US court dismisses Hindutva group’s defamation case against academic Audrey Truschke, four activists
The comments made by the defendants in two articles about Covid-19 funding to US-based Hindutva advocacy bodies are statements of opinion, the judge noted.
A United States court on Tuesday dismissed a defamation lawsuit filed by the Hindu American Foundation against four activists and academic Audrey Truschke for two articles published in news website Al Jazeera.
The court noted that it “cannot plausibly infer that any of their [Truschke and others] statements were made with actual malice”.
The US-based Hindutva advocacy group had filed the lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia on May 7 last year. Besides Truschke, it had sued Hindus for Human Rights co-founders Sunita Viswanath and Raju Rajagopal, Indian American Muslim Council Executive Director Rasheed Ahmed, Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations of North America chairman John Prabhudoss.
The Al Jazeera articles, published in April 2021, said that federal Covid-19 relief funding amounting to $833,000 (nearly Rs 6.9 crore) had been given to the Hindu American Foundation and four other US foundations, which the reports said, had “ties to Hindu supremacist and religious groups”.
The author of one Al Jazeera article, Raqib Hameed Naik, named as a co-conspirator in the lawsuit, described the Hindu American Foundation as a group that “lobbies to deflect any criticism of [Narendra] Modi government’s policies”.
Viswanath, Ahmed and Prabhudoss had been quoted in the Al Jazeera articles, while Truschke was named in the suit for tweeting about the story and the Hindu American Foundation.
One of the Al Jazeera articles quoted a statement by a group called the Coalition to Stop Genocide in India alleging that the Hindu American Foundation, Vishwa Hindu Parishad America, Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of USA, Infinity Foundation, and Sewa International have “existential links” with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the “fountainhead of Hindu supremacist ideology”.
These five groups, the Coalition to Stop Genocide said, are the “US-based front organisations for Hindutva, the supremacist ideology that is the driving force behind much of the persecution of Christians, Muslims, Dalits and other minorities in India”.
The lawsuit alleged that the organisations that Viswanath, Rajagopal, Ahmed, and Prabhudoss lead are “members that have a controlling interest” in the coalition. It added that these statements have caused “substantial damage” to the Hindu American Foundation’s reputation and its ability to raise funds.”
United States District Judge Amit P Mehta, however, in his order ruled that “HAF [Hindu American Foundation] fails to plead actual malice and thus fails to state a claim of defamation against all defendants”.
The judge observed that most of the comments are statements of opinion.
On the subject of personal jurisdiction invoked by the defendants named in the lawsuit saying that none of them lives in the district of Columbia, the judge held that “Plaintiff must establish that defendants themselves transacted business in the District of Columbia, it has failed to do so.”
The judge also said that the Hindu American Foundation had failed to “present evidence satisfying the constitutional requirement of due process”, leading to the dismissal of the case against Viswanath, Rajagopal, Ahmed, and Truschke.
The court also dismissed the advocacy group’s claim of civil conspiracy. “HAF does not allege a single overt act by a co-conspirator in furtherance of the conspiracy that occurred in the district and it pleads no overt act with particularity,” the order said.
The judge also rejected the group’s request to supplement its jurisdiction allegations.
“HAF does not, for example, identify any contact with the District of Columbia by any defendant not already acknowledged by them,” he said. “Plaintiff’s jurisdictional discovery request, therefore, amounts to a fishing expedition, is speculative, and is not made in good faith.”
The order noted that the Hindu American Foundation’s defamation suit against Prabhudoss fails as the group did not plausibly allege that his statements are “verifiably false”.
The chairman of the Federation of Indian American Christian Organisations had told Al Jazeera that government watchdog groups and human rights organisations need to take note of the misappropriation of funds raised for Covid-19 by Hindu supremacist groups.
Referring to this, the court said: “Prabhudoss’s declaration is a statement of opinion – he is stating his view on how certain organisations should respond to what he sees as a ‘misappropriation of Covid funding’. The statement is not actionable as defamation because ‘expressions of a subjective view... are not provably false and thus cannot undergird a claim of defamation.”
The Hindu American Foundation in a statement said that the verdict was deeply disappointing and added that the suit was dismissed on procedural grounds.
“HAF [Hindu American Foundation] was harmed by lies made and repeated by well-known anti-Hindu activists,” it claimed. “But defamation requires a very high bar in the United States so the suit did not proceed further. Notably, this case would likely be victorious in UK or Indian courts due to differing standards for defamation.”
Explained: The Hindu American Foundation’s defamation case against Hindus for Human Rights founders