As the world has become more aware of India’s still-grim COVID crisis, concerned and well-meaning citizens of the world have shared links through which to donate money and supplies to India’s beleaguered populace and overcrowded health and funeral services. One of the most popular of these has been a group called Sewa International.
According to the organization’s press releases, Sewa’s “Help India Defeat COVID-19” media campaign has raised millions of dollars from more than 100,000 donors since late April, with this money going toward purchasing and sending oxygen concentrators, oximeters, and other essential equipment to India, which is grappling with a dire shortage of these technologies. The organization—which is not to be confused with India’s Self-Employed Women’s Association, commonly known as SEWA—has also raised money and sent equipment for COVID relief in Nepal and Trinidad and Tobago.
Sewa’s initiative has become well-known within and beyond the Indian diaspora: Stories of distraught Indian Americans encouraging Sewa donations have proliferated in the news, and outlets like ABC News have highlighted Sewa’s work. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey earmarked $2.5 million for Sewa as part of a $15 million donation for Indian COVID relief. Internal communications provided to me by a source showed that Microsoft and Google encouraged their employees to donate to Sewa and offered matching funds, in Microsoft’s case through the donation-management platform Benevity. New Jersey’s Monroe Township partnered with Sewa to provide India aid, while the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, the largest organization representing Indian American doctors, also held a fundraiser for India with Sewa. The group also has partnered with the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency to ramp up domestic vaccination efforts in both Philadelphia and Texas, where Sewa’s U.S. branch is based.
Sewa touts itself as a service organization that’s played significant roles in past disaster relief efforts both within India and outside of it. On its Facebook pages, Sewa has posted photos of its work throughout the subcontinent during the pandemic, including delivering groceries and medical gear to low-income residents. Sewa has also showed off its oxygen concentrator donations to Aligarh Muslim University, as well as mass equipment supplies throughout India, in both its public communications and in an email sent to me. Twitter’s statement following Dorsey’s donation referred to it as “a Hindu faith-based, humanitarian, non-profit service organization.” If you look at the website for Sewa International’s U.S. branch, you’ll find it describing itself using the exact same words, adding that it is “part of a larger movement that started in India in 1989 and is active in twenty countries.”
What’s left out here is what this “larger movement” actually consists of, and who is actually benefiting from its mission. Sewa International is a direct subsidiary of the India-based nongovernmental organization Seva Bharati. While ostensibly charities, for decades, both Seva Bharati and Sewa International have reportedly worked to spread Hindu nationalist ideology throughout the country and beyond.
According to a detailed 2002 report from the Indian activist organizations Sabrang Communications and South Asia Citizens Web, Seva Bharti’s and Sewa International’s relief efforts in the aftermath of the 2001 earthquake in the state of Gujarat became a kind of domestic missionary initiative. In the devastated areas they were sent to, Sewa volunteers made a concerted effort to convert Christians, Muslims, and other minorities to Hinduism; prioritized aid for higher-caste Hindus instead of equally attending to Indians of all religions and castes; blocked assistance from other humanitarian organizations; constructed new Hindu temples; and imposed lavish Hindu ceremonies upon the populace. This wasn’t the worst of it. In 2016, journalist Neha Dixit published a lengthy investigation in India’s Outlook magazine revealing that Seva Bharati and its subsidiaries trafficked dozens of young tribal girls from various states in order to “Hinduize” them throughout 2015.
A 2002 investigation by the U.K.’s Channel 4 tracked money raised from British donors by Sewa International for earthquake relief and found that they went toward Hindu nationalist organizations and projects in India, without proper disclosure of how the funds were being used. These findings were bolstered in a 2004 report by the U.K.-based, South Asia–focused human rights group Awaaz, which detailed how internationally raised relief funds went to groups that directly incited communal violence in 2002 during the Gujarat riots, which saw months of attacks on Muslims by Hindu extremists. (Incidentally, current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat at that time.) Much of the funding from Sewa International’s British chapter sponsored such activities led by India’s Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, known most commonly as the RSS.
You can’t understand India’s current leadership without understanding the RSS. The nearly hundred-year-old paramilitary organization has a mission of establishing a state based on Hindu supremacist values, following an ideal that has taken inspiration from fascist movements throughout history. For decades, RSS ideologues and paramilitary groups have stoked violence against religious minorities and rewritten Indian history to paint the subcontinent as the rightful home of Hindus, and Hindus only. The RSS is the center of an umbrella group of Hindu nationalist institutions known as the Sangh Parivar, which also includes the country’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Many of the current leaders of the BJP, including Modi, came up through the ranks of the RSS and still hold close ties with the organization.
According to the Awaaz report, Sewa’s volunteer projects in several areas of India led to the establishment of new RSS cells in those areas, intended to continue spreading the group’s ideology. A former secretary general of the RSS all but admitted that “the ultimate object of all these endeavors”—referring to Sewa International and Seva Bharati—”is Hindu sangathan: consolidation and strengthening of the Hindu society.” A 2011 Ohio State University report traced how several regions of India where Sewa offered service subsequently increased their overall support for the BJP. Last summer, reporters for Indian newsmagazine the Caravan spoke with RSS volunteers who were involved within Sewa International– and Seva Bharati–led pandemic aid projects, many of whom admitted that this very sentiment remains the ultimate goal of the Sangh Parivar’s relief strategy.
It’s also worth noting that the RSS’s influence is not limited to its home country. From the 1940s onward, RSS members who’ve migrated to other countries have established branches of an international group known as the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, meant to mobilize the Hindu diaspora toward the RSS’s goals. The U.S. branch of the HSS was registered in Houston—where Sewa is also based—as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 1989. There’s significant overlap between the leadership of Sewa’s U.S. branch and that of the HSS: The chairman of Sewa International’s U.S. board is Ramesh Bhutada, a longtime Hindu nationalist activist who also established the U.S.’s first outpost of the HSS. Bhutada has organized campaigns for Modi from abroad and pushed RSS-linked candidates for the U.S. Congress, hoping to spread the ideals of Hindutva philosophy on both sides of the Atlantic.
Sewa’s COVID fundraisers have not been accused of pulling the same stunts its Gujarat fundraisers did in the U.K. However, most of Sewa’s social media posts show that medical technology has often gone to initiatives from other Sangh Parivar organizations, sometimes with direct RSS ties. A Sewa leader donating oxygen concentrators in Kashmir appeared with RSS leader Indresh Kumar to publicize the giveaway. Kumar has notoriously and publicly supported Islamophobic legislation and called for population control, among other things.
I asked several of the institutions involved with Sewa donations why they were promoting a charity with these connections. Microsoft declined to comment; Twitter and Google never responded. Benevity, the platform through which these donations are made, sent an email statement noting that:
Our charity vetting and validation process ensures that organizations in the Benevity Causes Portal are registered as a charity or nonprofit with the appropriate governing body in the country of operation, are in good standing under applicable laws, and are not from an embargoed country or on a watch list, both at the time of import and prior to the disbursement of funds.
I also reached out to Sewa International’s U.S. branch to ask which organizations were benefiting from Sewa aid and whether there was any merit to suspicions, based on past reports, that the money was being used to bolster ideological projects. A spokesperson directed me toward the nonprofit’s Facebook page for their examples, admitted to “us[ing] local partners to ensure that we maximize the benefits of our efforts,” and further wrote to me in part that:
Every dollar raised is being properly accounted for. In fact, Sewa has earned 100% perfect scores from Charity Navigator—the top nonprofit rating agency—in the areas of “Financial Health” and “Accountability and Transparency.”
Sewa’s history and connections add up to one core fact: The RSS’s ultimate goal is to permanently establish a Hindu state, and it is employing institutions like Sewa toward that end. Those who have donated to Sewa or encouraged donations should at least be aware of what that money may really be used for.
Update, June 15, 2021: This piece has been updated to clarify the difference between Sewa International and the Indian women’s volunteer group SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association). Sewa’s name does not use an acronym.