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US court dismisses defamation lawsuit against Indian-American activists

Lawsuit alleges activists defamed Hindu-American group in article highlighting entities with links to 'Hindu supremacist' groups
US federal judge Amit Mehta dismissed the case, saying that the court lacked jurisdiction.
US federal judge Amit Mehta dismissed the case, saying the court lacked jurisdiction (AFP/File photo)

A US federal judge in Washington has dismissed a lawsuit filed against several Indian-American activists and a history professor who all had been accused of defaming a Hindu-American organisation in two articles published by Al Jazeera.

The lawsuit, filed in May 2021, was filed after articles published by Al Jazeera stated that five Hindu-American groups, including the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), had received $833,000 in US federal funds despite having alleged "ties to Hindu supremacist and religious groups".

According to one of the articles, the HAF received the lion's share of the federal funding and has "open links" with members of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a far-right Hindu nationalist organisation.

Scholars and activists describe the RSS, formed in 1925 in Nagpur, India, as the backbone of Hindutva or the Hindu nationalist movement in India, which aims to make India a "Hindu Rashtra" or Hindu state.

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The lawsuit named a number of rights activists including Hindus for Human Rights co-founders Sunita Viswanath and Raju Rajagopal; Indian American Muslim Council executive director Rasheed Ahmed; and the Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations of North America chairman, John Prabhudoss.

It also named Audrey Truschke, a professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who was not quoted in the articles but shared them on social media.

The suit, filed by HAF, claims the individuals quoted in the article and their subsequent tweets had caused the organisation to suffer "lost donations and reputational damage".

However, federal judge Amit Mehta on Tuesday dismissed the case, saying the court lacked jurisdiction.

"The court lacks personal jurisdiction and Plaintiff has failed to state a claim," Metha said.

'Victory for journalists'

The decision was welcomed by the defendants as well as the author of the two articles, Raqib Hameed Naik, who was named in the lawsuit but not as a party to the legal case.

"The Hindu American Foundation’s [sic] lawsuit against me and four other defendants is dismissed by Judge Mehta," Truschke said on Twitter, calling it "a win against the far right".

In a statement to American Kahani, Naik called the ruling "a relief" and "a big victory for journalists who cover Hindu nationalism in the diaspora".

"The lawsuit was intended to make an example out of me and send a chilling message to journalists to be ready for repercussions if they write stories critical of Hindu nationalism," he said.

"The court order will set a precedent and allow more journalists to write freely about Hindu nationalism, without fear of frivolous lawsuits."

The HAF said in a statement that the decision was deeply disappointing and added that the suit was dismissed on procedural grounds, not the claims it brought forward.

"HAF [Hindu American Foundation] was harmed by lies made and repeated by well-known anti-Hindu activists," it claimed.

"But defamation requires a very high bar in the United States so the suit did not proceed further. Notably, this case would likely be victorious in UK or Indian courts due to differing standards for defamation."

However, the judge stated in the opinion that "HAF fails to plausibly plead that any statement made by any defendant is verifiably false", adding that most of the statements in question were opinions.

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