- The letter issued by 39 groups in the U.S., U.K. and Europe says it’s a tactic to silence public participation and an attempt to drown out voices and views that do not conform with HAF’s.
Several human rights organizations from the U.S., U.K. and Europe have issued a letter condemning the defamation suit filed by Hindu American Foundation (HAF) against professor Audrey Truschke, journalist Raqib Naik and four executives from U.S.-based civil and human rights groups. The defendants claim the HAF lawsuit is Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) suit.
On May 7, HAF filed a lawsuit in U.S.District Court for the District of Columbia against Hindus for Human Rights co-founders Sunita Vishwanath and Raju Rajagopal, Indian American Muslim Council executive director Rasheed Ahmed, Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations of North America chairman John Prabhudoss, and Rutgers University professor Audrey Truschke, for defamation and conspiracy to defame the foundation. Journalist Raqib Naik is listed as being involved in the defamation and conspiracy to defame, but a ’non-party’ to the actual lawsuit.
The lawsuit was filed after Al Jazeera published an article spotlighting five Hindu American organizations, including the HAF, that received COVID-19 relief funding through loans and grant. 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.Vishwanath,
HAF says in the lawsuit that Rajagopal, Ahmed, and Prabhudoss were all quoted in two Al Jazeera articles “presenting patently false claims that HAF misappropriated COVID-19 related Paycheck Protection Program relief funds to support violence against Christians and Muslims in India.” HAF says it’s complaint also outlines how the defendants used the U.S.-based Coalition to Stop Genocide in India to provide cover to make further defamatory statements against HAF and demand the U.S. government start an investigation into HAF and other Hindu organizations for allegedly using Federal funds to “sponsor hate” in India.
In the Al Jazeera story, dated April 8, Rajaggopal said: “The rise of HAF and other organizations linked with Hindutva has emboldened Hindu supremacist organizations in India, while also stifling the moderate Hindu voices here in the U.S.”
“US taxpayers’ money being used to keep hate groups in business is absolutely unacceptable and should concern all who believe in fairness, justice and government accountability,” said Ahmed.
“Government watchdog groups as well as human rights organisations need to take serious note of the misappropriation of COVID funding by Hindu supremacist groups the United States,” said Prabhudoss. “A comprehensive probe and corrective action is needed 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,” he added.
“This isn’t just about defending HAF’s hard-earned reputation as a leading education and human rights organization. This is about fighting back against coordinated attacks against Hindu Americans in the public space,” said Suhag Shukla, HAF’s Executive Director.“From organizations serving community needs to candidates running for public office to students exploring their Hindu identity on college campuses — the defendants have relentlessly sought to intimidate, harass, and silence the Hindu American community. This will no longer come without a cost,” Shukla asserted.
“The claims of financial impropriety made in the Al Jazeera articles are verifiably false, as all of HAF’s relevant financial documents are publicly available on our website” stated HAF managing director Samir Kalra. “HAF leadership strongly rejects insinuations of dual loyalty to India or any accusations of spreading hatred or Islamophobia,” Kalra added.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 US covid relief programs.
“This aggressive lawsuit, filed against these individuals, is an attempt to curtail free speech and free expression exercised by a reputed media house and its readers,” read the letter. “The lawsuit, filed against individuals using a law firm, is a tactic to silence public participation and an attempt to drown out voices and views that do not conform with HAF’s It is therefore a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation or SLAPP suit, to shut down critiques of organizations and ideologies, and hurts the first amendment rights of the American people. We, the undersigned organizations, will continue our unstinting support of the individuals and organizations being subjected to this harassment.”
Rasheed Ahmed, executive director of the Indian American Muslim Council told American Kahani that he was “surprised” his comments and “those by his coalition partners about hate groups were taken so personally by HAF.” He added that his attorneys say “this is a frivolous lawsuit, appears to be Bajrang Dal type bullying tactics.”
Similarly, Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR), in a statement, says that the group is “prepared to take this to court.” Since it was established in 2019, the group notes in the statement that it has been praised by “champions of justice and equality.” HfHR has “also drawn the attention of groups who oppose our work of fighting for pluralism and civil and human rights for all,” the statement added.
In a separate statement sent to American Kahani, HfHR said: “While too many of our family members and friends in India are falling sick and dying from this deadly second wave of Covid, we are disappointed that Hindu American Foundation has spent money and time on this lawsuit against us. We see this lawsuit as an attempt to silence us and stop our work. Our work has not slowed down and we will keep speaking our truth, which is that our faith requires us to stand for all who are suffering and being denied their rights. For us, ‘vasudhaiva kutumbakam’ (the world is one family) means radical inclusiveness and prioritizing those in the most dire need.”
The letter alludes to the current healthcare calamity in India as well. “We are fully confident that, during this time of overwhelming crisis in India, no amount of intimidation will stop any of us from working hard on our mission of providing support for and fighting for the rights of all Indians.”
Rasheed is concerned about the growing divide and intolerance within our communities, based on ideologies, political leanings, religion or caste. “It is very alarming,” he says. “The idea that there is only one way to think, pray, one language to speak, deciding what others should eat or not eat, whom to marry and not to marry is only going to exacerbate existing distrust and divide. We should be focusing on the pandemic to save lives and not waste time in these idiotic adventures.”
Truschke, who is currently conducting academic research regarding the Hindu Right in the United States, which includes the HAF, says she has come in crosshairs with the group which has made clear their displeasure. “I see this lawsuit as a bald-faced attempt to intimidate and silence my scholarship. I leave the legal details of the lawsuit to my attorneys,” read a statement sent to American Kahani. “I believe this lawsuit is meritless, and I fully expect it to be resolved in my favor.”
Noting that this “lawsuit has generated a higher level of awareness towards intolerance and ‘cancel culture’ which helps us make our case,” Rasheed says the IAMC will continue doing its work. “We have always limited our work to raising awareness, educating people and policy makers and urging them to use their diplomatic and any other influence to change the behavior of human and religious rights violators.”
As per Truschke’s website, she is writing a one-volume history of India, from Mohenjo Daro to today, to be published by Princeton University Press. Additionally, she is engaged in a series of other projects, including investigating intimidation strategies and Sangh Parivar ties among the U.S.-based Hindu Right.
On Twitter, Trushcke shared a link explaining SLAPP suits. For anyone who wants more background on SLAPP lawsuits and how they work to chill free speech and healthy debate, critical components of any functioning democracy. According to the Public Participation Project, “these damaging suits chill free speech and healthy debate by targeting those who communicate with their government or speak out on issues of public interest.” Adding that “SLAPPs are used to silence and harass critics by forcing them to spend money to defend these baseless suits,” the website says “SLAPPs are effective because even a meritless lawsuit can take years and many thousands of dollars to defend. To end or prevent a SLAPP, those who speak out on issues of public interest frequently agree to muzzle themselves, apologize, or ‘correct’ statements.”