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'Hardline' charity begins in the donation box

By Ashish Kumar Sen

Asia Times Online, March 3, 2004 original

WASHINGTON - For the second time in less than two years, an in-depth recent report has been released providing in detail links between charities based in the West and militant Hindu organizations in India.

The latest report, "In Bad Faith? British Charity and Hindu Extremism", has been published by Awaaz, a London-based secular network. According to the report, a significant portion of funds collected in the name of humanitarian causes is being spent on schools run by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a hardline Hindu organization whose philosophy is intolerant of other religions and which advocates Hindutva - a militant brand of Hinduism.

In New Delhi, an RSS spokesman dismissed the allegations as "wild and false". "The whole report smacks of a sinister conspiracy to defame Hindu organizations," said RSS spokesman Ram Madhav. "We take strong objection to the propaganda unleashed by persons and organizations hither to unknown against the RSS and organizations connected with it like the Sewa Bharati [a fundraiser] with wild and false allegations of misuse of funds received from abroad."

In the past, independent human rights groups including the New York-based Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and India's National Human Rights Commission have reported that RSS projects directed at tribal and lower caste groups in Gujarat played a critical role in fomenting communal riots in 2002.

The Awaaz report claims that the RSS's front organizations collected millions of pounds from the British public, which was unaware of the charities' links to Hindu militants. A majority of these funds were collected by the Leicester-based and registered charity, Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) and its fundraising arm, Sewa International (UK).

The HSS, an overseas branch of the RSS, actively promotes its ideology of turning India into a Hindu nation.

Sewa International (UK), though not a registered charity, became a high profile fundraising organization after the Gujarat earthquake in 2001. Allegedly using the HSS' charity registration number, its India Quake Appeal raised around US$4.2 million. The British public and patrons of Sewa International were apparently at the time unaware of its connections to the RSS.

Lord Adam Patel, member of the House of Lords and patron of Sewa International, resigned from his latter affiliation last year after learning of the group's links to RSS. Speaking at the release of the report in the House of Lords on February 26, Lord Patel said that Sewa International had "cheated me and cheated the residents of the UK".

"Like Lord Adam Patel, people have been shocked at the level of deceit carried out by Sewa International," said Suresh Grover, an Awaaz board member.

London-based Charity Commission is investigating the HSS and Sewa International. Last year, the Indian government denied visas to investigators from the commission who wanted to travel to India as part of their inquiry. Confirming that the commission had been "refused" visas, Rebecca Drake, a spokesperson said: "We have contacted them [the government of India] to ask them to reconsider their decision and are awaiting a response."

Another Charity Commission spokesperson said: "We are looking into potential links between the charity [HSS] and extremist organizations in India and alleged payments to these groups by the charity. We are looking at the relationship between the HSS and Sewa International, and also the administration of the funds that were collected for the Gujarat Earthquake Appeal."

Many are unaware of the extent of the political influence the HSS has cultivated within the UK. "It's a striking fact that as prime minister, Margaret Thatcher put a garland on [RSS founder Keshav Baliram ] Hedgewar's bust," said Awaaz spokesperson Chetan Bhatt.

Explaining the lack of public outcry, Bhatt said: "That's part of the British didactic multiculturalism ... people don't want to be labeled racist."

According to Grover, the main goal of the HSS and Sewa International is to "channel money to extremist RSS fronts in India, despite their claim to be non-sectarian, non-religious, non-political and purely humanitarian organizations". Funds raised by Sewa International run into millions of dollars.

While the report links the HSS, Sewa International and the Kalyan Ashram Trust to RSS-sponsored violence in India, Grover said: "Although we cannot say pounds collected here were used to buy guns in India, we can say with confidence that the money was used to build hatred against a minority. Most donors would be horrified if they knew the nature, history and ideas of the RSS," he added.

The Hostel-Dispensary-Cultural Center for Children and Nurseries, an affiliate of a US-based charity implicated in a similar report, states in its literature: "The Muslims are also trying to create chaos in these communities, either by enticing these tribals or by raping the tribal girls by force. The Kalyan Ashram at Sidumbar [Gujarat] is trying to put a stop to these activities of Muslims as well as Christians ... The workers of Kalyan Ashrams are required to give a tough fight to the Christian missionaries because they keep on harassing the local residents."

According to the Awaaz report, the village of Chapredi, rebuilt after the Gujarat earthquake, included an important dedication plaque glorifying the RSS, its founder and a key RSS affiliate. A Hindu temple topped with saffron flags was built in the village. No evidence was found of Sewa International funding the rebuilding of mosques or churches, though many of these were destroyed in the earthquake.

Some funds meant for earthquake reconstruction were also allegedly channeled to the RSS's Lok Kalyan Samiti in Chanasma village, which has been directly implicated in the violent "cleansing" of all Muslims from the village and the illegal occupation of premises and land belonging to the statutory Muslim Waqf board. Another RSS project, Jankalyan Samiti, was allegedly the recipient of Sewa International (UK) earthquake funds. The Samiti's Maharashtra branch has been involved in violence against Christians.

The report makes a pointed reference to the fact that despite these charities' claims of being non-sectarian and non-discriminatory, Sewa International (UK), the HSS (UK) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP - World Hindu Forum) did not launch any humanitarian appeals following the Gujarat violence in 2002. The majority of victims of that tragedy were Muslims.

Saying that the Sewa Bharati was governed by Indian laws, Madhav added: "Every single penny received by Sewa Bharati from within or outside India is judiciously spent on the causes for which it has been collected."

The Awaaz report is not the first to expose links between Hindutva groups and violence. In 2002, a Channel Four investigation in the UK documented the communal ideology espoused at Vanvasi Kalyan ashrams in India. Last year, the Financial Times reported a similar story. The Madhya Pradesh government has revoked Sewa Bharti's license because of its alleged involvement in violence against Christians.

The Awaaz report claims a large proportion of the $484,000 raised by Sewa International for Orissa cyclone relief in 1999 enabled the expansion of major RSS affiliates. "Funds were used for building RSS schools. The RSS and its leaders were glorified. The HSS said Orissa cyclone funds would be channeled through RSS volunteers and given to organizations which get their work force from the RSS," the report says.

Bhatt says that the British public was "duped" into believing they were contributing towards relief efforts for victims of the Orissa cyclone and the Gujarat earthquake.

Grover added: "We do not think it is a coincidence that the two Indian states where Hindutva networks, violence and hatred have grown phenomenally in recent years both had natural and human tragedies followed by massive amounts of funding to Hindutva organizations from overseas."

Almost a quarter of Sewa International earthquake funds raised from the British public were for building sectarian, highly controversial RSS schools. "These schools are mainly run by the RSS's Vidya Bharati, whose teaching material has been condemned by India's statutory National Council for Educational Research and Training as blatantly promoting bigotry, fanaticism and hatred."

Madhav claimed that the Sewa Bharati had constructed 124 schools, and that 49 of these had minorities on their rolls. "Sewa Bharati [Gujarat] has served the minorities without any discrimination during the relief activities," he added.

The UK report echoes findings by US-based groups in November 2002. The Campaign to Stop Funding Hate (CSFH) put out an exhaustive document linking a Maryland-based charity, the India Development and Relief Fund (IDRF), to the RSS. The authors of that report, "The Foreign Exchange of Hate", alleged IDRF was sending money to organizations implicated in violence against Christians and Muslims in India.

"The British report corroborates the assertion of the FxH [The Foreign Exchange of Hate] report that front organizations raise money in the Indian expatriate communities, ostensibly for the purposes of development and education, but channel these funds towards political agendas that are inimical to a tolerant, secular and plural society," said a CSFH spokesperson.

Linking the two reports, a spokesperson for Awaaz said: "Sewa International is the UK equivalent of the American charity, the India Development and Relief Fund; both organizations work towards the same purpose - to fund, promote and glorify extremist RSS fronts in India."

In a response to the CSFH report, "Factual Response to the Hate Attack on the IDRF," the "Friends of India" refuted charges against the charity saying: "Here is what a rational individual should ask: Is being for something always being against something else? Does loving your wife lead to hating other women? Is loving your nation an indication of hating other countries? Is helping those closest to you an attempt at undermining others?"

"Ordinarily, Hindutva is understood as a way of life or a state of mind and is not to be equated with or understood as religious Hindu fundamentalism," the authors of the "Factual Response" said.

"The response of the HSS has always been to simply deny all allegations rather than deal with specific charges," said Bhatt. "They never answer the key allegations which have been made to them repeatedly - which is that they are RSS fronts, they are raising money for the RSS and its affiliates, they are funding organizations which are linked to violence, and they are accountable to the British public from which they have raised this money."

The Awaaz report has asked the UK Charity Commissioner to withdraw charity status of the HSS (UK), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (UK) and the Kalyan Ashram Trust.

In New Delhi, Madhav remains confident that his organization will ride out the storm. "Similar futile efforts were made last year also by some groups in the US to denigrate and defame Hindu organizations working for the welfare of the people of our country," he said. "These campaigns have not harmed us earlier and they are not going to do so now either."

Ashish Kumar Sen is a Washington DC-based journalist.