- They accuse the news network report of maligning them as “right-wing” and “Hindu supremacist”organizations, even as some other groups express concern that the pandemic relief funds might end up furthering hate campaigns against Muslims and other minorities in India.
A report by Qatar-based Al Jazeera has put the spotlight on five Hindu American organizations that received COVID-19 relief funding through loans and grants. Citing data from the Small Business Administration (SBA), the report said that these outfits, which allegedly have “ties to Hindu supremacist and religious groups” have together received $833,000 in federal funding. The report names the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of USA, Infinity Foundation and Sewa International. The report, however, does not mention other South Asian organizations with Muslim, Christian and Sikh affiliations that also received similar funding.
The SBA offers several relief options to help businesses, nonprofits, and faith-based organizations recover from the impacts of COVID-19.
SBA data shows that the HAF, a Washington-based advocacy group, received $388,310 in federal funds. Of those, $378,064 was received in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and another $10,000 in Economic Injury Disaster Loan Advance (EIDLA.)
As per it’s website, HAF “focuses on educating the public about Hindus and Hinduism and advocating for policies and practices that ensure the well-being of all people and the planet.”
The VHPA received more than $150,000 under PPP and a further $21,430 under EIDLA and Disaster Assistance Loan (DAL) programs.
Other Hindu groups that received the relief fund, listed in the Aljazeera report, include Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of USA, which got a direct payment of $7,000 and a loan of $64,462 under PPP; Infinity Foundation, which received $51,872 in U.S. federal funds; and Sewa International, which was given $150,621 in COVID-19 relief.
Several religious organizations including temples, gurudwaras, mosques and churches also availed of the grants. In a December 2020 article in Newsweek, Sam Westrop, director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, detailed some of the organizations that got the funding. Also included in the list was the Indian American Muslim Council, which got $1,000. The Newsweek article also listed the Islamic Circle of North America, which it describes as “a proxy for the violent South Asian Islamist movement Jamaat-e-Islami.” It reportedly received $17,000 for its four branches.
The Al Jazeera reporting has 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.” In a statement sent American Kahani, he said “the report is full of innuendos about impropriety of the usage of COVID-19 related loans and grants where none exists.” He clarified that the VHPA is “an independent American 501(c)3 organization, and not a branch of any other organization. We have a 50-year record of following U.S. laws, and submitting audited financial reports every year.,” he said. In clarifying the relief funds issued to VHPA, he noted: “We have received $150,000 in COVID-19 related loans, which will be used as per the letter of the law and will be paid back with interest as stipulated by the law. The $20,430 described in the Al Jazeera report is not received by VHPA, it is an assigned proportional risk to the government for the loan made. The remaining $1000 is a grant, which will be used as stipulated by the law.”
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 did not reply to emails sent to them. However, executive director 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.
In another tweet she singled out HAF for participating in a recent coordinated effort attacking her.
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.”
Advocacy 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.
Sunita Viswanathan, co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights defines Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) as “an ethnonationalist, Islamophobic, and anti-semitic political ideology whose founders were directly inspired by the European fascist movements of the early 20th century.” She told American Kahani that “proponents of this ideology are in power in present-day India, and they are propelling the country towards becoming a Hindu nation (Hindu rashtra) in which non-Hindus are relegated to second-class citizens.” Citing a 2020 survey data that reveals that the majority of Indian-Americans believe Hindutva is a threat to India, she says her organization “is very concerned about the growing influence of Hindutva ideology among the Indian-American population. We recognize the vital importance of federal funding for eligible employers during the current crisis, and the fact that it is difficult to judge the politics of nonprofits by association. However, I believe that, given that Hindutva-aligned groups are receiving government assistance, the American public should be aware of their dangerous views on issues like caste and Hindutva.”
Responding to the Newsweek article, she said: “Indian American Muslim Council is one of our closest organizational partners, and we know first-hand that their work addresses the human rights and religious freedom of all Indians. IAMC does not spread hate, nor are they affiliated with Islamist groups. Right-wing groups have accused IAMC of being anti-Hindu; as a Hindu group, we can vouch for their respect and sensitivity in working with Hindus and other non-Muslims.”
Some organizations like the Coalition to Stop Genocide in India, comprising Indian Americans and U.S.-based civil rights organizations and activists, has called on SBA to probe how U.S.-based Hindu supremacist organizations received hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funding, TwoCircles.net reported.
Rasheed Ahmed, executive director IAMC told TwoCircles that it it “absolutely unexpected” that U.S. taxpayers’ money is being used to keep hate groups in business. “There are families across America still reeling from the human and economic toll of COVID-19, while groups that seem to be essentially serving as front organizations for a violent and supremacist ideology are raking in the windfall from federal Covid funding.”
Similarly, John Prabhudoss, Chairman of Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations (FIACONA) stressed the need for “a comprehensive probe and corrective action to ensure that hard-working American taxpayers’ money is not funneled towards sponsoring hate, persecution and the slow genocide of minorities and marginalized communities in India.”