Maryland lieutenant governor got funding from donors linked to far-right extremist movement

Critics accuse Aruna Miller of retaliating against those that called out the problematic donations

By Areeba Shah

Staff Writer
Published August 5, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)
Updated August 11, 2023 10:43AM (EDT)
Maryland Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller attends a news conference outside the Addison Road-Seat Pleasant Metro Station to announce "federal funding to support Prince George's County infrastructure and health needs," in Capitol Heights, Md. on Monday, July 24, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Maryland Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller attends a news conference outside the Addison Road-Seat Pleasant Metro Station to announce "federal funding to support Prince George's County infrastructure and health needs," in Capitol Heights, Md. on Monday, July 24, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Aruna Miller, who made history in Maryland last year by becoming the first South Asian woman to be elected state lieutenant governor, is facing criticism for her ties to far-right Hindu nationalist groups and for allegedly intimidating those who have publicly criticized her. 

Miller has collected at least $110,000 since 2011 during her four campaigns from donors associated with Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist political party, and Hindutva, a far-right nationalist political ideology that mirrors white supremacy, according to public records.

The BJP-led government under Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been criticized by Human Rights Watch for its systematic discrimination and stigmatization of religious and other minorities, particularly Muslims. 

"She makes everybody think that she is not part of the Hindu far-right ecosystem here," Rasheed Ahmed, executive director of the Indian American Muslim Council, told Salon. "Obviously that's not the case. She has very close ties to the Hindu far-right and accepts money. We want her to disassociate from this Hindu supremacist, fascist ideology."

Miller and Wes Moore, who assumed office earlier this year as Maryland's first Black governor, have made efforts to distance Miller from those connections dedicating a page on their campaign website aimed at countering any claims suggesting Miller's endorsement of Hindu nationalist ideologies.

"There is not one dollar in this campaign that has anything to do with the Hindutva movement or international politics," a statement on the page reads. 

But their actions speak otherwise as the Moore-Miller campaign has received several thousand dollars from Overseas Friends of the Bharatiya Janata Party activists Sudhir Sekhsaria and Gurpreet Takhar, according to public records. The OFBJP represents Bharatiya Janata Party supporters based overseas.

Aruna Miller for Congress contributionsAruna Miller for Congress contributions (US Federal Elections Commission)

"During the primary, we went to her and Wes Moore's campaign and said 'hey, return the money,' and we [were] very surprised at the response because they were unreceptive," said Susan Kerin, chair of Peace Action Montgomery, the local chapter of the human rights advocacy group Peace Action.

Kerin added that the Moore-Miller campaign even pointed to the example of John B. King, another Maryland candidate for governor, collecting money from a Hindutva-linked donor. But King's campaign later released a statement rejecting the donation made by the individual with ties to Islamophobia and the "Hindutva fascist movement," and donated the same amount to Muslim Advocates – a national rights organization that fights against bigotry. 

Even after receiving pushback from fellow Democrats, the two have continued to raise money at fundraisers with the support of individuals with deep ties to the Hindutva movement.  

Wes For Maryland contributionsWes For Maryland contributions (The State of Maryland/Maryland Campaign Finance Reporting Information System)

"She's not denying these out-of-state contributions, but saying it's just part of the game," Scott Webber, a Democratic activist in Maryland, told Salon. "Now, she is elevated to the governor's office in Maryland, which is known to be one of the most powerful governor's offices in literally the entire country." 

Sekhsaria, a local allergist, also helped organize a fundraiser for Moore and Miller last October at the residence of Jasdip "Jesse" Singh, the founder of Sikhs for Trump, where the pair collected more than $100,000 in donations, according to the local news site Next TV. Adapa Prasad, the national president of OFBJP, also attended the fundraiser.

"They're very clearly using [these] circles to elevate their own image," Nathan Feldman, a current member of the central committee, told Salon. "If Aruna Miller wants to raise money from far-right, pro-Modi donors in her support base, then she has to deal with his opponents domestically being upset with that as well."

He also pointed to the example of Miller attending a White House dinner in honor of the Indian prime minister who he referred to as a "genocidal maniac."

"I'm not okay with just standing by it as support for Modi and fascism grows, both in India as well as in the United States apparently now," Feldman said.

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Sekhsaria previously served as Miller's campaign treasurer during her failed congressional bid in 2018 bringing in thousands of dollars in donations from people affiliated with Hindu nationalism and was also one of the "finance chairs" during her election for lieutenant governor, according to The Intercept.

Described by Feldman as "one of the biggest Hindu nationalist donors in the area," Sekhsaria has hosted a number of fundraisers. He hosted an event in Houston, Texas in support of Miller back in December 2017 with Ramesh Bhutada, national vice president of Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), the US wing of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – a right-wing Hindu nationalist organization.

The event was also co-hosted by Jugal Malani, the chair of the "Howdy, Modi" organizing committee and Bhutada's brother-in-law and Vijay Pallod, Bhutada's relative and business associate who previously traveled to India to campaign for the BJP.

From that event alone, Miller collected well over $20,000 in donations, according to public records.

"So all these things are tying together the fact that this is a very, very connected set of people who are potentially hiding their association – but it's in broad daylight – while at the same time gaslighting saying it doesn't exist," Webber said. 

The same donors who have been named in criticisms of Miller have routinely contributed to Democrats up and down the ballot in Maryland and nationally, though officials and candidates who are not of Indian descent are hardly ever criticized for accepting contributions from the same individuals.

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The other part of this is the "retaliation" critics face when they "attempt to expose her deep ties not only financially, but also personally," Webber claimed.

He recalled a previous conversation he had with the lieutenant governor in which Webber directly asked her why a majority of the donations she was receiving were from out of state.

"Her smiling pretty demeanor changed immediately at which point she informed me 'listen, the Hindu community has been very supportive of me and I want their money, and that's just the way it is in politics, and you better learn to live with it,'" Webber said he recalled Miller saying.

Feldman alleges that he encountered a similar incident when Kerin applied for an open seat in the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee in District 19 soon after a vacancy was announced. 

MCDCC Chairwoman Saman Ahmad, who Feldman described as a close ally of Miller's, contacted him and discussed that Miller was in opposition to Kerin's nomination for the open seat. 

During their conversation, Ahmad told him that Miller would be "taking names" of individuals who voted for Kerin to fill the seat and allegedly threatened to damage Feldman's political endeavors down the line.

"When I asked why Aruna Miller couldn't contact me personally, I was told that essentially, that wouldn't be appropriate," Feldman said. "The reason Aruna had Saman contact me was because Saman was the chair, but it was basically like 'I'm important, you're not.'"

It was clear that the objection was not due to what Kerin had said as being false, but instead because of "how outspoken she had been," he added.

Ahmad has denied the allegations made by Feldman, and pointed to the fact that votes are "public" anyway so "there's no reason to take names." She added that a variety of factors go into candidate selection. 

"To say that someone felt threatened to vote a certain way is simply untrue," Ahmad said.

CeCe Grant, who eventually won the seat, echoed a similar sentiment, saying that "every single person voted" for her. But Salon confirmed that at least one person did not vote for Grant.

"It's embarrassing that members of the central committee have taken personality conflicts and tried to make it into a news story…" Grant said. "I cannot for a second imagine that the lieutenant governor would care about my seat."

While Miller has condemned the BJP and Modi's actions on occasion, she has also referred to him as a "rock star" in another context. Critics say the lieutenant governor has to do more in denouncing Modi, who Webber pointed out has allowed "ethnic cleansings to take place." Some have even called on her to return donations made by Hindutva-linked individuals.

Modi was barred from entering the United States for nearly a decade due to "severe violations of religious freedom" in 2005. This decision stemmed from Modi's failure to stop a series of deadly riots by Hindus against minority Muslims, which killed nearly 2,000 people.

Genocide Watch has also called out Modi for his human rights violations, saying he spent his "first term as Prime Minister dehumanizing Muslims by passing laws preventing cow slaughter, restricting Muslim immigration, and purportedly countering Islamist terrorism."

"If you look at the combined Muslim and Christian populations in India, we're talking about a quarter billion people so just the scale of the impact of this genocidal move is without precedent," Webber said. "So, you have a progressive, Democratic, immigrant, female associating with what I truly do consider a neo-Nazi, ultra-right-wing, fascist-oriented supremacist terrorist organization, but one that also just happens to be in power."

Groups like Indian American Muslim Council have publicly condemned Miller's association with the Hindutva movement and have called on her to stop accepting money from individuals with ties to the far-right Hindu movement. 

"Our coalition is concerned about these kinds of actors infiltrating our public offices and using their leverage to promote values that are not necessarily aligned with American values," Rasheed Ahmed said. "I'm not an expert on Hindu[ism], but these are not even Hindu values of promoting or being complicit to far-right ideologies."

But Miller's office points to the examples throughout the lieutenant governor's career of "repeatedly and unabashedly condemn[ing]" the BJP and Modi.

"Lieutenant Governor Miller's record is clear: She has stood for freedom, inclusion and respect her entire career and has loudly and repeatedly condemned all hateful ideologies," Madeline Pawlak, a spokesperson for Miller's office said in a statement. "Concerted efforts by a select few to mischaracterize her record have no basis in truth and represent hypocritical judgments for the relationships an immigrant woman of color has with her community. This is a phenomenon we know is all too common for women of color in positions of leadership. Despite these attacks, Lieutenant Governor Miller remains focused on a positive agenda to build a more inclusive, welcoming state for all Marylanders."

Editor's note: The article has been updated since it was first published.

By Areeba Shah

Areeba Shah is a staff writer at Salon covering news and politics. Previously, she was a research associate at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a reporting fellow for the Pulitzer Center, where she covered how COVID-19 impacted migrant farmworkers in the Midwest.

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