Despite its ignominious defeat in the defamation lawsuit against Sunita Viswanath and me, Rasheed Ahmed of the Indian American Muslim Council, John Prabhudoss of the Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations, and Prof Audrey Truschke of Rutgers University, the Hindu American Foundation continues to claim that it has been vindicated: They are now trying to put words in the judge’s mouth by incorrectly claiming that the court had determined that Sunita and Audrey had lied about the HAF.
To begin with, the judge ruled that “…the court has reviewed the allegedly defamatory statements attributed to Defendants…and finds that HAF fails to plausibly plead that any statement made by any defendant is verifiably false. Most of the statements are clearly statements of opinion” – that includes my statement to Al Jazeera that the rise of organisations like the HAF “has emboldened Hindu supremacist organizations in India.”
However, the judge also observed in a footnote that only one statement by Sunita and another by Audrey have the potential (“plausibly”) to be proven false — that is, should the lawsuit proceed further. This marks the statements in question as matters of fact, not opinion, a critical distinction in US defamation law.
In what it called the “the silver lining,” the HAF maliciously edited the judge’s legalistic phrase, “plausibly verifiably false” into “verifiably false”, thus changing the meaning of the note to imply that the judge had indeed made a determination that Sunita and Audrey had lied. The judge did no such thing.
Also note that the HAF conveniently overlooked the judge’s determination that the statements were not defamatory “even if proven false”, because it did not fit their distorted narrative.
Mischaracterising a federal judge is no light offence in America, especially from attorneys such as the HAF’s executive and managing directors.
The lawsuit never proceeded to a point of fact-finding regarding the defendants’ statements. That is because it was thrown out as early as possible in the US legal system, at the motion to dismiss stage. That the HAF could not survive motions to dismiss, on multiple grounds as per Judge Amit Mehta, is a stinging defeat that they refuse to acknowledge, instead choosing to blatantly mischaracterise what the court actually said.
It is preposterous for the HAF to suggest that the judge had determined that Sunita and Audrey had lied without even giving them a chance to provide their defence. That is an affront to the court, in my view. That such a false narrative is being deliberately pushed by HAF executives, who are also trained attorneys who should know better (and are professionally trained to know better), speaks volumes about the HAF’s willingness to distort the truth.
**The judge did not say I lied.** He merely stated what types of statements could be verified and what cannot be verified since they are opinion.
HAF is engaging in baldfaced and shameless mischaracterisation of the ruling.
Bottom line: @HinduAmerican lost. Truth won!
— Sunita Viswanath (@SunitaSunitaV) December 21, 2022
One can understand the HAF’s desperation to defend to its supporters and donors its failed attempt to silence us through a SLAPP lawsuit, incurring hundreds of thousands of dollars in lawyers’ fees, which could have been put to more productive use. One might also see a frail leadership afraid of being held to account for their failures by others in their organisation. But blatantly distorting an explanatory footnote in the judgment to save face is a new low even for the HAF.
Also read: Hindu-Americans are in denial about caste. It’s been in religious scriptures for long
Misrepresentation is HAF’s character
This is not the first time, however, that the HAF is resorting to gross misrepresentation of a US court judgment against it.
In 2006, a Superior Court in California rendered a landmark judgment on the HAF’s lawsuit against the California State Board of Education (SBE), challenging the sixth grade History-Social Sciences textbooks. Among other things, the HAF and its allies had objected to the coverage of the caste system, women in ancient India, the story of the Aryans, and the use of the word Dalit, etc., and had sought to stop the publication of the textbooks.
In an extraordinarily well-researched judgement, the Superior Court rejected all of the HAF’s challenges to the textbooks and let their publication go forward.
“…petitioners argue that the texts violate legal requirements because their descriptions and depictions of the Hindu religion are not neutral, but tend to portray the Hindu religion in a negative light or even as inferior to other religions… Having reviewed all of the selections from the challenged textbooks…the Court finds that the manner in which the books treat the Hindu religion does not violate this standard.”
On the caste system, the court said: “The caste system is a historical reality, and indisputably was a significant feature of ancient Indian society. Nothing in the applicable standards requires textbook writers to ignore a historical reality of such significant dimension, even if studying it might engender certain negative reactions in students. Indeed, it appears to the court that to omit treatment of the caste system from the teaching of ancient Indian history would itself be grossly inaccurate.”
What was the HAF’s response? It seized on the judge’s order that the SBE prepare “more formal regulations governing the future adoption process“ to claim vindication, never mind that it had lost its bid to challenge the contents of the textbooks and to stop the publication of the textbooks.
Venkataraman Swaminathan, a member of the HAF’s Executive Council, wrote a detail response to my analysis of the judgement, and despite evidence to the contrary, claimed that the HAF “took no position on individual edits” and that the adoption process was at the “heart of HAF’s lawsuit.”
Even the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was not impressed by the HAF’s ‘glass is not entirely empty’ defense. According to an article in the RSS mouthpiece, Organiser: “It is a sad and undeniable truth that the California Hindu community has failed to win a substantive victory in the US courts…and it is a measure of the moral weakness of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) that its leaders are claiming legal triumph…HAF counsel Suhag Shukla’s contention that merely the adoption process for the textbooks must be repeated [sic] misses the point entirely. What is at stake is the content of the books.”
Also read: A mysterious new report tells you who funds Hindu nationalism in US, and with how much money
No ‘silver lining’ for Hindu nationalists
When I was asked for a press quote in April 2021 on a report that five Hindu organisations, including the HAF, had received federal Covid funds, I said what was on my mind at the time. I had no idea who else was being approached for comments, nor did it matter to me, as it was just one of many requests that Sunita and I routinely get from the press. It was only after the HAF filed its lawsuit that we became aware that others had also expressed their views on the matter.
So it seemed strange, but not out of character, that the HAF would try to concoct a ‘conspiracy’ out of the mere fact that several individuals had separately expressed their concerns about the HAF and other Hindu nationalist groups to the same publication. For good measure, they also threw into their ‘conspiracy’ a state university professor who did not comment for the Al Jazeera articles but had recently begun researching the HAF.
As Judge Mehta notes in the judgment, “Plaintiff’s pleading comes nowhere close to stating sufficient claim of civil conspiracy… HAF is required to plead with particularity both the existence of a conspiracy and ‘overt acts within the forum taken in furtherance of the conspiracy’…HAF has done neither. HAF does not allege a single overt act by a co-conspirator in furtherance of a conspiracy…”
In other words, not only did the judge dismiss the case on jurisdictional grounds, but he also strongly rebuked the HAF’s central claim that there had been a ‘conspiracy’ by pointing out that the HAF did not even make any attempt to provide evidence to support its allegation. One might call this, in soccer parlance, a ‘self-goal’ by the HAF.
It is hard for me to see any “silver lining” in the judgment against the HAF. Only dark clouds approaching Hindu nationalists in the diaspora who have sold out Indian democracy and dare to call themselves true patriots.
I have learnt over the years that truth-telling and humility in the face of defeat is not one of the HAF’s strongest traits. Instead, it will do anything – including misquoting a judge — to create the mirage of vindication.
Will the RSS speak up once again to tell the HAF to stop chasing mirages?
Raju Rajagopal is co-founder of the Hindus for Human Rights (@Hindus4HR). Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)