By Harshmeet Singh
A non-Indian family with 5 children named Tulsi, Aryan, Jai, Vrindavan and Bhakti is hard to find in the US. But interestingly enough, a daughter in this family is today regarded as the ‘rising star’ in the Democratic Party in US. The Hawaii Congresswoman, Tulsi Gabbard, caught the imagination of the International media when she took her oath to the office over her personal copy of Bhagavad Gita. In January 2013, she became the first and the only Hindu to be elected to the US Congress. Interestingly, during her election campaign, her opponent mocked her religion saying that it “doesn’t align with the constitutional foundation of the U.S. government.”
Contrary to the common perception, Gabbard has no connection with India, the birthplace of Hinduism. Gabbard’s father practices Catholic faith and boasts of Samoan heritage whereas her mother is a Hindu of Euro American descent. Gabbard doesn’t fit into an orthodox image of a ‘Hindu girl’. A surfing enthusiast, Gabbard joined the US army on combat duty in Iraq for a 12 month stint in 2004. She married (for the second time) on 9th April 2015 in a Vedic style wedding.
Gabbard has often pressed the need for good relations between India and the USA. During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to the US, she greeted him with Hawaii’s indigenous ‘ginger flower’ garland and gifted him the same copy of her ‘Bhagavad Gita’, which she used to take her Oath.
An Iraq war veteran, Gabbard was also the youngest woman in the US history to be elected to a state legislature in 2002. Getting back at her opponent for taking a shot at her religion, she reportedly said,
“It is stunning that some people in Congress would so arrogantly thumb their nose at the Bill of Rights. When I volunteered to put my life on the line in defence of our country, no one asked me what my religion was.”
Ever since Gabbard entered the political arena, she has been seen as a role model by the American Hindus. Most Americans still picture the followers of Hinduism as gurus dressed in saffron cloak, reciting complex shlokas and searching for eternal knowledge, an image which seems far from the developed American lifestyle. Gabbard is trying hard to break this stereotype.
Gabbard’s long list of achievements seem even more awe-inspiring, considering that non-Christian politicians have always found it hard to make their way to the top in USA’s political scene. The two most well known Indian American politicians in the US, Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, converted to Christianity for some reasons. Jindal has always been known to suppress his ethnic background at the political scene. Preferring to be called by his nickname ‘Bobby’, instead of his real name ‘Piyush’, Jindal reportedly said, “My dad and mom told my brother and me that we came to America to be Americans. Not Indian-Americans, simply Americans.”
Haley, on the other hand, proudly wears her ‘Indian background’ tag. Her endeavours to forge strong relations with India aren’t a secret to anyone. This, perhaps, has made her a familiar figure among the Indian community in the US.
Although Hindus account for a population of close to 2 million in the US, their representation in the mainstream national politics is extremely meagre. Barring a few local leaders across states, not many Hindus have managed to make their mark in the mainstream US politics. Some other names that have managed to secure political posts include the US Attorney for New York’s Southern district, Preet Bharara and the US Surgeon General, Vivek Hallegere Murthy.
A possible reason for minimal political representation of the Hindus is that barring metro areas of New York and Chicago, their population is too dispersed to make their votes count. The chances of winning an office based on their votes have a minimal probability. Though ‘religion based politics’ seems like an indigenous term to India, religion isn’t completely irrelevant when it comes to US politics as well. The national presidential candidates have long faced questions (and often backlash) around their faith and worship. The number of Christians in the high offices in the US is overwhelming, if not cent per cent.
Gabbard has always been vocal about her faith and doesn’t hide her disappointment on coming across incorrect projection of Hinduism. “Hinduism is largely misunderstood today in part because of how it’s been portrayed in a negative and backwards way,” she once said. Hindus, in fact, remain an overlooked faction in the US, which is probably why her opponent’s hate speech against Hinduism in 2012 didn’t get much attention within the country.
Apart from the everyday discrimination, Hindus also have to face numerous misconceptions and ignorance among the American population. Hinduism remains an ‘unfamiliar’ entity for most Americans – an enigma which they don’t give much thought to.
Hindus in the US are confident of a proportional political representation following Gabbard’s meteoric rise and her strong allegiance towards her faith. Her concern towards a ‘misunderstood’ image of Hinduism in the US could go a long way in making the American Hindus proud and ensuring that the US emerges as a truly secular society.