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Indian-American community exerts growing clout back home

As the US's wealthiest ethnic group, it is divided over how funds sent abroad are used.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 21, 2005

When Nishrin Hussain moved to the United States in 1990, she left her parents behind in India. But her American life was tragically interrupted when her father, a Muslim, was burned alive by a Hindu mob during the 2002 riots that shook India's Gujarat state.

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Since then, she has become a force in Indian politics - from her home in Delaware. Like a growing number of other Indian-Americans, Ms. Hussain is using the considerable power of the pocketbook and other forms of political activism to influence events half a world away.

And their efforts can have an impact: Last week the US State Department - largely because of the protests of Indian Americans - canceled an upcoming tour in the United States by Narendra Modi, Gujarat's chief minister, for the role he played in the riots three years ago.

In one sense, the Indian American community reflects the growing clout of many expatriate groups in the US. From Mexican-Americans to immigrants from the Muslim world, they are becoming more aware of their influence back home and are trying to capitalize on it. Irish-Americans have influenced events in their homeland for decades.

But the Indian-American community has gained new visibility in recent years as its political - and financial - clout has grown. As America's wealthiest ethnic group, it is particularly divided over allegations that some charities are funneling money to sectarian violence like that in Gujarat.

"We are seeing increased attention by Indian-Americans to how their donations are used, particularly in the wake of Sept. 11 and the Gujarat events," says Mark Sidel, an expert on Indian diaspora at the University of Iowa. "We now see the emergence of controversy and of watchdog groups of various kinds."

One such group, Sabrang Communications, released a bombshell report in late 2002. It alleged that the US-based India Development and Relief Fund (IDRF) was quietly channeling abroad more than 80 percent of its discretionary funds to pro-Hindu groups. Some of these groups, tied to an Indian organization known as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have been accused of fomenting sectarianism that has led to violence.

Human Rights Watch and other groups say that the RSS was among those "most directly responsible" for the Gujarat riots. They also fault Modi for doing little to rein in the organized mobs that killed more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims. The riots started after 59 Hindu activists died in a train fire that some blamed on a Muslim mob. In January, a controversial interim report by the government found that the fire was an accident. [Editor's note: The original version failed to mention the government report.]

Many of the groups that were preparing to protest Modi's visit are also tracking Indian-American charities that support RSS activities. "The people who are sending donations to these groups are not aware of where the money is going," says Hussain. "And I do fear that after the [2001 Gujarat] earthquake that some of the money collected was geared toward this hatred."

But Ramesh Rao, a professor of communications at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., says the IDRF has been unfairly targeted. At IDRF's request, he published a detailed rebuttal to the Sabrang report. While not denying that some IDRF money may go to groups affiliated with the RSS, he says that both the amount and the effect are overblown. Mr. Rao calls the Sabrang report a political attack by leftists, part of a decades-long campaign to vilify the RSS and any group directly or indirectly connected with its work.