Washington DC judge dismisses Hindu American Foundation defamation suit against Hindus for Human Rights

Ritu Jha-

The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) has lost a defamation case it brought against Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR) in May 2021 in Washington DC.

The lawsuit was filed at the District Court for the District of Columbia by HAF against HfHR after two online articles were published by the online division of Qatar-headquartered Al Jazeera Media Network.

The articles concerned federal Covid-19 relief payments and loans distributed to US-based groups Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation, Infinity Foundation and Sewa International, all allegedly linked to Hindu nationalist organizations in India.

HAF alleged that the statements were “false and defamatory”, and that they have “caused substantial injury including lost donations and reputational damage.”

The lawsuit’s main defendants were HfHR co-founders Sunita Viswanath and Raju Rajagopal, along with Indian American Muslim Council executive director Rasheed Ahmed, Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations of North America chairman John Prabhudoss, and Rutgers University professor Audrey Truschke.

According to the lawsuit, HAF’s case was not against Al-Jazeera, but the five defendants.

Viswanath through a press note said: “This lawsuit is proof that groups like the Hindu American Foundation do not represent all Hindu Americans. We saw this lawsuit as a scare tactic intended to silence individuals who are bravely standing up to the rising force of Hindu nationalism–in the United States, India, and across the Indian diaspora.  We were not scared into silence. We stood by our principles and will continue to do so. This dharmayuddha, or fight for justice, is not over. We are deeply grateful to our pro-bono lawyers at Ballard Spahr for standing with us.”

Judge Amit Mehta in his ruling stated: “Simply put, the plaintiff [HAF] failed to plead facts or present evidence satisfying the constitutional requirement of due process, requiring dismissal of the case against defendants Viswanath, Rajagopal, Ahmed, and Truschke.”

“The court reviewed the allegedly defamatory statements attributed to defendants Viswanath, Rajagopal, Ahmed, and Truschke, and found that HAF failed to plausibly plead that any statement made by any defendant is verifiably false. Most of the statements are clearly statements of opinion.”

Judge Mehta dismissed the case because he said he found it contained baseless accusations of “defamation and conspiracy to defame.”

HAF, however, said it was disappointed. It said Judge Mehta dismissed HAF’s complaint on procedural grounds for lack of personal jurisdiction, ruling that most of the defendants were not closely tied enough to Washington, DC. HAF maintained that those “false statements were made to Washington DC-based Al Jazeera.”

Mat McDermott, senior director of communications at HAF, told indica, “We’re disappointed that it was dismissed on a procedural issue, but feel vindicated in that the judge acknowledged that some of the defendants did in fact lie about HAF’s record and activities. The case was ‘defamation and conspiracy to defame’ and HAF is only based in Washington DC. We do not have any office in India.”

He added, “The main concern of all the defendants was that all of them accused HAF of doing things that were demonstrably false, and that they should have known they were false. They accused us of diverting Covid funds to India which is categorically untrue. We have no office in India at all.”

On the case getting rejected on grounds of jurisdiction, McDermott said that while the defendants live in New York and New Jersey, “Al-Jazeera is based in DC and that’s where it was published. That’s where we brought the case.”

McDermott, said that the case is closed and that HAF “does not plan on pursuing anything further on this issue at this time.”

According to the lawsuit, HAF is a non-profit organization whose mission is “educating the public about Hindus and Hinduism” and serving Hindu Americans across all Hindu religious traditions. HAF says it supports the political party currently in power in India (BJP), often labelled a “Hindu nationalist” party.

HAF Executive Director Suhag Shukla stated in a press note, “It is incredibly disappointing that though Vishwanath and Truschke, among others, were found to have made verifiably false statements attacking HAF, the judge dismissed our legal action on procedural grounds. We continue to believe that the defendants’ false and malicious statements about HAF constitute actionable defamation and have every reason to believe that they will continue to spread their malicious lies.”

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