Blood and money

By Edward Luce and Demetri Sevastopulo

Financial Times, February 20 2003 original

India's leading Hindu nationalist group - the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or Organisation of National Volunteers - told the country's Muslims last year that their future safety lay "in the goodwill of the majority".

The warning, made towards the end of one of the country's worst episodes of sectarian violence, in which up to 2,000 Muslims died, fuelled allegations that the RSS and its affiliates were implicated in the pogroms. Yet far from deterring the Hindu nationalists, the controversy has encouraged greater militancy - including, in December, the landslide election victory of the BJP, the political arm of the RSS, in Gujarat.

The allegations against the RSS have been widely published in India. But an investigation by the FT has found that the increasingly strident campaign is receiving significant, albeit largely unwitting, assistance from western taxpayers.

A number of Hindu groups in the US and Britain, classified as charities and therefore entitled to tax-exempt status, raise funds for ostensibly apolitical projects in India and the west. In fact, the FT has learnt, significant sums go to causes controlled by members of the RSS. As Ravi Nair, head of the South Asian Human Rights Documentation Centre, a consultant to the United Nations, says:

"A large majority of those who give money are traditional, peace-loving Hindus who do not realise what it is spent on."

Set up in 1925, the RSS aims to make India a Hindu state in which minorities following religions that originate outside India - principally Islam and Christianity - would be treated as second-class citizens.

Over the past four decades the RSS has helped set up dozens of "branches", including the BJP, which now leads India's multi-party coalition government; the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or World Council of Hindus, its religious arm; and the Sewa Bharti, its welfare arm. The groups are collectively known as the Sangh Parivar, or Family of the RSS (see above).

A series of inquiries - by India's National Human Rights Commission, by Human Rights Watch in New York, and by the Concerned Citizens Tribunal, composed mostly of retired Indian judges - have accused the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and its youth wing, the Bajrang Dal, of helping to plan the massacres that occurred in Gujarat between February and April last year.

The groups themselves do little to refute complicity in the violence, itself triggered by the massacre of 58 Hindu train passengers by a Muslim mob. Praveen Togadia, the VHP's international head, recently told India's Muslims to take blood tests to prove they were not of "Arabian" descent. "Hindus have the tradition of wearing a garland of flowers. But our Hindu deity wears a garland of human heads," he said in a speech. "I advise all Muslims to get themselves genetically tested for their Hindu origin."

Although it does not exist as a formal legal entity in India, the RSS has powerful defenders into the highest levels of government. No rolls are published but estimates range from 2.5m to 6m members. Those who admit to belonging to the RSS include Narendra Modi, the BJP chief minister in Gujarat, L.K. Advani, India's deputy prime minister, and numerous other senior figures.

"The RSS is a very sophisticated and secretive organisation whose purpose has never wavered," says D.R. Goyal, a former member and a leading scholar on the organisation. "It would be impossible to describe the RSS and its 'family' as anything other than political."

By law, charities in the US and Britain are not permitted to spend funds on political or sectarian activities. But drawing on independent inquiries and the FT's own investigations, it is clear the charities in question have either failed to keep an eye on the RSS's activities or have remained silent about its political objectives.

Recently, however, the charities have come under scrutiny in Britain and the US. "The Gujarat riots really were a clarion call to us," says an official at the US state department. "It is not dissimilar to where American Muslims who were contributing to what they thought were benevolent organisations that have been charged with more insidious activities."

In 2001, according to returns filed with the Internal Revenue Service in Washington DC, US-based affiliates of the RSS had assets of almost $11m, much of it raised from Indian nationals or people of Indian origin. The UK Charities Commission, which is formally investigating two RSS affiliates - Sewa International and the HSS - and is considering an inquiry into the VHP, says the groups raised £4.3m in 2001.

However, the total amount raised for RSS activities is almost certainly higher than the sums that go through the official route. Other sources include cash informally transmitted via the hawala system, funds raised by religious trusts (which are not required to file returns to the IRS) and money diverted through a sophisticated network of US tax shelters that are less easily traced to the Sangh Parivar.

"We strongly suspect that Hindu temples in the US which are affiliated to the Sangh Parivar raise a lot of tax-exempt money for India," says Shalini Gera, whose California-based group published a report on RSS fundraising.*

Last year Lord Adam Patel, a British Muslim and member of the House of Lords, resigned as a patron of Sewa International complaining that it incited "racial hatred and is both outrageous and offending". But according to Lord Desai, the economist and another peer: "There are almost certainly other trustees and patrons out there who have no idea what their charities are really up to. The RSS is expert at managing very benign- sounding front organisations which conceal their true purpose."

RSS-affiliated charities in the US and Britain deny any links with sectarian projects in India. Yet their own data, and interviews with their counterparts in India, provide good reason to suspect they are part of the "family".

For example, the India Development and Relief Fund, based in Maryland, says it raises funds for "economically and socially disadvantaged people irrespective of caste, sect, region or religion". Vijay Pallod, a senior executive at IDRF, denies any formal links with the RSS. But he told the FT: "Some IDRF volunteers may be inspired by the Sangh Parivar, particularly its aspiration of serving needy people selflessly."

According to IDRF's tax filings, more than 80 per cent of the almost $3.2m it directly sent to India between 1994 and 2000 went to projects managed by groups that are explicitly part of the RSS family. In November, in response to such findings, Cisco, Sun Microsystems and Oracle suspended the IDRF from the lists of charities eligible for funds to match employee donations.

Sewa International, the IDRF's sister body in Britain, is the funding arm of the HSS, as the UK branch of the RSS is known. The HSS has told the Charities Commission it has no formal links to the RSS. But M.G. Vaidya, India spokesman for the RSS in New Delhi, told the FT: "The RSS has international branches in the US and the UK called the HSS. My son, Ram Vaidya, is a leading pracharak [full-time volunteer] for the HSS in the UK."

Furthermore, the RSS readily admits that Sewa Bharti, an acknowledged Indian counterpart of Sewa International and the IDRF, is part of its "family". "We make no secret of the fact that we are members of the RSS," says D.V. Kholi, senior vice-president for Sewa Bharti in New Delhi.

Other RSS-linked charities include the Ekal Vidyalaya (school programme) in the US and the Kalyan Ashram Trust (the tribal development group) in the UK. The former says it funds schools that "wean children of remote tribal areas of India away from illiteracy . . . ill-health, poverty and crime". The latter more openly admits to projects that "wean tribals away from the evil influence of foreign missionaries, anti-social and anti-national forces [standard code for Christianity and Islam]". Both groups are run by RSS volunteers.

In the late 1990s the Sangh Parivar opened hundreds of schools in tribal parts of Gujarat, including the Dangs in the south of the state. A typical question published in an RSS educational booklet that is widely used as material for courses in Sangh Parivar schools asks: "Who shed rivers of blood to spread Islam?" The answer is the prophet Mohammed.

"The Kalyan Ashram and other RSS educational groups indoctrinate tribal and disadvantaged Indians into hatred of Islam and Christianity," says P.B. Sawant, a retired judge of India's supreme court. "I have no doubt that this contributed to last year's violence in Gujarat."

Harsh Mander, a former civil servant, now head of ActionAid in India, says that such groups operate in tandem with other RSS bodies, including the VHP. "They move into areas identified by the RSS with the aim of manufacturing communal hatred," he says. " It is meticulously co-ordinated."

District commissioners - the most senior civil servants - in the tribal belt of Madhya Pradesh, a state which borders Gujarat, say that RSS charities have dramatically stepped up their presence in the past two years. There are similar reports from numerous districts in the states of Chattisgarh, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. Most of these states are either outside the traditional Hindi-belt heartland of the RSS or, like Madhya Pradesh which is ruled by the opposition Congress Party, face key assembly elections later this year.

Sanjay Dubey, commissioner for Dhar in Madhya Pradesh, says that dozens of Sangh Parivar schools funded by foreign donations have been opened up in his district over the past 12 months. Volunteers who teach at such schools frequently organise Shakhas, or RSS paramilitary training sessions, he says. The drills, modelled on those devised by Benito Mussolini, Italy's dictator in the 1920s, often take place on school premises.

"The schools are part of an integrated RSS attempt to split the community along communal lines so that Madhya Pradesh will go the same way as Gujarat," Mr Dubey says. "Madhya Pradesh is holding elections in November. There is no doubt that this is co-ordinated with the BJP for electoral reasons."

Meeraj Mandoli, Mr Dubey's counterpart in the neighbouring district of Jabhua, says that since Sangh Parivar charities became active about two years ago, formerly peaceful communities have seen attacks on the district's tribal Christian community, the gang rape of four nuns and the razing of several churches. Last month, senior leaders of the VHP attended a ceremony to honour the mother of Dara Singh, an activist awaiting trial for the murder of Graham Staines, a Christian relief worker for lepers, and his two children in a gruesome car arson attack in Orissa three years ago.

"Until recently these groups did not operate in Jabhua and there was absolutely no communal tension between Christians and Hindu tribals," says Mr Mandoli. "Now the Christians live in constant fear of being attacked."

Official government data support that view. Since 1998, there have been almost 500 violent attacks on India's Christian minority, which makes up 2.3 per cent of the 1bn population, down from 2.9 per cent in the 1950 census. Between 1950 and 1998 there were only 50 recorded attacks on Christians.

"There has been an explosion of violence against Christians in remote parts of India which has accompanied the arrival of Sangh Parivar groups," says John Dayal, head of the All-India Christian Council. "The official figures record only a small proportion. A large number of India's Christians live in terror."

Arjun Dev, a professor formerly in charge of the Indian government's curriculum for the social sciences, says that the basic objective of RSS schools is to make sure that disadvantaged groups which have been largely ignored by the state blame other
religious communities for their plight. "They teach pupils about Islam and Christianity in the form of a catechism. There is no room for question, debate or reflection. These are semi-literate people who are grateful that someone is finally paying them attention."

Indeed, much of the success of the RSS in spreading its influence to new areas of the country over the past two decades can be attributed to the shortcomings of the Indian state. In large swaths of rural India, where the battle for the country's political future is being most fiercely fought, the government has failed to provide schools, hospitals or welfare services for the disadvantaged.

Such communities may be isolated and traditionally shunned by upper-caste Hinduism. But India's "scheduled" castes and tribes make up roughly 25 per cent of the country's population.

In seeking to incorporate such groups into a nationalistic version of Hinduism, the RSS hopes to win millions of new voters for the BJP. And the first port of entry is through the minds of the young. "You can compare the RSS schools to the Jesuits or perhaps more accurately to the Islamist welfare networks in the slums of the Middle East where the state has simply failed to deliver," say Biju Matthews, a researcher into RSS charities.

Since the attacks of September 11 2001 on New York and Washington, western governments have worked intensively to shut off the flow of funds to Islamist groups. Over the same period rightwing Hindu groups in the UK and the US have become adept at passing themselves off as purely cultural or educational bodies.

Chetan Bhatt, a senior lecturer at Goldsmiths College in London, says the VHP and others play on people's fear of appearing critical of other cultures. In the UK, the VHP has even received public funding from a number of town and county councils and has advised the department of education on textbooks for religious teaching. "People in the UK and the US are very politically correct nowadays and fear they will be accused of racism if they do not indulge groups such as the VHP or HSS," Mr Bhatt says. "Perhaps if they understood the nature of these groups, they would see the terrible irony."

*A Foreign Exchange of Hate: