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Charitable Misgivings

Some local Indian-Americans want to put the brakes on charitable giving after a report that the money could be trickling into some of the wrong places

By Najeeb Hasan

LAST YEAR, the Booker Prize-winning novelist and activist Arundhati Roy wrote a wrenching, deeply personal commentary in response to sectarian violence in the Indian state of Gujarat: "Last night, a friend from Baroda called. Weeping. It took her 15 minutes to tell me what the matter was. It wasn't very complicated. Only that Sayeeda, a friend of hers, had been caught by the mob. Only that her stomach had been ripped open and stuffed with burning rags."

Roy's description signified her frustration with ethnic violence in her homeland, violence that left 58 Hindus burned to death on a train and more than 2,000 Muslims murdered--all with Indian authorities standing by calmly.

And what does all this religious and ethnic rioting half a world away have to do with the Silicon Valley? Nothing, except that the Silicon Valley, according to a recent report being distributed in international circles, has allegedly been helping fund it.

As home to one of the most affluent and philanthropic Indian-born communities in the world, the valley is viewed as a fishing pond stocked with plump trout in the eyes of Indian-interest organizations seeking charity from the West. But a small group of bright-eyed Indian-American activists--youngish professionals, students, professors--clustered mostly in the Bay area, hope to stop it.

Naming their group the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate, these activists have pinned their efforts on publicizing a report that links some of the charities that collect money locally with the atrocities described by Roy.

Surfacing last November in India, the report alleges that an Indian-American charity group, the Maryland-based India Development and Relief Fund (IDRF), uses its status as a nonprofit American organization to collect money that is being funneled to extremist groups in India that have an agenda that many of the givers would not agree with if they knew about it. The IDRF denies the charges.

Already, the report and the group have attracted considerable attention from the press, mostly from Indian media and Indian-interest news outlets in foreign lands, but also from a handful of mainstream journals such as the Financial Times, the Economist and the Wall Street Journal. Also, the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate has succeeded in raising enough awareness in the corporate world to discourage some companies from donating to India Development and Relief. In the Silicon Valley, for instance, Cisco Systems Inc. and Oracle Corp. both suspended their policy of making matching donations to the IDRF after hearing reports that the charity was linked to the Gujarat bloodshed.

Surreal Violence

In the relative comfort of the stylish, cozy north San Jose home of microbiologist Shalini Gera, far from Indian realities that in San Jose could only be imagined to occur in a Bollywood movie, dinner is being served on stainless-steel plates.

The fare--rice, a vegetable curry, yogurt, roti (flat bread), achar (pickled preserves)--is being scooped up by nimble fingers in that casual South Asian manner. The guests, having migrated from the sitting room toward the food, are mostly sprawled on the foyer's wooden floor, and laughter and conversation circulate easily. At Gera's home are, among others, her husband, Girish Agrawal, a civil engineer; Angana Chatterji, an anthropology professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco; and Raja Swamy, a member of the group visiting from Connecticut.

Chatterji, the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate's unofficial spokeswoman, was born in Calcutta. Her father was a socialist, her family from a Hindu background and she had a Muslim aunt. Communal hatreds were alive and well while she was growing up, she relates, but in a way that inspired her toward her current pursuits. "You began to understand the responsibility of being a member of the majority community," Chatterji says.

In 1984, she went off to New Delhi for college and became involved in working in relief camps and with land-rights movements in Indian villages. In a relief camp, she came face to face with the chilling results of sectarian violence. It was after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated and ethnic fighting broke out that Chatterji met an old woman in a relief camp.

She describes the woman as speaking to no one for five days, only tightly clenching something in a squeezed fist. "There was a smell around her," Chatterji remembers. "After five days, she unclenched her fist, and she had a severed thumb [that she had been holding]. 'This is all that is left of my family of 13,' she told me. 'You want me to live? Where is the will to live?'"

And so, surreal violence in distant lands hits close to home, even in a quiet neighborhood in north San Jose, for Chatterji and her companions--especially if, as they believe, money earned in Silicon Valley is being diverted to India to stoke the flames of ethnic rivalries even more.

Quake Politics

On its website (www.idrf.org), the India Development and Relief Fund advertises itself as a secular aid organization with the stated purpose of distributing funds in India to assist in the causes of "rural development, tribal welfare, and urban poor."

After India's massive, 7.9 magnitude earthquake of 2001, centered mostly in Gujarat, the IDRF was one of several Indian-based charities to scramble to raise money for relief efforts. With an estimated 150,000 Indian-Americans, the Bay Area became a vital source of relief money. Just in the first few days after the disaster, the IDRF alone secured $100,000 in pledges, 20 percent of that amount from the Bay Area, and the telephones were still ringing from the calls of concerned Bay Area Indian-Americans wanting to donate more.

There's no way of accurately ascertaining where a particular charity gets its donations (nonprofits are not required to report the source of individual donations if they are less than $5,000). However, Trent Stamp, the executive director of Charity Navigator, a New Jersey-based charity-evaluating organization, affirms that Silicon Valley is a prime source.

"I'm sure there's a healthy chunk of money coming from there," Stamp says. "[The Silicon Valley] is still one of the more active philanthropic communities, even with the fall of the stock market."

Suresh Deopura, a Fremont-based vice president for the IDRF, acknowledges that the Silicon Valley is a crucial conduit for charity. The organization, he says, is the largest Indian-American charity in terms of membership. The group publicizes itself in the Silicon Valley mostly through personal contacts, the Internet, word-of-mouth and Indian-American gatherings.

"Silicon Valley has more software professionals, so it's more well-to-do than other parts of the country," Deopura says. "The people here have more of an attachment to India; they would like to donate money in this country for the treatment of poor people in India."

And so, in 2001, wealthy Bay Area Indian-Americans were no Scrooges when the quake shook the foundations of their homeland. The only thing they did wrong, contends the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate, was fall prey to certain groups taking advantage of disaster.

Money collected by the IDRF from the Bay Area did indeed go Indian groups involved in earthquake relief, say the activists, but to relief groups operating with ideological priorities. "Most of that money collected by the IDRF went to groups undertaking the reconstruction of villages, to the opening of soup kitchens that largely targeted Hindus," says Gera, herself from a Hindu background. "They rebuilt temples and crematoriums but not mosques and churches. There were some reports that said that people were only given food if they said, 'Long Live Shri Ram' [a Hindu saying], and the soup kitchens themselves were held in temples [which most Muslims would not enter]."

Agrawal, Gera and Chatterji are all credited as researchers on the report, titled "The Foreign Exchange of Hate: IDRF and the American Funding of Hindutva," but all are quick to say much of the work going into the report was done by activists and intellectuals in India who were afraid to be named for fear of reprisals.

The report essentially names the India Development and Relief Fund as a U.S. branch of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (commonly known as the RSS, or the Sangh, and literally meaning "National Volunteers Corps"), a slippery, far-reaching organization started in 1925 to propagate Hindu culture. Most traditional Hindus, of course, are repulsed by the extremism associated with some groups said to be connected to the Sangh. It was, in fact, a Sangh volunteer who shot and killed Mahatma Gandhi in 1948.

The Sangh advocates an extreme form of Hindu nationalism, known in the Western press as Hindutva (which translates as Hinduness, or Hinduhood). The recruitment and orientation toward a Hindutva ideology is done by various organizations in tribal areas. Traditional culture, in a sense, is supplanted by Hindutva: critics say new festivals and educational activities are introduced in areas with non-Hindu populations; anti-minority pamphlets and literature are distributed.

As an organization, the Sangh has little visibility. According to the report, it offers membership only to Hindu males (mostly upper-caste); it maintains no records; it pays no income taxes; it has no bank accounts; and it is not registered as any sort of entity in India. It unofficially operates primarily through a network of registered organizations.

The researchers of the report, after sifting through documents filed by the IDRF with the IRS in the United States, the Sangh's Indian newsletter and reports published by Sangh organizations in both the United States and India, found that many of the relief organizations the IDRF directs money to are members of this unofficial Sangh family of organizations.

However, Deopura, the IDRF vice president, disagrees. First, he says, the Sangh does not subscribe to a hate-fueled agenda but strives to "keep Hindu culture alive, to do yoga, to practice the Hindu religion." And while the IDRF is not connected to the Sangh, there could very well be some overlap because India is more than 80 percent Hindu, he explains.

"Theoretically, we're not connected," Deopura says. "But practically, what happens is that we support lots of charity organizations--even Christians are the heads of the some of the charities we support. Still, most of the charities are run by Hindus ... so, what may have happened is that some Hindu organizations' heads may have some personal ties to the RSS."

Deopura views the report and the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate as politically motivated. "It's [the report] a fabrication," he says. "We rebuilt villages after the earthquake in Gujarat. All residents, including Muslims, were also beneficiaries. They [the activists] don't want to acknowledge that."

Deopura believes the activists have socialist ideologies and fear that the IDRF's work will lessen the appeal of their ideology in India. "Our idea is to educate people in tribal areas," he says. "In tribal areas, if they are not educated they [are susceptible to Communism]. If we keep educating people, their base will erode."

Chatterji responds that her group has no one political or religious ideology, and that Deopura and IDRF are using inflammatory labels to detract from the findings of the report.

"It's a strategy for building a nation based on the purity of an individual group," she says.


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From the May 29-June 4, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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