By Yoginder Sikand
& Biju Mathew
12 August, 2005
Biju Mathew is a
prominent 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
(firstname.lastname@example.org). 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
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.
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
Q: But, surely
you would agree, RSS volunteers have done considerable relief work at
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.