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Exclusive! What the head of US Congress' India caucus wants

Last updated on: March 27, 2017 08:10 IST

US Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, newly elected co-chair of the influential Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans, discusses her vision for US-India ties with Rediff.com's Monali Sarkar.

Tulsi Gabbard Diwali

IMAGE: US Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard at the first Diwali on Capitol Hill.
Photograph: Rediff.com

 

When the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans was established in 1993, the India-United States relationship had little going for it. It is a testament to how far that relationship has come -- and how pivotal the caucus has been in making it happen -- that today it is the second largest country-specific caucus in the US Congress.

The charge of leading the caucus into its 25th year now rests with US Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat from Hawai'i, and US Congressman George Holding, a Republican from North Carolina.

While Holding has been a co-chair of the caucus since 2014, Gabbard was elected this month to succeed her Democratic Congressional colleague Dr Ami Bera, who was the first Indian-American co-chair of the caucus.

Gabbard, who is the first Hindu lawmaker in the US Congress, is also the first woman to be elected co-chair of this caucus.

In an exclusive interview with Rediff.com, the US Congresswoman shares her views on the legacy of the India caucus and her vision for it.

The Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans will turn 25 with you as co-chair. How do you view its legacy?

The legacy of the Caucus is best reflected in the progress of the US-India partnership. Since the US-India Caucus was established in 1993, it has played a key role in driving US-India bilateral relations moving forward.

With the 25-year anniversary coming up in 2018, we will continue to build upon this progress by strengthening US-India ties, empowering Indian Americans living in the US, and creating new opportunities for Americans and Indians to work together across industries, institutions, and borders.

You have been elected to this caucus at a time when the US and India have a respectable strategic partnership on many levels.
However -- unlike the past few administrations when the relationship was largely on an upward trajectory -- this is also a turbulent time vis-à-vis the Trump administration's relationship with India (the H-1B visa issue, and a likely clash on manufacturing) and Indian-Americans (the Kansas shooting and other hate crimes). How do you plan to handle it?

The bipartisan support behind the US-India Caucus is a testament to the importance of US-India relations and its ability to transcend partisan politics.

As co-chairs, Rep Holding and I are meeting with members of the Caucus as well as Indian-American leaders and organisations to discuss the Caucus's legislative agenda and goals in the 115th Congress.

Major areas of interest include strengthening mutually beneficial economic ties, building upon the existing US-India security framework and our shared fight against terrorism, and expanding foreign exchange student programs between the US and India, which have fallen far behind other comparable nations.

The recent rise of violence against Indians, Hindus, Sikhs, and other religious and ethnic minorities, is deeply concerning.

In the 115th Congress, we will continue our work to increase awareness and understanding across our communities, and urge the Department of Justice to investigate these horrific acts and address the rise of hate crimes across the country.

India has been trying to get America to see the H-1B visa issue from a purely trade and business perspective instead of an immigration perspective. Where does the caucus stand on this?

The caucus has not taken a formal position on this issue.

We need an immigration policy that both strengthens our American economy and workforce, and that recognizes the economic contributions that Indians and Indian Americans continue to make here in the US, without fear that a change in politics will put their business at risk or separate their family.

We cannot make blanketed cuts or limitations on immigration that do not take into account the broader economic and social impact for our country and for our friends around the world.

Major Tulsi Gabbard

IMAGE: Tulsi Gabbard, who had volunteered for a 12-month deployment in Iraq and was promoted to major, with her Hawai'i Army National Guard unit in 2015. Photograph: Kind Courtesy Rep Tulsi Gabbard/Flickr

 

Late last year, the US finalized India's designation as a major defence partner. From your unique perspective as an Iraq veteran, a major in the Hawai'i Army National Guard and a Congresswoman, where do you see this partnership going in the next four years?

India is one of our most important geopolitical defence partners for the US.

Last year's National Defence Authorisation Act language provides a good foundation from which we can explore options to expand our security cooperation.

US Secretary of Defence (James) Mattis and Indian Defence Minister (Manohar) Parrikar (until March 13, 2017, when he resigned to take over as the chief minister of Goa) have agreed to continue to move forward with our bilateral defence relationship, a keystone of our overall strategic partnership.

A strong US-India defence partnership holds promise for long-term stability throughout the Asia-Pacific.

There has been much talk about having an F-16 manufacturing unit in India. But it is a proposition fraught with problems, including the 'America First' optics of the Trump administration as well as the issue of Pakistan's F-16 fleet. Do you see a way out of this?

President Trump's America First policy and Prime Minister Modi's Make in India policy are not mutually exclusive. Strong trade relations between the US and India are important and will bolster the economy of both our nations.

We should build on the US-India security cooperation that has been increasing over recent years.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has continued to allow terrorist organisations to not only operate within their borders, but to cross its borders unchecked into India, Afghanistan, and other nations.

Officials within the Pakistani government have also continued to provide tacit and overt support for terrorism.

In Congress, I've worked to cut back US assistance for Pakistan, particularly any military assistance, and increase pressure on Pakistan to stop these dangerous actions and break these ties.

I've also introduced the Stop Arming Terrorists Act, legislation that would stop the US government from using taxpayer dollars to directly or indirectly support groups who are allied with and supporting terrorist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda.

If passed, this bill would make it illegal for the US government to provide support, funding, and weapons to any nation that has given or continues to support terrorists.

A bilateral investment treaty between US and India has been a long sought after goal. What are the chances of this coming to fruition now?

Our two nations have already pledged to increase annual trade from $100 billion to $500 billion by 2024. Regardless of the vehicle we choose to achieve this goal, we should do so in a way that is mutually beneficial for the economies of both countries.

Strong economic ties lay the foundation upon which our partnership can grow. This is why I pushed for Goa and Hawai'i to become sister states last year.

The people of our two nations have much in common and we should embrace every opportunity to share our cultures and ideas.

What kind of a global leadership role does the caucus envision for India on the economy and international security issues?

As an important economic and security partner with many common interests in the Asia-Pacific, we must work together with India to create stability around the world.

As one of the world's fastest growing economies, India is well positioned to become a key economic leader in the Asia-Pacific.

India's focus on its entrepreneurial community also shows promise. Start-ups have proven to be essential to innovation, job creation and economic growth in the 21st century. I'm sure there is much we can learn from one another in these areas.

IMAGE: Tulsi Gabbard was a part of a select committee of lawmakers that welcomed and escorted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the House Floor for his address to the joint session of the US Congress. Photograph: Kind courtesy Office of Rep Tulsi Gabbard

 

Where does the caucus now stand on India's demand for a permanent seat at the UNSC?

The caucus has not taken a formal position on this issue. However, we understand India's frustration with the pace of UN reforms. We have followed closely India's growing role in international organisations as India continues to solidify its place on the world stage.

Do not overlook the importance of having been elected to the Security Council seven times. As co-chair of the US-India Caucus, I will take every opportunity to point out the significant contributions India has made to global stability and peace over the years, and I look forward to continued engagement and dialogue on this important issue.

Considering this is a bipartisan caucus, how different or similar are the views on India and Indian Americans on the two sides of the aisle?

The US-India Caucus has long brought together people from different parties and different parts of the country to work together on strengthening relations between the US and India, and to better empower Indians living in the US.

In the 115th Congress, we will continue our work to increase awareness and understanding across our communities. We may agree on some things, disagree on others, but come together in this caucus around our unified interest in strengthening the US-India partnership.

What is your vision of the future of this caucus? How do you plan to grow its influence?

I am confident we will see continued growth in the US-India partnership and the Caucus.

As the second largest country-specific caucus in Congress, we have a great platform for carrying forward ideas and increasing awareness of the importance of our long standing friendship. There are some very engaged members on the Caucus and as new members are elected, more are interested in joining.

We are working with Rep Holding and other Caucus members on identifying the priorities for the caucus for the 115th Congress, and look forward to engaging with the community on furthering those priorities.

You are also the first woman co-chair, the first Hindu co-chair of the India Caucus. How does it feel to be in a US Congress with more women, more diversity than ever?

It's important that our government represent the diversity that exists within our country. I'm honoured to serve the people of Hawai'i and this country as we continue to try to bring about positive change in our service to them.

IMAGE: When Tulsi Gabbard visited India. Photographs: Kind courtesy Rep Tulsi Gabbard/Flickr

 

Tell us about your first trip to India. What were your big takeaways?

I was in India for the first time in December 2014, at the prime minister's invitation. I visited 7 cities over 3 weeks and met with a wide variety of people, from the highest government officials to the top industrialists, whose names most people will recognize to be entrepreneurs and start-ups to college students, to grade school students, to small business owners, to mid-size business owners, to farmers.

What struck me was the optimism and excitement that was felt across India, an understanding of the unique opportunity to change in a historic way and leverage technology and innovation to be able to empower people, even in the smallest and most rural villages.

Apart from your official duties, how much of India did you experience? What were your favourite memories of India?

On a very personal level, my visit to India was very fulfilling for me.

India has a great spiritual tradition to offer the world, and I was able to take some personal time near the end of my trip to go on a holy pilgrimage in Vrindavan, which was the spiritual highlight of my trip. I made many new friends there, and experienced the vibrant spirit of India and her people.

As we look at the challenges that exist around the world, and the opportunity that lies ahead for the US and India, I am reminded of the importance of the aloha spirit, working with one another in a way that is based on respect, love, and compassion.

While in India, I was honoured and inspired to follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King by visiting Raj Ghat, the cremation site of Mahatma Gandhi.

The potency of love and aloha is the core message of both Dr King and Mahatma Gandhi.

The world today is in dire need of leaders who have such aloha spirit; servant-leaders who are motivated out of spiritual love to work in the spirit of karma yoga, or selfless service to others.

It is this aloha spirit, and cultivation of spiritual love, which motivates me in my work, and which can help us overcome our differences, and bring about real solutions to the many challenges we face.

You have criticised the Believer on CNN for its episode on the Aghoris. Reza Aslan, however, has said that his show will cover many beliefs on the fringes of the mainstream. In his second episode he met a doomsday cult leader, and has said he plans to also do episodes on evangelist Christianity, Vodou and Scientology.
Also, he did say the aghoris are only a sect of Hindus, that they are only a very small group of ascetics. He didn't seem to imply that he was speaking for Hinduism as a whole.
In light of this -- and the fact that the aghoris or the caste system he speaks of on this show do exist -- do you still view it as 'false reporting' or in anyway specifically intended to perpetuate stereotypes?

I think my position on the episode is quite clear through the statement I released.

The question for me is not whether Reza Aslan is going to show other religions in the same, disrespectful way that he showed Hinduism. 

Today, when Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and many others are facing very real violence stemming from ignorance, it is the duty of people in the media such as Mr Aslan to eschew shocking and alarming viewers in the guise of educating them about religion.

You reference the caste system. Of course, caste-based discrimination is a very real problem in India and South Asia, but I also know, as a Hindu, that a caste system is not intrinsic to Sanatan Dharma.

Mr Aslan said the exact opposite. He made many similar errors and spread other misconceptions about karma and reincarnation that have really aggrieved the Hindu community.

My request to CNN and Mr Aslan, and Western media in general (including Hollywood movie-makers) is to sit down with Hindu Americans and discuss ways to portray Hinduism in a more accurate and respectful light.

In 2016 when I ran for re-election, my Republican opponent put out propaganda saying Hindus are cannibals and that a vote for me was a vote for Satan.

CNN's programme feeds into that kind of misunderstanding, fear and perverted stereotypes of Hinduism.

To my knowledge, CNN has still not responded in any way to the complaints the Hindu American Foundation and Hindu organisations and individuals have made.

I believe the reason for this is because if they were to apologise to Hindus like they should, they would also have to refrain from rebroadcasting the programme. They obviously don't want to do this, because it will cut into their profits.

Do you have an India bucket list in terms of places to visit, things to do, things to try?

I don't have a bucket list, but I do look forward to visiting again.

Monali Sarkar / Rediff.com