Frontline: Sangh Parivar’s U.S. funds trail

Huge donations to Sewa International for COVID-relief efforts in India brings into focus the funding patterns of Hindu organisations in the United States and the sophisticated, well-financed plan of the Sangh Parivar to influence the next generation of American leaders.

M.S. Golwalkar, Hindutva ideologue and the second ‘Sarsanghchalak’ of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), had advocated in his writings and speeches that Hindus across the globe, regardless of their citizenship, should unite.

With this goal in mind, the Sangh Parivar (a network of Hindu nationalist offshoots of the RSS) began its international outreach around 1947, with the opening of the first overseas shakha (unit) in Kenya. The network’s growth gained momentum during the Emergency period and in the 1990s, according to Ingrid Therwath. In an essay in The Sangh Parivar, A Reader (edited by Christophe Jaffrelot in 2005). Ingrid Therwath explains how the creation of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA, or World Hindu Council of America) in 1970 established a strong support network for the Sangh ideology. By 2005, there were 150 RSS shakha s in the United States in addition to 40 chapters of the VHPA and 44 chapters of the Hindu Student Council (a project of the VHPA).

The VHPA did not confine itself to issues concerning Hindus in the U.S. but participated actively in the politics of India. To understand why an expatriate would actively participate in the politics of his/her homeland, the idea of “long-distance nationalism” conceptualised by the political scientist Benedict Anderson is a helpful framework. The guilt of migration coupled with expatriate angst pushes an immigrant to do politics in a country where in all probability “he is not answerable to its judicial system”. Reflecting on the demolition of the Babri Masjid in his book, The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, South East Asia and the World , Anderson warned of long-distance nationalism as a “menacing portent of the future”.

As Hindu organisations continued to proliferate, sometimes on the pretext of advocacy, they increasingly found themselves at variance with other groups representing Indians in the U.S.

An article in Al Jazeera, published in April, revealed that five U.S.-based Hindu groups received at least $833,000 in loans and grants from the federal COVID relief funds distributed by the United States Small Business Administration.

The five organisations—Sewa International (the foreign service wing of the RSS’ Sewa Bharati), the VHPA, the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation (a VHP-run project), the Infinity Foundation, headed by the Hindu nationalist author Rajiv Malhotra, and the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group—were reported to have links with the Sangh Parivar.

The HAF was founded in 2003 by four Indian-Americans, Dr. Mihir Meghani, Nikhil Joshi, and the husband-wife duo Dr Aseem Shukla and Suhag Shukla. Meghani, an emergency medicine physician from California, was a former member of the VHPA’s governing council and was once counted among the chief proponents of Hindutva in the West. He was the founding president of the Hindu Students Council at the University of Michigan in 1991. In a white paper titled ‘Hindutva—The Great Nationalist Ideology’ (which was adopted by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as its ideological manifesto), Meghani praised the Kar Sevak mob that demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in December 1992, and issued an open threat to Muslims.

“The future of Bharat is set. Hindutva is here to stay. It is up to the Muslims whether they will be included in the new nationalistic spirit of Bharat. It is up to the government and the Muslim leadership whether they wish to increase Hindu furor or work with the Hindu leadership,” he wrote. Both Meghani and the HAF have brushed aside these connections as “footnotes” and “past affiliations” that should have no bearing on the foundation’s contemporary “status as an independent organisation”.

In 2002, a year before the HAF was founded, Aseem Shukla, a paediatric urologist, wrote in a column in Sulekha, the digital services platform, about the 2002 Gujarat riots and blamed Muslims for the violence: “I knew the Muslim mob acted to inflame a nation and I felt personally provoked. Muslim provocateurs had instigated communal conflagrations before, and this time was no different.”

Three years later, when the U.S. denied visa to Narendra Modi, then Chief Minister of Gujarat, on the grounds of egregious religious freedom violations under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for his role in the Gujarat pogrom, Aseem Shukla and the HAF criticised the decision and attempted to overturn Modi’s travel ban over the next decade. In 2012, Aseem Shukla wrote on that the denial of visa to Modi was a “disrespect to India’s free and fair ballot”.

In 2013, when Joe Pitts, a Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania, introduced House Resolution 417, which called for reaffirming the need to protect the rights and freedoms of religious minorities in India and for a commitment to reject any future Modi visa applications, the HAF lobbied extensively to block the resolution. In fact, Bhuvan Govindasamy, a Malaysian Hindu activist from California, criticised the group for getting too “involved in Indian politics, or U.S.-Indian relations”.

“If HAF insists on involving in Indian political matters, then have them change their name & mandate,” Govindasamy wrote, while responding to an action alert issued by the HAF to block the resolution in a Google Group.

Despite criticism from within, the HAF continued its defence of the Indian government, more forcefully after Modi came to power in 2014. The group backed the Modi government’s position on abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir and the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

The Al Jazeera article caused an uproar among Indian-Americans, prompting the Coalition Against Genocide in India to issue a statement flagging the RSS links of these organisations. It quoted members of the Indian diaspora, who sought a probe into how Hindu right-wing groups received hundreds of thousands of dollars in pandemic relief funds. Rutgers University professor Audrey Truschke, who is researching the Hindu right in the U.S., and has often been at the receiving end of their ire, shared the article on Twitter.

On May 6, the HAF filed a lawsuit in a federal court in Washington, D.C., against four Indian diaspora activists—Raju Rajagopal, Sunita Vishwanath, John Prabhudoss, Rasheed Ahmed— quoted in the Al Jazeera articles, and Audrey Truschke. Raqib Hameed Naik, the author of the article, and Al Jazeera were discussed in the suit but were not named as parties. Among other things, the HAF claimed that it had no ties with any political party in India nor with the RSS and its affiliates. But an investigation into the members, the foundations and non-profit organisations funding the HAF revealed a different story. While some HAF members have present and past links with Sangh Parivar affiliates, a perusal of the tax documents of the group’s major financial backers in the U.S. reveals more than interpersonal connections. A common money trail runs between these organisations with the same people funding them.

Bhutada Family Foundation

The Bhutadas are one among the prominent Indian-American business families in the U.S. They are known for their close association with the American Sangh, as the Sangh Parivar is often referred to there, and the BJP.

Ramesh Bhutada is an electrical engineer by training and the founder and CEO of Texas-based Star Pipe Products, an iron products company that employs nearly 400 people. Bhutada moved to the U.S. in 1968 from Buldhana district in Maharashtra. His father, a farmer and retail store owner by trade, was actively involved in the RSS. Bhutada’s stint with the RSS started in 1977. He organised demonstrations in Houston to protest against the arrest of RSS members, including his father, during the Emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. He began to organise shakha s at his house, which brought him closer to the Hindu Swayamasewak Sangh (HSS), the U.S. wing of the RSS.

Over the next four decades, he rose through the ranks of the American Sangh. He is now the joint president of the HSS and the chairman of Sewa International.

His son Rishi Bhutada, who is the vice president of finance at Star Pipes, is on the board of the HAF. The father-son duo run the Bhutada Family Foundation, which over the years has made generous donations to Sangh-affiliated non-profits in the U.S., which in turn send money to organisations in India that implement various Sangh projects.

According to Form 990, the tax document that tax-exempt organisations in the U.S. file with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the Bhutada Family Foundation donated $362,242 to the HAF between 2005 and 2018. During the same period, the Bhutadas gave more than $1 million to five Sangh-affiliated organisations in the U.S.—Param Shakti Peeth of America (PSPA), Sewa, Ekal, the HSS and the VHPA.

The PSPA’s Indian counterpart, Param Shakti Peeth, is the major recipient of the money raised by it in the U.S. Param Shakti Peeth was co-founded by Sadhvi Rithambara.

Rithambara also founded Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of the VHP. In 1992, during the run-up to the Babri Masjid demolition, her speeches calling for a Hindu war against Muslims were made into audio cassettes and sold across the country. The riots that followed the mosque’s demolition saw 2,000 killed, most of them Muslims.

Between 2005 and 2018, the Bhutadas gave $94,000 to the PSPA, according to the tax documents. During the same period, the Bhutada Family Foundation gave $496,495 to Sewa International, $274,603 to the HSS, $145,415 to Ekal and $43,313 to the VHPA and its affiliate, the World Hindu Council INC. On its website, the VHPA mentions that it is “inspired by the same values and ideals as those followed by Vishwa Hindu Parishad of Bharat” and claims Ekal Vidyalaya as its project. According to Ekal’s website, the funds from the U.S. go to a set of eight organisations—the Friends of Tribals Society, the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation, the Ekal Global Foundation, the Bharat Lok Shiksha Parishad, the Shree Hari Satsang Samiti, the Arogya Foundation of India, the Ekal Sansthan and the Ekal Gramothan Foundation. Collectively, these groups run more than 100,000 single-teacher schools across the country in coordination with the VHP.

In India, Ekal is accused of promoting hate against Muslims and Christians and indoctrinating students in remote villages inhabited by tribal people. A 2005 report compiled by the Union Human Resource Development Ministry found that Ekal schools run by the Friends of Tribals Society were Hinduising the primary school curriculum and “creating disharmony amongst religious groups and creating a political cadre”. The same year, the government stopped giving funds/grants to Ekal-run schools.

Pratap Chandra Sarangi, who is Union Minister of State for Animal Husbandry, played a crucial role in promoting Ekal schools in Odisha. In 1999, Sarangi was the State convener of the Bajrang Dal, the militant youth wing of VHP, which was accused of leading a Hindu mob that killed the Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two children. Sarangi has denied any role in the brutal murders.

According to details available on the VHPA’s Support a Child project website, the group sends money to dozens of Sangh affiliates in India such as the VHP Foundation, the Vishwa Hindu Jankalyan Parishad, the Bharthi Seva Samithi and the Bhartiya Jan Sewa Sansthan for various projects. Similarly, as per the annual reports of Sewa International, published over the past 10 years, the organisation is the major donor to various RSS affiliates in India. It runs projects in coordination with the Sewa Bharati, the Akhil Bharatiya Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, the Youth For Seva based in Hyderabad, the Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad, the Research Institute of World’s Ancient Traditions, Cultures & Heritage (RIWATCH), the Dr Ambedkar Vanvasi Kalyan Trust, Akshar Bharati, Sanskar Bharati, and the Samatol Foundation, Mumbai.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is now embroiled in a controversy after donating $2.5 million for COVID-relief efforts in India to Sewa International. Since April 2021, Sewa has collected more than $20 million to buy oxygen concentrators that have been in short supply in India. In some States, Sewa’s delegations to deliver the life-saving equipment were led by two senior RSS leaders, Indresh Kumar and Shyam Parande, raising concerns that the mission was actually designed to score ideological points. A Sewa spokesperson seemed to confirm this in an interview with Slate magazine.

Activists, journalists and human rights groups both in the U.S. and in India have been calling for an increased scrutiny of Sewa’s handling of relief donations considering the troubled past of its affiliates in other countries. In 2004, a British group called Awaaz released a report titled ‘In Bad Faith: British Charity and Hindu Extremism’, which revealed that Sewa International’s U.K. wing had raised millions of pounds under the garb of providing relief to the 2001 Gujarat earthquake victims. But funds were funneled to RSS fronts. “I very much regret ever having been part of this racist organisation. …Sewa International is a front for militant Hindu organisations,” Lord Adam Patel, a British Labour Party member and a former Sewa patron, wrote in 2002 after learning abouts its links with the RSS.

On the other hand, the HSS mostly runs programmes and projects within the U.S. through its 220 branches. It organises shakha s, youth camps and seeks validation in the host community through various outreach projects and service activities. In September 2019, four months after Modi’s re-election, a section of the Indian diaspora in the U.S. put together a historic event that had the largest crowd turnout for any democratically elected foreign leader in the U.S. The flamboyant ‘Howdy, Modi’ event was attended by nearly 50,000 people in Houston, where the Bhutadas live. Family members played a prominent role in organising the event, and, in fact, Ramesh was listed as a patron while Rishi, an honorary co-chair, served as the official spokesperson for the event.

California Textbook Controversy

In the past, Hindu nationalists and conservative Hindu organisations in the U.S. have focussed on influencing what U.S. students learn about India in public schools. They teamed up in early 2016 to lobby educational policymakers on how Hinduism is portrayed in textbooks for grades six and seven in California, the biggest market for textbooks in the U.S. Specifically, the HAF objected to the portrayal of the caste system.

The efforts were led by the HAF along with Dharma Civilisation Foundation (DCF) and Uberoi Foundation for Religious Studies, according to The Wire . The groups objected to the presence of readings about the history of the caste system. They proposed deletion of words such as “Dalit” and “untouchable” claiming that caste did not have its origins in Hinduism.

The lobbying was a continuation of similar efforts undertaken in 2005, when the Hindu Education Foundation (HEF), an affiliate of the HSS and Vedic Foundation (VF), objected to the portrayal of Hinduism and Indian history in California’s school textbooks. Later, the California State Board of Education and the Hindu groups reached an agreement that they would change some but not all of the “objectionable” passages, but that did not stop the HAF from filing a lawsuit claiming that laws were not properly followed in the procedures meant for reviewing the books.

To an outside observer, the 2016 lobbying may have looked like a small-scale effort on the part of a few concerned Hindu organisations to correct false impressions about Hindus in the U.S. A closer look at the groups involved and the funding pattern points to a sophisticated, well-financed Sangh plan to influence the next generation of American leaders with the HAF leading the charge.

The Dharma Civilisation Foundation was co-founded by Manohar Shinde in 2012. Shinde is a long-term member and currently on the board of directors at Sewa International. The most recent 990 Form of the DCF mentions the HSS joint president Dr Vinod Ambastha as its vice president and Sucheta Kapuria, a former president of Ekal Vidyalaya, as its executive vice president.

The Uberoi Foundation for Religious Studies, a Delaware-based non-profit, is run by Ved Prakash Nanda, a professor of law at the University of Denver. But this is not his only qualification. He is a sanghchalak (guide) and current president of the HSS. Nanda was formerly president of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the RSS. With Nanda as its head, the Uberoi Foundation played an active role in the 2016 California textbook rewriting campaign.

The HAF played a critical role with the Uberoi Foundation pumping tens of thousands of dollars into the HAF. According to Uberoi’s 2015 and 2016 tax forms, the group gave $60,000 to the HAF for curriculum reform. Between 2013 and 2019, the foundation donated $165,000 to the HAF, mostly for education reform.

Sangh to HAF via Tax Exempt Foundations

The textbook controversy provides a glimpse into the network of Hindu groups in the U.S. with funds flowing to the HAF from wealthy individuals through their charitable foundations. Analysis of the past tax forms filed by various family foundations run by individuals who are members of Sangh-affiliated organisations reveals that the HAF has been a regular recipient of their grants and donations.

Between 2013 and 2019, Subhash and Sarojini Gupta Charitable Foundation, based in Sugar Land, Texas, donated $30,005 to the HAF. Subhash was a member of the VHPA’s governing council and president of its Houston chapter for at least 12 years. He has also served as the president of Ekal. His wife Sarojini is the current director of Sewa International and was president of its Houston chapter from 2013 to 2016.

During the same period, the California-based Agarwal Family Foundation donated $40,002 to the HAF and more than $1 million to the VHPA, the HSS, Ekal and Param Shakti Peeth, among others, according to tax forms filed by the foundation. The foundation’s president, Avadhesh Agarwal, is the permanent director of Param Shakti Peeth, trustee of the VHPA’s World Hindu Council INC and former executive of Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP), Los Angeles, the registered foreign agent of the BJP in America.

The Florida-based Aggarwal & Gupta Family Foundation, which has net assets worth $47 million, according to the 2018 Form 990, is one of the leading donors of Sangh-affiliated non-profits in the U.S., including the HAF. Over the past two decades, its chairman Braham Aggarwal and treasurer Suresh Gupta have given millions of dollars to Sangh organisations for various programmes and projects. Aggarwal and Gupta are owners of Park Square Homes, an Orlando-based housing company. Aggarwal founded the Hindu University of America (HUA), the education wing of the VHPA, in 1985 and he is the former director of the HSS South East America. He has been involved in Ekal and Param Shakti Peeth. Gupta is the current president of Ekal’s Orlando chapter. Between 2000 and 2018, the foundation gave nearly $200,000 to the HAF and collectively more than $3.4 million to the HSS, the VHPA, Ekal, Param Shakti Peeth and the HUA.

Interestingly, both in the past and now, prominent HAF members have served on the board of the Aggarwal & Gupta Family Foundation, which was earlier called Vivek Welfare and Educational Foundation (VWEF). Suhag Shukla, the current executive director of the HAF, joined the group as its director in 2006. According to tax forms filed by the VWEF, during her three-year stint, funds were given to many Sangh affiliates— $10,500 to the HSS in 2007, $10,000 to the VHPA in 2006, and $45,700 to Sewa Bharti’s Bhopal branch in Madhya Pradesh between 2006 and 2008.

During the 2006 Bhopal floods, Sewa Bharti was accused of distributing relief material to Hindus, while neglecting Muslim localities. In January 2004, members of Sewa Bharti, the VHP and the BJP were accused of leading mob attacks on Churches and Christians and their homes in Alirajpur, Madhya Pradesh.

Digvijay Singh, who was Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh for two terms from 1993-98 to 1998-2003, said his government had considered imposing a ban on the State wing of Sewa Bharti for its alleged role in making bombs. “This [bomb-making activity] was admitted in the statement given to the police by an activist of the organisation, who had been arrested [following a blast] in Mhow [in 2004],” he told reporters at Neemuch in July 2013 to corroborate his allegation that the RSS gave training in bomb making. The Congress, which came to power in Madhya Pradesh in 1993, reopened the case relating to the bomb explosion at Sewa Bharti’s Neemuch district office, in which one person was killed. During the investigation, the police arrested a principal of a Sangh-run school for his involvement in the blast. Sewa Bharti’s Bhopal wing received donations from the Aggarwal & Gupta Family Foundation more than a decade after the accusation of bomb making was made and immediately following claims that the group discriminated in its aid distribution activities.

After Suhag Shukla left the Aggarwal & Gupta Family Foundation in 2008, the HAF’s co-founder Nikhil Joshi, a Florida-based attorney, joined the foundation as its director. During his term, 2009-2016, many Sangh-affiliated non-profits received donations from the foundation. An especially large chunk (nearly $500,000) went to Param Shakti Peeth.

Dr Chandresh Saraiya, a Florida-based physician and a member on the HAF’s board of advisers, is currently listed in the tax form as director of the Aggarwal & Gupta Family Foundation. Between 2005 and 2014, he was on the board of Ekal Vidyalaya in various capacities as president, vice chairman and director.

Source: Frontline The Hindu