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Unsealed: Suhag Shukla’s Deposition in Hindu American Foundation’s Failed Defamation Case Against Us

Unsealed: Suhag Shukla’s Deposition in Hindu American Foundation’s Failed Defamation Case Against Us

  • The unsealed documents reveal the sheer arrogance of HAF’s exorbitant lawsuit with not an iota of evidence.

The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) filed a defamation lawsuit against the two of us, as well as against three others, Rasheed Ahmed, John Prabhudoss, and Audrey Truschke, on May 7, 2021. HAF’s claims arose from our statements to an Al Jazeera journalist about the federal emergency COVID-19 funding garnered by several Hindu nationalist organizations in early 2021, including the HAF: 

Sunita in Al Jazeera, Apr 2, 2021: “All these organizations are sympathetic to the Hindu supremacist ideology. Their parent organizations continue to spread hatred in Hindu communities towards Muslims and Christians,” and “Any American non-profit that perpetuates Islamophobia and other forms of hate should not receive federal relief funds in any form.”

Raju in Al Jazeera, Apr 8, 2021: “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 US.”

Nearly twenty months after the HAF filed its complaint, Judge Amit P Mehta of the U.S. District Court in D.C. dismissed the case on all counts: “…the court has reviewed the allegedly defamatory statements attributed to Defendants Viswanath, Rajagopal, Ahmed, and Truschke, and finds that HAF fails to plausibly plead that any statement made by any defendant is verifiably false. Most of the statements are clearly statements of opinion …[Also] Because the underlying defamation claim against Prabhudoss fails, Plaintiff’s civil conspiracy claim fails.” [p 26]

A Lawsuit with Zero Evidence

Earlier, on March 15, 2022, the judge issued an order questioning whether HAF had lost any donations at all on account of our statements, “much less an amount in excess of $75,000.” [But] “rather than dismiss the complaint outright, the court will…stay the motions to dismiss and allow for a limited period of jurisdictional discovery as to the amount in controversy.”

This meant that our attorneys had an opportunity to look into the veracity of HAF’s claimed financial losses by examining granular details of donations received by HAF in recent years. This was the primary purpose of the virtual deposition by Suhag Shukla of HAF on May 16, 2022. The deposition remained sealed from public view until recently, when the court ordered 385 pages of unredacted evidence unsealed, including 45 pages of Shukla’s deposition (p 268+). 

Shukla’s day-long deposition with attorneys from both sides was nothing short of a disaster. She was unable to back up any of HAF’s allegations in its complaint with evidence – not one! The result was a deposition peppered with evasive and intransigent responses by Shukla before she would finally admit the truth: See highlights of the deposition

Our Supplemental Brief

Based on Shukla’s deposition, the defendants submitted a Supplemental Brief on June 10, 2022: “discovery…confirms the Court’s suspicions: Plaintiff is unable to identify any evidence of economic harm, let alone damages meeting the jurisdictional minimum. Indeed, discovery has established that not a single existing or potential donor ever told HAF it was reducing, eliminating, or not making initial contributions due to the challenged statements.” 

The brief also dismissed assertions of “reputational damage” to HAF as a result of our statements: “HAF has no one but itself to blame for its expulsion” from the Alliance Against Genocide. It referred to some of the other assertions by HAF as “fanciful” “speculative,” “without foundation,” etc. 

To make a long story short, Shukla had failed to support with evidence any of HAF’s claims: NO evidence of defamation, NO evidence of a conspiracy, and NO evidence of financial losses. Not surprisingly, HAF did not refute any of the conclusions in our Supplemental Brief, thanks to the terrific work of our pro bono lawyers who came to our aid because of their commitment to the First Amendment.

So, when the final judgment to dismiss the case came down on December 20, 2022, HAF was left scraping the bottom to find some “good news” for its donors and supporters: see SuhagShuklaOnLinkedin.

So they quickly jumped on a footnote by the judge, which explained that only one statement by Sunita and another by Audrey had the potential (“plausibly”) to be proven false, [i.e., had the case proceeded.] They maliciously modified the judge’s legalistic phrase, “plausibly verifiably false,” into “verifiably false” on social media posts, thus implying that the judge had made a determination that Sunita and Audrey had lied. The judge did no such thing!

HAF later added back the word “plausibly” in their posts, but some of their earlier doctored posts were not deleted, hence perpetuating the impression that Sunita and Audrey had lied.  In our view, HAF has done itself and its supporters great disservice by attempting subterfuge to eke out a “silver lining” out of an ignominious defeat. 

What Were They Thinking?

See Also

As one of our attorneys observed during our debriefing following the dismissal of the lawsuit, “Even a first-year law student can differentiate between statements of opinion and defamation.” With two senior attorneys on their Executive Team, is it possible that HAF really thought that they had a winnable case? If not, what were they really thinking when they chose to spend several hundred thousand dollars of donated money on a foolhardy defamation lawsuit?  

Perhaps, HAF felt threatened by our progressive Hindu voice –  which does not seek to divide the world into haters and the hated — challenging them from within the community and in D.C. spaces. And they decided to scare us through a high-profile SLAPP lawsuit, with expensive Trump family attorneys to boot. If that was their thinking, they have failed miserably. Instead, HfHR and our allies have together only gotten stronger, bolder, and wiser in our work of resisting Hindutva and casteism.

But it’s also entirely possible, knowing the litigious track record of HAF, that their ultimate goal was to create enough hype and narratives of victimhood around the lawsuit to help raise funds. That would explain their surprising fundraiser just months after filing the lawsuit, provocatively titled, How to sue your haters. In a classic case of projection, those who sued had become the victims, and the victims had become the haters! Sadly, the tactic seems to have worked: Looking at the list of donations in the days following the event (from the unsealed deposition), HAF appears to have collected over $ 70,000 within a day and close to $300,000 in a week! Total donations to HAF went up from $1,580,784 in 2021 to $2,583,102 in 2022! Clearly, their claim that our statements had led to financial losses was an outright lie and Shukla’s deposition was the clinching proof.

Whatever may have been HAF’s intent, we know from their history of lawsuits (mostly ending in defeat), that they have successfully leveraged them to raise funds – sometimes both before and after the case. An important lesson to take home for those opposing Hindutva: Legal failures do not necessarily lead to loss of donors and donations.

Therein lies the opposition’s challenge: If we’re to dislodge the caustic presence of Hindutva in the diaspora, for every dollar of donation received by Hindu supremacists, we must raise at least one dollar to counter their divisive hate politics. Moral successes aren’t enough anymore; we must aim for equally successful fundraising programs.

The good news is that with an outpouring of support from our donors, activists, academics, allies, our families, and our super-energized team, HfHR has already made a headstart in increasing our national and regional presence, in forming new alliances, and taking on more projects in 2023 and 2024. And now, we are appealing to you, all Indian Americans who are concerned about democracy and minority rights in India, to help us on an emergency footing so we can ramp up our efforts to propagate a progressive and pluralistic Hindu voice as a counter to the divisive voices of Hindutva. You can do so by becoming a member of the HfHR community today and by making a financial contribution. 

Sunita Viswanath and Raju Rajagopal are co-founders of Hindus for Human Rights USA.

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