We began our study of the Hindu Right in the United States several years ago, when word of large funds being transferred to India by sympathetic organisations started doing the rounds. Of course, the flow of such cash to the ‘mother country’ was not a novel occurrence among South Asians, as we had before us the highly publicised cases of the generosity of some Sri Lankan Tamils towards the LTTE, as well as of European, Canadian and American Sikhs towards Khalistani groups in Punjab.
The transfer of saffron dollars to India, of course, had the potential of being much larger. However, as is the case with the religious right of all persuasions, accessing information from these secretive organisations was not very easy. The secrecy has, in fact, increased after there were protests a few years ago about the dubious use of charity front organisations to channel funds to India. In 1994, there was even an effort to raise money through the US charity, United Way, but sustained protests from secular South Asian groups forced a withdrawal. Since that episode in particular, fund-raisers for the Hindu Right have been far less generous with information about their work.
Additionally, the fund-raisers are wary of openly talking about money because they tend to make extensive use of the illegal hawala network to transfer cash funds. Since the Hindu Right does not conduct ‘terrorist’ activity on North American soil, the US authorities do not pay as much attention to transfer of saffron dollars as they do to the Khalistani and LTTE money. The latter two organisations, after all, have conducted extortion and assassinations in North America, whereas the Hindu Right has been, if anything, more subtle.
Blocked thus in our search to learn of the way money flows into the Subcontinent, we turned our investigation to how the religious right raises money in the US and Canada. To do this, we had to understand the ways of the Right, notably the means by which it creates moorings for itself among the overseas South Asian population.
Why have the US (and Canadian) authorities allowed the religious right to flourish, untrammelled, in North America? ‘Multiculturalism’ is the answer. Faced with massive social unrest among minorities (mainly African Americans, Native Americans, Latino Americans, as also feminists, gay and lesbian activists), the US establishment has over the decades evolved a cultural policy that has ceased to demand that all people assimilate into the murky soup of homogeneity. Thus, the social protests, going back to the 1950s and 60s, forced government to accept the diverse heritages of people as the cultural logic of the nation. New curricula came to be written for schools in the 1970s in the name of multiculturalism.
This politically correct and sensitive incorporation of multiculturalism by the state in the US and Canada was of immediate support to the Hindu Right when over the 1980s and 90s it began to flex its muscle and open its wallet. With tolerance bred from the fact that most Americans perceive South Asia as a region imbued with religiosity, the religious right of all persuasions presented itself as the true interpreter of South Asian culture. Thus, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA) came forward to represent Hindus, while the Jamaat-e-Islami made to speak for South Asian Muslims. The diversity of South Asia was thus rendered mute by these organisations, which liked to define a South Asia as one that was clearly divided on the lines of faith. The beauty of multiculturalism was quickly reduced to communalism.
The two Dharma Sansads held by the VHPA (1998 and 1999) offered rules on how Hindus in America should live their lives, in its arbitrary capacity as the sole authority over who they now call “Hindu Americans”. The Jamaat and the Sikh organisa-tions hold similar camps and conclaves at which they hand down absolute cultural orders for the community they claim to represent. The clamour of these rightist organisations, making full use of the crutch of multiculturalism, is that they are champions of a neglected, nay oppressed, religion within the US. Of course, one is asked to forget the orthodox and reactionary role played by these very organisations in the homeland of South Asia, as in the diaspora they may portray themselves as champions of the weak.
These right-wing organisations get vicarious glamour amongst their target South Asian flock from the very fact that the North American establishment is in its own rush to be politically correct to kowtow to these groups. This will certainly act as a draw to migrants and their children, who routinely face the unpleasant reality of racism. When teachers at school or college, otherwise ignorant about South Asia, bow sanctimoniously before faith-clad organisations such as the Hindu Student Council (a wing of the VHPA) or the Muslim Student Association (an independent network of Muslim student organisations), a sense of awe at their power is bound to overcome the South Asian migrant population.
As the story goes in the Ramayana, Mareecha the magician acting at the behest of Ravana turns himself into a golden deer to lure Ram and Lakshman away from Sita. The activities of the Hindu Right in North America can be likened to that golden deer of Chitrakoot forest, offering simple and attractive answers to worldly problems, but its simplicity a magical cover for more devious intentions. In their desperate search for ‘identity’, the migrants of the diaspora commit themselves to the religious right with little thought given to its deeper agenda, which is guided in large part by the need to channel funds to the homeland.
Since the diaspora is as yet seeking nothing more than an identity prop, the religious right is having a free ride for the moment. It is able to provide minimal service while garnering political clout from its membership, and harvesting dollars to boot. Indeed, the religious right provides little or no solace to so many among the diaspora, and offers few answers to the grave social problems that beset the first and second generation migrants in North America. Here there are genuine problems of racism, of sexism, of excessive pressure to succeed, all of which deserve compassion and struggle.
Instead, all that the religious right seems willing to offer is a withering critique of lifestyle, coupled with a demand for any surplus income, as ways to salve the conscience (for doing ‘better’ than relatives back home). Yet, almost everyone is willing to defer to them as the authentic representatives of South Asian ‘culture’, and there are very few who would come forward to expose the deeply conservative culture preached by them.
Follow the money
Having thus gained legitimacy amongst both the host country authorities as well as the diasporic ‘flock’, the organisations of the religious right are ready to cash in and go after their primary agenda—finance activity in the homeland. To uncover this aspect of their work, as amateur sleuths we decided to “follow the money”.
In the case of the LTTE and the Khalistani militants, the money trail is easy to follow as much is already available in US and Canadian government documents. The LTTE operates in Canada as the World Tamil Movement, an ethnic designation that is acceptable to multiculturalists. Sikh separatists also adopted such ethnic language to evade the radar of the US-Canadian authorities until the 1985 attacks initiated by the Khalistanis in Canada. This was followed by Canada’s crackdown on the LTTE, and the same year, the FBI sent a special team to Canada to discuss the problem of the LTTE and the issue of extortion of funds.
Unlike such open scrutiny by the authorities, the religious right has a much better multicultural cover and their activities harder to track. The lack of attention by authorities is mainly because the VHPA and the Jamaat do not appear to be a threat to the US or Canadian establishments. Take the case of the Hindu Right. Sewa International is an offshoot of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (the US version of the ultra-rightist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh/RSS) and it claims to “educate and propagate the principles enunciated in Hindu Dharma with particular reference to serving the poor, sick, needy and weak”. Its stated mission is thus twofold—offer charity and provide ideology to its following.
To use their money effectively, the VHPA and its kin organisations claim to offer help to those who are the most socially and financially desperate, raising funds for orphans (through its Support-A-Child programme, begun in 1985) and tribals or ‘adivasis’ (through its Vanvasi Kalyan Kendra network). The organisations all claim to be “non-political” charities, which evidence shows to be not true.
In Bhopal, for example, the US-based Indian Development and Relief Fund (IDRF) provides funds to Sewa Bharati which tries to “protect the tribal people from subversion, and integrate them into the mainstream”. In reality, what this means is that the money is used to bring the adivasis into the ‘Hindutva’ stream as propagated by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. In Hyderabad, the IDRF funds Keshava Seva Samithi where destitute children are housed to “mould them into an ideal citizenry through education/vocational training”. As it happens, Keshava Seva Samiti shares the same address as the RSS headquarters in the city.
The amounts raised by the US orga-nisations are by no means trivial. Since the early 1990s, the IDRF (set up in 1978) has raised over USD 2 million. Another organisation, the Hindu Heritage Endowment (HHE) has collected USD 2.6 million in contributions and pledges since its establishment in 1994. These dollars enter a part of Indian society that is starved of funds. Each dollar is not only converted into so many rupees, but each of those many rupees functions with far more power among the oppressed adivasis than among the moneyed elite of, say, Bombay.
While the IDRF is openly political, organisations like the Hindu Heritage Endowment (HHE) remain in the shadows of religiosity. The IDRF supports “exemplary, grassroots non-governmental organisations in India”. The term “grassroots” is used to attract money from donors in the US presently besotted with the idea of micro-credit and micro-development—those who might otherwise put their funds into something like the Grameen Bank. And just as the Grameen Bank wields immense power in under-funded sectors in Bangladesh, so does the well-funded right throw its fiscal weight about amongst orphans and adivasis.
Dollars for zakat
If dollar funds dharma in India, the dollars for zakat raised by the Islamic Orthodoxy are not very different. The Jamaat has lately begun using tactics perfected by the VHPA. It is, however, less diffident about its political ambitions, as evident in the intervention made (from Florida) by the Pakistani Jamaat-e-Islam chief, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, during prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s meeting with Bill Clinton last July.
Like the Hindu Right, the Jamaat is eager to enter into the lives of young “Muslim Americans”. Thus far, organisations like the Bangladeshi Youth Federation have inserted themselves into this space at the expense of the Islamic orthodoxy, and the religious right would dearly like to change this situation.
The crucial difference between the Dollar Dharma and the Islamic Orthodoxy is that the latter has, as of now, not tried to raise vast funds within North America. J.I. Khan of the Kashmir People’s Democratic Forum (a leftist Kashmiri organisation in the US) has pointed to the Islamic Right’s reliance upon “the drug mafia, the ISI and the Saudi government” for its funds. As he told us, “If these are your benefactors, you do not need Muslims in the US or Canada to be the principal funders.” But if the funds from Saudi Arabia and the drug mafia dry up, Khan recognises, it is likely that the Islamic Orthodoxy may turn with its collection tray to North American Muslims.
The ‘problem’ faced by Islamic Orthodoxy, however, is that many of its orga-nisations are staffed by both Indian and Pakistani Muslims, which makes it difficult for it to take strong and populist positions on subcontinental politics—something available to the India-leaning Hindu Right. To leverage money for Pakistani politics or to foment trouble in Kashmir will not appeal to many Indian American Muslims. Meanwhile, without its access to outside money, the Bangladeshi Jamaat has already turned to the diaspora for funds, a reason for its rapid growth across North America.
Despite the lack of importance given to zakat (obligatory annual payment for charitable and religious purposes under Islamic law) among most Muslims in North America, Khan and others argue that the Pakistani American community is no less a hive of right-wing sentiment. As evidence, they point to the rapid growth of Islamic centres across North America and to the popularity of leaders such as Tahir Ul Qadri of the Tafheen-e-Quran. As Rizwan Raja, a Pakistani New Yorker, says, “From early childhood in Pakistan we have been socialised to give more precedence to Islam than even Pakistan. If you add to this the sense of alienation we immigrants feel, and the sense of attack that many Muslims experience in the West, it is not surprising that many of us are easy targets for right-wing propaganda.”
The politicisation of the Pakistani dias-pora was evident in the days following Nawaz Sharif’s ouster, when there was a wave of support for the military action and for the Lashkar-e-Taiba (the Taliban of Pakistan), that old friend of many in the Pakistani armed forces.
One cannot remain immune from the currents that one promotes. The support of communal politics in South Asia, in the final analysis, ends up communalising the ‘donors’ as well. The implications in the subcontinental diaspora of this support of communalisation are legion. For one, the drive to raise money enters one’s most cherished celebrations. As one brochure has it, if you are “celebrating a birthday or wedding anniversary, enjoying a graduation party, solemnising a pooja, rejoicing a festival or commemorating your beloved ones, IDRF is at your service. It offers you a unique opportunity for serving God through selfless, humanitarian service, and thus enhancing your inner joy!”
Such a campaign appeal is directed at those South Asians who, it is hoped, will begin to organise themselves along religious rather than secular lines. Dinesh Agarwal, a well-known elder of the Hindu Right, posted this note on the Hindu Students Council on-line forum in 1995: “There is a new trend developing in the youth of Indian origin. When they marry, they contribute all their cash and other gifts to Seva (Service) projects in India.
Recently, an active worker of RSS and IDRF got married. She contributed all her cash gifts for buying a medical van for Seva Bharati Project in India. Shri Sanjay, son of Shri Vinod Prakash of Washington, followed the same example. He also contributed all his cash gifts for Seva projects in India. May this volunteer service spirit grow and more and more of our youths follow their examples.” The rhythm of a chain letter stands out in this note, but so too does the strategy of using the idea of ‘service’ and ‘culture’ to draw funds not only from the first-generation migrant, but more importantly from their children.
The VHPA also routinely raises money from corporate matching gift programmes (in which corporations, in the hope of appearing benevolent, ask their employees to donate money to charity organisations, with the corporation itself making a pledge to match the amount donated). Routinely, the religious right has counselled its members to take advantage of this policy and nominate its charity organisations. In the early 1990s, employees at AT&T attempted to do this, but when a campaign revealed the VHP’s role at Ayodhya, the corporation felt uneasy about any further controversy. To keep track of this use of funds is difficult, and for sure, large amounts of funds find their way to South Asia’s religious right through this channel of corporate-supported giving.
Meanwhile, in the political forests of South Asia, the Dollars convert into Rupees and multiply madness. The only conversion that has not been condemned is that from the Dollar. That conversion is used to strike terror in the heart of all those who refuse to convert to bigotry, or whose cultural forms are deemed dangerous.