India's Unique Brand of Right-Wing Nationalism Comes to New York

Hindu nationalists paid for billboard space over Times Square last week celebrating the removal of Kashmir's autonomy. Simultaneously, another group ran ads flashing "Kashmiri Lives Matter".
10 August 2020, 2:08am
india pakistan kashmir times square
(Left) One of the two billboards up at New York's Times Square on August 5, which claimed to be funded by a four-month-old AMPAKCares. The billboard in solidarity with Kashmir upstaged the one on Ram temple (right), which was organised by a group of Non-Residential Indians. Photo courtesy of Council on PAK US Relations/ Facebook and Jagdish Sehwani

On August 5, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) observed two significant moments. One was the first anniversary of the day the Indian government took away the autonomy granted to Jammu and Kashmir, which was the country’s only Muslim-majority state.

The other was the foundation stone-laying of a temple for the Hindu deity Ram in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. PM Modi himself laid the stone for the temple, being built in the town of Ayodhya over a Mughal-era mosque that was razed to the ground by a mob that was allegedly instigated by BJP leaders in 1992.

Hindu nationalist groups in the United States had stated their declaration to mark the temple ceremony by beaming Lord Ram’s images on an 18,000-square-foot LED display screen at New York’s Times Square. In anticipation of a billboard blitz, supporters of the BJP and PM Modi circulated manipulated images of Times Square, plastered with Lord Ram’s images.

A coalition of South Asian civil rights groups lobbied Branded Cities Network — which manages advertisements on the NASDAQ building, located at 4, Times Square — and convinced it against displaying the group’s messages.

Later that day, images of the planned temple in Ayodhya and the Indian tricolour went up for around four hours at 20 Times Square, a hotel and retail building located at the corner of West 47th Street and Seventh Avenue—a three-minute walk from Times Square. 

Jagdish Sewhani, chairman of Ram Janma Bhoomi Shilanyas (Foundation-stone-laying at the birthplace of Ram) Celebrations Committee of USA which paid for the advertisement — claimed that it was an informal and unregistered group in New York that came together just five days before August 5. Sewhani, a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — the ideological parent of the BJP — refused to divulge the cost of the billboard to VICE News.

At one point, the two groups — those opposing the Ram Temple and those supporting its construction — organised simultaneous protests at Times Square.

However, something else happened that day that the supporters of the US-based supporters of the BJP never anticipated. Two billboards speaking out against India’s actions in Kashmir also came up right in the middle of Times Square, at 1567 Broadway. 

The billboards flashed “Kashmiri Lives Matter #KashmirWantsFreedom” and the other said “Kashmir Siege Day, 5 August 2020” came up and ran for the full day. The same hashtags were also beamed at various landmarks across London: the British Parliament, Marble Arch, 1 Marylebone and other Central London locations.

The official Twitter account of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party and the country’s Ambassador to the United States Asad M Khan were among those who tweeted a video of the billboards. “Signs at Times Square remind the international community of one full year of forced disappearances, torture, and a siege that has been intensified on the pretext of Covid-19,” Asad M Khan later told the Pakistani newspaper Dawn.

VICE News ran the hashtags through Hashtagify.me, a social media analytics tool. The top countries from which #KashmiriLivesMatter originated were Pakistan (51.81 percent) and India (16.87 percent). #KashmirSiegeDay trended the highest in Pakistan at 66.67 percent, followed by 33.33 percent in Canada.

The Pakistan Prime Minister’s Office and Pakistan-based actor Veena Malik were among those that tweeted with the Kashmiri Lives Matter hashtag that day; the Twitter account of the government of Pakistan used — among others — #KashmirSiegeDay.

The campaign, spanning two continents, had upstaged the efforts of those aligned with the Indian establishment. 

For all the logistical brilliance, the organisation that pulled off the campaign seems to be less than four months old. It has very little online footprint and there is little clarity on who runs it.

Before the Kashmir campaign, the organisation had run three fundraisers on GoFundMe, raising a total of $3,155; two of those efforts did not receive any donations. Indian media reports state that one minute of advertising time at Times Square costs $35,000. 

The billboards in Times Square and London declared that they were “Paid for by AMPAKCARES.COM.”

AMPAKCares’ website domain ampakcares.com was registered on April 24, 2020. “AMPAKCares is an organization that is established to help and minimize the social and economic impacts of coronavirus,” said the About Us page.

Two days before that on April 22, the organisation posted on GoFundMe about an Iftar sponsorship drive during the holy month of Ramadan on the Islamic calendar: “For every $20 donated we will be able to give 2 iftar meals in the NY area and 3 Iftari  meals in Pakistan.” It did not raise any funds.

The group’s pages on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram went live on May 2. On May 3, it posted a GoFundMe page started by the organisation and another individual whose identity VICE News could not independently verify. The fundraiser, which attempted to raise $25,000 for PPE kits for healthcare workers in three Pakistan-based hospitals, managed to raise $3,155.

VICE News tried unsuccessfully to locate Dr Uzair Khan and the Human Accord Trust Pakistan, with whom AMPAKCares claims it works. An organisation named The Humans Accord Trust-Pakistan has an inactive Facebook page that states it is located in Islamabad, Pakistan; it could not be verified whether it is the same as the organisation that works with AMPAKCares.

AMPAKCares started a third GoFundMe campaign on May 3, to feed five thousand individuals as part of a May 29 celebration of Eid at New York state’s Nassau County. It did not receive any donations. A May 30 post on Facebook by an individual suggests that AMPAKCares was among the organisations that took part in the event.

The group went silent after, resurfacing with Kashmir on its agenda. “Our campaign intention is to bring Humanity back to Human Beings in Indian Occupied Kashmir,” says the organisation on its website.

AMPAKCares’ website states that it has teams in the US and Pakistan without naming any members. 

VICE News reached out to AMPAKCares, whose New York number is listed on their website. The individual who attended did not identify themself but said that a “concerned person” will be available to address questions shortly. However, subsequent calls to the number went unanswered. VICE News has also emailed and sent WhatsApp messages to AMPAKCares and will update when the organisation responds. VICE News also reached out to an individual reportedly associated with the organisation, but is yet to receive a response.

This story will be updated when AMPAKCares or associated individuals respond.

Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.