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

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.

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.

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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.

That the US should be center stage for this long-running dispute has a lot to do with the rising wealth of Indian-Americans.

In a first study of its kind, Devesh Kapur at Harvard University found that Indian-Americans donated an estimated $150 million in 2004. He says they are the most educated ethnic group in the US and have the highest median income. "I think the real story is how little they give," he says.

The way they give is also noteworthy. Sidel says that as with other more established ethnic groups, Indian-Americans are no longer just sending money back to family, but are increasingly putting it toward social and charitable causes through nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and professional associations.

One of the biggest professional groups is the Asian American Hotel Owners Association. Modi had been invited to the US by AAHOA to speak this week at their annual convention in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Nearly all the group's members, who control more than half of America's economy lodging, hail from Gujarat.

In a press release sent after the State Department revoked Modi's visa, AAHOA said it "understood" the government's position and reasserted that Modi was invited to speak about business opportunities and tourism in Gujarat.

Protest organizers, however, said the trip was an effort to raise Modi's profile for an eventual bid for prime minister. Modi was not the only foreign leader to be snubbed by the US last week.

Breaking with a St. Patrick's Day tradition, political leaders did not host Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. Sinn Fein's militant wing, the Irish Republican Army, is embroiled in a murder and bank heist scandal. The killing of Robert McCartney has touched off concern among Irish-Americans, who are a key source of funding for Sinn Fein.

But it is not easy to establish that donated dollars end up funding violence abroad.

"I don't know if money given to RSS schools leads to violence," says Rao. "While one can make that causal stretch for political purposes, no good social scientist would be willing to do that."

Biju Mathew, a professor at Rider University and contributor to the Sabrang report, admits the report found no legal smoking gun. But he describes as a "relic of the past" the notion that to catch someone red-handed "you would mark a currency bill and see where it surfaces again."

After Sept. 11, the US released a new set of regulations for charitable giving, and established a blacklist of groups that finance terror. There is anecdotal evidence, supported by new research on the Pakistani community by Adil Najam at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., that Muslim-Americans are shifting their donation dollars to local rather than international causes.

Corporations are also changing the way they donate. Cisco Systems, Inc. was once a major contributor to IDRF through its employee-matching program. In May 2003 the company suspended its program, a move a spokeswoman said was related to uncertainty over the changing federal guidelines. IDRF no longer receives matching funds from Cisco, or from Oracle.

Despite these losses, IDRF's general funding did not drop after the November 2002 report. The group's president says IDRF raised $757,000 in 2003 compared with $702,000 in 2002.

Meanwhile, Nishrin Hussain takes satisfaction that Modi cannot come to America. "I am delighted," she says.

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