The Hindu American Foundation advocacy group said, earlier this month, that it was suing four activists, academic Audrey Truschke, and a journalist for two articles published in Al Jazeera that it claims are defamatory.
The lawsuit has sparked a debate over free speech in the US, with hundreds of activists and scholars criticising the defamation case and standing in solidarity with those named in it.
The Al Jazeera articles, published in April, said that federal Covid-19 relief funding amounting to $833,000 had been given to the Hindu American Foundation and four other US foundations which, the reports alleged, had “ ties to Hindu supremacist and religious groups”.
The articles said that the HAF, Vishwa Hindu Parishad America, Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of USA, Infinity Foundation, and Sewa International had received the funds under three programmes “aimed to provide economic relief to distressed businesses and keep their workforce employed during the Covid-19 crisis”.
One of the Al Jazeera articles quoted a statement by a group called the Coalition to Stop Genocide in India alleging that the five groups “have ‘existential links’ with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ‘fountainhead of Hindu supremacist ideology’ and ‘ideological parent’ of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party”.
The story quoted Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of a US group called Hindus for Human Rights, expressing concern that these five organisations could use these funds to “further a hate campaign against Muslims and other minorities in India”.
On May 7, Hindu American Foundation filed a defamation suit in the US District Court for the District of Columbia against some of the people quoted in the articles, including Hindus for Human Rights co-founders Viswanath and Raju Rajagopal.
Rutgers University professor Audrey Truschke was also named in the suit for tweeting about the story and the Hindu American Foundation.
The suit prompted more than 300 prominent writers, academics, and scholars last week to sign a statement criticising the HAF case and standing in solidarity with Hindus for Human Rights. The signatories, who included author Amitav Ghosh, professor Noam Chomsky, and economist Meghnad Desai, said that they “deplore efforts to silence an important alternative and inclusive Hindu voice in the diaspora”.
It added: “Viswanath and Rajagopal exercised their right to free speech by commenting on the matter of disbursement of federal COVID relief federal funds to several Hindutva-aligned organizations...Hindutva is an authoritarian ideology, having no tolerance for peaceful dissent or debate, the very qualities that underline a democracy...We earnestly hope that the courts will quickly rule in favor of HfHR’s First Amendment right to free speech.”
The First Amendment of the US Constitution protects free speech.
‘Scheme’ and ‘conspiracy’
In a statement emailed to Scroll.in, the Hindu American Foundation said: “It has become increasingly clear that we can no longer ignore these attacks…It is impacting our funding, and ability to effect change through our educational and advocacy efforts.” In its suit, the group has sought compensation and punitive damages from the defendants.
In the statement, the group insisted that it is a wholly independent, non-partisan American organisation that does not contribute any funds to spread Hindu nationalism in India.
The Hindu American Foundation said that claims in the stories about funnelling Covid-19 relief funds were “categorically false.”
“All funds received under the Covid relief programs were used to the letter of the law, ensuring that HAF’s rent was paid and no employees were laid off during the pandemic,” the group stated. “Not a single cent was sent overseas.”
Their initial cease-and-desist letter to the defendants, sent on April 19, stated that their foundation does not provide money to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or anyone affiliated with the organisation. “HAF only donates to two organisations abroad: one that assists Hindu refugees from Pakistan and another that assists Hindu minorities in Pakistan,” it stated.
Hindu American Foundation claimed that the defendants “concocted a scheme to defame groups even outside India whom they perceive to be ‘pro-Indian government’.” They argued that the defendants’ claims are based on their ‘political disagreements’ with the Indian government, “especially with respect to its alleged treatment of Muslims and other religious minorities.”
‘Stand by our words’
Also named in the case are Indian American Muslim Council executive director Rasheed Ahmed, and Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations of North America chairman John Prabhudoss. The author of one Al Jazeera article, Raqib Hameed Naik, has been listed as a co-conspirator.
Viswanath from Hindus for Human Rights had been quoted in the Al Jazeera article saying that the groups who received the funds openly acknowledge that they are inspired by Hindu nationalist organisations, such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and that any American non-profit perpetuating Islamophobia and other kinds of hate should not receive federal relief funds.
Viswanath and Rajagopal told Scroll.in in an email message that they responded to the cease-and-desist letter soon after receiving it. “We retained legal counsel who responded to the letter by saying we stand by our words and are well aware of our First Amendment rights,” they said.
They now have pro-bono representation from a law firm with expertise in defamation law. “We’ll continue to reiterate what we stand for: a progressive and inclusive Hinduism, which asserts that all of us are equal,” they said.
While the suit is against people quoted in the Al Jazeera articles, Hindu American Foundation has also included individuals who shared the article and commented on it on social media.
Among them is Audrey Truschke, who has received threats from Hindutva supporters for her books on Mughal history.
“I believe this lawsuit is meritless, and I fully expect it to be resolved in my favour,” Truschke said. “The Hindu American Foundation has made clear their displeasure at my research agenda, and I see this lawsuit as a bald-faced attempt to intimidate and silence my scholarship.”
She added: “Whereas they [the Sangh Parivar] wield weapons of intimidation, fear, and, at times, even violence, those of us devoted to human rights, free speech, and academic freedom do something quite different.”
Journalist Raqib Naik, who has been named a co-conspirator, took to Twitter to describe the action as “an assault on free press” and said this was a “SLAPP lawsuit”.
SLAPP or Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation suits refer to defamation and libel suits filed with the intention of curbing speech.
The Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union says that that SLAPP suits are “designed to intimidate the target in order to discourage them and others from speaking out on an issue of public importance…In essence, SLAPPs are designed to discourage public discussion by using our legal system to choke the exercise of free speech.”
In the US, SLAPP suits have also been used against survivors of the #MeToo movement.
“This is an absurd lawsuit,” Naik told Scroll.in. He said that since his article had been published on April 2, he has received death threats and been subjected to Islamophobic slurs on social media.
He added, “This is not an opinion piece – it’s a news feature, and anything properly backed with facts and evidence is very hard to counter.”
Naik said Hindu American Foundation had declined to comment on his piece before it was published. “They’ll lose in court, because their evidence is publicly available information that implicates them,” he said.
Dissent against Hindu nationalism
Rasheed Ahmed of the Indian American Muslim Council was quoted in the Al Jazeera article saying that US taxpayers’ money should not keep “hate groups in business” and that this matter should concern anybody who believes in government accountability.
He told Scroll.in that only an outfit that is truly a hate group would view his comments as being directed at them. “But if they [HAF] aren’t a hate group, why are they concerned?” he asked.
Naik echoed the view that “nothing will come” of the lawsuit. He said this experience has given him more resolve to “do the right thing” and report more rigorously on Hindu nationalism.