INVESTIGATION: How US-France ‘philanthropy’ funds anti-India culture war in academia, media

| Updated: 10 September, 2023 3:01 pm IST

NEW DELHI: After alleging “direct assault on democracy in India” before a group of EU parliamentarians in Brussels, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi delivered a lecture at Sciences Po in Paris on Saturday. Why is this university important in his Europe tour plan?

An investigation by The New Indian, based on information available in public domain, has revealed that Sciences Po university and its researcher Christophe Jaffrelot – who is considered a prominent authority on the Hindu right – are part of a US-funded network of non-profits and foundations that spend billions to weaken nationalist governments by reshaping narratives to safeguard and further American interests.

American philanthropic foundations have been major vectors of US influence worldwide. They provide donations, and fund research work and fellowships to media houses, academicians and journalists who could propagate narratives set by American agencies and pressure groups. Among such “philanthropic” organisations is Ford Foundation, the richest of them. Its stated mission: the establishment of peace, the strengthening of democracy and economy, and the promotion of education and scientific knowledge. For this purpose, various programs were launched abroad. A foreign office was set up in India in 1952, with a particular focus on investment as it was a non-communist Asian giant. Until the 1990s, India has been the recipient of more funds than other foreign countries.

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Ford Foundation developed a unique relationship with the Indian government and private organizations. Support was provided through technical assistance and through foreign experts sent to India. Technical aid to agriculture was, for instance, provided during the ‘Green Revolution’. Yet this was a mere aspect of a wider cultural battle against Communism raging during the Cold War.

It was a leader in that field, sponsoring cultural organizations and magazines worldwide. The ‘big 3’ foundations (Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie) had links with the CIA, acting to some extent as instruments of covert US foreign policy. According to information available in public domain, important officials from the CIA were placed in these foundations. If the funding to an intermediate organization was sometimes revealed, a foundation would continue to support this ‘CIA orphan’. An emblematic example of a cultural organization being a CIA-front was The Asia Foundation.

In the US, these foundations also played a big part in training American experts and establishing research centers in South Asia. Ford Foundation thus promoted area studies in the American universities, in an attempt to gain expertise and exercise its influence. The effort was not limited to academics only, but involved training journalists, businessmen and government officials.

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Nowadays, the foundations are less directly involved abroad and exercise their influence through grants to local organizations. Today, they rather work with NGOs than with the governments. According to information in public domain, Ford now has a strong position in the network of NGOs, whether international or local (for example, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch). Besides, the US remains a major funding source for India-related studies worldwide.

France and the international making of India-related knowledge

This investigation explores the web of the international production of knowledge and information on India, in which France holds a strong position. Sciences Po is France’s most prestigious training and research center in political science. It hosts the Center for International Studies (CERI), whose initial development was fostered by the Ford and Rockefeller foundations from 1957. It was the first center of its kind in France, illustrating the American influence in the shaping of the international relations field. Sciences Po has a compelling record in supplying France with political elites.

Christophe Jaffrelot is the dominant voice on Indian political studies in France. He is a researcher at the CERI and was its director. Most of the research about India is currently gravitating around him (he has directed more than 30 PhD thesis). His core ideas can be summarized as follows: democracy and the rule of law are declining in India under the pressure of national-populism and authoritarianism. Fueled by Hindutva, the country is becoming an ‘ethnic democracy’ in which Muslims and other minorities are reduced to second-class citizens.

According to information available in public domain, Jaffrelot is connected to a vast network of academia, journalism and lobbying. To begin with, he is a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This American foreign policy think tank has a center in New Delhi. The ties with big philanthropy are strong. Among others, it is funded by the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Gates Foundation, the Open Society Foundations (Soros) and the Democracy Fund (Omidyar). The board of trustees has had prominent figures, some of whom occupied a position in the Obama administration. The Carnegie Endowment still is, to an unknown extent, in the CIA loop: its previous President William J Burns was appointed as director of the CIA.

The questionable connections don’t stop here. A transatlantic partnership composed of Columbia University, Princeton University and Sciences Po launched in 2021 a 3-year research project titled ‘Muslims in India in a time of Hindu majoritarianism’. It received a $385,000 grant by the Henry Luce Foundation and is co-directed by Jaffrelot, Bernard Haykel (Princeton) and Manan Ahmed (Columbia).

The Henry Luce Foundation is a textbook case of shady philanthropy. Its President Mariko Silver is a former member of the Obama Administration (homeland security and international policy) and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. This influential think tank is funded by the ‘big 3’. It hosts a corporate program with big multinationals (including GAFAM) to “link private-sector leaders with decision-makers from government, media, nongovernmental organizations, and academia to discuss issues at the intersection of business and foreign policy”. The overlapping interests could not be clearer.

The plot then thickens. The Henry Luce Foundation works with The Asia Foundation. Their boards have three members in common. Interestingly, The Asia Foundation was directly established by the CIA in 1954 “to undertake cultural and educational activities on behalf of the United States Government in ways not open to official US agencies”. After revelations about its funding in 1966, it was transformed in a non-profit organization, following a common pattern.

Later, everything was done to secure its direct funding by the US Department of State because it was deemed extremely valuable to support US interests in Asia.

According to information available in public domain, Henry Luce Foundation’s co-chair of the board is also on the board of trustees of the Carter Center, funded by Gates and Open Society foundations. The Carter Center launched a new ‘India Policy’, an initiative to “educate US policymakers on issues related to democracy and human rights in India”. The concern is that “in recent years, India has seen a significant decline in global indices that measure the strength of democratic norms and practices”. Among others, Vinod Jose (who just resigned from his position as executive editor of The Caravan magazine) will advise it.

But the web extends to Indian academia too. Jaffrelot is a member of the scientific board of the Trivedi Center for Political Data in Ashoka University. One of its partners is the Center for Policy Research, which has received grants from The Asia Foundation and big philanthropy. It was also awarded by the US Department of State. The FCRA license of the Center for Policy Research was suspended last March by PM Narendra Modi’s government, following suspicions about irregular foreign funding.

The trail finally leads to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which established its own think tank, the Center for Analysis, Planning and Strategy (CAPS). Its director was previously head of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, which is also a contributor to the CAPS. It was founded thanks to George Soros’ Open Society Foundations who is particularly involved in it to “save Europe”. Jaffrelot happens to be a permanent consultant in the CAPS, thus having a say in India-related foreign policies. He was also recently heard by a Commission of the French Senate, as per reports.

Influencing information is the last piece of the puzzle. The hegemonic views on Indian politics displayed in the Western media are, in fact, mostly based on Jaffrelot’s work. Jaffrelot himself and his former student Ingrid Therwath regularly write in left-wing Indian media such as The Wire and Scroll. Barkha Dutt also interviewed him. All these names surfaced in the wake of the recent Newsclick controversy about a global web of Chinese propaganda, centered on the American businessman Neville Roy Singham and leading to US philanthropy. P Sainath, who works in the think tank Tricontinental funded by Singham, appeared in a web-conference hosted by Jaffrelot. Unsurprisingly, some journalists who relentlessly relay the same narrative were offered grants by the philanthropic foundations.

Vaiju Naravane, a Professor at Ashoka University who worked for Indian and French media, received a grant from the World Press Institute, an American non-profit organization funded by Carnegie, Ford and Open Society Foundations, the investigation has found. Côme Bastin (RFI, Mediapart) and Sébastien Farcis (Libération) are grantees of the Pulitzer Center, funded by Gates Foundation and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

The big game is even more covert than it used to be. The levers of action are (almost) always legal.

One could argue that it is virtuous to fund research for ‘progressive’ purposes, and that academic freedom is not impaired. The question would remain as to the criteria for progress and the people who define them. The nexuses exposed moreover suggest a convergence of major political and financial interests which make the belief in a ‘selfless research’ sound very naive. As journalist Frances Stonor Saunders puts it: the most effective propaganda is defined as the kind where the subject moves in the direction you desire for reasons which he believes to be his own.

According to Jaffrelot’s own words, populism and its consequences in terms of authoritarianism are a main concern for him as a citizen, as well as for the institutions he is working for. Political inclinations are always at play in research, but it is problematic when it meets specific agendas. Does research inform policy making or does policy making dictate the needed research? At the very least, concerns should arise about such a concentration of capital and power over narratives in just a few people’s hands.

It is unfortunate to witness the decline of scholars grounded in Indian classical studies, whose work would be less subjected to immediate political interference. Some counterweight to political studies would be needed. It is hardly a coincidence that the teaching of Hindi in Sciences Po has ended recently. The hegemonic ambitions don’t require this type of knowledge anymore, since the agenda has shifted. Yesterday, the arch enemy was communism. Today, it seems it is any form of nationalism. Significantly, the Ford Foundation used to consider the revitalization of ‘indigenous values’ as an effective bulwark against communism. Those days are gone. The whole political map evolved and a neo-communism sprinkled with ‘intersectional’ struggles is now used against the cultural consensus needed for nation building.

It would be insufficient to regard this domination as ‘Western’ neo-colonialism in the Global South. Let us remember that during the cultural war against communism, Europe itself was a playground for the philanthropic foundations. It still is. But today, these powers are international and don’t defend national interests. They work against nationalism at home too. This is a major difference with the colonial era, when imperialism largely relied on nationalism.

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