In April 2021, a reporter reached out to me to comment on a possible misuse of Covid Relief funds given in the US that year.
As a conscientious, taxpaying American citizen and a lifelong human rights defender, I said this: “US taxpayers’ money being used to keep hate groups in business is absolutely unacceptable and should concern all who believe in fairness, justice and government accountability.”
This was used in a story on Al Jazeera titled “Call for US probe into Hindu right-wing groups getting COVID fund.” The story quoted several others, and referenced five far-right Hindu supremacist groups in the US with ties to Hindu nationalist groups in India.
What followed was bizarre.
One of the five groups named in the story, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), filed a lawsuit against me for defamation.
As if that wasn’t enough cockamamie, HAF also accused me of conspiring with three other rights activists quoted in the story, and an academic-historian to plot the “defamation.” Remarkably, the only role the academic, Dr. Audrey Truschke of Rutgers University-Newark, played in the alleged conspiracy was to share Al Jazeera’s story on Twitter.
While flattered to be in a company of people I admire and respect for their work, I was tickled to imagine the five of us getting together on moonless nights in darkened rooms, styled after The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
As I reread my perfectly benign, objective statement, I was bewildered why HAF got sore with me for saying taxpayer’s money shouldn’t go to hate groups, unless it identified as one.
I had never been sued before. I worried about the uncertainty of the legal processes, and the drain it might be on my already scarce time and financial resources. I abhorred worrying my children, especially my wife, a healthcare professional who had worked through the pandemic at its horrific peak, witnessing a health crisis like never before in our lifetimes. Perhaps that is why I was especially loath to the ugliness of hate groups using aid money to fund hate.
Which is what I said to the reporter: There are families across America still reeling from the human and economic toll of COVID-19, while groups that seem to be essentially serving as front organisations for a violent and supremacist ideology are raking in the windfall from federal COVID funding.
My alleged “co-conspirators” and I made a nice medley of a diverse group – two Hindus, a Christian and a Muslim (me) – with only one common thread: our commitment to expose the hate and bigotry of the fascist ideology of Hindutva.
As the initial shock subsided, I was relieved to be in America, the land of the First Amendment, which gives me my right to express my opinions and ideas, even if it is uncomfortable for some. Free speech is the cornerstone of our free American society. We know what happens in the absence of free speech by looking at India where activists, journalists, academics and even common citizens are routinely jailed for speaking against the current fascist government.
As my lawyers had confidently predicted right at the start, the case was summarily dismissed on December 21, 2022 by judge Amit P. Mehta of the United States District Court of the District of Columbia, who tore the case to shreds in his 28-page ruling.
One would have imagined that the fact that the case didn’t even qualify to go for trial would be humbling for HAF. An organisation that claims to be an “educational organisation” would be expected to have some respect for laws and statements made by a federal judge.
HAF’s response, though, on losing the lawsuit, was incredibly audacious: they celebrated their loss by misrepresenting short phrases sans context, deliberately cooking up falsehoods.
In its official statement after the judgment, HAF continued to claim that my “co-conspirators” Sunita Viswanath, Executive Director, Hindus for Human Rights, and Dr. Truschke had “lied” (their statements were not investigated for whether they were truth or lies because the case never went to trial), and the case was dismissed on procedural grounds.
This was false as the matter of jurisdiction would only have come to play if HAF had managed to state a claim, but the judge wrote that HAF’s lawsuit “comes nowhere close to stating a sufficient claim of civil conspiracy.” Reading their statement one would think they won, whereas the case was dismissed at the earliest stage possible.
This reaction by HAF is hardly surprising. It is in line with how the Hindu far-right ecosystem in India – the current government, its stogie media and their hate mongering leaders – constantly distort truth to humiliate, harass, disenfranchise and even kill Muslims, Christians and Dalits, all the while claiming to be on the right side of the law.
In India, far right groups like HAF that align with the Hindutva ideology are pretty similar to Proud Boys and Patriot Front, that commit and enable actual physical acts of violence. If at all rapists, terrorists, hate mongers subscribing to Hindutva ideology ever get arrested in India, they are released promptly and welcomed by the ruling government’s party members with flowers and sweets. Since in the US such groups can’t get away with physical violence, they choose what I call legal violence and legal lynching of anyone they disagree with.
Perhaps HAF desperately needed to gaslight their followers in the face of this embarrassing defeat. After all, they had held fundraisers with fancy titles (example: ‘how to sue your haters and other legal tools: the power of law’) to encourage their trusting donors to part with their money to fund the legal expenses of this case.
They are desperate to show something for the top top dollars they paid to their law firm. It is telling that they chose to sue activists and an academic rather than Al Jazeera, the media house that published the stories, bold in their assumption that we’d not have unlimited budgets to defend ourselves in court. Unfortunately for them, though, all the five defendants secured top lawyers from reputed firms to represent us pro bono. While HAF bled donor money, which they’re forced to justify by fair means or foul.
As I thanked my brilliant lawyer Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, a top attorney with Dorsey & Whitney LLP, in his typical charming way he quipped, “I think even first-year lawyers should have gotten this case dismissed because it was so bad.”
As to HAF blatantly mischaracterising the judge’s ruling, he said HAF should consider itself “fortunate that courts are not able to sue for defamation when their opinions are mischaracterised by litigants.”
Rasheed Ahmed is a co-founder and former president of the Indian American Muslim Council, and is currently serving as the organisation’s executive director. He is also a co-founder and former president of the US India Policy Institute.