- The letter, sent through a California-based litigation firm, “demands for retraction, public apology, and refraining from publishing further false and defamatory statements.”
The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) has sent five cease and desist notices to organizations and individuals who have allegedly made libelous statements published in two articles by Al Jazeera in the first week of April. As per a statement issued on April 19, those receiving the legal notices are Hindus for Human Rights co-founders Sunita Vishwanath and Raju Rajgopal, Rasheed Ahmed of the Indian American Muslim Council, and Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations’ John Prabhudoss, as well as both the author of one of the articles, Raqib Hameed Naik, and Al Jazeera as an organization.
The letter, sent through a California-based litigation firm retained for this action, “demands for retraction, public apology, and refraining from publishing further false and defamatory statements,” read the HAF statement. “In addition, Rutgers-Newark Associate Professor Audrey Truschke was served with a cease and desist notice due to her amplification of these libelous articles on social media, along with a pattern of her own defamatory statements about HAF,” the statement added.
“As the largest professionally-staffed Hindu advocacy organization in the United States, serving the three million strong Hindu American community, HAF is highly visible and often subject to harassment and abuse,” said Suhag Shukla, HAF’s executive director. “The Al Jazeera articles and those quoted in them went beyond legitimate differences of opinion or perspective and crossed the line into libel and defamation. This we will never let stand.”
The article by Naik, written for the Qatar-based new network, named five Hindu American organizations including the HAF, that received COVID-19 relief funding through loans and grants. Citing data from the Small Business Administration (SBA), Naik wrote that these outfits, which allegedly have “ties to Hindu supremacist and religious groups” have together received $833,000 in federal funding. Also named were Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of USA, Infinity Foundation and Sewa International.
HAF says the reports “presented utterly false claims that HAF has improperly used COVID-19 related Paycheck Protection Program Small Business Administration relief funds to support hatred, Islamophobia, violence and ‘slow genocide’ against Christians and Muslims in India, and is linked to allegedly Hindu nationalist and Hindu supremacist organizations in India.” HAF adds that the reports “went on to falsely claim that HAF serves as a U.S. ‘front’ for several India-based organizations. Furthermore, it accused HAF of lobbying on the behalf of the Government of India.
Refuting these claims, HAF’s leadership has strongly rejected insinuations of dual loyalty to India, associations with foreign organizations or Islamophobia, and expressed a determination to fight these accusations in U.S courts. As per tax filings, HAF has only sent funds overseas to independent organizations supporting Hindus fleeing persecution in Pakistan, now living as refugees in India, and those helping persecuted Hindus in Pakistan itself. None of these organizations received any funding from money HAF received under U.S. covid relief programs. HAF asserts that statements made about it by named organizations in the United States, as well as Al Jazeera’s publication of these statements in its articles, “is in reckless disregard of the truth and with clear malice, fully meeting the definition of libel under U.S. law.”
The reporting faced severe backlash from Hindu groups. Ajay Shah, President World Hindu Council of America (VHPA) said the report is an attempt from the media outlet “to malign legitimate American Hindu seva oriented organizations.” On April 4, Shah and Utsav Chakrabarti, secretary of the World Hindu Council, discussed the Al Jazeera report on their weekly webcast — Hindulounge. Shah broke down the COVID-19 relief fund and Chakravarti highlighted the bias in the reporting.
HAF’s Suhag Shukla took to Twitter to express outrage over the article. “Hindus are the smallest recipient by far, yet we’re targeted,” she wrote in a tweet. “This is religious bigotry.”In another tweet, she questioned why Al Jazeera ran a piece attacking only Hindu organizations even though thousand’s of religious organizations received federal loans.
Meanwhile, Rajiv Pandit, a Dallas-based surgeon and a member of the Board of Directors of HAF, had a heated exchange with historian and Rutgers professor, Audrey Truschke. Citing the Al Jazeera article, Truschke tweeted that the groups posted in the article are allegedly known for engaging in violence, stifling academic inquiry and promoting religious bigotry. Replying to Truschke’s tweet, Pandit wrote: “No, Audrey Truschke, as a board member of HAF, I can confirm that your name was never discussed as part of a coordinated attack, nor ever been brought up at the board level. Any such accusations are defamatory.”
On the other hand, Aadvocacy and religious groups like Hindus for Human Rights, Coalition to Stop Genocide in India, Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations (FIACONA) and IAMC expressed concern that the pandemic relief funds might end up furthering hate campaign against Muslims and other minorities in India.