AZIZ HANIFFA, India Abroad (A rediff.com company), December 6, 2002
In April 1988, Vinod Prakash, then 55, and a senior development economist with the World Bank, took early retirement. After securing his pension, he launched the India Development and Relief Fund, for which he had earlier applied for tax-exempt (501 (c) (3)) status from the IRS.
In its first year of operation, contributions totaled only $ 16,000 but it quickly grew exponentially to average at least $ 1.5 million a year including corporate funds from Silicon Valley giants like Sun MicroSystems, Cisco, Oracle and Hewlett-Packard-all with large percentage of Indians and Indian American employees. During the Orissa cyclone, Maharashtra and Gujarat earthquakes, IDRF raked in close to $ 4 million in contributions.
But theses contributions plummeted since May after allegations that the outfit was a front for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. In an exclusive interview with India Abroad, Prakash acknowledged that a report released recently in New Delhi by Biju Mathew, a New York professor, accusing IDRF of funding the Sangh Parivar’s ‘hate campaign’ in India, as well the testimonies of people like Robert Hathaway has “definitely had some impact.”
“For the past six months, since May, these attacks on us have been going and overtime it is becoming bigger and bigger,” he said. However, he said the significant drop in funding could “also be the result of the economy being down, result of stock market being down and also our volunteers [who solicit the funds] got exhausted because 2001 has been exceptionally busy/” Mathew presented the report on behalf of a group calling itself the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate. Complaining bitterly about the allegations, Prakash said: “Everything about IDRF has been closely monitored. These allegations are absolutely baseless. They are totally out of their minds.
“The interesting thing is this report they have presented as if it is a scholarly study, which it is not. But that is the appearance. “As far as we are concerned, we are strictly bound by US compliance requirements, US laws. We cannot take a risk of any deviation and we are following it. All our tax returns are submitted on time and up to 2000 all our tax returns are in the public domain.”
Asked if the FBI or IRS was investigation IDRF, Prakash said, “To tell you very frankly, I do not know, because I am sure before they inform me or freeze the [IDRF] account, they will do their own internal investigation without my knowledge. So what might have been going on without my knowledge, I do not know. But I have not received any inquiry from FBI or IRS or anybody else. So we will continue doing our work.”
He attributed the campaign against IDRF “to domestic politics in India, which is reflected here to my mind. Some people are happy, others are not happy with the rise of Bhartiya Janta Party. Some people are concerned with conversions; some are concerned with the re-conversions. Also the Gujarat elections are very near and I think depending on one’s political views, one would do something about it.”
Prakash said he runs the program from his home in Bethesda, Maryland, with minimal administrative costs. He takes no salary, nor do any IDRF volunteers spread across the US. “It’s strictly my sense of obligation towards the motherland which has given birth to IDRF.”
“For the first six years after I retired from the World Bank I did a little bit of consultancy, but after that I have not spent even a day for the World Bank and everyday my work has been for the IDRF.”
“All our volunteers work from his or her home and most of the time people do not even claim out of pocket expenses though they are eligible,” Prakash said. “So it’s strictly a labor of love of everybody. In the 2000 tax returns, our fund-raising was about $ 1.8 million and our expenses were not even $ 18,000. And now, this is the way we are treated by some members of the Indian community.”
Prakash first came to the US in 1960, returned to India in 1962 and came back permanently to America in 1967. He received his BA and MA from Agra University in mathematics and statistics and a second MA from the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata and a PhD from MIT.
He makes no apologies that he is a BJP or ‘VHP man,” arguing: “I have every right to be whatever I want to be whether it is BJP or VHP or RSS or Anand Marg or Chinmaya or Aurbindo ashramite – I’ve visited Pondicherry 10 times or Sri Sri Ravi Shankar [founder of the Art of Living Foundation], I’ve met him, I’ve taken training. These are all multiple roles as an individual. But IDRF has its own identity and they [the disbursements] are strictly on merits where we carefully select organizations for assistance.
“Any allegation that I am communal-minded or sectarian is absolutely absurd.”