COVID-19

Hindu right-wing organisations in the U.S avail themselves of low-interest loans offered by the Small Business Administration

Print edition : June 18, 2021

President Joe Biden after signing legislation to extend the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) of the Small Business Administration (SBA), on March 30. Under various categories, the SBA allows faith-based organisations to avail themselves of low interest under the PPP and other programmes. Photo: Evan Vucci/AP

Even as questions are being asked in India about the money the Prime Minister and various Chief Ministers collected in the name of COVID relief, in the U.S. there are fears about the possibility of the government’s pandemic relief funds being used to further the agenda of Hindu right-wing organisations in that country.

The devastating second wave of COVID-19 infections in India has resulted in more than three lakh fatalities as of May 27, according to the official count. Many of these deaths could have been prevented, feel medical experts, if patients had received timely medical care. But the lack of life-saving drugs, oxygen and other critical infrastructure led to an overflow in mortuaries and long lines outside crematoria.

Charitable individuals and organisations started to donate money for COVID relief in 2020 when the first wave of COVID-19 began in India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself collected an undisclosed sum of money through his PM CARES (Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations) Fund. At the time, he was criticised for not utilising the existing Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund and for collecting money in a private account. But the criticism died down; there were hopes that the huge sums collected would eventually be used for COVID relief if India needed it. As the second wave of the pandemic hit the country, it became more and more obvious that the requisite infrastructure for the spike in cases had not been put in place. As patients died by the dozens, sometimes after being turned away from hospitals because of a lack of beds, a political blame game broke out between the Centre and the States. Eventually, it put the spotlight back on the COVID relief funds being collected by not only the Prime Minister but also Chief Ministers of various States.

Many Chief Ministers, such as M.K. Stalin of Tamil Nadu, made some disclosures as to what the money was being spent on. Some did not. For instance, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal of Delhi continued to blame the Centre for not providing oxygen supplies to the capital while doing nothing himself to build a single oxygen plant in the State. In one instance, as narrated by an Aam Aadmi Party functionary to Frontline, at the peak of the oxygen crisis in Delhi, the Odisha government offered to provide oxygen to the capital. But even after a private courier service said that it was willing to transport the oxygen from Odisha, the dilly-dallying of the Delhi government ensured that the oxygen never got transported. All that while, Kejriwal was publicly blaming the Centre for patients succumbing to COVID-19 owing to the lack of oxygen.

Also read: RSS top brass unhappy with Modi, Yogi pandemic handling

Terming it “a George Floyd moment”, albeit in a different context, a Delhi High Court bench comprising Justices Rajiv Shakdher and Talwant Singh alluded to the refrain “I can’t breathe” to describe the “vastly more horrifying and ghastlier” situation that the citizenry had been put in. In a climate where both governments and unscrupulous individuals were trying to benefit monetarily from the misery of people, the High Court bench held that the Central government’s imposition of goods and services tax on oxygen concentrators imported for personal use was unconstitutional and said that the concentrators constituted life-saving devices during the pandemic and therefore must be kept outside the ambit of GST. In any case, as the COVID relief funds came under scrutiny within India, a case in the United States attracted unsavoury attention. The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) set up a slew of measures to help tide small businesses and non-profit organisations over the economic crisis due to COVID-19. Within the various categories of measures, faith-based organisations could avail themselves of low-interest loans under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) programme regardless of whether they utilised the loan money to provide secular social services or not.

In an article that Al Jazeera published on its website on April 2, the journalist Raqib Hameed Naik, citing SBA data, said that five Hindu American organisations—the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of USA, Infinity Foundation, Sewa International and the Hindu American Foundation (HAF)—had together availed themselves of loans worth $8,33,000 under the EIDL programme and the PPP and from the SBA’s Disaster Loan Assistance. The article stated that these organisations “allegedly” had ties to Hindu religious and supremacist groups. That the VHP, Sewa organisations, Ekal Vidyalaya schools and others are affiliates of the Sangh Parivar in India are publicly known facts and a moot question.

According to the article, of these five organisations, the HAF, a Washington-based advocacy group co-founded by the former VHPA activist Mihir Meghani, received the lion’s share of federal funds: $3,78,064 under the PPP and another $10,000 under the EIDL programme. Raqib Naik wrote: “HAF lobbies to deflect any criticism of Modi government’s policies on Capitol Hill, the most recent being its vehement defence of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), which the United Nations described as ‘fundamentally discriminatory’, and India’s scrapping of the special constitutional status of India-administered Kashmir—both in 2019. Though the HAF claims to be a ‘non-partisan organisation’, it has open links with RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] members. Ramesh Bhutada’s [he has old ties to the RSS and has served in various leadership roles in the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh U.S. (HSS), an international wing of the RSS] son Rishi is a member of the HAF board of directors and its treasurer. According to the most recent tax returns of the Bhutada Family Foundation, it donated $47,500 to Sewa International and $30,000 each to HAF and HSS in 2018.” A prominent business family from Houston, Texas, the Bhutadas were active supporters of and campaigners for Tulsi Gabbard—a Democrat in the U.S. with strong leanings to the Hindu Right in India, who shot to fame when she launched her 2020 presidential campaign—and the Howdy Modi event in September 2019.

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The article quotes Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR), as expressing concern that the U.S. pandemic relief funds might end up helping hate campaigns against Muslims and other minorities in India and stated that any U.S. non-profit organisation that perpetuates Islamophobia and other forms of hate should not receive federal relief funds.

Following the article, the Coalition Against Genocide in India said that the Hindu groups that received the funds had “existential links” with the RSS, the “fountainhead of Hindu supremacist ideology” and “ideological parent” of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. In a follow-up article, Rasheed Ahmed of the Indian-American Muslim Council (IAMC) was quoted as saying that “U.S. taxpayers’ money being used to keep hate groups in business is absolutely unacceptable and should concern all who believe in fairness, justice and government accountability”. Raju Rajagopal of HfHR and John Prabhudoss of the Federation of Indian American Christian Organisations were also quoted in the article. The historian and activist Audrey Truschke, a Rutgers University professor who is researching the Hindu Right in the U.S., flagged the issue by tweeting the article.

Lawsuit filed

On May 6, the HAF filed a lawsuit in Washington, D.C., against HfHR co-founders Raju Rajagopal and Sunita Viswanath, John Prabhudoss, Rasheed Ahmed and Audrey Truschke, accusing them of conspiracy to defame the HAF. Raqib Naik is listed as being involved in the conspiracy to defame but has been made a non-party to the actual lawsuit. “They have avoided suing me directly to avoid scrutiny from the media,” Raqib Naik told Frontline over the phone from the U.S. He added: “But they have hired very powerful lawyers from Harder LLP [who also defended the Trumps and Harvey Weinstein]. The lawsuit is of a whopping $75 million! While there is no substance to it, it is an intimidatory tactic aimed at the activists and researchers critical of the Hindu Right in the U.S. If I had written this story from India, they would have sent the Bajrang Dal to my door, but since it is the U.S., they have taken the legal route to silence me.” Nevertheless, after the article was published, he was abused and trolled online and received death threats from self-identifying Hindu nationalists. “This is a supari [hit job] that all four Hindu groups have given to the HAF to silence me. It is also a message to all reporters that if you write about the Hindu right wing, this is what will happen,” he said.

Raqib Naik has taken the threats in his stride and is confident that the lawsuit, which he considers a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or SLAPP, will not stand a chance in court, but he is worried for his family back home in Kashmir. After the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A, he and his family have come under the radar of the security forces. Prabhudoss, in an email exchange, told Frontline that he was not in a position to say much about the HAF because of the ongoing lawsuit but wanted to put on record that “…U.S. government agencies must be more careful about who is receiving their COVID relief funds because they may inadvertently end up funding some extremist organisations operating in the U.S. Because these funds were approved without any scrutiny of the activities of the beneficiaries. Small Business Administration was looking only at whether an entity applying for these relief funds were currently registered as a corporation or an LLC or any other such legal entities. They are not looking at what they do. So, HAF assumed that I meant them when I raised such a concern. In fact they have confessed to the nature of their organisation through their own lawyer by this action.”

The HAF claims to represent Hindus living in the U.S. although a majority of the Hindus do not support its views, especially those reflecting the Hindutva ideology. Most Hindus in the U.S. also do not agree with the actions of the Sangh Parivar, which the HAF seems to be representing or closely working with like a Sangh member does. The HAF’s actions like these say more about it than what it says about itself, explained Prabhudoss.

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He also hoped to warn Hindu Americans who might assume that an organisation with a name like Hindu American Foundation represents their interests and might not really realise what its undeclared agenda is or what it stands for. This lawsuit also brought to the fore the fact that many people among the immigrant population were taking the Sangh Parivar’s divisive political agenda to the U.S. Prabhudoss added: “And most of them seem to be oblivious to the legal and social systems in the U.S. A lawsuit like this is a good example of [this] and it is also an opportunity for us to show what extremist organisations really do and how they operate or why it should be a matter of concern for the authorities in the U.S. So I consider this as an opportunity to do just that.”

He drew parallels with the activities of some Pakistani Americans who 20 or 30 years ago propagated radical ideas in the U.S. “Preachers with extreme views [who] were freely coming to the U.S. ended up radicalising many of their immigrant youth. HAF has been involved in similar things too by providing the networking and support facilities to Sangh leaders who visit America. They organise events for Sangh leaders to speak to the youth here. Unless these things in the U.S. are addressed with an urgency, we could see ourselves in some undesirable situations sooner [rather] than later. That could malign the Hindu identity of all those who don’t agree [with] or support the Sangh activities in the United States. The larger identity of [the] Indian American population could also be maligned if things go the way [they are] going,” he said.

Audrey Truschke, who is no stranger to intimidation by the Hindu Right, once again found herself a target for them through this lawsuit. Unfazed by their tactics, she believes this lawsuit to be without merit and fully expects it to be resolved in her favour. In an email exchange, she told Frontline: “I am currently conducting academic research regarding the Hindu Right in the United States, which includes the HAF. HAF has made clear their displeasure at my research agenda, including my decision to publicly share and discuss certain aspects of this work. I see this lawsuit as a bald-faced attempt to intimidate and silence my scholarship.” In the meantime, she has decided to forge ahead with her research. She also shares some of her research online from time to time, which riles the Hindu Right further, especially the HAF. For instance, when she shared the fact sheet of Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative on links between the RSS and the HAF. (Bridge is a research project of the university that aims to educate the public on Islamophobia. On May 18, it released a fact sheet on the RSS tracing its history from its early days to the present.)

Letter of solidarity

A letter of solidarity signed by the likes of Martha C. Nussbaum, Cornel West, Noam Chomsky, Wendy Doniger, P. Sainath, Rajmohan Gandhi, Romila Thapar, Sheldon Pollock of Columbia University, T.M. Krishna and former Union Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar, among many others, condemned the harassment of the activists and researchers. Without mincing words, the letter said: “Almost every minute, India’s Covid stories send us deeper into grief, but Covid is not the only poison attacking India. Equally troubling is the drive of ‘Hindutva’, or Hindu nationalism. Going directly against constitutional guarantees of equality and democratic rights, Hindutva wants supremacy for India’s Hindu majority and acceptance by Muslims, Christians, and others of second-class citizenship. Moreover, Hindutva is an authoritarian ideology, having no tolerance for peaceful dissent or debate, the very qualities that underline a democracy.

Also read: Countering Yankee Hindutva

“Many are aware that the Hindutva thrust is worryingly similar to the rise of white supremacy in the U.S. But a clear majority of Indian Americans believe in equal rights and voted for a change in the U.S. administration. And now, a considerable section of Indian Americans also oppose Hindutva and demand equal rights for all citizens of India. HfHR is a crucial voice on their behalf. Unfortunately, given the support for Hindutva in influential sections of the Indian American community, attempts are being made to legally harass or discredit HfHR. These efforts must be resolutely opposed. In the U.S. and in India, forces working for exclusionary and majoritarian forces must be resisted and defeated. In particular, the resources of the U.S. should not be allowed to directly or indirectly aid the anti-democratic project for Hindutva-supremacy in India.”

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