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UK charities 'misled donors into funding Indian extremism'

By Edward Luce
Financial Times, February 26 2004 original

Charities registered in the UK have played a key role in funding Hindu extremists responsible for sectarian violence in India, alleges a report to be released in London today.

The report, In Bad Faith? British Charity and Hindu Extremism, echoes findings in the US last year in which US-registered tax-exempt organisations were shown to be funnelling money to groups that allegedly planned the massacre of up to 2,000 Muslims in the state of Gujarat in 2002.

Produced by Awaaz, a UK-based foundation set up last year by British Indian academics and lawyers, the report details claims that UK-registered charities misled donors about their underlying ideology. It says they raised millions of pounds - sometimes by organising multicultural events that included British Muslim donors - that funded activities directly linked to the violent persecution of religious minorities in India.

The groups include Sewa International UK, said to be the funding arm of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, a UK-registered charity that is the British branch of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (Organisation of National Volunteers), India's largest Hindu radical group.

The RSS is the parent body of a network of Hindu radical groups, including India's ruling Hindu nationalist BJP. The report also focuses on the Kalyan Ashram Trust, the UK branch of an RSS offshoot that allegedly indoctrinates Indian tribal groups with Hindu nationalist ideology.

The research sets out detailed claims that money raised in the UK for the victims of disasters in India was devoted to explicitly sectarian projects, many of which can be directly linked to subsequent violence. In particular, funds raised for victims of the Gujarat earthquake in 2001 and the Orissa cyclone in 1999 were spent on setting up schools to indoctrinate locals in Hindu nationalist ideology, it alleges.

"Both the Orissa cyclone and the Gujarat earthquake appeals demonstrate a pattern in which a national tragedy is used to enable the dramatic expansion of RSS institutions, in the afflicted regions," it says. "Their [the UK charities'] main purpose is to channel funds to ... organisations repeatedly singled out for hatred, intolerance and violence in India."

For example, much of the £2m ($3.75m, &euro3m) Sewa International raised for victims of the Gujarat earthquake was spent on RSS schools, which allegedly teach pupils that Christianity and Islam are anti-Indian. Sewa International's website said most of the rest was spent on rebuilding villages. But the Awaaz report claims other organisations did most of the rebuilding work while RSS affiliates focused on sectarian projects such as rebuilding Hindu temples - but not mosques - destroyed in the earthquake.

In one village of 164 households, the only four Muslim families appeared deliberately to have been excluded from the reconstruction carried out for the other families. The report also shows photographs of plaques erected in the villages in which the RSS claims full credit for the work.

Sewa denies any links to the RSS, which itself claims to be a purely cultural body. But Sewa's UK address is the same as that of the RSS in the city of Leicester. The report demonstrates that almost all Sewa's funds were forwarded to RSS groups in India. "Sewa International UK knew exactly what it was doing and how it supported the aims and agenda of the RSS."

A spokesman for the RSS in New Delhi refused to comment on the allegations, as did Sewa International and its parent body in India. But Ashok Chowgule, a senior member of the VHP (World Council of Hindu Churches), a prominent affiliate of the RSS, said: "We deny all of the allegations. We do genuine social work for the downtrodden. It is not the Hindu way to discriminate against people."

The report, which says the donors could not have known how their money would be spent, calls on the UK's Charity Commission to remove the charitable status of the HSS, the VHP (UK) and the Kalyan Ashram Trust.

The commission is already investigating the status of these charities and is expected to reach a judgment soon.

Last year officials at the Charity Commission were denied entry visas to carry out research in India.

None of the leading authors of the Awaaz report is Muslim or Christian. Researchers of the 80-page report visited villages in Gujarat that Sewa International had listed as having been reconstructed with the money it had raised in the UK. Most of the Gujarat earthquake funds - by Sewa's own breakdown - were channelled to Sewa Bharati (Service to India), which openly acknowledges that it is part of the "RSS family".

A number of independent bodies, including the New York-based Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and India's Human Rights Commission, a state-appointed body, have alleged that RSS educational projects among tribal and lower caste groups in Gujarat played a critical role in fomenting the riots in 2002.