Funding religious extremism and the diaspora

M V Ramana, The Daily Times (Lahore), November 28, 2002

Though a tremendous contribution, CTSFH’s report is only the first step in a larger battle. The larger challenge is to stop the conscious and deliberate funding of hate mongering groups, and the growth of religious extremist views in the diaspora

For years it had been widely suspected that the Sangh Parivar, the group of right wing Hindu extremist organisations, has been receiving large amounts of funding from Indians living in the USA. Now with the release of the report produced by The Campaign to Stop Funding Hate (CTSFH) appropriately titled “The Foreign Exchange of Hate: IDRF and the American Funding of Hindutva” (available on the internet at and this suspicion has been meticulously documented in the case of one organisation. This is the India Development and Relief Fund (IDRF), an organisation based in the state of Maryland, that has disbursed US-raised funds to several groups in India associated with the Sangh Parivar.

Religious groups have generally attracted communities and individuals in the diaspora. Living amidst a “foreign” culture often prompts a turn towards one’s “traditional” culture. But this culture is largely reduced to religion, that too of a narrow and frequently chauvinistic variety. As C. M. Naim observed, “the religious heritage that is being projected here and sought to be preserved and passed on to the next generation is closer to an ideology than a faith or a culture... it would rather exclude and isolate than accommodate and include.” The fact that in the US there are mosques and temples but no equivalent of a dargah where people of different faiths can come together reflects this.

One end of the spectrum of results produced by this kind of exclusionary practice is support for and active participation in religious extremist agendas. Examples of this phenomenon are the right wing Zionist Jewish Defense League founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane, Sikhs that supported the demand for a separate and theocratic Khalistan and volunteers for Jihad in Afghanistan from the UK. However, these are largely fringe elements, though the increase in their numbers in recent years is frighteningly large.

There are the equivalents of these among the Hindu right as well. There is, for example, Hindu Unity, the US counterpart of the Bajrang Dal, which openly advocates violence against minorities in India and maintains a “hit list” of people opposed to its views (including some members of the CTSFH!). But they have a relatively small support base. Where Sangh Parivar groups have had greater success is with moderate circles.

With such groups, the modus operandi followed by the Sangh Parivar has been to not only stress religious culture but also to tap into their interest in “development” related activities, especially education, back in India. This has become particularly prominent with the boom in the migration of professionals — software, medical and so on — from India to the US in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Because their professional success is due to their educational qualifications, this section of the immigrant community perceives India’s problems as being largely due to lack of adequate education. Largely for this reason, it is attracted to education projects in India. This is, of course, a very worthy cause. However, this interest ties in neatly with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (the RSS, which is the backbone of the Sangh Parivar) own technique of running schools as a way of recruiting members and imparting appropriate ideological orientation.

One particular section of Indian society that the Sangh Parivar has targeted in its educational activities are tribals or Adivasis (literally, first inhabitants). Historically, they have been marginalised from the mainstream of Indian society through the caste system. The Sangh Parivar hopes to include them within the Hindu fold since their larger project demands that only Hindus should be considered native inhabitants of India.

Setting up the India Development and Relief Fund (IDRF) was therefore a way for the Sangh Parivar to tap into the diaspora for collecting funds for activities it was involved in already. IDRF’s stated aim was to raise money for organisations in India “assisting in rural development, tribal welfare and urban poor”. IDRF’s founders were all linked in various ways to the Sangh Parivar; the majority of the “sister organisations” that it named were affiliated with the Sangh Parivar.

IDRF has been very successful at raising funds for these sister organisations and other such groups in India. According to its tax filings, it raised $3.8 million in 2000. At about Rs. 50 per dollar, this is a lot of rupees. In this effort, it has been aided by various Sangh Parivar organisations in the US that have done extensive publicity for IDRF, completely excluding several other worthy groups whose “fault” is that they typically fund non-sectarian organisations in India.

IDRF also took advantage of Silicon Valley’s financial success in recent years and its employment of a large number of Indians, including some Sangh supporters. In the words of Biju Mathew, a Professor at Rider University in New Jersey and one of the contributors to the report, “Many large US corporations such as CISCO, Sun, Oracle, and H-P [Hewlett-Packard] “match” employee contributions to US-based non-profit organisations. Unsuspecting corporations end up giving large amounts of money as matching funds to IDRF as employees of these firms direct funds to IDRF.”

The publication of the report has come as a shock to many of these corporations; some of these corporations have already announced an end to such funding. The other group that was shocked by the report was, naturally, IDRF itself. Thanks to the extensive documentation and great care that went behind preparing the report, all IDRF could respond with was to indulge in name-calling; there has been no factual rebuttal whatsoever.

Though a tremendous contribution, CTSFH’s report is only the first step in a larger battle. It can at best stop the inadvertent funding of the Sangh Parivar by people who really want to fund developmental work in India. The larger challenge is to stop the conscious and deliberate funding of hate mongering groups, and the growth of religious extremist views in the diaspora.

M V Ramana is a physicist and research staff member at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security. Some of his writings can be found at