US academic conference on ‘Hindutva’ targeted by Hindu groups

‘Dismantling Global Hindutva’ organisers and speakers face harassment and intimidation by Hindu right-wing groups in the US and India.

The three-day online conference starts September 10 [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

Boston, US –  For the first time in the United States, scholars and academics from various American and international universities have come together to organise a major online conference on Hindutva.

Cosponsored by departments and centres of more than 53 universities, most of them from the US, including Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton, the “Dismantling Global Hindutva” conference will discuss various issues relating to the Hindu supremacist ideology in India and elsewhere.

Hindutva refers to a century-old right-wing movement that aims to create an ethnic Hindu state out of a multicultural India, home to more than 200 million Muslims.

The three-day conference, starting on September 10, will host various panels on global Hindutva, caste oppression, Islamophobia, and the persecution of minorities in India, featuring more than 25 academicians, activists, and journalists as speakers.

Over the past three weeks, the organisers and speakers of the conference have been on a receiving end of harassment and intimidation by various Hindu right-wing groups and individuals staunchly opposing the conference, calling it a “Hinduphobic gathering”.

The organisers insist the conference only aims to discuss the global implications of Hindutva and develop resources for an anti-Hindutva pedagogy in the academy.

‘Textbook Hindutva approach’

Since the day Meena Kandasamy’s name was released by the conference organisers as one of the speakers, she has been incessantly harassed and abused online.

A poet and caste activist, Kandasamy told Al Jazeera that a poem she wrote 10 years ago was picked up by Hindu groups, alleging it was offensive and ridiculed Hindu gods.

Kandasamy received multiple emails warning her against participating in the conference. On Twitter and Instagram, the Hindu right targeted her family, her children and even issued death threats.

“This is the textbook Hindutva approach. They just indulge in character assassination, slandering my personal life, questioning the parentage of my children, asking if they were born to one father,” Kandasamy told Al Jazeera.

“The Hindutva groups both in the US and India are miffed at the huge academic support for the conference and they just want to silence us at any cost.”

On September 3, Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, a far-right group whose members are accused of assassinating journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh in 2017, wrote a letter to India’s Home Minister Amit Shah, seeking action against the India-based speakers of the conference.

Delhi University professor Nandani Sundar, who is also one of the speakers at the conference, received hateful emails and was trolled on Twitter.

“This is what Hindutva groups have been doing in India – shutting down seminars by threatening the organisers, physical disruption etc. Now they are doing the same thing globally,” Sundar told Al Jazeera.

Charges of ‘Hinduphobia’

Some US-based Hindu groups have been aggressively campaigning and pressurising the participating universities to pull out of the conference, saying it promotes “Hinduphobia and anti-Hindu hatred”, a charge denied by the organisers.

Over the past three weeks, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), the Coalition of Hindus in North America (CoHNA), and the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) claim to have collectively sent more than 1.3 million emails to dozens of universities to withdraw their support for the conference.

Last week, the HAF issued an email action alert, calling on the non-resident Indians (NRIs) to write letters to India’s foreign ministry to persuade the cosponsoring universities to reconsider their association with the conference.

David Ludden, professor of history at New York University, one of the co-sponsoring schools, acknowledged receiving thousands of emails but says his department will not back out.

“Administrators did receive emails claiming that the conference represents anti-Hindu ideology. They reached out to me and I explained that this is an academic conference aimed at expanding the production of knowledge about Hindutva, including a critical analysis of its claim to represent Hindus, Hinduism, and Indian culture,” Ludden told Al Jazeera.

Ludden further said the recent efforts are part of a global strategy to strangle critical discourse that Hindutva supporters fear will “undermine their credibility as claimants to Hindu tradition”.

Ohio State Senator and Republican politician Niraj Antani also issued a statement, condemning the conference and calling it “racism and bigotry against the Hindus”.

“I will always stand strong against Hinduphobia,” he said.

Al Jazeera reached out to CoHNA and Senator Antani to seek more clarity on their “Hinduphobia” allegations, but did not receive any response.

“The campaign against the conference is meant to both shut down the conference and send a clear signal to all critics of Hindutva,” conference organisers told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement.

The organisers and other academics call it a concerted effort by the US-based Hindu right-wing groups to stifle any criticism of Hindu nationalism while conflating Hindutva, the political movement, and Hinduism, the religion.

Gyanendra Pandey, professor of history at Emory University, one of the participating schools, said a deliberate attempt is being made to create confusion over the usage of the terms Hindutva and Hinduism.

“Anyone with any serious knowledge of South Asia knows the difference between Hindutva and Hinduism,” Pandey told Al Jazeera.

“Hindutva is almost the polar opposite of Hinduism. It is an aggressive political movement aimed at installing an exclusivist, Hindu nationalist regime in India, in line with right-wing authoritarian movements in many other parts of the world today and requires careful study and analysis, which is what the ‘Dismantling Hindutva Conference’ will contribute to,” he said.

Attack on academic freedom

Purnima Dhavan, associate professor of history at University of Washington, Seattle, and member of South Asia Scholar Activist Collective, expressed serious concerns over the intimidation of conference organisers and speakers by the Hindu right-wing groups.

“It will have grave and negative consequences on academic work,” Dhavan told Al Jazeera.

“It creates an atmosphere of fear in the classroom when faculty and students know that they will be trolled, harassed, or threatened for any discussion or debates about these topics.”

Last week, more than 50 South Asian diaspora organisations, 937 academics from across the world, including scholars of genocide and mass violence, issued a statement in support of the conference and called for an end to the Hindu right-wing attacks on academic freedom.

“The campaign of intimidation carried out by Hindutva affiliates cannot be allowed to take root in the academy in the US, Europe, or around the world. Free speech must be protected,” said the statement.

John L Esposito, professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University, echoed Dhavan’s concerns. He said the Hindutva movement in the US is very active and uses different means, such as writing letters to university administrations and threatening scholars with lawsuits, to disrupt academic freedom.

“The threat of these groups has grown significantly in recent years. These groups wish to silence any empirical, fact-based, analysis and critique of Hindutva by the scholars,” Esposito told Al Jazeera.

He called on the US academia to initiate more debates and discussions on Hindutva.

“Academics have a professional and moral obligation to respond to Hindutva, as they would to charges of antisemitism, Islamophobia, or racism,” Esposito said.

Stanford University anthropologist Thomas Blom Hansen, a leading expert on Hindu nationalism, who himself has been at the receiving end of Hindu right-wing attacks over the last few years, called on the US-based institutions to vigorously defend academic freedom.

“It is important not to give up and not to cave in to pressure from the forces that represent themselves as representing Hindus as such but who actually represent the interests of a foreign government,” Hansen told Al Jazeera.

“Institutions need to step up to assist in that task, rather than worrying about reputations or potential donors,” added Hansen.

Source: Al Jazeera