Saffron Dollars

How Hindu nationalist organizations fund ethnic violence in India with money raised in the U.S.

By Suleman Din Mar 21, 2005

At first glance, it seemed like a typical rubber-chicken political dinner.


Giant Indian and U.S. flags draped downwards and covered much of the center wall in the ballroom at the Royal Albert Palace in New Jersey last March 20.


“INDIA SHINING: TO A BRIGHTER DESTINY,” proclaimed a large plastic banner. Speaker after speaker praised India’s development under the Bharatiya Janata Party—India’s Hindu nationalist coalition government, which was in power from 1998 until its defeat to the Congress Party in May 2004.


The gala typified the substantial support that Hindu nationalists in India have managed to organize in the United States. Human rights organizations, along with the U.S. State Department and the United States Commission on International Freedom, have identified Hindu nationalists as a source of communal violence. But the State Department has not listed Hindu nationalists on its lists of terrorist groups, and the Justice Department is not investigating their fundraising in the U.S., leading critics to claim that the Bush Administration is more concerned with improving strategic relations with India than examining its human rights record.


After the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took full control over the Indian government in 1998, some Indian states signed new laws against Christians, banning conversion activities. Hindu nationalist groups continue attacks against India’s Christians and its Muslim minority, which still numbers close to 150 million in a country of one billion.


BJP leaders have been present during violent episodes, and the party maintains close ties to groups identified by human rights advocates as instigators and perpetrators of ethnic violence. Even the basis on which the party was elected in 1998 is considered inflammatory by some, with the premise of building a temple on the ruins of a mosque demolished by Hindu nationalists. The mosque, in the northern Indian city of Ayodhya, was reduced to rubble in 1992, poisoning relations between India’s Hindus and Muslims and leading to rioting and the murder of hundreds of Muslims.


Patrons of Hate?
On the surface, supporters of Hindu nationalists in the U.S. do not appear to be stridently fanatic about religion. Many are affluent and well-educated, working in corporations, living in middle-class suburban neighborhoods, with families. Indian Americans who support Hindu nationalists do not dispute the occurrence of violence in India, but say it begins because Muslims attack Hindus. “Look at Muslim countries like Afghanistan and Iraq,” said Arish K. Sahani, a leader for the Overseas Friends of the Bharatiya Janata Party. “The whole America is after Islam, and why?”


This undercurrent of communal attitudes is worrisome to secular Indians, Indian Muslims and Hindus not aligned with the nationalists. They claim India’s ethnic hatred has found a patron in the U.S., through the contributions of Hindu nationalists who have settled in here, and that other Indian Americans are unwittingly donating money to their cause because they do not know the true intent of their work.


One central focus of their concerns in the U.S. is a Maryland-based charity called the India Development and Relief Fund, which is accused by secular Indian groups of raising millions for Hindu nationalist groups in India alleged to be involved in the harassment and killings of Indian Christians and Muslims. The worst incident occurred in 2002, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, where 2,000 Muslims were killed in such fashion that India scholars and activists likened the violence to pogroms.




Fiery Nationalism
Inside a basement classroom at Hunter College, Teesta Setalvad, the Hindu editor of Communalism Combat, a secularist Indian magazine that reports exclusively on the country’s ethnic and religious tensions, had been invited to speak about violence between Hindu nationalists and the Muslim and Christian minorities.


She described atrocities—gang rapes, arson and murder—in India being committed by Hindu nationalists against Muslims and Christians, who together in India make up 170 million people. Little had been done to address the crimes, she said. In fact, she claimed members of the government and police were guilty of encouraging the violence.


“We have to take on the growing problem of Hindu militarism and all forms of religious fundamentalism,” Setalvad said, adding later: “We don’t want India to develop into a Hindu rashtra [nation].”


Members of the audience jumped as Setalvad finished her speech. But instead of asking questions, they yelled accusations that she was a communist and a Muslim terrorist sympathizer.


“Your forefathers converted [from Hinduism] because they were cowards!” yelled one man, backed up by a group of women wearing saris around their waists and bindis on their foreheads.


A college student yelled back, “Go back to India and stay there, you fanatics!”


The lecture quickly disintegrated into a brawl replete with irony. Setalvad had come from India to discuss how its ethnic groups were continuing historic cycles of violence, only to preside over a meeting that demonstrated how the same hatreds can burn brightly in the U.S.


These hatreds were literally aflame in India on Feb. 27, 2002, when a train pulled into the station in Godhra, a town 300 miles north of Bombay in the western Indian state of Gujarat. It carried Hindu nationalists returning from the city of Ayodhya, where they had gone to demand the building of the Ram temple, as promised by the BJP. According to Indian news accounts, in Godhra some reportedly took tea from a Muslim vendor without paying and then began chanting Hindu slogans and yelling taunts. From this point forward, the accounts are conflicting—by some, an angry mob spontaneously formed; others say it was a planned attack—but the end result was that four coaches were set on fire, and 58 Hindus were killed.


What happened next “was very much like an anti-Jewish pogrom in Tsarist Russia,” said Ashutosh Varshney, University of Michigan’s director of South Asian studies, an Indian Hindu and author of a ten-year study on ethnic conflict between Muslims and Hindus in India.


Armed Hindu nationalist gangs went on a rampage in Ghodra and throughout the state of Gujarat. It was reported in the Indian media they carried government voting records to identify Muslim homes. During three days of violence, an estimated 2,000 Muslims died, according to Human Rights Watch.


Agencies that investigated the violence said the main responsibility lay with the Sangh Parivar, a coalition of Hindu nationalist groups that includes the Bharatiya Janata Party and its umbrella organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).


The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom named India as a “Country of Particular Concern” in 2002 and has done so ever since, explaining that the violence in Gujarat and the influence of Hindu nationalists on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s senior leaders were reasons for listing it alongside Iran, Saudi Arabia and North Korea as a violator of religious freedoms.


“These groups in any other country would be banned as terrorist groups,” said Smita Narula, an Indian Hindu and author of a Human Rights Watch report on the Gujarat violence. “In India they are called nationalist and patriotic.”




Investigating the Money
After the Gujarat carnage, some Indian Americans began investigating claims that money was raised in the U.S. for Sangh Parivar groups involved in the violence. One was Biju Mathew, a business professor at New Jersey’s Rider University, a taxi worker organizer and an Indian Christian. His research led him to the India Development and Relief Fund (IDRF) in Maryland, and he became determined to document his belief that they had links to India’s violent Hindu nationalists.


According to its tax filings with the U.S. government, the charity has raised over $10 million since its inception in 1989 and states that it has spent over $4 million on humanitarian projects in India. Mathew calls this money “saffron dollars,” a reference to the color that Hindu nationalists favor. The charity collects donations where Indian American communities are concentrated in the U.S., in California, Texas, New Jersey and New York.


Mathew’s examination of the IDRF revealed that the charity’s incorporation paper with the Internal Revenue Service lists nine organizations in India for which it collects money. All have links to the Sangh Parivar, the coalition Hindu nationalist groups, and its constituents.


Mathew concluded that more than 80 percent of the IDRF’s fundraising, or roughly $2.5 million, went to Sangh Parivar-linked organizations in India. He compiled his study of the charity in a 91-page report titled “The Foreign Exchange of Hate” in November 2002. Its conclusions were widely reported in the Indian media.


Upset at the pressure brought by Mathew’s report, a few supporters of the IDRF came out with their own 196-page report called “A Factual Response to the Hate Attack on the India Development and Relief Fund.” Instead of counteracting the information about the fundraising efforts of the IDRF, the report attacked the personal character of Mathew and his colleagues as communists, leftists and “Marxist ideologues.”


In a phone interview, the India Development and Relief Fund’s 78-year-old founder, Vinod Prakash, said he started the charity after retiring in 1988 from the World Bank as an economist. “What I did was out of duty,” he said. “India enabled me to achieve my goals. It was time for me to pay back my motherland.”


He runs the charity out of his home in Bethesda, MD. and is not compensated for his work. Neither are any of the charity’s members, Prakash said, because they are in service to humanity.


The charity receives donations primarily through word of mouth, said Rajiv Rastogi, its New Jersey fundraiser, and does not sponsor TV or radio advertisements, except during emergency appeals.


“All those who know about [the charity], they put so much faith in it that they write a check for $1,000 and don’t think about it,” Rastogi said.


Rastogi said volunteers around the country (the charity lists 50 staff volunteers and executives) occasionally organize events to raise money, such as dance performances, summer camps and get-togethers on Hindu religious holidays.


The charity’s members reject claims that the money raised funded hate. Rastogi said he had visited projects in India funded by the IDRF and had found nothing amiss. “Show me the violent organizations,” Rastogi said. “Come tell me, and I’ll retire from the organization.”


Narayanan Komerath, an Indian Hindu, a professor of aerospace engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the co-author of the report defending the IDRF said he trusted the charity. The Indian government was an unreliable recipient for donations, he said, while other charities in India are run by Christian evangelists. Komerath said he did not believe reports that claimed the RSS was a violent organization.


Vijay Pallod, an executive of the IDRF in Houston, said in a telephone interview that though Mathew’s report “definitely has been a problem for us,” it only slightly affected their fundraising.


Prakash would not answer any of the questions regarding the charity’s links to Hindu nationalists and violence in India raised by Mathew’s report, calling it a “gray area” that he did not want to discuss. “I have to protect the interests of the organization and my own,” he said.


Previously, he had denied the report’s claims to the Indian media, stating that the charity had no links to the RSS and even defending his own previous membership with the RSS. Prakash refused to answer such questions for this report, and did not agree to a meeting.




Attached to the Homeland
Not all Indians are giving money to the IDRF, said Arnab Banerjee, a resident of Queens whose family regularly attends pooja (Hindu prayer service) at their local temple. He said the charity’s appeal is limited to the generation that is attached to the homeland.


“When the Bharatiya Janata Party came into power, there was a lot of excitement,” he recalled from his visits then to the temple. “The groups who have been here longer, people who got here in the 1960s and ’70s, they tend to keep more conservative viewpoints.”


Banerjee, who is in his 30s, said that Indian Americans raised here tend to be less interested in what goes on in India. “India is not a concern at all, maybe you’ll visit it once in your life,” he said.


Madhulika Khandelwal, director of the Asian-American Center and professor of Urban Studies at Queens College, City University of New York, explained that the Indian community’s level of sophistication in charity giving is not high, and many do not bother to ask where their money is being spent. The average Indian American will think their money is being spent on charitable work, she said, though the agendas of these groups’ leaders may be far less altruistic.


Of course, some contribute money knowing exactly what their money will be used for, she said, but most Indians don’t know what questions to ask or how to discern what their money is being used for.


Khandelwal, who is an Indian Hindu, said the IDRF can raise money without any visible means because of the tight social networks within Hindu families, the number of retiring Indian Americans who feel a duty to give back to their homeland and the affluence of Indian Americans—the average household income nationwide is over $60,000, according to the Indian American Center for Political Awareness.


“Wealthy [Indian Americans] have become cash cows,” said Khandelwal, who also is the author of Becoming American, Being Indian. “Their whole life is defined by work, and then they retire and feel useless, though they have lots of money.”


There are also those who contribute because they simply want to help India develop. For some who have come to America and found success, the embarrassment of riches is quelled by an effort of giving back to India. There is also a longing to remain connected to India. Many also retain close family ties in India and are constantly reminded of “home.” Hindu nationalist groups tap into these ideas in their approach. After Matthew’s study was released, there were many who said that they had donated to the IDRF believing they were just helping out poor Indians.


Mathew understood that not everyone in the community was supporting Hindu nationalists in India, but he worried that the influence of their ideology was entering the Indian middle-class mentality.


“The problem is not when the violence stops on the streets,” he said. “What happened in Gujarat was part of a wider achievement, to create polarization not seen in India since Partition,” when the subcontinent was split in 1947 into India and Pakistan, and over a million were killed in ethnic violence.


“You don’t have to be a raving idiot, smashing things, to be communal,” Mathew continued. “If you look at [the violence], and say ‘they’ deserve it, that’s communal enough.”




Will the U.S. Investigate?
Mathew’s report was enough for some Silicon Valley companies employing large numbers of Indians and said to be funding the IDRF through employee matching donation programs to temporarily suspend or completely end their donations. Sued companies included Sun Microsystems and Oracle.


Sun Microsystems spokeswoman Kristin Huget said her company initially halted funding to review the charity but resumed because the charity still maintains its tax-exempt and public charity status.


The Maryland offices of the IRS did not return calls for comment on whether the charity was being investigated. The Maryland State Secretary’s office, where all charities in the state must register, said that the IDRF had filed with them and that they had no concerns. “We would investigate them if we received any complaints,” said State Secretary spokeswoman Asia Foster.


The U.S. Attorney’s office in Maryland would not say what it was doing in regards to the charity. The federal investigation into the links between terrorism and charity fundraising is overseen by the U.S. Treasury Department. It investigates under an order signed by President George W. Bush on Sept. 22, 2001 that identifies which persons or groups are involved in terrorism. Currently, there are no Hindu nationalist groups on that list.


Unless they are involved in violence in the United States or being provided with arms and recruits from here, they will not receive much attention from the authorities, explained Sheldon Cohen, former Commissioner of the IRS under Lyndon Johnson.


“We don’t go after any group for an ideology,” Cohen said, explaining that agencies like the IRS and the Justice Department have limited staffing, and what gets investigated is done on a priority basis. Right now that is preventing al Qaeda from getting money and support for its activities. “We chase groups going after us,” he said.


The issue is not isolated to the U.S. Just this March, a South Asian group in the United Kingdom called Awaaz released their own report, stating that the British fundraising arm for Hindu nationalists, Sewa International U.K., had raised two million British pounds for the RSS and associated Sangh Parivar groups, based on their own investigation, which included going to villages in Gujarat. The British Charities Commission has said it wants to investigate the allegations.


A few U.S. politicians, after the IDRF report’s release, also called for an investigation, including Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Penn.), who is on the House Committee on International Relations. Pitts led a delegation to India to investigate minority rights and visited Gujarat, but the findings of his report were never made public.


There is little political will to investigate Hindu nationalist fundraising, said a staff member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom who did not want to be identified. One obstacle, the staffer said, is that the U.S. limited its reaction on the violence in Gujarat to a comment by Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs, Christina Rocca, who said it was “really horrible.”


Stephen P. Cohen, senior fellow at The Brookings Institution and expert on South Asia, said there are political reasons the U.S. must consider before rebuking India on human rights violations—the possibility of upsetting its burgeoning trade and defense ties, for instance.


Bilateral trade between the two countries was close to $25 billion in 2002. Since 9/11, India has become a close ally in the war on terror, providing air bases for the U.S. during its Iraq campaign. In return, the U.S. has opened military and intelligence contacts with India and recently agreed to the flow of nuclear and sensitive space technology there.


“The U.S. kept quiet officially when the Gujarat carnage took place,” Stephen Cohen said. “The Bush policy was to avoid anything that might affect the larger strategic relationship [though] other Western states did protest privately.”


At a special hearing by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Robert Hathaway, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst, told the commission that the report on the IDRF concerned him. “It seemed to me that the Justice Department should look into this,” he said. “There were large American corporations who were convinced that there were questions to be raised here.”


An important reason to consider an investigation is that it would be in the U.S. government’s best interests to do so, Hathaway said. The war on terror has put it at odds with those in the Muslim world who say it is a war on Islam, he said. Our official silence to the violence against Muslims in Gujarat, he contended, and a lack of any impending investigation into charities linked to Hindu nationalists only bolsters such arguments.


“It goes to further the conviction that the U.S. might care about Christians or Jews, but not Muslims,” Hathaway said. “At this particular moment in history, the U.S. cannot allow the impression to take hold that Americans somehow value a Muslim life less than the life of a person of another religion.”




Such a Genocide
Whether or not any investigation will be done into the funding of Hindu nationalists, it will be too late for Najid Hussain, an Indian Muslim scientist living in Delaware.


It was Hussain’s father-in-law, Ehsan Jafri, a retired Congress Party leader and former member of the Indian parliament, who left his Ahmedabad house in Gujarat to face the rampaging gangs of Hindu nationalists after the Sabarmati train had burned.


Over 150 members of the Muslim community had sought refuge in his two-story bungalow, with the belief they would be safe in the home of a politician.


An estimated 10,000 rioters had gathered around the house, wearing saffron-colored bandanas, chanting his name. The 74-year-old man decided to sacrifice himself to save the others, Hussain said, still shaken up by what eyewitnesses had told him and from the Indian media reports that he read about his father-in-law’s death.


Hussain said Jafri walked outside his house to confront the mob, and they demanded that he say Jai Shri Ram—Victory to Lord Ram. Jafri refused, and they cut off his hands. They asked him again, and he refused, so they cut off his legs. Again they demanded him to honor Ram, and he refused. They cut him in half, dragged his torso into the street and burned it. The mob then torched the house and almost everyone inside.


Hussain got the news and soon was on a plane to Gujarat. Claiming to be a journalist, he managed to get past police barricades around the home and go inside.


“I was knee deep in ash, there were so many people inside,” Hussain said, his voice trembling. “I could see the shapes of heads. The blades of ceiling fans had melted and were bent down, the heat was so intense.”


He reserved his anger for what he said was the Bharatiya Janata Party’s communal politics and the RSS’ ethnic violence. “Such a genocide took place,” he said. “It was a good example of what they want to do in the rest of India.”


“Most Hindus in India are very tolerant, good people,” he continued. “But slowly and surely the country is becoming divided, all because of groups like the Bharatiya Janata Party. We have to stop the hate funding.”