On March 24, a coalition of Islamist and anti-India separatist groups failed to convince the Chicago City Council to pass a resolution vilifying India and accusing it of religious persecution. The bill attracted fierce opposition from Chicago's Indian and Hindu communities, which joined counter-Islamists and Jewish American activists in a grassroots campaign to defeat the non-binding legislation.
In a 26-18 vote, Resolution 2020-583 was rejected by a majority of Chicago aldermen who refused to wade into foreign affairs and make uninformed judgments about communal tensions in India.
"If we take this on, why not take on the Chinese ethnic cleansing debate? Why not deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?" asked Ald. George Cardenas, who voted against the resolution.
Chicagoland was just the latest political battleground in a nationwide push to persuade local governments to weigh in on India's internal politics. After failing to pass legislation at the federal level, India's critics have targeted progressive strongholds across the United States, persuading elected officials in cities such as San Francisco and Seattle to introduce resolutions condemning India.
Deferred for six months, the deceptively titled "Chicago Resolution Honoring India's Independence and Democracy" criticized the country for implementing a pair of democratically sanctioned reforms that enjoy majority support among Indian citizens.
The Citizenship Amendment Act is a humanitarian policy providing sanctuary and a fast track to Indian citizenship for persecuted religious minorities subsisting in nearby Muslim-majority countries. The National Registry of Citizens, another target of Chicago's resolution, is an effort to record a list of bona fide Indian citizens living in Assam, where a porous international border has subjected the state to smuggling and infiltration.
Adopting the position of India's left-wing opposition, resolution co-sponsors mischaracterized these measures as "inconsistent with the country's long tradition of secularism."
To bolster claims of religious persecution, Chicago's resolution cited the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's recommendation to list India as a "country of particular concern." However, the text failed to note that the U.S. government unequivocally rejected that recommendation.
Similarly, the anti-India lobby sought to convince the U.S. House of Representatives to adopt a resolution condemning India for alleged injustices in Jammu and Kashmir, but that measure failed after garnering just 69 co-sponsors. In November 2019, just four lawmakers from an 84-member congressional commission attended a partisan hearing on Kashmir, with abstainers calling it "biased, one sided," and lacking in "credibility."
Having failed to move Congress, India's critics have targeted the most liberal city governments in America, framing their arguments in terms of social justice and identity politics.
A resolution in St. Paul, Minnesota was inspired by disdain for then-president Donald Trump, whom local Democrats accused of spreading "anti-Muslim violence" merely by visiting the Indian subcontinent in 2020. In Hamtramck, Michigan, a Muslim-majority city council passed a resolution insisting that "religious intolerance" in India is "clearly related to the Black Lives Matter movement in the US," and a resolution sponsor in Seattle compared India to Nazi Germany.
Similar language was employed with great success in other progressive cities, where the Islamist lobby couched the subject of India within broad national conversations about white supremacy and racial justice.
However, resolution-backers met their match in Chicago, where Hindu and Indian-American civil society organizations waged a months-long campaign against the symbolic legislation. The U.S.-India Friendship Council (USIFC), an umbrella of local Indian-American groups, attended committee hearings and voiced opposition to the bill, organizing a March 22 protest outside resolution sponsor Maria Hadden's downtown office.
USIFC hired a lobbyist, former Chicago alderman Joe Moore, to meet with his former colleagues and Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot and explain how the bill threatened community harmony among the city's South Asian diaspora. According to Moore, the mayor agreed that the city council should avoid "weighing in on the internal affairs of a democratic nation 8,000 miles away."
The Chicagoland Jewish community also stood in solidarity with its Hindu American neighbors, mobilizing support from local synagogues and community stakeholders. Jews and Hindus face similar political obstacles and have each survived unique historical circumstances. They often experience dual loyalty tropes linking them to their ancestral homelands and are unfairly accused of perpetuating white supremacism.
Dr. Richard Benkin, a local Jewish activist and longtime advocate for both Hindu and Jewish American causes, called the cooperative effort a "blueprint for continued work together" and noted that "the Hindu community has been loud and upfront in standing with Israel" during the current crisis there.
Finally, Chicago's Indian American community received assistance from the local chapter of the Counter-Islamist Grid (CIG), a project of the Middle East Forum that was founded to monitor and oppose local Islamist activity. CIG Associates organized a campaign that sent more than 12,000 letters to city aldermen, warning them about the extremists behind the divisive bill.
"This resolution is the brainchild of a coalition of Islamist and ultra-partisan organizations that are closely connected to violent extremist and separatist movements in South Asia," the constituent letters stated. "They seek to weaken and divide India to advance their theocratic agenda."
Chicago residents were rightfully concerned about the resolution's origins. Legislation in St. Paul was drafted in close consultation with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a group designated as a terrorist entity in 2014 by the United Arab Emirates. CAIR's influence was no less subdued in Chicago, where the local branch issued an action alert accusing India's government of "instituting the final steps of settler colonialism."
In response, USIFC chairman Bharat Barai called for a U.S. Justice Department probe into CAIR's foreign connections. "The funds of a not-for-profit organization should not be used for partisan politics or [a] hateful extremist religious agenda," he said.
Constituent letters pointed to other "endorsing groups," such as the Islamic Circle of North America and Helping Hand for Relief and Development, calling them "the U.S. branches of Jamaat-e-Islami, a militant South Asian Islamist network responsible for thousands of murders during Bangladesh's war for independence."
Chicago's 49 aldermen also learned about the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), which published a press release extolling the virtues of the resolution. A recent Newsweek article described IAMC as an "Islamist group with alleged ties to SIMI, a banned terrorist organization in India."
Next, concerned locals pointed to non-Muslim extremists supporting the bill, such as the Sikh Religious Society, which they claimed "seeks to separate from India and establish a religiously-governed state called Khalistan." A tribute to a "slain terrorist leader" is proudly displayed inside the suburban Chicago temple, where 95 percent of worshipers are said to support Sikh autonomy.
City aldermen were overwhelmed with messages opposing the legislation. "My office, as I'm sure many of yours, have received thousands — thousands— of people communicating with us, overwhelmingly in opposition to this resolution," said 15th Ward Ald. Raymond Lopez.
Ald. Cardenas of the 12th Ward recalled that his office was "flooded" with statements from local citizens. "We've not been able to do our day-to-day functions in the Ward because we've been getting calls from Hindus and Muslims and others that care about this issue," he said.
During phone calls and emails with several aldermen, CIG-Chicago Associate Hesham Shehab explained how resolution supporters are not the disinterested human rights and civil advocacy groups they claim to be. "Although their mission may appear just, these radicals are not just passive observers of the communal strife gripping India; rather, they are actively complicit in provoking this unrest," he said.
Indeed, these organizations have a direct interest in maligning India and undermining its immigration and national security policies. Islamists seek a weak and divided India that is isolated on the world stage, because this is the best environment to advance their separatist goals and fundamentalist agenda.
By bruising India with a distorted, one-sided portrayal of events, these extremist organizations hope to undermine the nation's counter-terrorism efforts, instigate hatred between India's various religious communities, and ultimately establish Islamist-administered territories throughout the subcontinent. Thanks to a display of courage from Chicago lawmakers, this radical pipe dream has been temporarily sidelined.
Benjamin Baird is the director of the Counter-Islamist Grid, a project of the Middle East Forum.