(RNS) — When it comes to progressive issues in America, the Hindu American Foundation, or HAF, the organization for which I’m a co-founder and executive director, checks all the boxes.
Promoting separation of religion and state? Supporting free speech and opposing book bans or blasphemy laws? Equal protection regardless of who you are, where you’re from or who you love? Ending caste discrimination and finding justice for victims? Supporting more effective gun safety laws? Ending factory farming and helping stop climate change? Calling out racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia and Hinduphobia? Yes to all.
In fact, not so long ago, I was named a Faith Leader to Watch by the Center for American Progress, hardly a bastion of conservative public policy.
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Yet, for an eclectic mix of activists, our well-documented progressive record is actually a cover for a sinister and violent agenda of “Hindu supremacy.”
Early last month, Al Jazeera published two articles presenting false claims that HAF and other Hindu organizations funneled COVID-19 related Paycheck Protection Program funds to “sponsor hate” and a “slow genocide” against Christians and Muslims in India.
Leveling these appalling and false allegations of crimes against humanity — as well as the false claim that HAF is a front organization taking orders from some supposed Hindu supremacist parent organization in India — were Hindus for Human Rights co-founders Sunita Viswanath and Raju Rajagopal, Indian American Muslim Council Executive Director Rasheed Ahmed and Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations of North America Chairman John Prabhudoss.
Audrey Truschke, a professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University-Newark who has worked closely with those quoted in the articles, went on to republish and amplify the defamatory articles through social media in concert with the others — while also falsely accusing HAF of organizing violent threats against her.
What’s more, the author of the first article, Raqib Hameed Naik, has an ongoing working relationship with both IAMC and HfHR, speaking at jointly organized events and serving on IAMC’s executive team. But neither Naik nor Al Jazeera once disclosed this obvious conflict in the article.
The publication of false and defamatory statements of facts that inflict harm on an individual or organization gives rise to a claim for defamation. When individuals coordinate amongst themselves to publish those false and defamatory statements, they’re liable for conspiracy to defame.
In essence, the defendants attack HAF to try to silence us premised on an insidious accusation: that we have dual loyalty. The same ugly insinuation that led to the internment of Japanese Americans and exclusion of Catholics and Jews from civic spaces now lands at the feet of the oldest, most prominent Hindu American advocacy organization.
That is why HAF filed a lawsuit against Viswanath, Rajagopal, Ahmed, Prabhudoss and Truschke. HAF is not in court because they call us Hindutva aligned. We’re in court because they lied and, we believe, worked together to disseminate their ugly and harmful lies.
Sadly, the allegations that HAF faces are not the first attacks on Hindus coming from the defendants. These same individuals and the groups they work with have targeted other Hindu Americans — from students calling out Hinduphobia on college campuses to Hindu candidates running for U.S. Congress. The pattern offers a chilling lesson in dangerous us-versus-them tribalism that is causing real, measurable harm to Hindu Americans.
So what possibly could be the motivation of the defendants to attack HAF and other Hindu Americans unprovoked? It’s politics — not here in the U.S., but in India.
HAF’s legal counsel in this case — who has represented George Clooney, Reese Witherspoon, Julia Roberts and many others spanning the political spectrum in their own defamation suits — summed it perfectly in our complaint:
“Defendants dislike the political party currently in power in India (which is often labeled a ‘Hindu nationalist’ party), and have political disagreements with the Indian government, especially with respect to its alleged treatment of Muslims and other religious minorities. However, rather than merely airing those political disagreements, they concocted a scheme to defame groups even outside India whom they perceive to be ‘pro-Indian government’ and ‘pro-Hindu.’”
When one looks closely at these India-centric issues, one finds that HAF’s position is hardly extreme. In fact, our foreign policy stances largely align with well-established American foreign policy since at least the George W. Bush and the Obama administrations, right up to President Biden’s positions on India.
The defendants, and the academics whose signatures of support they sought, may not like that these stances have been mainstream U.S. policy. But that doesn’t make supporting any of those positions rogue, hate-mongering or supremacist. Nor does it magically transform false facts that defame perceived rivals into speech that is protected under the First Amendment.
For the record, HAF has never given money to any entity here or abroad that would harm anyone, period. The funding we received under U.S. COVID-19 relief programs, like thousands of other organizations, ensured that our rent was paid and that none of our staff members lost their job because of the pandemic. All of these details are available on HAF’s financials page on our website and Guidestar, a charity watchdog where we’ve earned a platinum seal for transparency and accountability.
HAF has no parent organization as alleged. HAF is not a “Hindu nationalist” or “Hindu supremacist” organization. HAF does not engage in violence or make violent threats. We reject any insinuations of dual loyalty to India or accusations of spreading hatred or Islamophobia.
We are an American organization founded by Hindu Americans born and raised in the United States.
Our adversaries attack us as “wealthy” or having “massive assets,” mirroring xenophobic tropes faced by other faith-based groups that have earned the support of their respective communities.
Our wealth is the support of tens of thousands of Hindu American families across the country who give to us generously. They support us for the work that we do in educating the public about Hindus and Hinduism and advocating for the rights of Hindus and the wellbeing of all people.
They support us because they see that we’ve earned the trust of educators, journalists, policy-makers, civil and human rights advocates and others for our subject-matter expertise, nuanced and constructive approach and credibility built on integrity, accountability and transparency.
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Our lawsuit comes in an era where activism too often thrives on ideological purity tests, guilt-by-association and falsehoods. The tactics the defendants use only make harder an already steep climb for Hindu and Indian Americans to be recognized and represented in America.
We didn’t seek this fight. But we won’t allow false accusations to intimidate us into silence. We must raise our voice. And sometimes, that voice must be heard in court.
(Suhag Shukla is executive director and co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)