- While the defendants hailed the ruling, calling the lawsuit “a scare tactic” intended to silence them, the HAF leadership termed it “incredibly disappointing.”
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta on Dec. 20 dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Hindu American Foundation 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.
The lawsuit was filed in May 2021, after Al Jazeera published an article by Raqib Naik, spotlighting 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), 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 defendants have claimed that the HAF lawsuit is Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) suit, which the HAF has denied. Naik was listed as being involved in the defamation and conspiracy to defame, but a ’non-party’ to the actual lawsuit.
“The Hindu American Foundation’s SLAPP lawsuit against me and four other defendants is dismissed by Judge Mehta,” Truschke tweeted, calling it “a win against the far right.”
In a statement issued on Dec. 20, the HAF noted that although “the lawsuit for defamation and conspiracy to defame was dismissed on procedural ground, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found that HAF did suffer damages due to ‘plausibly verifiably false statements’ made by some of the defendants.”
Executive director Suhag Shukla said in a statement that “it is incredibly disappointing that though Vishwanath and Truschke among others were found to have made verifiably false statements attacking HAF, the judge dismissed our legal action on procedural grounds.” Noting that HAF continues “to believe that the defendants’ false and malicious statements about HAF constitute actionable defamation,” she said they have “every reason to believe that they will continue to spread their malicious lies.”
HAF Managing Director Samir Kalra also issued a statement. “We know, as the court found, that Hindus for Human Rights, IAMC, FIACONA and Truschke lie about HAF, and we believe, they often conspire against many Hindu American individuals and organizations in this country,” adding, “we will be relentless in calling out malign attacks against HAF and the Hindu American community writ large. And we will never hesitate in defending our reputation against hateful lies.”
Meanwhile, those named in the lawsuit have praised Mehta’s ruling. “This lawsuit is proof that groups like the Hindu American Foundation do not represent all Hindu Americans,” Viswanath told American Kahani. “We saw this lawsuit as a scare tactic intended to silence individuals who are bravely standing up to the rising force of Hindu nationalism — in the United States, India, and across the Indian diaspora. We were not scared into silence,” she said, adding that “we stood by our principles, and will continue to do so.” Viswanath expressed gratitude to their pro-bono lawyers at Ballard Spahr for standing with them.
A source who didn’t want to be identified told this reporter that all five defendants had pro bono legal representation, “arguably a testament to the widespread perception that this case was an assault on freedom of speech.”
According to IAMC’s Ahmed, “the ruling confirms what we have known all along — this lawsuit from Hindu American Foundation was bogus from the start.” In a statement sent to American Kahani he said the lawsuit was “aimed only to harass and intimidate those who oppose Hindu supremacism and majoritarianism and call out the persecution of social and religious minorities in India.” He called the ruling “a testament to the intellectual and professional integrity of America’s judicial system.”
In a statement sent to American Kahani, Naik called the ruling “a relief “ for him and “a big victory for journalists who cover Hindu nationalism in the diaspora.” According to him, “the lawsuit was intended to make an example out of me and send a chilling message to journalists to be ready for repercussions if they write stories critical of Hindu nationalism.” He said, “the court order will set a precedent and allow more journalists to write freely about Hindu nationalism, without fear of frivolous lawsuits.”
Meanwhile, in a statement emailed to American Kahani, Chairman of FIACONA Prabhudoss said: “Extremist outfits and their proxies in America should think deep and hard as to what they are actually doing on the US soil … They can not continue to hide behind religious cover and use the goodwill of the Hindu faith in America to carry out a sinister and an extremist agenda. We will not allow them to continue to provide a platform for radical Hindu militants coming from India and raise funds for their nefarious activities such as attacking Christians or forcing them to renounce their faith in India.”
HAF claimed in the lawsuit that Rajagopal, Ahmed, and Prabhudoss were 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.” Its 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.
Rajagopal told Al Jazeera that “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.”
Ahmed was quoted by Naik saying that the “U.S. 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.” Prabhudoss was cited in the story urging “government watchdog groups as well as human rights organizations to take serious note of the misappropriation of COVID funding by Hindu supremacist groups in the United States.”
Along with those quoted in the article, the lawsuit also included Truschke who merely shared the story and commented on it on social media. HAF claimed that Truschke “went on the republish and amplify the defamatory statements,” HAF said in the Dec. 20 statement. She “falsely accused HAF of organizing violent threats against her,” the statement added.
According to HAF, Naik, “rather than simply being an independent journalist, as presented by Al Jazeera, has deep and ongoing connections with both IAMC and HfHR, speaking at events jointly organized by both organizations and serving on IAMC’s executive team.”
At the time the lawsuit was filed, HAF executive director Shukla told American Kahani that “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. She said the defendants have “relentlessly sought to intimidate, harass, and silence the Hindu American community. This will no longer come without a cost.”