Some local Indian-Americans want to put the brakes on
charitable giving after a report that the money could
into some of the wrong places
By Najeeb Hasan
Metro Active, May 29, 2003 original |
Letter to editor: firstname.lastname@example.org
YEAR, the Booker Prize-winning novelist and activist Arundhati
Roy wrote a wrenching, deeply personal commentary
in response to sectarian violence in the Indian state of
Gujarat: "Last night, a friend from Baroda called. Weeping.
It took her 15 minutes to tell me what the matter was. It
wasn't very complicated. Only that Sayeeda, a friend of hers,
had been caught by the mob. Only that her stomach had been
ripped open and stuffed with burning rags."
Roy's description signified her frustration with ethnic
violence in her homeland, violence that left 58 Hindus burned
to death on a train and more than 2,000 Muslims murdered--all
with Indian authorities standing by calmly.
And what does all this religious and ethnic rioting half
a world away have to do with the Silicon Valley? Nothing,
except that the Silicon Valley, according to a recent report
being distributed in international circles, has allegedly
been helping fund it.
As home to one of the most affluent and philanthropic Indian-born
communities in the world, the valley is viewed as a fishing
pond stocked with plump trout in the eyes of Indian-interest
organizations seeking charity from the West. But a small
group of bright-eyed Indian-American activists--youngish
professionals, students, professors--clustered mostly in
the Bay area, hope to stop it.
Naming their group the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate, these
activists have pinned their efforts on publicizing a report
that links some of the charities that collect money locally
with the atrocities described by Roy.
Surfacing last November in India, the report alleges that
an Indian-American charity group, the Maryland-based India
Development and Relief Fund (IDRF), uses its status as a
nonprofit American organization to collect money that is
being funneled to extremist groups in India that have an
agenda that many of the givers would not agree with if they
knew about it. The IDRF denies the charges.
the report and the group have attracted considerable attention
from the press, mostly from Indian media and Indian-interest
news outlets in foreign lands, but also from a handful of
mainstream journals such as the Financial Times, the Economist
and the Wall Street Journal. Also, the Campaign to Stop Funding
Hate has succeeded in raising enough awareness in the corporate
world to discourage some companies from donating to India
Development and Relief. In the Silicon Valley, for instance,
Cisco Systems Inc. and Oracle Corp. both suspended their
policy of making matching donations to the IDRF after hearing
reports that the charity was linked to the Gujarat bloodshed.
In the relative comfort of the stylish, cozy north San Jose
home of microbiologist Shalini Gera, far from Indian realities
that in San Jose could only be imagined to occur in a Bollywood
movie, dinner is being served on stainless-steel plates.
The fare--rice, a vegetable curry, yogurt, roti (flat bread),
achar (pickled preserves)--is being scooped up by nimble
fingers in that casual South Asian manner. The guests, having
migrated from the sitting room toward the food, are mostly
sprawled on the foyer's wooden floor, and laughter and conversation
circulate easily. At Gera's home are, among others, her husband,
Girish Agrawal, a civil engineer; Angana Chatterji, an anthropology
professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies
in San Francisco; and Raja Swamy, a member of the group visiting
the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate's unofficial spokeswoman,
was born in Calcutta. Her father was a socialist,
her family from a Hindu background and she had a Muslim aunt.
Communal hatreds were alive and well while she was growing
up, she relates, but in a way that inspired her toward her
current pursuits. "You began to understand the responsibility
of being a member of the majority community," Chatterji
In 1984, she went off to New Delhi for college and became
involved in working in relief camps and with land-rights
movements in Indian villages. In a relief camp, she came
face to face with the chilling results of sectarian violence.
It was after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated
and ethnic fighting broke out that Chatterji met an old woman
in a relief camp.
the woman as speaking to no one for five days, only tightly
clenching something in a squeezed fist. "There
was a smell around her," Chatterji remembers. "After
five days, she unclenched her fist, and she had a severed
thumb [that she had been holding]. 'This is all that is left
of my family of 13,' she told me. 'You want me to live? Where
is the will to live?'"
And so, surreal violence in distant lands hits close to
home, even in a quiet neighborhood in north San Jose, for
Chatterji and her companions--especially if, as they believe,
money earned in Silicon Valley is being diverted to India
to stoke the flames of ethnic rivalries even more.
website (www.idrf.org), the India Development and Relief
Fund advertises itself as a secular aid organization
with the stated purpose of distributing funds in India to
assist in the causes of "rural development, tribal welfare,
and urban poor."
After India's massive, 7.9 magnitude earthquake of 2001,
centered mostly in Gujarat, the IDRF was one of several Indian-based
charities to scramble to raise money for relief efforts.
With an estimated 150,000 Indian-Americans, the Bay Area
became a vital source of relief money. Just in the first
few days after the disaster, the IDRF alone secured $100,000
in pledges, 20 percent of that amount from the Bay Area,
and the telephones were still ringing from the calls of concerned
Bay Area Indian-Americans wanting to donate more.
There's no way of accurately ascertaining where a particular
charity gets its donations (nonprofits are not required to
report the source of individual donations if they are less
than $5,000). However, Trent Stamp, the executive director
of Charity Navigator, a New Jersey-based charity-evaluating
organization, affirms that Silicon Valley is a prime source.
"I'm sure there's a healthy chunk of money coming from
there," Stamp says. "[The Silicon Valley] is still
one of the more active philanthropic communities, even with
the fall of the stock market."
Suresh Deopura, a Fremont-based vice president for the IDRF,
acknowledges that the Silicon Valley is a crucial conduit
for charity. The organization, he says, is the largest Indian-American
charity in terms of membership. The group publicizes itself
in the Silicon Valley mostly through personal contacts, the
Internet, word-of-mouth and Indian-American gatherings.
"Silicon Valley has more software professionals, so
it's more well-to-do than other parts of the country," Deopura
says. "The people here have more of an attachment to
India; they would like to donate money in this country for
the treatment of poor people in India."
And so, in 2001, wealthy Bay Area Indian-Americans were
no Scrooges when the quake shook the foundations of their
homeland. The only thing they did wrong, contends the Campaign
to Stop Funding Hate, was fall prey to certain groups taking
advantage of disaster.
collected by the IDRF from the Bay Area did indeed go Indian
groups involved in earthquake relief, say the activists,
but to relief groups operating with ideological priorities. "Most
of that money collected by the IDRF went to groups undertaking
the reconstruction of villages, to the opening of soup kitchens
that largely targeted Hindus," says Gera, herself from
a Hindu background. "They rebuilt temples and crematoriums
but not mosques and churches. There were some reports that
said that people were only given food if they said, 'Long
Live Shri Ram' [a Hindu saying], and the soup kitchens themselves
were held in temples [which most Muslims would not enter]."
Gera and Chatterji are all credited as researchers on the
report, titled "The Foreign Exchange of Hate:
IDRF and the American Funding of Hindutva," but all
are quick to say much of the work going into the report was
done by activists and intellectuals in India who were afraid
to be named for fear of reprisals.
essentially names the India Development and Relief Fund
as a U.S. branch of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh
(commonly known as the RSS, or the Sangh, and literally meaning "National
Volunteers Corps"), a slippery, far-reaching organization
started in 1925 to propagate Hindu culture. Most traditional
Hindus, of course, are repulsed by the extremism associated
with some groups said to be connected to the Sangh. It was,
in fact, a Sangh volunteer who shot and killed Mahatma Gandhi
The Sangh advocates an extreme form of Hindu nationalism,
known in the Western press as Hindutva (which translates
as Hinduness, or Hinduhood). The recruitment and orientation
toward a Hindutva ideology is done by various organizations
in tribal areas. Traditional culture, in a sense, is supplanted
by Hindutva: critics say new festivals and educational activities
are introduced in areas with non-Hindu populations; anti-minority
pamphlets and literature are distributed.
As an organization, the Sangh has little visibility. According
to the report, it offers membership only to Hindu males (mostly
upper-caste); it maintains no records; it pays no income
taxes; it has no bank accounts; and it is not registered
as any sort of entity in India. It unofficially operates
primarily through a network of registered organizations.
The researchers of the report, after sifting through documents
filed by the IDRF with the IRS in the United States, the
Sangh's Indian newsletter and reports published by Sangh
organizations in both the United States and India, found
that many of the relief organizations the IDRF directs money
to are members of this unofficial Sangh family of organizations.
Deopura, the IDRF vice president, disagrees. First, he
says, the Sangh does not subscribe to a hate-fueled agenda
but strives to "keep Hindu culture alive, to do yoga,
to practice the Hindu religion." And while the IDRF
is not connected to the Sangh, there could very well be some
overlap because India is more than 80 percent Hindu, he explains.
"Theoretically, we're not connected," Deopura
says. "But practically, what happens is that we support
lots of charity organizations--even Christians are the heads
of the some of the charities we support. Still, most of the
charities are run by Hindus ... so, what may have happened
is that some Hindu organizations' heads may have some personal
ties to the RSS."
views the report and the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate
as politically motivated. "It's [the report] a
fabrication," he says. "We rebuilt villages after
the earthquake in Gujarat. All residents, including Muslims,
were also beneficiaries. They [the activists] don't want
to acknowledge that."
believes the activists have socialist ideologies and fear
that the IDRF's work will lessen the appeal of their
ideology in India. "Our idea is to educate people in
tribal areas," he says. "In tribal areas, if they
are not educated they [are susceptible to Communism]. If
we keep educating people, their base will erode."
Chatterji responds that her group has no one political or
religious ideology, and that Deopura and IDRF are using inflammatory
labels to detract from the findings of the report.
"It's a strategy for building a nation based on the
purity of an individual group," she says.