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The Conversion Agenda

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Human Rights’ Other Face

Money laundering involves channeling illegal funds through a complex web of transactions to make the money’s character increasingly ambiguous, and eventually, to pass it through lawful business activities that turn it into ‘legal’ money. Fortunately, there is a worldwide movement led by the United States to fight this.

However, there is also another kind of ‘laundering’ that plays the same type of subterfuge, lacks transparency, but thrives unchallenged. I am referring to the vast network of ‘human rights’ programs and activism involving globalized NGOs (Non-Government Organizations), government programs, religious institutions, and private funding sources that promote conflict and sometimes become fronts for insurgencies and separatist movements of various kinds. One man’s terrorists are another man’s freedom fighters, and this turns into an opportunity for doublespeak.

There are many other kinds of conflicts-of-interest which are even harder to pin down, but which nevertheless entail great abuse of the power that comes from being ‘givers’ and ‘helpers.’ For example, National Public Radio broadcast a series on widespread sexual abuses of women in famine-stricken parts of Africa. The culprits were UN employees, contractors and local volunteers who traded food for sex to desperate mothers and young women either through gross intimidation or through more ambiguous methods of ‘persuasion.’ The culprits used the ‘moral authority’ and power conferred by their position of being the ‘givers’ and ‘human rights activists’ in a fairly blatant way to violate the minds, values and bodies of the downtrodden they claimed to help.The Nobel Peace laureate and Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble recently said: ‘One of the great curses of this world is the human rights industry. They justify terrorist acts and end up being complicit in the murder of innocent victims.’ His words drew an angry reaction from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, two of the world’s biggest human rights groups, with more than a million members worldwide. (The Guardian, January 29, 2004)

To be clear, I believe that just as most international commerce is honest and law-abiding but can be misused to disguise unlawful activities, similarly most human rights activists and NGOs are genuinely engaged in good work, but the human rights ‘industry’ presents opportunities for mischief-makers who learn to ‘work the system.’

Thriving on ambiguity

Just as many honest businessmen can unwittingly get sucked into others’ laundering schemes, likewise many noble activists and NGOs may be unintentionally facilitating nefarious activities. However, in both the case of money laundering and the case of what I regard as ‘human rights laundering,’ there is the group of middlemen at various points of the food chain who know or should know what the ultimate result of this work will be, but who prefer to look the other way and claim innocence and ignorance.

What makes this complex is that many human rights resources and activities are of a dual-application nature: One side helps human rights but the other side of the same coin undermines the native culture or the integrity of the nation and could even be encouraging insurrections. In the case of tangible goods and technologies, there is now a well-defined concept of dual-use that refers to technologies that are both used in military and in civilian applications. Trade laws are formulated to deal with these items, often by imposing the same restrictions that would apply if they had only military applications.

Consider the following examples of dual-applications in human rights charities: A school building that was funded for education is also used for promoting insurgencies during off-hours. A vehicle funded for transporting students, patients and doctors also facilitates proselytizing. A person salaried for charity is also ‘volunteering’ for proselytizing and/or politics that would be disallowed under the terms of the grant if made public. A charitable hospital is used to preach to and convert the sick or dying, when their defenses and decision-making ability are at their lowest and when their need to trust the care provider is at its highest. An activist receiving grants, awards and visibility through foreign travel becomes famous, and then deploys this symbolic capital to promote specific geopolitical agendas linked (covertly) to the grant-award-publicity sources.

The funding agencies and NGOs who are involved typically deny any knowledge of the ‘other use’ being made of the grants or programs. And often these are very difficult charges to prove in practice. In the absence of “proof,” there has been little hue and cry over this, nor am I aware of any public-interest litigation.

Furthermore, the links are murky by their very nature: Clearly, a fat grant for charity empowers the person or organization to also do entirely ‘unrelated work’ of their own choice, but even if caught in such an act, the person would claim that this was unrelated ‘personal’ work that was done as a volunteer and nothing more.

In the absence of open debate on these issues and in the absence of transparent controls, a nexus of foreign agencies with funding power is playing a role in determining a. the definition of human rights, b. the choice of whoserights are to be fought for according to political calculations, and c. the culprits who are to be blamed. Selective outrage about human rights violations seems to conveniently match an institution’s geopolitical interests, lending a moral gloss to amoral pursuits.

Human rights and imperialism

In the 19th century, the British prosecuted Indian culture in the name of protecting the rights of common Indians: Women in Punjab were denied property rights under new British laws that claimed to save them from their own culture and this ultimately lead to today’s dowry murders. Workers were ‘protected from exploitation’ by Indian manufacturers of steel and textiles, by abolishing these industries from India and relocating them to start Britain’s Industrial Revolution. Land ownership was redistributed to British-selected zamindars, by using excuses of human rights abuses of the prior owners or rulers. The English language education replaced education in Sanskrit, Persian and local languages, in order to rid us of ‘our monstrous superstitions’ and make us ‘rational and civilized.’ Indian civil servants and babus were trained for the sake of this ‘civilizing mission’ of the Empire. In other words, we have seen the deceptive and destructive side of ‘human rights’ activism before, or rather, political exploitation in the guise of ‘human rights’ or ‘civilizing’ missions.

The parallel is even stronger: The imperialists enticed many Indians as sepoys and babus working for the Empire, or else the British would not have been successful in ruling over a much larger population their own. In the same manner, today we find many Indian idealists often start out naïvely with good intentions, but eventually succumb to the international human rights industry’s lure of grants, travel, fame, the glamour of five-star events, and the reputational value and prestigious awards from being a human rights advocate. Many young Indians project this as an ornament symbolizing membership into the cool and sexy club of global culture. Some idealists are even more fundamentally ‘converted’ to Western theoretical constructs and instinctively adopt these lenses to misunderstand their own heritage. Once uprooted from their native culture, idealistic Indians become sepoys to fight against Indian culture and nation.

Part II: US faith-based initiatives

On a recent trip to India, I was given a copy of Tehelka’s February 7th, 2004 issue which has a cover story titled, ‘George Bush has a big conversion agenda in India.’ (There is a smaller follow-up article in the February 14th issue.) This investigative report developed by Tehelka’s undercover team of journalists makes the following points:

1. The US government’s faith-based initiatives have funded major Christian groups in the US to pursue religious conversions in India, as a part of Pat Robertson’s strategy. These funds are officially channeled for social work only, but are used for dual-purposes, to convert as well as provide social services. (Note, by contrast, that when US government commercial contractors divert government money for personal uses, they land in prison.

2. A part of this program in India is to develop a database for every PIN code (the equivalent of ZIP codes), and this database is being given to US intelligence agencies. Far more detailed than anything available to Indian authorities, this is a database of immense precision about every tiny locality in the hinterlands of India. It lists local Indian religious and other influential leaders of each jati, their practices and vulnerabilities, and is used to select the appropriate methodologies to wage a conversion micro-war in individual localities. (In the world of commerce, this is called ‘database marketing’ and such a database would be the envy of any corporate marketing vice president.) Tehelka claims that the database is being used to dispatch faith-based ‘services’ by decision-makers located in the US, with great precision and speed.

3. These activities are also claimed by Tehelka to be linked to forces that are subversive to India’s integrity.

4. This raises several issues involving the dual nature of these activities, both from the American perspective and from the Indian perspective. From the American perspective, the following issues need to be examined:

1. Do some of these US-funded activities violate the church/State constitutional separation, and, furthermore, do they favor some denominations of religions over others?

2. Do some of these activities violate the goals of US faith-based funding which was meant to be used for the betterment of downtrodden Americans, so as to reduce the burden on government-run programs, and was not intended for use overseas?

In other words, just as money-laundering uses secrecy of off-shore organisations with murky ownership structures to create ambiguity of use, is US public money being sent via a complex web of off-shore groups for purposes that are disallowed for government funding within the United States? All I wish to raise here is the awareness of such a potential issue, and to ask: Why is there no US Congressional or media inquiry into the alleged use of US taxpayer funds for foreign conversions without the knowledge of US taxpayers?

From the Indian side, the issues this provokes are as follows:

1. Why is this not among the issues on the negotiation table as part of US-India dialogues? These activities, if true, would have adverse consequences for India’s integrity.

2. Are the conflict-of-interest regulations and disclosure requirements for public officials and ex-officials in India adequate?

3. What mechanisms are being put in place to better monitor foreign-nexus grants and other kinds of problematic influences, and yet do this in ways that minimize the disruption of the transparent groups doing important charitable work?

Furthermore, there are also important US-India mutual interests that were explained in my previous rediffcolumn, about the dangers of such projects turning into foreign misadventures: They potentially undermine India’s stability and play into the hands of subversive forces, which could eventually backfire on US interests as has happened in Pakistan and other places many times.

The issue at hand is not about any religion but about the risk that groups with multiple agendas present. It is likely that many persons involved in authorizing these grants are unaware of the details of these dual purposes, and/or of the subsequent consequences of the chain-reactions of events they might be triggering inadvertently. The chain-reactions entail the following sequence of transactions, analogous to many complex money-laundering schemes:

1. The US government funds some US faith-based charities.

2. These charities fund non-US subsidiaries or affiliates.

3. The foreign groups fund conversions and/or local politics which create or aggravate conflicts.

4. These activities play into the hands of separatists and insurgents.

5. This destabilises India culturally and politically.

6. This instability is a time-bomb that could some day strengthen the hand of Taliban-like forces. This would be bad for US geopolitical interests in the long term.

7. American citizens’ security, ethical and moral interests suffer as a result, ironically, using their own money but without their knowledge.

Given this complex chain of cause and effect through multiple stages and intermediaries, it has been easy to overlook the overall schemes, whether intentional or not.

The sound of silence

The lions of Indian activism climbed on rooftops with their megaphones when Tehelka previously exposed allegations of corruption against George Fernandes: They demanded that everyone remotely linked to his work should resign and go to jail. However, given their hush silence over this latest Tehelka report, one wonders whether these Indian lions have turned into Western lapdogs and become the bearers of global evangelism.

Indian activists have orchestrated a massive hue and cry over NRI funding of suspicious Hindutva activities — such open inquiries are indeed important in bringing transparency. However, the dual-purpose funds being channeled from Western institutions dwarf the alleged size of suspicious Hindutva funds. Foreign organisations pressuring for a politically weak, unstable and fragmented India seem to have bought the complicity of enough five-star activists and intellectuals.

However, some other countries have spoken up against similar schemes — see Thailand, for example.

Part III: Who is responsible for anti-India campaign in US?

The terrorist-activist axis

In recent years, the Indian police and press have started to pay attention to certain groups with ‘peace,’ ‘civil liberties’ and ‘human rights’ identities.

Often, the scholars’/activists’ assistance is by legitimizing a radical group through endorsement, such as when the Communist Party of India, Marxist Leninist Liberation honored the kin of about 1,000 ‘comrade martyrs’, i e terrorists, at an event graced by several prominent ‘social activists, environmentalists, and writers-turned-activists.’ There are various cross-ideological alliances for activism in India where separatists of various kinds, Islamists, Christian fundamentalists and Leftists converge for collaborations. They blame Indian culture and Hinduism in particular as the fabric that holds India together, and wish to see it dismantled.

US-based Indian intellectuals

What has not been investigated adequately is the role of US-based intellectuals. Often, such ‘activism’ to champion the ‘downtrodden’ brings together well-known South Asian Studies scholars from powerful institutions, journalists and individuals linked to various Washington, DC based groups. There are numerous campus seminars and conferences promoting the ‘human rights’ face of these alliances. The funding mechanisms are complex and tough to unravel, because of dual-purpose work of individuals and groups.

A well-established coterie of Indian-Americans has been actively filing one-sided complaints against India’s alleged human rights violations to US authorities, with varying degrees of authenticity. Such activism has led to the recent blacklisting of India by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. This Commission itself exists largely to protect the
freedom of Christian evangelists to convert internationally. Rarely, if ever, has it condemned Christian countries over freedom of religion or investigated allegations against the proselytizers’ practices.

The US State Department declared in a recent report that India is a flawed democracy. Certain Indian Americans have played a pivotal role over the past decade in bringing about such condemnation, and they see this as the mere tip of the iceberg of what they wish to achieve in ‘exposing’ India, and in intellectually undermining India as a nation-state. Indeed, some of them insist that India is nothing more than an undesirable collection of conflicting groups.

In the reverse direction, these US-based scholars supply academic ‘theories’ and ‘strategies’ that feed the ground campaigns in India via Indian intellectuals and NGOs. Many of them are also members of political parties back in India, and hence their work tends to be dual-purpose. Yet, the potential violations of US laws that prevent funding of foreign political parties by US citizens have apparently not been looked into.

Ironically, many of these intellectuals are also aggressively raising millions of dollars from wealthy Indians in USA and India for these South Asian Studies programmes.

Geopolitical consequences

In critical geopolitical moments, these Indian Americans against India have diluted the USA’s pressure against Pakistan, by making the average American hyphenate India and Pakistan as ‘equal and same’ in socio-political respects. The recent Outlook article by Seema Sirohi gives a concrete example to illustrate how this is happening.

Such activism also undermines India’s democracy and due process of law, because it bypass the use of legalmeans that are available in India to a far greater extent than in most other former colonies. Furthermore, such groups cannot show any concrete success in helping human rights by internationalising and sensationalizing the issues. They are disconnected and alienated from Indian heritage, which they look down upon as an embarrassment to their personal projection of Western identities.

The Fellowship

The reason for the lack of introspection by those involved is that many ‘enlightened NGOs’ see themselves as a fellowship of different kinds of rings of the heroic, wise and powerful. This ‘association for a new humanity’ is today’s equivalent of mythical Arthurian roundtables, secret societies (such as Freemasons and esoteric groups) and councils of the wise. But these forged alliances, no matter how well intended initially, tend to attract disparate tricksters who corrupt other minions into becoming ‘behind the scenes’ power mongers. The ethics of deceit and treachery becomes the collective shadow and feeds ‘structural violence,’ i e destabilisation.

The real challenge facing the ‘save the world’ movement is the problem of recognising and dealing with the shadowy subversive ties of such fellowships.

Finally, every monopolistic fellowship develops both defensive and offensive strategies and tends to overreact when threatened in unanticipated ways: Hence, whistleblowers are often vilified, and their reputations and persons attacked to keep the wall of silence intact in the world of Human Rights Laundering.

Practical issues

I leave the reader to ponder the following questions:

1. Is there a need to investigate the potential existence of a transnational axis to undermine India, involving certain South Asian Studies scholar-activists in America, Indian NGOs and major US funding institutions, potentially with complicity or lack of knowledge of the full consequences?

2. Should there be a US Congressional hearing into the use of US taxpayer money to favor and spread one religion out of the many American religions in foreign lands?

3. Should there be a conflict-of-interest policy and code of ethics that will focus attention on ‘dual use’ human rights activities, and also prevent abuses of the power that givers have over receivers? Should there be restrictions against co-mingling of funds, people or other resources between secular apolitical philanthropy on the one hand, and either religious activity or political activity on the other? As in the case of airport security and in the case of policing money-laundering, the inconveniences caused by adopting measures of transparency in human rights work would be outweighed by the benefits to society.

4. Should there be voluntary disclosure by all individuals and organisations in the human rights and charity fields, concerning their transnational funding and links, such that the public and other organisations have the information to be able to make their own evaluations?

5. Are the numerous instances of US originated anti-Hinduism and anti-India scholarship merely random cases of the individual prejudices and personal bigotry of scholars, or are they a part of entrenched systemic biases?

Published: March 24, 2004