack Obama, had been alerted about a donor with Hindutva connections and in June gave their donation of $1,500 to civil rights organization Muslim Advocates. The campaign condemned the Hindutva movement in a statement and pledged to not take money tied to it. (King did not return The Intercept’s request for comment.)

In response to local efforts urging the Moore campaign to disavow its relationships with right-wing Hindu affiliates and for Miller to return donations from them, the campaign added a page to its website in July to lay out “the facts” about Miller’s record on supporting Muslim communities and religious freedom.

“Aruna Miller has a clear record fighting for religious freedom and supporting the Islamic community in Maryland and abroad,” the site says. “There is not one dollar in this campaign that has anything to do with the Hindutva movement or international politics.”

The webpage also notes that some of the donors in question are major givers to Democrats like President Joe Biden and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., and suggested that the focus on Miller had to do with her identity: “We refuse to accept that these donations are somehow only nefarious when they are in support of an Indian-American woman, the only immigrant in this race.”

“Our ask is return the money and really assure us that these people will not have access in any way, shape, or form to the administration.”

Two months after the Moore campaign put out the statement, Moore and Miller held the fundraiser at Singh’s house. A week after the fundraiser, on October 3, Moore and Miller met with leaders from several Muslim councils across the state. According to a summary of that meeting shared with The Intercept, the candidates told attendees that the campaign reviewed its donations and said that none came from members or sympathizers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the umbrella organization of Hindu nationalist groups.

That’s hard to believe given the fundraiser at Singh’s house, Kerin said. In the remaining weeks leading up to the election, she added, Peace Action Montgomery is renewing its efforts for the Moore campaign to acknowledge their concerns.

“Our ask is return the money and really assure us that these people will not have access in any way, shape, or form to the administration,” she said.

Maryland democratic Lt. gubernatorial nominee Aruna Miller speaks with a reporter after the Labor Day parade, in Gaithersburg, Md, Monday, Sept. 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

Aruna Miller speaks with a reporter after the Labor Day parade in Gaithersburg, Md., on Sept. 5, 2022.

Photo: Bryan Woolston/AP

Moore’s selection of Miller as his running mate gave pause to some local activists and members of the South Asian community in Maryland. The activists were concerned about Miller’s record of accepting donations from individuals connected to U.S. Hindu nationalist groups, namely Sudhir Sekhsaria. At last month’s fundraiser, Miller singled out Sekhsaria as instrumental to her political career.

“I would not be here today if not for your love and your encouragement of me from day one when I first ran for public office,” she said to Sekhsaria, according to a recording of the event on YouTube.

Miller got her start in politics as a delegate for Maryland’s 15th District, where she served for almost nine years. In 2018, she ran for Congress to represent Maryland’s 6th District but lost in the Democratic primary.

Sekhsaria, his wife, and his medical practice have given thousands of dollars to Miller’s campaigns, according to campaign finance disclosures. While Sekhsaria has contributed to other major Democratic candidates like Biden and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., he has contributed more to Miller’s congressional campaigns than to any other federal candidate since 2002 — giving $10,200 in total.

While treasurer of Miller’s congressional campaign, Sekhsaria helped put together a fundraiser for Miller in Houston, which was attended by several people affiliated with right-wing Hindu activities in the U.S., including key organizers of “Howdy, Modi,” the massive 2019 rally that celebrated the close relationship between the Indian prime minister and Trump. Sekhsaria has also organized events for the Overseas Friends of the BJP, as well as Ekal Vidyalaya, a nonprofit that runs schools in India that reportedly spread a Hindu nationalist agenda in their curriculum; Sekhsaria and his wife pledged $30,000 at an Ekal fundraiser in 2018.


How Sri Preston Kulkarni’s Run for Congress Got Tangled Up in Indian Politics

The potential influence of Hindutva money in U.S. politics has grown in recent years where there are sizable South Asian American communities. Politicians like Gabbard, Krishnamoorthi, and Kulkarni have been criticized by South Asian constituents and progressive groups for deflecting questions about their affiliations with people associated with Hindu nationalist groups and accepting their financial support.

While Miller has recently tweeted against the BJP’s anti-Muslim policies, she was also quoted at an Overseas Friends of the BJP event referring to Modi as a “rock star” ahead of his appearance at Madison Square Garden in 2014. The website of Hindu American Foundation, an advocacy nonprofit with reported ties to the U.S. Hindu right, also features a statement from Miller from 2017 in support of the group’s efforts to implement a revisionist version of Indian history into California textbooks.

Since launching her lieutenant gubernatorial campaign, Miller has distanced herself from praise of Modi. After the “rock star” comment resurfaced in May, just ahead of the primary, Miller wrote in a tweet that she had attended the Overseas Friends of the BJP event “a decade ago, 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.”

Join The Conversation