India-relief charity criticized on fund use

Academics, activists claim Rockville-based group backs Hindu extremists

December 04, 2002|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

A Maryland-based charity that raises money for relief work in India has come under fire from Indian-American academics and activists, who say it supports Hindu extremist groups that foment hate and violence against Muslims, Christians and other minorities.

At a time when Islamic charities in the United States are being scrutinized for possible ties to terrorism, the India Development and Relief Fund (IDRF) appears to be the first U.S. philanthropic organization to be accused of financing Hindu chauvinism.

Hindu extremist groups, as well as local government officials, have been accused by Human Rights Watch and other international organizations of participating in the killing of more than 1,000 Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat this year after a Muslim attack on a train.

The mob violence in Gujarat shocked many Indian-Americans and prompted a harder look at where their charitable donations were going. About a dozen Indian immigrants, including Hindus, Muslims and Christians, collaborated on a 90-page report analyzing the activities of the 15-year-old fund, which raised nearly $4 million last year for organizations in India, according to its tax return.

"We're not saying IDRF is directly involved in communal violence," said Angana Chatterji, an anthropology professor in San Francisco and one of the authors of the report. "We're saying that IDRF supports a movement that provokes communal violence."

Chatterji, who calls herself "a secular Indian from a Hindu cultural background," added: "We believe donors are not aware of where their money is going."

The report, "The Foreign Exchange of Hate," became front-page news in India after its release on the Internet on Nov. 20.

It was accompanied by a petition drive appealing to U.S. corporations to stop donating to the fund, operated out of its founder's Rockville home. Organizers say more than 240 U.S. academics of South Asian background have signed the petition, located with the report at www.stopfundinghate.org.

Cisco Systems Inc., the Silicon Valley maker of networking equipment, said yesterday that it has matched employee gifts to the fund in the past, but has suspended contributions while it investigates the allegations.

Two days after the release of the report, the Association of Indian Muslims of America, based in Silver Spring, wrote to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft asking that the fund be investigated, its assets frozen and its tax-exempt status revoked.

Kaleem Kawaja, a mechanical engineer from Ellicott City and general secretary of the Muslim association, said he has followed the fund's activities for years and believes it has turned from its original purpose.

"This group [IDRF] started out to do development work for poor people in India," Kawaja said. "But the last seven or eight years they have been supporting Hindu fundamentalists who oppress minorities. ... You could call them, in American jargon, Hindu supremacists."

The volunteers who run the fund deny the charges.

"Any allegation of sectarianism, perpetrating violence or discrimination is absolutely and totally baseless," said Vinod Prakash, IDRF's founder and president. "We may be pro-Indian culture, pro-Indian civilization, pro-Indian spirituality. But we are not against any sect, any religion, any minority."

Prakash and other IDRF activists said the fund's critics are left-wing ideologues who have distorted the facts. They sent The Sun a copy of a thank-you letter from a group run by Indian Christians who receive IDRF support to house and feed destitute people in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

But Prakash, 70, a retired World Bank economist who has lived in the United States for 37 years, said in an interview that he is worried that the Hindu share of India's 1 billion people, now about 81 percent, may be shrinking, with grave implications for the country's future.

"The sole foundation of India is Hindu," he said. "U.S.-Indian friendship is based on Hindu values, not Islamic values."

The fund has not registered as a charity with the Maryland secretary of state's office, as the law requires of nonprofits raising money in the state. Prakash said he only recently became aware of the requirement, and the registration should be completed soon.

The dispute over the fund takes place amid heightened awareness that charitable donations made in the United States can end up in the hands of foreign extremists. Bank accounts of several Muslim charities have been frozen by the U.S. government because of suspected ties to al-Qaida or other terrorist groups.

This week, Saudi Arabia began a crackdown on charities linked to terrorism, after allegations that money donated by the wife of the Saudi ambassador to the United States may have ended up in the hands of two of the Sept. 11 hijackers.

The debate over IDRF also reflects bitter divisions in India, the world's largest democracy, where Hindu-Muslim violence is an old problem and minority Christians and Sikhs have sometimes complained of oppression by the Hindu majority.

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