Biju Mathew is an Indian leftist social activist based in New York. In this interview he talks about his work, particularly about the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate that has sought to stop American funding to Hindutva groups in India.
Q: Could you tell us about the sort of work that you have been engaged in?
A: I came to the United States around 15 years ago to do my Ph.D. in Business and Information Systems. I now teach at a college near New Jersey and am also involved with a trade union-the New York Taxi Drivers’ Alliance. Most of the members of the Alliance are South Asians-Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. I am also associated with a group called the Bretcht Foundation, a leftist educational space started way back in the Reagan era when anything leftist was anathema in America.
Q: You are also one of the founders of the Forum of Indian Leftists (FOIL). What exactly is FOIL all about?
A: We, a group of Indian leftists in America, set up FOIL soon after the destruction of the Babri Masjid. We felt it was crucial to reach out to Indian students on American campuses. Now, it has expanded beyond university students as well, and we have more than 400 people on our email discussion list ([email protected]). We also have a website (www.insaf.net) devoted to discussion of issues relating to South Asia from a leftist perspective. Besides sending out regular information through the internet we also organise groups of activists to speak on American university campuses on South Asian issues, focussing particularly on communalism and so-called ‘liberalisation’ of the economy. We also started a project, which is now into its ninth year-the annual Youth Solidarity Summer camp in New York. This was intended as a response to the summer camps organised for young Indians in America by the RSS. In our camps we bring together young South Asians for a period of a week or so to discuss a range of issues, including, but not only, communalism. Almost 300 people have attended the camps and the networks that they have created has recently led to the setting up of a national youth organisation called Chingari.
Q: How did the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate Start?
A: This was an initiative of the FOIL group. In the wake of the genocidal attacks on Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 we decided to set up three groups to look into particular issues. Firstly, a legal group to investigate the possibility of having legal action taken against the RSS and its various outfits in the United States. Secondly, a group to examine foreign direct investments in Gujarat to see whom exactly these were really benefiting. And, thirdly, a group to investigate American funding for Hindutva organisations. The first two groups didn’t take off but the third was able to produce a very well-documented report, titled ‘The Foreign Exchange of Hate: IDRF ands the American Funding of Hindutva’, which is available online on http://stopfundinghate.org/sacw/index.html.
Q: What are the broad findings of your report?
A: Using all the documentation that we could lay our hands on, our team investigated the sources of funding for the US-based RSS-front organisation, the India Development and Relief Front (IDRF). This organisation had filed for tax exemption status, claiming to be working for relief and development. However, as we showed in our report, most of the money that it collected in America, from Non-Resident Indians and others, and even from American companies, was going to RSS-front organisations in India, who are actively involved in promoting hatred against Muslims, Christians and other marginalised communities. We showed how, from the late 1980s, the RSS had expanded its so-called ‘seva’ or service wing, heavily dependent on funds from America and Europe, to spread its network in India. Much of this money was being channelled through the IDRF in America and Seva International in Britain. Besides, money is also being funnelled through the illegal hawala network, which, of course, we couldn’t investigate.
While we focussed on American funding of RSS organisations, a similar group in Britain worked on British funding to these groups. Their report, titled ‘In Bad Faith: British Charity and Hindu Extremism’ (available on http://www.awaazsaw.org/ibf/index.htm), comes to similar conclusions as ours. It also shows how, in the name of multiculturalism, the British government was funding RSS-related groups in Britain, and some of that money made its way back to India to fund RSS-outfits here.
Q: What impact did your report have?
A: Well, neither the US nor the Indian government took any action on the basis of our report. When the report was released, in November 2002, a BJP-led coalition was in power in India, so naturally the then Indian government could have been expected to do nothing. But after the Congress came to power I sent the government three memos on the subject but still nothing has been done.
On the other hand, following our report, some big American companies, like CISCO (the world’s largest telecom hardware manufacturer), INTEL and Hewlett Packard, as well as some US-based NRIs, stopped funding IDRF. I think one of the only American companies that continues to have IDRF on their list of development organisations receiving funds is MICROSOFT, although I am not sure if they are still funding it or not.
Through the network that we were able to establish in the course of working on the report, and working through the Coalition Against Genocide (www.coalitionagainstgenocide.org), a multi-ethnic and multi-faith group of some 40 US-based organisations, we were able to mount a successful campaign to have Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat, denied a visa to enter the US. We sent out letters to members of the US Congress and to the organisers of the conference which Modi was to attend explaining our stand as to why Modi, one of the brains behind the genocidal attack on Muslims, should not be allowed to visit America.
Another positive outcome of the report is that funds to IDRF from American sources are said to have declined as people came to know what the organisation was actually doing with the money they were giving to it. But as to how much that decline has been I have no idea. That needs a separate study in itself.
Q: But, surely you would agree, RSS volunteers have done considerable relief work at certain places?
A: Yes, I don’t deny that, but, inevitably, natural disasters are also used by the RSS to establish their shakhas and spread Hindutva and preach hatred against non-Hindus. Thus, for example, the RSS was almost completely unknown in large parts of coastal Tamil Nadu but, in the wake of the recent tsunami disaster, it has stepped into the area in the name of providing relief and has now established a strong presence there. There is also evidence, for instance in the wake of the Bhuj earthquake, of RSS groups discriminating against or completely ignoring groups like Muslims and Dalits, and catering basically to the ‘upper’ castes. Further, the question of exactly how much money sent from abroad to RSS ‘service’ organisations actually reaches down to the people whom it is ostensibly meant for is something that needs to be closely looked into. Much of it may be pocketed or else diverted to groups like the VHP and the Bajrang Dal to fund their hate-driven agendas. Who knows? I think a lot of the money collected by groups like IDRF and Seva International in the West in the name of ‘development’ or ‘relief’ is being used for purposes like temple-building and conversion of tribals to Hinduism.
Q: How did the RSS react to your report?
A: Their first reaction was of denial. Some RSS-walas also claimed that we had exaggerated the magnitude of foreign funding to RSS front organisations. When that charge failed, because we had provided documentary proof for all our claims, they resorted to character assassination. They accused me of being a subversive communist and, in the same breath, of being a Christian evangelist! The Hindu Unity website, hosted by the same server that hosts a rabid Zionist site, even put me on their hit-list!
Q: What about foreign funding to right-wing groups associated with non-Hindu communities in India? Has that also been an issue that you have been looking into?
A: I am clear that all forms of right-wing religious fundamentalist and obscurantist groups need to be opposed. If there are petrodollars coming into India to fund radical Islamist groups, that needs to be investigated and stopped. Likewise in the case of funding to Christian evangelist groups to engage in proselytism. So, we’ve been equally critical of radical Islamists and right-wing Christian groups as we have of the RSS, and in taking on the RSS we have been careful to distance ourselves from such groups as well, who might have sought to use our campaign for their own purposes.