Right-wing groups in the US received over $800,000 of COVID relief funds

Jenifer Knighton

Washington, DC, USA - According to statistics supplied by the United States Small Company Administration (SBA), a government agency that assists small business owners and entrepreneurs, five organizations linked to Hindu nationalist and religious groups have received COVID-19 relief assistance totaling $833,000.

The SBA provided the funding as part of the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Advance (EIDLA), Disaster Assistance Loan (DAL), and Paycheck Protection Program established under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act (PPP). All three programs were designed to rehabilitate damaged enterprises and keep their workforces employed during the COVID-19 crisis in the world's worst-hit country.

Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America

Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), situated in Massachusetts, received more than $150,000 via the PPP program and an additional $21,430 through the EIDLA and DAL programs.

For years, the VHPA's Indian equivalent, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), was classified as a militant religious organization by the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) World Factbook. The VHP is an offshoot of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a far-right Hindu nationalist organization founded in 1925 on the model of hardline nationalist movements in Europe stated goal of establishing an ethnic Hindu majority state in India.

The RSS serves as the ideological tutor of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), claiming Prime Minister Narendra Modi among its millions of followers.

Although the VHPA, which now has 23 chapters in the United States, claims to be legally distinct from its Indian counterpart, its website notes that the two organizations have the "same principles and ideals."

American groups such as the VHPA openly admit to being influenced by Hindu nationalist organizations in India, such as the VHP and the RSS... Any American nonprofit organization that promotes Islamophobia and other types of hatred should be denied government assistance. - SUNITA VISWANATH, CO-FOUNDER OF HINDUS FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

The VHP has spent decades campaigning to convert India into a Hindu nation and is accused of instigating many assaults on Muslims and Christians during hundreds of riots throughout the country.

The VHPA's membership in the United States increased dramatically in the late 1980s when right-wing Hindu organizations in India ramped up their drive to construct a temple dedicated to Lord Ram on the precise location of a Mughal-era mosque in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya.

Hindu parties claimed that the 16th-century Babri Mosque, which was destroyed in 1992 by a mob, was on the site of Lord Ram's birth. In a contentious ruling in 2019, India's Supreme Court transferred the disputed land to a government-run trust to construct a Ram temple.

The Muslim plaintiffs were granted five acres (two hectares) of land in a community 25 kilometers (15 miles) distant for the purpose of constructing a mosque.

Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of the United States of America

Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of the United States of America, an RSS-affiliated organization, received a direct payment of $7,000 and a loan of $64,462 via PPP.

Ekal Vidyalaya has been accused of disseminating the RSS's mission of Hindu supremacy and instilling anti-minority hatred in young children via its network of schools mostly in India's tribal and rural regions.

"Teachers at Ekal schools were trained primarily to sow communal discord in communities and to instill a fundamentalist political philosophy... "promoting hostility amongst groups on the basis of religion," a 2009 study by an India's Ministry of Human Resource Development-appointed commission said.

The Infinity Foundation

According to SBA statistics, the Infinity Foundation, another Hindu nationalist organization with connections to the RSS, got $51,872 in US government monies in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Rajiv Malhotra, the founder of the Infinity Foundation and a right-wing author, is sometimes referred to as the "Ayn Rand of Internet Hindutva," the term for the Hindu nationalist movement.

Malhotra, 70, is accused of pursuing professors and researchers who are critical of right-wing Hindu organizations and making inflammatory comments. He has also faced plagiarism allegations, yet this did not prevent him from being named an honorary professor at New Delhi's famous Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Malhotra's organization offers funds to scholars and institutions in order to further the RSS's Hindu nationalist ideology in academic settings.

Sewa International

Sewa International, a former RSS affiliate, was also compensated $150,621 under COVID-19. Sewa International supports a number of RSS-led programs around India. Indeed, Sewa International's address was identical to that of the RSS headquarters in New Delhi in earlier RSS publications.

Ramesh Bhutada is a Texas-based Indian-American businessman and national vice president of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), the RSS's US section. He is also the board chairman of Sewa International.

American Hindu Foundation

The Hindu American Foundation (HAF), a Washington-based advocacy organization co-founded by former VHPA activist Mihir Meghani, obtained the lion's share of government funding, receiving $378,064 in PPP loans and another $10,000 in EIDLA.

HAF works to deflect criticism of the Modi government's policies on Capitol Hill, the most recent of which was its vehement defense of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which the United Nations described as "fundamentally discriminatory," and India's repeal of the special constitutional status of Indian-administered Kashmir – both of which occurred in 2019.

Though the HAF professes to be an "apolitical organization," it maintains close ties to RSS members. Rishi Bhutada, Ramesh Bhutada's son, is a member of the HAF board of directors and the organization's treasurer.

According to the Bhutada Family Foundation's most recent tax reports, it gave $47,500 to Sewa International and $30,000 to HAF and HSS in 2018.

Al Jazeera sought feedback from the five organizations about their receipt of the US government grant for COVID aid. The HAF and the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation refused to comment, while the Infinity Foundation did not return numerous phone calls, emails, and text messages.

Only VHPA and Sewa International reacted to claims of right-wing funding parties in India and how they intend to use the US government's pandemic monies.

"Almost every non-profit organization applied for this funding, including us. We spend them in accordance with the CARES Act's requirements. We do not use government monies to sponsor activities outside the United States," VHPA president Ajay Shah told Al Jazeera.

When questioned whether his organization financially supports RSS-affiliated groups, Shah said, "We adhere to government standards and donate to various authorized charity organizations in India."

Numerous non-profit organizations on the list of Indian organizations supported by VHPA's Support A Child program have ties to RSS. Additionally, it supports the VHP Foundation in New Delhi.

Vidyasagar Tontalapur, Sewa International's communication director, said that the organization intends to utilize the federal monies to keep its "employees employed during the COVID-19 issue."

Tontalapur informed Al Jazeera that they cooperate with all "registered non-profit organizations worldwide" when questioned about their RSS ties.

Americans should be very worried that stimulus funds are being utilized by organizations and affiliates with troubling links to people purportedly engaged in religious violence and prejudice abroad.

Based in New York Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights, voiced fear that US pandemic relief funding might be used to exacerbate India's hate campaign against Muslims and other minorities.

"You have named some groups that are sympathetic to Hindutva philosophy. "American groups like the VHPA openly admit their inspiration from India's Hindu nationalist organizations like the VHP and the RSS," she told Al Jazeera. "Any American nonprofit organization that promotes Islamophobia and other types of hatred should be denied government assistance."

Hindu nationalists have a history of receiving sponsorship.

In 2014, South Asian Citizen Web (SACW), an online platform dedicated to South Asian discussion, published a study on Hindu non-profit organizations in the United States that were affiliated with the Sangh Parivar — the umbrella name for all Hindu nationalist organizations affiliated with the RSS.

According to the SACW research, which was based on an investigation of official tax documents from 2001 to 2014, charitable organizations in the United States transferred millions of dollars to RSS-affiliated organizations.

According to the SACW research, between 2001 and 2012, Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation and VHPA donated $27 million and $3.9 million, respectively.

SEWA International spent $3.3 million over the same time on different right-wing organizations' operations in various regions of India, while the Infinity Foundation awarded $1.9 million in grants to colleges and scholars to further the Hindu supremacist agenda.

Arvind Rajagopal, a media studies professor at New York University and the author of Politics After Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Indian Public, said that the RSS has long received foreign money through its affiliates.

"In the 1990s, an income tax official stated that enormous quantities of money were pouring from the United States and abroad into the VHP in India, and then to the RSS," Rajagopal told Al Jazeera.

Rajagopal was alluding to Vishwa Bandhu Gupta, a former Indian income tax inspector who sent a notice to the VHP in 1990 requiring it to report its revenue and spending. The officer was reassigned and eventually suspended by the government, purportedly in response to pressure from the BJP, which was then the federal government's coalition partner.

"It is difficult to believe that Hindu organizations did not get funding from their international affiliates and from foreign sources," Rajagopal stated.

Brian Levin, a criminal justice professor and head of the California State University, San Bernardino's Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, expressed worry about COVID relief monies and loans being granted to organizations with links to hardline groups.

"Americans should be very worried that taxpayer-funded economic aid is being exploited by organizations and affiliates with troubling links to individuals accused of religious violence and intolerance abroad," Levin told Al Jazeera.

"What's more concerning is that these monies may be utilized to compensate for the decline in donor earnings caused by the epidemic."

The Small Business Administration declined to comment on specific borrowers. However, it said that the PPP is a delegated lending procedure in which participating lenders function as the government's agent in approving and disbursing loans.

"The SBA lacks information on PPP loan disbursements. That is a third-party transaction between the lender and the borrower," Shannon Giles, the SBA's public relations officer, told Al Jazeera via email.

Christian Picciolini, a former white supremacist and founder of the Free Radicals Project, characterized the distribution of pandemic relief cash to right-wing Hindu organizations as a "troubling illustration" of how extremists use crises and the mechanisms designed to ameliorate them. "America should not be sponsoring extremist organizations or any groups or persons associated with extremism or polarisation, whether unwittingly or not," he told Al Jazeera.

Originally published by Raqib Hameed Naik on Aljazeera in April 2021.

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Jenifer Knighton is a community activist and journalist focused on social change and justice. Her mission is to build stronger communities through Hope, Empowerment, Advocacy and Outreach, Resources, and Support.

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