(Aziz Haniffa, India Abroad, New York , March 14, 2003.)
An eclectic group, comprising Indian American academics, software engineers, a freelance writer and homemaker, calling themselves Friends of India, have sprung to the defense of the Maryland-based India Development and Relief Fund, accused of funding militant Hindu organizations.
The group’s 203-page report A Factual Response to the Hate Attack on the India Development and Relief Fund said, "over vicious and well-organized attack upon the IDRF", and that "outraged by this attack, our team of independent and well-qualified people came together in early December to develop a thorough rebuttal to the hate campaign."
‘Our report is the simple truth,’ it said, and noted, ‘we present the true nature of IDRF. We also uncover the anti-Hindu Marxist, Christian evangelical and Islamic fundamentalist forces behind the campaign against IDRF.'
The report said the study released November 20, 2003 by Sabrang Communications and the Forum of Indian Leftists, The Foreign Exchange of Hate, with a ‘single, simple conclusion’ that the IDRF ‘funds hate’ which was ‘accompanied by an orchestrated media campaign and a petition, was blatant attack on a low-profile organization with a respected history of helping those in desperate need.’
‘We, the authors of this rebuttal, decided we could not stand by and watch this mugging - so we came together to develop this rebuttal of the FEH and its authors.’
In the wake of the controversy that erupted following the release of the FEH report, Dr. Vinod Prakash, founder and president of IDRF, acknowledged contributions dropped and donations it received from companies like Cisco, Sun MicroSystems and Oracle that matched contributions of its Indian American and Indian employees have come to a half ((India Abroad, February 28).
He denied media reports that the IDRF was being investigated by the Department of Justice on the advice of the State Department for funding militant Hindu groups.
The Friends of India, in its report, said the FEH report presented no evidence that IDRF ‘has done anything other than what it advertises. It funds socio-economic developmental projects. These are specific projects with the scope and funding of each specifically approved by the Government of India per the laws set up under the Indian Constitution.’
‘Approval for foreign funding is specially obtained for each project, and IDRF funds them after thorough evaluation of their proposals. There is no evidence presented in the FEH report or elsewhere that the funding has been unaccounted or misspent,’ he said.
The FoI said it found two ‘accusations’ against the IDRF in the FEH report.
"Followers’ of a certain person were reportedly seen during the Gujarat riots and the project run by this person is described on a web page of the IDRF.<
It said on investigation, ‘We find the project in question is a middle school run in a forest - the only means of access to education for the residents for miles around. The school operator seeks funding for mid-day lunches for his wards, since most can’t afford to bring a packed lunch, and the school is a long walk from home. IDRF has described this a worthwhile project, but no IDRF funding has yet gone to this organization.’
The report said the second "accusation,’ was that a member of the family of IDRF’s president was seen on the stat3at a function to inaugurate some IDRF-funded projects. "Also present at this function was a cabinet minister whose political views the FEHG authors do not like.’
‘We note that in India, every new building has an ‘opening ceremony’ to which government officials are invited to provide credibility and photo-opportunities. This implies no endorsement of any politics.’
The FoI asserted the rest of the FEH report’s 91-plus pages ‘are filled with innuendo, circular arguments and outright falsehoods.’
The report denied the IDRF was a ‘funding front,’ for anyone, and argued that the notion was ‘quite absurd’ that the Sangh Parivar, ‘a term which the FEH uses to denote anyone associated with the democratically elected Government of India, and the RSS, should need any ‘front’ to do their work.’
‘They are all perfectly legitimate organizations and have no need to resort to subterfuge to raise funds,’ it said. It noted the BJP is a ‘national political party that now heads a coalition government in India, the world’s largest democracy,’ and the RSS is a ‘well-known socio-cultural organization that is present throughout the length and breadth f India - and has existed for some 60 years longer than the IDRF.
As much as it defended the IDRF - referring at various times to projects it has helped run by Christian organizations and noting IDRF funding of houses built for Muslims - the FoI report was lavish in its praise of the RSS.
‘The RSS,’ it said, ‘stands for the unity of all Indians, does not promote violence and has always condemned religious and ethnic violence in India.’
It noted the FEH report uses a number of hate-inciting terms such as ‘Hinduization’ and ‘saffronization’ to characterize education imparted in schools affiliated with the RSS. ‘We reject and condemn such hate-mongering tactics,’ it said.
It said the FEH report ‘gives the false impression the IDRF has tapped into the wealth of the non-resident Indian community to fund different programs in India’ and argued the IDRF funds ‘are a miniscule part of the total funds repatriated to India by the Indian Diaspora.’
The FoI said the IDRF’s total amount of the $10 million collected and disbursed over 12-13 years nowhere compares to the $98 million of ‘foreign exchange’ poured into Christian organizations ‘in just one Indian state (Karnataka) in 2001-2002 alone.’
The FoI said its report was ‘a measured response to the campaign of calumny undertaken by Sabrang/FOIL,’ which it said is a ‘combine that has pursued every avenue to choke off funds to IDRF based purely on the presumptions of guilt.’
‘In that arbitrary stampede to judgment, there was no thought spared for the innocent beneficiaries of IDRF, a strange inconsistency from a group that claims to be against ‘hate’, it added.
Prakash and Vijay Pallod, regional vice president and media coordinator for IDRF, told India Abroad IDRF provided no support for the FoI report except for providing details and information regarding IDRF projects. They acknowledged they were helping to disseminate the FoI report.
Ramesh Rao, associate professor, communications, Truman State University, Missouri, a lead author of the FoI report, told India Abroad, "it’s independent in the way we authors got together, it’s independent in terms of not only haven’t we got anything from IDRF, but each one of us must have spent 200 hours and at least $250 worth of phone calls to put this together."
"We were really unhappy that Sabrang Communications and Biju Mathew had done, especially in terms of not even talking to people and assuming guilt and that is the reason we felt we needed to respond and respond carefully,’ he said.
Rao, who acknowledged he has been a contributor to IDRF for the past two years, said, "I believe it is important to engage people. If you demonize someone, sure the organization or individual in fact can get more extreme."
He said it was a kind "of bandwagon approach of the progressives, secular intellectuals, whether in the media or in academe to blindly and in a knee-jerk fashion characterize the RSS as an extremist organization."
Another of the authors, Chitra Raman, a freelance journalist and homemaker living in Michigan, said she was not a contributor to the IDRF and did not know of it till the FEH report came out.
She said she got involved in the FoI project because she was incensed that the FEH had condemned IDRF "without any proof, and apparently, as it seemed to us, giving the IDRF a chance to explain. It also seemed the information sources for Sabrang had been stuff that IDRF themselves had made public."<
"This didn’t by any stretch of imagination or word look like and organization that was furtively going around trying to skim the people off their money and do something clandestine," Raman said.
"This is why I was so incensed," she said, "because the Sabrang-FOIL initiative - the first thing they wanted people to turn the faucet off. To stop contributions without really bothering to establish whether in fact there was a basis, and without consideration that there were people on the other side, who very possibly had planned certain things based on a certain quantum of funds coming in."
Raman noted she was a member of the e-group, IndDiaspora - an international friendship forum to discuss issues relating to Indians in the Diaspora.
They decided to respond to the FEH report while brainstorming with some members about the FEH report.
"Those of us who have been involved in this project," she emphasized, "are not some sort of raving fundamentalist."
The report’s other co-authors are Narayan Memon Komerath, professor of aerospace engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta; Beloo Mehra, assistant professor of education, Antioch University, McGregor, Ohio, Surgrutha Ramaswami, information technology consultant, and Nagendra Rao, strategic planning expert and senior advisor to several Indian cultural and religious organizations in the US and India.