India-relief charity criticized on fund use
Academics, activists claim Rockville-based group
backs Hindu extremists
By Scott Shane, Baltimore Sun, December 4, 2002
A Maryland-based charity that raises money
for relief work in India has come under fire from Indian-American
academics and activists, who say it supports Hindu extremist
groups that foment hate and violence against Muslims, Christians
and other minorities.
At a time when Islamic charities in the United States are
being scrutinized for possible ties to terrorism, the India
Development and Relief Fund (IDRF) appears to be the first
U.S. philanthropic organization to be accused of financing
Hindu extremist groups, as well as local government officials,
have been accused by Human Rights Watch and other international
organizations of participating in the killing of more than
1,000 Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat this year after
a Muslim attack on a train.
The mob violence in Gujarat shocked many
Indian-Americans and prompted a harder look at where their
charitable donations were going. About a dozen Indian immigrants,
including Hindus, Muslims and Christians, collaborated on
a 90-page report analyzing the activities of the 15-year-old
fund, which raised nearly $4 million last year for organizations
in India, according to its tax return.
"We're not saying IDRF is directly
involved in communal violence," said Angana Chatterji,
an anthropology professor in San Francisco and one of the
authors of the report. "We're saying that IDRF supports
a movement that provokes communal violence."
Chatterji, who calls herself "a secular
Indian from a Hindu cultural background," added: "We
believe donors are not aware of where their money is going."
The report, "The Foreign Exchange
of Hate," became front-page news in India after its release
on the Internet on Nov. 20.
It was accompanied by a petition drive
appealing to U.S. corporations to stop donating to the fund,
operated out of its founder's Rockville home. Organizers say
more than 240 U.S. academics of South Asian background have
signed the petition, located with the report at www.stopfundinghate.org.
Cisco Systems Inc., the Silicon Valley
maker of networking equipment, said yesterday that it has
matched employee gifts to the fund in the past, but has suspended
contributions while it investigates the allegations.
Two days after the release of the report,
the Association of Indian Muslims of America, based in Silver
Spring, wrote to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft asking
that the fund be investigated, its assets frozen and its tax-exempt
Kaleem Kawaja, a mechanical engineer from
Ellicott City and general secretary of the Muslim association,
said he has followed the fund's activities for years and believes
it has turned from its original purpose.
"This group [IDRF] started out to
do development work for poor people in India," Kawaja
said. "But the last seven or eight years they have been
supporting Hindu fundamentalists who oppress minorities. ...
You could call them, in American jargon, Hindu supremacists."
The volunteers who run the fund deny the
"Any allegation of sectarianism,
perpetrating violence or discrimination is absolutely and
totally baseless," said Vinod Prakash, IDRF's founder
and president. "We may be pro-Indian culture, pro-Indian
civilization, pro-Indian spirituality. But we are not against
any sect, any religion, any minority."
Prakash and other IDRF activists said
the fund's critics are left-wing ideologues who have distorted
the facts. They sent The Sun a copy of a thank-you letter
from a group run by Indian Christians who receive IDRF support
to house and feed destitute people in the Indian state of
But Prakash, 70, a retired World Bank
economist who has lived in the United States for 37 years,
said in an interview that he is worried that the Hindu share
of India's 1 billion people, now about 81 percent, may be
shrinking, with grave implications for the country's future.
"The sole foundation of India is
Hindu," he said. "U.S.-Indian friendship is based
on Hindu values, not Islamic values."
The fund has not registered as a charity
with the Maryland secretary of state's office, as the law
requires of nonprofits raising money in the state. Prakash
said he only recently became aware of the requirement, and
the registration should be completed soon.
The dispute over the fund takes place
amid heightened awareness that charitable donations made in
the United States can end up in the hands of foreign extremists.
Bank accounts of several Muslim charities have been frozen
by the U.S. government because of suspected ties to al-Qaida
or other terrorist groups.
This week, Saudi Arabia began a crackdown
on charities linked to terrorism, after allegations that money
donated by the wife of the Saudi ambassador to the United
States may have ended up in the hands of two of the Sept.
The debate over IDRF also reflects bitter
divisions in India, the world's largest democracy, where Hindu-Muslim
violence is an old problem and minority Christians and Sikhs
have sometimes complained of oppression by the Hindu majority.
On Feb. 27, a Muslim mob attacked and
burned two cars of a train carrying Hindu activists, killing
58 people. That attack touched off anti-Muslim riots that
resulted in the deaths of at least 1,000 Muslims, as well
as widespread rape, looting and burning that displaced about
100,000 people. Human Rights Watch declared the killing "a
carefully orchestrated attack against Muslims" in which
local government officials and police were implicated.
The report criticizing IDRF is based on
an analysis of the Indian groups receiving its funding, which
are identified in its tax returns and Web site (www.idrf.org).
It asserts that most of the recipients are part of Sangh Parivar,
a group of Hindu organizations that it accuses of discriminating
against religious minorities.
Sumit Guha, a history professor at Brown
University, said he signed the petition against the fund because
he found the report persuasive. "It fits very well with
my personal experience in Delhi, where I lived from 1989 to
1996 during the rise of the Hindu nationalist movement,"
he said. "This is not an organization that deserves support."
Guha, who calls himself "Hindu by
descent," said support among immigrants for Hindu nationalism
may result from complicated feelings.
"I think there's a certain degree
of guilt many expatriates feel about abandoning the mother
country," he said. "That is compensated for by a
kind of hyperpatriotism, or in this case, hyper-Hinduism."
Copyright © 2002, The Baltimore Sun