Viswanath, co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights, was the target of a defamation lawsuit filed by the Hindu American Foundation in 2021 that was dismissed by a United States court last month.
HINDUS for Human Rights is a United States-based non-profit advocacy group founded in the summer of 2019 in the wake of Narendra Modi’s re-election as Prime Minister of India. The organisation’s stated aim is to support pluralism, civil rights and human rights in South Asia and North America, and to focus on providing a Hindu voice of resistance against caste, Hindutva, racism and other forms of bigotry and oppression.
In May 2021, the Hindu American Foundation (‘HAF’) filed a defamation lawsuit against Hindus for Human Rights co-founders Sunita Viswanath and Raju Rajagopal, Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations of North America chairman John Prabhudoss, Indian American Muslim Council executive director Rasheed Ahmed, and Rutgers University professor Audrey Truschke for two articles published in Al Jazeera.
The articles, carrying quotes from the defendants, had claimed that HAF and four other United States-based organisations, namely Vishwa Hindu Parishad America, Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of USA, Infinity Foundation and Sewa International, with “ties to Hindu supremacist and religious groups”, had received COVID-19 relief funding to the tune of US $833,000 from the United States federal government’s Small Business Administration.
The suit had prompted more than 300 prominent writers, academics and scholars to stand in solidarity with Hindus for Human Rights. Recently, a United States court dismissed the suit.
In this exclusive interview, Viswanath talks in detail about the lawsuit and the need for and basis of opposition to HAF and similar organisations.
First of all, tell us about the lawsuit filed against Hindus for Human Rights?
In the recently dismissed defamation lawsuit against my co-founder Raju Rajagopal, three other activists, and me, the Hindu American Foundation claimed that my statements to Al Jazeera on April 2, 2021 were defamatory.
Al Jazeera had encapsulated my reactions to an earlier report that several Hindu organisations had received federal COVID relief funds: “Any American non-profit that perpetuates Islamophobia and other forms of hate should not receive federal relief funds in any form… All these organisations are sympathetic to the Hindu supremacist ideology. Their parent organisations continue to spread hatred in Hindu communities towards Muslims and Christians.”
I stand by those statements.
It is still hard for me to comprehend how United States taxpayers’ money could have been so easily garnered by organisations whose leaders are on the one hand benefiting from America’s minority-friendly polity, but on the other hand are supporting the bigoted anti-minority politics of Prime Minister Modi in India.
But I am grateful that after nearly two-years of suspense, the United States District Court in D.C. has ruled that my statements to Al Jazeera were not defamatory, “…HAF fails to plausibly plead that any statement made by any defendant is verifiably false. Most of the statements are clearly statements of opinion.”
So that would seem like ‘case closed’?
Not for the HAF. In further evidence of its bad-faith actions, the HAF misquoted a footnote in the judgement (page 27) to falsely claim that the judge had ruled that I had lied.
The judge made no such determination. He was merely observing that my reference to “parent organisations” could possibly be proven true or false had the lawsuit moved forward, which would have given me a chance to make my case. I did not get that chance, as the judge dismissed the lawsuit for lack of personal jurisdiction over me, and HAF’s failure to provide any evidence to prove that my statements were either false, or were made with malice, or were the result of a conspiracy.
What had riled up the HAF to bring a precipitate lawsuit against you in the first place?
The HAF was very touchy about my use of the phrase “parent organisations”. It goes out of its way to deny its roots in and its ideological connections with Hindu supremacist organisations.
This is not because the founders of HAF have realised the error of their ways in supporting the violent Hindutva ideology and are now exclusively focused on defending the rights of Hindu minorities in the diaspora.
Instead, it seems to me that it is a case of the HAF wanting to have its cake and eat it too: It needs the financial backing of major Hindutva supporters, but at the same time, in order to stand congressional and public scrutiny, it needs to perpetuate the myth that it is “politically agnostic and non-partisan” with no connections to Hindu supremacists.
Perhaps this predicament explains HAF’s decision to pursue expensive litigation to obscure its genesis and ideology, and to portray the judgement as a victory of sorts to justify to its donors that their money had not been wasted on a frivolous lawsuit.
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When you say ‘parent organisation’, what do you mean exactly?
In the first place, I never claimed that there were any formal organisational or financial links between the five organisations named by Al Jazeera and India-based Hindu supremacist organisations. But certainly, the HAF’s primary financial backers — at least what can be inferred from publicly available sources — have been shown in several reports to be overwhelmingly from other American Sangh organisations, most of whom have self-attested ties to the Sangh Parivar in India.
The HAF is desperate to publicly distance itself from its roots in the Hindutva eco-system despite its continuing fidelity to Hindu supremacist ideology.
Nonetheless, I used the word “parent” in the sense that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (‘RSS’) and its various affiliates in India are the fountainhead of Hindu supremacist (Hindutva) ideology, which has spawned numerous Hindu organisations in India and across the world, including some of the organisations named by Al Jazeera.
No one could have described the nature of this unique ‘parent-child’ relationship better than the former General Secretary of the RSS, H.V. Sheshadri, in his 1988 book titled, ‘R.S.S. A Vision In Action’: “The relationship between the two [the Sangh Parivar and its various off-shoots] is akin to that of a mother and her children. The children take to various vocations according to their aptitudes and genius. But all of them carry the imprint of a mother’s wholesome training in their conduct and norms of life… All of them together feel themselves as part of a wider family… and are bound by fraternal ties.”
Sheshadri describes the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (‘HSS’), Hindu Students Council (‘HSC’), Vishwa Hindu Parishad America (‘VHPA’) and India Development and Relief Fund in the United States, as well as Seva International and National Hindu Students Forum in the United Kingdom, as part of the family of “torchbearers abroad.”
Were Sheshadri writing today, I have no doubt that HAF too would have found prominent mention in his list of RSS’s ideological offspring.
As such, I find HAF’s declaration that it “has no affiliation or ties to … any alleged Hindu nationalist or supremacist group in India” a red herring, as it does not honestly address its deep roots in and its ideological synergy with the American Sangh Parivar even today.
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Can you elaborate on these “deep roots” and “ideological synergy”?
As I understood from various publicly available information:
The genesis of HAF was in the VHPA, which in turn has close relationship with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in India, a ‘child’ of the RSS, as Sheshadri puts it. Mihir Meghani, a co-founder of the HAF, was also a co-founder of the HSC, an earlier ‘child’ of the VHPA. Meghani also spent time within the RSS in India, before co-founding the HAF in 2003.
In the nineties, Meghani had published his infamous essay, Hindutva: The Great Nationalist Ideology, in which he openly praised the Hindu mob that demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in December 1992 — an event that triggered unprecedented anti-Muslim violence in India and left thousands dead. The essay was posted on the BJP (Bharatiya Janta Party) website as an ideological manifesto.
Meghani has since vainly attempted to distance himself from the essay, leaving more questions than answers, as documented by Raju Rajagopal. In his non-denial denial, Meghani makes several hard-to-believe claims, including that someone else may have altered his essay and posted it on the BJP site.
Suhag Shukla, another co-founder of the HAF, also began her career with the HSC and in 2006, she joined the board of the Vivek Welfare Education Fund, whose founder, Braham Aggarwal, was also associated with the HSS. The fund, renamed since, has made major donations to the HAF, which may have helped launch Shukla as the full-time Executive Director of the HAF.
There is little or no daylight between the HAF and the anti-minority politics of the Modi government.
Rajiv Pandit, another member of the HAF board, also comes from the ranks of the VHPA. He has a history of hate speech against Muslims and recently called for ‘retribution’ against Kashmiri Muslims.
Rishi Bhutada, a board member of the HAF, comes with numerous connections to the American Sangh Parivar. Like Meghani, he also worked with the HSC and the VHPA before joining the HAF. He was also the head spokesperson for the ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Texas in September 2019, chaired by his uncle Vijay Pallod, who is on the governing council of the VHPA.
The Bhutada family has been a major donor to the HAF. Rishi’s father, Ramesh Bhutada, is the current Vice President of the HSS, the United States arm of the RSS. He and Pallod have actively campaigned for Modi in the Indian elections, with the latter even traveling to India.
Besides the Bhutada family, many prominent members of the American Sangh Parivar have supported and/or funded the HAF, such as Avadesh Agarwal, of OFBJP, Subash and Sarojini Gupta, of VHPA and Sewa International, and Bharat Barai, a Chicago-based physician and close friend of Modi, who went to India in 2014 with 600 volunteers to campaign for Modi.
I am sure that many more such connections between the HAF and other members of the American Sangh would have come to light had the lawsuit proceeded to the full discovery stage. It must be a mixed blessing for the HAF that the case was dismissed before such discovery.
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What effect do these ties have on the situation of minorities in India and India-held territories?
These ties show that there is little or no daylight between the HAF and the anti-minority politics of the Modi government: e.g., the unconstitutional Citizenship Amendment Act, collective punishment of an entire population in Kashmir as a political tool, attacks on United States academics and universities, attempts to distance Hinduism from caste discrimination and to block efforts to implement anti-caste-discrimination policies, coordinated attacks on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, and so on.
All this while, HAF and similar organisations remain noticeably silent on rising Islamophobia in India, including calls for mass killings of Muslims, mob lynchings, and draconian laws specifically targeting Muslims and activists. Instead, Sangh organisations, including HinduPact (a think tank formally connected to the VHPA and including HAF leadership) lobbied lawmakers to insert Hindutva talking points into the Combating Global Islamophobia Act in the United States Senate.
In close coordination with Sangh organisations like VHPA and HSS, HAF has supported Hindutva policy objectives in the United States at all levels and branches of governance.
Sangh organisations, including HSS, VHPA, and HAF, have hosted events platforming the General Secretary of the RSS. The educational events that HSS, VHPA, and HAF have hosted, including a nationwide Darshana exhibit, share Hindutva narratives about Hinduism with American lawmakers and their constituents. These organisations have also mounted campaigns to call critics of Hindutva, including New Jersey’s Teaneck Democratic Municipal Committee, “anti-Hindu”. Since American politicians do not want to appear bigoted towards any religious minorities, Sangh organisations seized this opportunity to denounce the committee and organisations who spoke out against Hindutva, and asked prominent New Jersey politicians to do the same.
In close coordination with Sangh organisations like VHPA and HSS, HAF has supported Hindutva policy objectives in the United States at all levels and branches of governance. In my mind, these add up to a pattern of behaviour of a lobbyist for the Modi government and a ‘child’ of the RSS rather than those of an organisation whose claimed mission is to promote “dignity, mutual respect, and pluralism”.
“The future of Bharat is set. Hindutva is here to stay”, Meghani had declared in his essay, “It is up to the government and the Muslim leadership whether they wish to increase Hindu furore or work with the Hindu leadership.”
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I have always wondered how a United States born Indian-American came to the point of issuing such an audacious ultimatum to 200 million Muslim citizens of India, a community with which he presumably had had little or no engagement.
The answer, I believe, lies in the deep indoctrination and social networks that Meghani seems to have soaked in while working with the VHPA and the RSS in India, whose ideology the HAF and its principles continue to perpetuate even today.
Eknath Ranade, a senior RSS pracharak, used to warn his cadres that they have no separate existence and goal apart from the RSS, “Blood is thicker than water, they say. But ideology is thicker than blood.” He was even more explicit that ideology must always trump over even one’s own blood relations.
It is the infiltration of this fanatical ideology into the diaspora that we at Hindus for Human Rights are determined to fight. Our legal victory over the HAF has reaffirmed our right to speak freely and honestly to our Hindu brothers and sisters about the dangerous course that Indian democracy, and indeed the very idea of Hinduism, is on.