By VANDANA MENON / The Print
New Delhi: A mysterious author, a public money trail, and not much noise: A dramatic new report outlines how Hindu nationalism is funded in the US — and with how much money.
The report names around 24 organisations with net assets worth at least $97.7 million, according to the most recent data. These organisations include charitable groups, think tanks, political advocacy groups, and entities that work on higher education — all affiliated in some way with Hindu groups in India.
Drawing upon publicly available resources, the report details the financial ties of groups in the US that are spending millions to influence American education and further the interests of the Indian government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Over almost 20 years — 2001 to 2019 — seven of these charitable groups spent at least $158.9 million, sending some of it to groups in India. Around half of this money, nearly $85.4 million, was spent between 2014 and 2019.
While Hindu groups in the US have flagged the unreliability of the report, anti-Hindutva activists have said that it is based on publicly available data but not getting enough public attention.
Titled ‘Hindu Nationalist Influence in the United States, 2014-2021: The Infrastructure of Hindutva Mobilizing,’ the report is authored by Jasa Macher and facilitated by the South Asian Citizens Web. It’s a researched update on a 2014 report, authored by someone who uses the same initials and email address: JM.
But Google the author and you won’t find a digital footprint — only references to their report.
“We find it strange that a report on the alleged nefariousness of various organisations, including our own, is likely written under an unacknowledged pseudonym, seemingly created solely for the purpose of this report,” wrote the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) to ThePrint in an email response.
Following the money
So, where does the money come from? Philanthropists among the diaspora, fundraising drives, wealthy family foundations and American taxpayers themselves.
Organisations like the Bhutada Family Foundation and the Puran Devi Aggarwal Family Foundation donated around $2 million to groups like the HAF, the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), and Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of USA between 2006 and 2018, according to tax records. While the report points out that the donors’ ideological opinions can’t be assumed based on the fact that they’ve donated to Hindu non-profit groups, it lists the Sangh affiliations of those who head these family foundations.
According to a 2021 Al Jazeera report, five Right-wing groups — Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of USA, HAF, Infinity Foundation, Sewa International, and VHPA — received $833,000 of U.S. federal Covid relief funds, paid for by the American taxpayer. The HAF filed a defamation suit against the reporter, Raqib Hameed Naik, as well as others named in the report, including members of another US-based group, Hindus For Human Rights. ThePrint has reached out to the organizations mentioned in this article for their comments on the report.
“All the allegations [in this report] about HAF are baseless,” wrote the HAF to ThePrint in an email statement. “HAF is a wholly independent, American organisation. It has absolutely no affiliation or ties to any organisations or political parties in the US or abroad. HAF was founded by second-generation Hindu Americans born and raised in the United States, and our work and policy stances speak for themselves.”
Jasa Macher wrote to ThePrint that readers should engage with the facts and figures mentioned in the document. “The report flags patterns of actions, most of which are legal but concerning to those who value democracy and want to challenge the ecosystem that apparently provides support and cover for extremism abroad,” they wrote in an email. “The pattern speaks to a rising social and political profile of Sangh groups, as we are seeing more acceptance of Sangh groups’ funds and pressure by institutions and political officials.”
According to Macher, the intended audience of the report is the US government officials, contributors and potential funders of Hindu nationalist projects and those who study diasporic nationalisms. The report also flags irregularities to probe into further investigation.
“The report makes it clear, in no uncertain terms, that the Hindu Right is powerful and well-financed in the United States and supports Hindu nationalist efforts in India,” wrote academic professional Audrey Truschke to ThePrint.
Attempts to rewrite textbooks
The question of what the money is used for is still murky.
One definitive goal — with a transparent money trail — is putting pressure on the American educational system to change the way Hindus and Hinduism are represented. The report points to two occasions (in 2005 and in 2016) when the HAF and the HSS-affiliated Uberoi Foundation for Religious Studies tried to edit out the term “Dalit” from US textbooks.
The HAF denied that they tried to edit out the word ‘Dalit’ — instead, they had suggested rewording sections of a textbook to clearly distinguish between varna and jati.
The Uberoi Foundation spent at least half-a-million dollars on education between 2010 and 2016. The report claims that this involved influencing public school textbooks, setting up university endowments, training teachers, and allotting research grants.
At least $142,000 of the Uberoi Foundation’s money — the largest share of the half-million — went to the HAF between 2012 and 2016. The HAF wrote to ThePrint that they used “grants from the Uberoi Foundation to further our educational work, ensuring that Hindus and Hinduism are portrayed accurately, based on the rigorous and academically vetted scholarship in the US educational system and in US textbooks.”
Another group, the Dharma Civilization Foundation (DCF), has tried to endow and establish academic programmes in at least three universities. The DCF pledged $3.24 million to the School of Religion at the University of Southern California, $4.4 million to the Graduate Theological Union, and $6 million to the University of California at Irvine. The last university refused the $6 million endowment after students raised questions about the group’s suspected ties to Hindu nationalism.
The experiences of Hindu American students in the US also seem to be a cause for concern — the Hindu Education Foundation tried to connect bullying against Hindu students to the portrayal of Hinduism in US textbooks. The Hindu Education Foundation is a project of the HSS — the latter’s tax returns from 2011 to 2019 say the organisation is “doing business as the Hindu Education Foundation”.
In an email to ThePrint, the HSS stated that it is an “an independent 501(c)(3) non-profit organisation organised under the laws of the United States,” and its mission is to “bring together the Hindu Americans, impart Hindu culture to our future generations, and collectively contribute to and serve our local communities in the US.”
“We believe the report you referred to is a politically motivated smear campaign against HSS and other Hindu organisations,” the HSS wrote. “Such reports and aligned anti-Hindu activities are the root cause of rising Hinduphobia and hate crimes against local Hindus in the United States.”
Fighting ‘Hinduphobia’ with ‘Hindutva’
Even within the vast array of identity-based groups in the US, there’s an ongoing battle – between a camp that wants to dismantle Hindutva and one that wants to protest against Hinduphobia. Both camps go head-to-head stateside over politics in India.
A more recent clash was over a 2021 conference called Hindu Nationalism, Dismantling Global Hindutva: Multidisciplinary Perspectives. Participants and organisers received massive pushback from Hindu groups in the US, with some participants choosing to withdraw after they received death threats. Over 1 million emails were sent to the universities involved in the conference, pressuring them to shut the conference down.
The clarion call was that it was ‘Hinduphobic’.
The term has political purchase, according to academic and co-founder of the India Explained podcast, Rohit Chopra. “The term ‘Hinduphobia’ is being weaponised. Even mentioning caste now is Hinduphobic,” he said. “Criticising anything related to Hinduism and India can now be considered Hinduphobic.”
This article first appeared on theprint.in