US widens probe of charities tied to militants

By Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington

Financial Times, February 14 2003 22:00 original

The US government is investigating a Maryland-based Hindu charity accused of financing fundamentalist organisations in India linked to last year's violence against Muslims in the state of Gujarat.

The charity has received donations from leading US companies including Cisco, Sun Microsystems and Oracle.

The move highlights how US authorities have widened their scrutiny of charities suspected of supporting violence since the September 11 attacks. Last week, the chief executive of Benevolence International Foundation, an Islamic charity, pleaded guilty to directing donations to Muslim fighters in Chechnya and Bosnia.

The state department has asked the justice department to investigate a report claiming that tax-exempt charities are funding affiliates of Rashitriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the militant Hindu organisation that Human Rights Watch concluded was "directly involved" in the Gujarat riots.

The report, compiled by a group of San Francisco-based Indians, focuses on the India Development and Relief Fund, a Maryland-based charity, which it accuses of funding non-governmental organisations that are fronts for RSS.

The IDRF, which raised more than $10m between 1997 and 2001, says it funds poverty alleviation projects and provides disaster relief but admits links with RSS. "No evidence has been produced to show that NGOs used IDRF funds to spread hate or incite violence," said Vijay Pallod, regional vice-president of IDRF. But he acknowledged that "some IDRF volunteers are inspired by Sangh organisations, particularly its aspiration of serving needy people selflessly".

The report also accuses VHP of America of funding projects sponsored by VHP of India, the religious wing of RSS, which has been linked with violence. Guarang Vaishnav, general- secretary of VHPA, said his organisation is independent from the VHP of India, even though the VHP of America is listed as the registrant for the VHP of India's website.

The controversy has spread to leading US companies that donated money to the IDRF under an employee donation-matching scheme. Cisco contributed $70,000 to IDRF but has suspended donations to the charity while it re-evaluates its philanthropic programme.

Sun MicroSystems also made small donations but has not suspended its programme. According to Mr Pallod, Oracle has joined Cisco in suspending donations. Human rights campaigners say the US government may be reluctant to pursue the Hindu charities.

"It will prove to be an uphill battle for the US to properly investigate and scrutinise these organisations because of their links to the India's ruling party, the BJP," said Smita Narula, senior south Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

"The US needs India as an ally right now."