The hidden face of charity

Print edition : April 23, 2004

Earthquake survivors in a makeshift camp at Sukhpar, about 10 km from Bhuj, Gujarat, on January 30, 2001. A British group has found that ?2 million raised for quake reconstruction and rehabilitation were given to Sewa Bharati, an RSS affiliate. - KAMAL KISHORE/ REUTERS Earthquake survivors in a makeshift camp at Sukhpar, about 10 km from Bhuj, Gujarat, on January 30, 2001. A British group has found that �2 million raised for quake reconstruction and rehabilitation were given to Sewa Bharati, an RSS affiliate.

A recently published report provides insights into how Hindutva groups operate at the international level through different front organisations and charities.

LORD ADAM PATEL was one of the many overseas Indians moved by the tragedy of the Kutch earthquake in 2001. A Labour Party Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom, Lord Patel, along with other public figures in the Indian diaspora, used their influence to help gather funds to send back home. He was a patron of Sewa International's Earthquake Relief Fund.

But soon, Lord Patel was jolted. He found out that Sewa International's mission was not purely "seva" (service). The money was allegedly being given to Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-affiliated organisations that propagate hatred against Muslims and Christians. The Sangh Parivar was involved in the communal violence that crippled Gujarat in 2002. Realising their links, Lord Patel resigned as a patron of Sewa International.

"I very much regret ever having been part of this racist organisation. ... Sewa International is a front for militant Hindu organisations. ... I am sure a lot of the donors don't realise the money is being sent to help terror groups like the RSS," he said in an interview with the U.K. newspaper Sunday Mercury (August 11, 2002).

Recently, a British group called Awaaz exposed the RSS' charitable facade. It published a report, "In Bad Faith: British Charity and Hindu Extremism," which traces how, in the guise of earthquake relief, millions of pounds raised by Sewa International have gone to RSS fronts. It found that all the two million pounds raised for quake reconstruction and rehabilitation were given to Sewa Bharati, an RSS affiliate. The report provides insights into how Hindutva groups operate at the international level through different front organisations and charities.

"Sewa Bharati's activities around both the Gujarat Earthquake and the Orissa cyclone in 1999 demonstrate a pattern in which a natural, human tragedy is used to enable the dramatic expansion of RSS institutions through the use of overseas funds," said the report. In 2002, a similar report, "A Foreign Exchange of Hate", exposed how an RSS front charity in the United States called the India Development and Relief Fund (IDRF) was funding Sangh Parivar activities in India.

While appealing for funds, it is alleged, Sewa International did not disclose its association with the Hindu Swayamsewak Sangh (HSS), the RSS' U.K. branch, and Sewa Bharati. Sewa Bharati was banned by the Madhya Pradesh government because of its alleged role in the attacks on Christians. "Sewa International funded Sewa Bharati for rebuilding work, but it was the RSS that conducted ceremonies at the start of rebuilding work or handed over the completed villages to residents," the report said.

A street, with the rubble of a fallen house, in Bhuj on January 28, 2001.-PAWEL KOPCZYNSKI/ REUTERS

Sewa Bharati started RSS shakhas during the rehabilitation of Badanpur village. Reports allege that the RSS distributed relief selectively to upper-caste victims, neglecting Dalits and Muslims. The RSS also organised shakhas in relief camps. At Adhoi village, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) preachers gave lectures every night on the need to be vigilant against Christians and Muslims. RSS volunteers allegedly threatened other relief workers with harm unless they left Kutch. They accused the latter of receiving foreign funds to convert people to Christianity.

Almost a quarter of Sewa International's earthquake relief funds went to RSS-run schools. The National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) criticised the teaching material in these schools as being "blatantly communal".

While confirming that all its earthquake relief funds went to Sewa Bharati and that it is a part of the HSS, Sewa International refuted accusations that it is funding hate campaigns in India. "Sewa International is a non-religious, non-political and non-sectarian organisation, which believes in equality. At all times, Sewa International encourages social integration and not social division," said Shantibhai Mistry, a Sewa International representative, in a letter to the newspaper that published Lord Adam's interview.

"The view expressed in the newspaper, in which Lord Adam implies that Sewa International is a front for militant activity, which incites racial hatred, is both outrageous and offending. Sewa International has always openly condemned violence, terrorism and racial discrimination in the past and will continue to do so in the future," said Mistry.

He maintained that the dealings of Sewa International were transparent. "Many individuals such as the Lord Mayor of Coventry and the former Mayor of Derby together with several Labour MPs and representatives from the media have visited the earthquake-affected areas of Gujarat and have personally approved, endorsed and commended the rehabilitation work carried out by Sewa," he said. Refuting allegations, Sewa International said it encouraged donors to visit the projects that their money had funded and provided every assistance to those who wished to do so.

Besides earthquake relief, questions have also been raised about Sewa International's other projects. Most of the 2,60,000 raised by Sewa International U.K. for cyclone relief in Orissa after 1999 went to a key front of the RSS, the Utkal Bipanna Sahayata Samiti (UBSS). "The HSS U.K. said the funds would be channelled through RSS volunteers. It also said it funds organisations that gets their workforce from the RSS," said the Awaaz report.

Lord Adam and others in the U.K. are appealing to the U.K. government to get the organisation's status as charity revoked. In India, such funding is a violation of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) regulations since the money is used to fund political ends under different guises.

In the United States, a large part of the IDRF's fund raising is done through electronic means such as money transfer portals, charity portals or company foundation portals such as the Cisco Foundation.

Many large corporations match employee donations to charities and land up giving a lot of money to the IDRF. From 1993-95, the VHP of America had signed up with AT&T for a programme in which a fixed percentage of any subscriber's total telephone bill could be directed to a non-profit organisation of his/her choice if the organisation was registered under the AT&T programme. But AT&T withdrew support for the VHP of America after it was under pressure from people who were appalled by the VHP's misuse of charity.

The Awaaz report is an eye-opener for many who are misled by charities and donate without knowing what their money is used for and by whom. Charity is not always as harmless and benevolent as it sometimes seems.

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