250 U.S. Faculty Seek Funding Freeze on IDRF

by Ashfaque Swapan

Special to India-West, December 13, 2002 original article | Letters to editor: | Fax: (510) 383-1155

Some 250 U.S. faculty members at universities nationwide have signed a petition urging U.S. corporations to discontinue matching donations to U.S.-based nonprofit India Relief and Development Fund, which has been the target of a campaign that accuses the organization of misleading donors while furthering the political agenda of the Sangh Parivar, the umbrella group of Indian groups who support Hindutva (I-W, Dec. 6).

Last week, India-West reported that Cisco and Sun Microsystems had stopped matching employee donations to IDRF, and this week, Oracle has followed suit. “Oracle has placed all donations to the IDRF on hold pending further investigation of the current allegations," a company spokesman told India-West.

IDRF dismissed the petition, with its spokesperson Vijay Pallod saying the support IDRF had received after the campaign against it was overwhelming. “As a number, [the] 250 number is not big enough,” the Houston-based community activist and IDRF volunteer told India-West. “It doesn’t make any impact to me because there are so many Indian professionals out there in the U.S.A. Getting signatures from 250 is not a big deal at all. We got more than 4,000 signatures from all sorts of people — engineer, teachers, students, so that number is a lot higher. If we had started campaigning that way, I think we can easily get 500. We have not thought about it.”

However, the signatories to the petition against IDRF include some of the most distinguished South Asia experts in the world. In addition, it includes South Asian academics in various fields.

The petition, which gathered the signatures in less than two weeks, includes emeritus professors, named chairs, university South Asia center directors and professors from top U.S. universities including Harvard, Yale, MIT, Princeton and Columbia. Among the signatories are Harvard’s Homi Bhabha and Sugata Bose, Yale’s Arjun Appadurai, Columbia’s Akeel Bilgrami and Gauri Viswanathan, Princeton’s Gyan Prakash, and the University of Chicago’s C.M. Naim. Mainstream American academics who have joined in include U.C. Berkeley’s Eugene Irschick, Columbia’s Ainslee Embree, Smith College professor Frederique Apffel-Marglin, and University of Michigan’s Peter Hook.

“We, the undersigned South Asia faculty and South Asian studies scholars, write in support of the conclusions reached by the Report on the ‘Foreign Exchange of Hate: IDRF and the American Funding of Hindutva’ and ending corporate sponsorship of the India Development Relief Fund and its associated Sangh Parivar charities,” says the petition. “We encourage corporate accountability from companies like Cisco, Sun, Oracle, PayPal and AOL Time Warner.

“Funds to the IDRF are being channeled to support sectarian organizations that have been linked to the Sangh Parivar’s platform of communal hate and violence in India. We believe it is important to let the business community and South Asian community at large know that those of us in universities who are entrusted with educating South Asian youth do not support the violent sectarian activities of the Sangh Parivar.”

Earlier, supporters of IDRF had also launched a petition campaign. Their Web site ( ) listed over 4,000 signatures. However, a substantial number of signatures have no last name or only an initial.

“We, the concerned Indians /people of Indian Origin /well-wishers of India’s development, urge the media and the society at large, to protest the ongoing intellectual violence in the name of Mahatma Gandhi, and the subsequent hate campaign started by Biju Matthew, a ‘Forum Of Indian Leftists’ member and his Communists/Marxists supporters against the India Development and Relief Fund,” says the pro-IDRF petition.

“Being Gandhiji’s true followers in word and spirit, we believe violence — physical or intellectual -- is an act of cowardice,” the petition adds. “Today it may be IDRF, tomorrow it can be any other organization because they don’t follow or suit the Communist ideology.”

Faculty members who have supported the campaign against IDRF dismiss any notion that their reservations against IDRF are politically motivated. “It is a standard repressive tactic to label your opponents as ‘politically motivated’ when they seek to pursue and protect values different from your own,” Yale professor Arjun Appadurai told India-West. “It is not only appropriate for university professors to sign this petition, it is their moral duty to stand up for truth, tolerance and peace. Have my allegedly Hindu friends forgotten the moral links between teaching and morality?”

Sumit Guha, St. Purandara Das distinguished professor of South Asian history at Brown University, signed the faculty petition against funding IDRF. He said targeting the political motivation of IDRF critics misses the point. “The IDRF rebuttal only attacks the motives of the authors of the report; whatever their motive may be, a refutation must rebut the facts,” he told India-West.

Appadurai doesn’t agree with IDRF spokesperson Pallod that 250 faculty signatories is an insignificant number. “I rate this is a remarkably successful campaign because of the speed with which such a wide range of academics signed their names to it. As for those who did not sign, they are entitled to their views. I am certain that some hesitated because of fear of reprisal or of controversy. If there are others who have strong views opposed to this petition, I would love to see 250 academics concerned with South Asia sign a dissenting petition. That would let us have a real debate about the facts and the realities, and not respond to the name calling of those who wish to play the politics of long-distance hatred.”

Kamala Visweswaran, who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, said that theirs was an independent petition. “As faculty who work on South Asia or as South Asian faculty who care about what's happening in terms of development in India, we've read the report, we agree with what the report documents, and feel that the conclusions are sound,” she told India-West. “

I think so many professors signed on (although) a number of them aren't political, because they are South Asian specialists, and they have been tracking the Hindutva movement in India for several years. I think for people like this it is their chance to say, 'Look, I am somebody who studies the country, and I can tell you that this is bad.' I really do think that that's why we had such a strong response from South Asia experts, not just Indians who work on South Asia but also Americans who work on South Asia.”

Paola Bachetta, currently with the Harvard Divinity School, is a case in point. A scholar who has been doing academic research on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh for over 15 years, she told India-West she had not even heard of IDRF until she learned about the anti-IDRF report.

“I went to the IDRF Web site, printed it out and took a very good look at it, and compared it with the RSS materials that I have,” she said. “There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the link between the two is very clear. I also felt that I needed to sign the petition to be just a responsible human being.

“I am a scholar so I want to check everything out, and I recognized RSS organizations from the IDRF’s own Web sites, and I went and looked at some of the RSS material that I have here, and I did find that many of the organizations listed in the RSS’s own material,” she said. She dismisses the argument of RSS admirers that the organization is a committed patriotic organization. “I don’t see it as patriotic zeal,” she said.

“It’s a Hindu nationalist view. It’s very clear that the RSS has a vision for India that is different from the Indian Constitution about pluralism.” “I feel that intellectuals have a responsibility of social justice, that academics are also public intellectuals, that we are responsible to the world. If we find that there is a violation of social justice then we have a responsibility to speak about it.”

According to IDRF’s Pallod, things are viewed quite differently in the Indian American community at large. “We got response from almost every Indian community leader who has responded to IDRF petition, whether it is the umbrella body of the Indian Cultural Center (or) the largest Indian organization in Houston, the Gujarati Samaj. “

This shows clearly, in Houston at least I can say, the entire Indian community is behind IDRF. And I have not seen any prominent Indian so far say that we have misused the funds.”

Pallod said the reason for IDRF’s huge following was the quality and dedication of its volunteers. He also questioned the view of critics that IDRF is sectarian. “On the day of Diwali, the first thing I do, many of my good Muslim friends, I go to their homes, I give sweets to them. And they do the same thing to me on Eid,” he said. “Some people are saying IDRF workers are sectarian, that really hurts me.”

However, he conceded that some organizations, while backing the IDRF, was making statements that were clearly sectarian.

“I am not happy the way is promoting IDRF,” Pallod said. “It is the job of IDRF workers to make sure these kinds of elements stay away from IDRF. These are the people who are going to hurt us. We need to stay away from these people.”

He said that he hoped IDRF will come out stronger than ever from this. “What I am hoping is that from the whole thing we can learn some lessons, from the mistakes we have made and come out even stronger,” Pallod said. Interested readers can read the faculty petition and view the list of signatories online by visiting the Web site and clicking on “faculty petition.” The Web site in support of IDRF is:

“This shows clearly, in Houston at least I can say, the entire Indian community is behind IDRF. And I have not seen any prominent Indian so far say that we have misused the funds.”
--IDRF volunteer Vijay Pallod