- If there is a silver lining to the cruelty of the DGH event, it will be in its uniting of Hindu Americans and Hindus globally in opposition to it.
On the same day that the Taliban overran Kabul, a website appeared announcing that South Asian studies departments from across the U.S., Canada, and Europe were hosting an event sponsored by nearly 41 universities.
The three-day event would start on September 10th, one day before the 20th anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attacks in American history. Since Afghanistan falls squarely within geographic South Asia and the patronage and ideology animating the Taliban’s march is transnational, one might presume that the conference would focus on this urgent topic.
Instead, the website featured a claw hammer ripping out presumably Hindu men dressed in orange (a color considered sacred by Hindus), with the title “Dismantling Global Hindutva.”
Organizers displayed a grid with dozens of university logos, ranging from the shields of Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, and Princeton to that of McMaster and University of Toronto in Canada, as sponsors.
Hindutva? On September 11 while the Taliban is on a march to upend South Asia?
Hindutva is a loaded word with definitions that span the spiritual to political
“Hindutva” is not a word we at the Hindu American Foundation use to describe our work, nor one we engage with politically or ideologically.
But the DGH website makes clear that its interpretation of Hindutva is political, and its intention is to dismantle the word and the Indian political party that espouses it, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
At HAF, we have no quarrel with those who have a quarrel with the BJP or are involved in Indian politics.
But should U.S. universities actually sponsor partisan political events about a foreign nation?
From our engagement with Hindu advocacy over the past two decades, I know well that criticism of Hindutva — even when it is a legitimate condemnation of vigilantes carrying out attacks in the name of Hinduism or Hindus — has a history of veering quickly into Hinduphobia.
In fact, we recently filed a defamation lawsuit after a few organizations labeled us “Hindutva” and then had published sordid lies alleging misuse of COVID-19 PPP funds for violence against religious minorities and ties to foreign entities. Tagging Hindu groups as “Hindutva” is a smear tactic to malign and intimidate us into silence by ascribing false motivations and horrible misdeeds and alleging dual loyalty. It’s a tactic we’ve faced for the 18-years HAF has been in existence.
How would DGH focus its criticism and dismantling of Hindutva?
Would the DGH event explore the concept of Hindutva with eminent scholars that study the complex history and contested narratives around Hindutva from inside and outside the tradition and represent a diversity of viewpoints? Would they reconcile and recognize the long history of Hinduphobia and ensure it does not affect Hindu American students and faculty on their campus when condemning Hindutva?
A preliminary list of speakers and reading resources published on the DGH website answers those questions. The answer is not reassuring.
A poet selected to give a keynote is known for calling the Hindu deity, Lord Rama, a dickhead, with various more epithets reserved for other revered deities.
One was the politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) and an avowed political opponent of the BJP — affirming the political nature of the so-called conference.
Another is a vocal proponent of separating Kashmir from India.
The remaining have almost no scholarship in Hindu philosophy, rather having expertise in race theory, Islam, Marxism, theatre, or English, among other varied disciplines, and many are radical activists with no academic affiliation at all.
In a perfunctory effort to distinguish Hindutva from Hinduism, the best DGH could muster was an appalling definition that Hinduism is “contradictory,” “contested,” and “rightly critiqued for the deep inequities in Indian society.”
Hinduism, to DGH organizers, has no meaning worth thoughtful articulation — and worse, DGH reduces a timeless tradition rooted in the concept of Oneness of existence, non-violence, and selfless service, to social evils such as caste discrimination that afflict Indians of all backgrounds.
DGH doubles down on denying Hinduphobia while fomenting it
A few days after its initial publication, the DGH website referenced a glossary of terms put forth by the South Asia Scholar Activist Collective (SASAC).
Thus began, on the DGH social media feed and website, a strange, sustained campaign focused on doubling down on Hinduphobia denialism and simultaneously fomenting it.
The SASAC glossary defines Hinduphobia as a “recently coined term,” when, actually, it has been in use for at least a century.
Then the DGH organizers make the horrifying and historically false claim that “‘Hinduphobia’ rests on the false notion that Hindus have faced systematic oppression throughout history.”
Despite this denialism on the part of DGH organizers and the SASAC, there is a widely accepted documented history of the planned genocide and ethnoreligious cleansings of Hindus.
One need only remember 1971 when over a million Bengali Hindus were killed; or 1989 onwards, when over 350,000 Kashmiri Pandits were cleansed from their ancestral homeland and 700 Pandits were killed; or the 1990s when some 150,000 Llosthampas, mostly Hindu, were driven out of Bhutan; or today where a few hundred remaining Hindus and Sikhs desperately seek rescue from Taliban controlled Afghanistan; or the ongoing persecution of Hindus in Pakistan leading to their erasure as a people.
As the DGH website was updated, the use of Hinduphobic tropes only increased. A late entry invoked the term ‘Brahmanism’.
Brahmanism is a term created by neocolonial Indologists in the 19th and early 20th century and has no meaning within the Hindu tradition.
Protestant bias, widespread Christian anti-Semitism, and racist ideas about the origins of Indians as a people led many Indologists to equate Brahmins (who they viewed as the torchbearers of a backward and heathen religion or Brahmanism) with their Jewish counterparts and similarly demonized them.
Hindu students on American campuses are also not spared. SASAC scholar-activists engage in unbelievable fear-mongering, warning other South Asian students, “especially Muslims, Dalits, those who identify as Feminist, or LGBTQ+” of the dangers of students espousing non-defined “Hindu-centric ideas.” Bear in mind that this is a manual authored by educators responsible for the safety and wellbeing of all students, regardless of background or beliefs.
Militating against Hindutva also means, apparently, attacking the integrity of India.
That speaker with a long history of activism claiming Kashmir was never a part of India, but of Central Asia, demands that the Indian territory of Kashmir be, as Pakistan demands, ceded to Pakistan or given independence. He is slated to speak in a session questioning the “contours” of the Indian nation, and presumably will announce that India is as undefined and nebulous as the religion that inhabits it.
So, while the DGH event has been presented as an academic conference, complete with the imprimatur implied by dozens of university logos, it clearly has activist/political objectives.
And even as DGH insists that attacking Hindutva is not attacking Hinduism, it defines Hinduism in fatuous phrases, explicitly erases a horrific history of Hindu persecution and ongoing Hinduphobia, and demonizes Hindu students and faculty who may hold dissenting views.
The outrage in the community had little to do with the word “Hindutva,” but had everything to do with the fact that Hindutva was a smokescreen for anti-Hindu and anti-India activism
And what about ‘Hindutva,’ the contested term sparking such a problematic gathering of activists and scholars?
It’s a Sanskrit word that literally means “Hinduness,” but there is no consensus definition of what exactly this means.
The Indian Supreme Court defined it as the Hindu way of life and the Hindu spiritual leader currently heading the apex body of Hindu sampradayas (religious traditions), calls Hindutva an “abstract noun implying the essence of Hindu Dharma.”
When originally defined, Hindutva meant a cultural Hindu identity, and was later redefined to highlight the indigeneity of Hindus to the Indian geography. It is also considered the nationalist ideology espoused by the BJP.
But just as many Muslims strongly protest the use of terms such as “radical Islam” or “jihadi” due to their stigmatizing effect on all Muslims, weaponizing a term that sounds like, and only adds a suffix “tva” to “Hindu” — when most Americans have no basic understanding about Hinduism — raises fears of targeting.
Would a Hindu student on one of those forty college campuses have to qualify their “Hinduness” and not “Hindutvaness” if challenged by classmates or instructors?
Out of this, the largest grassroots protest in North America against academic antics targeting Hindus was born.
Some one million letters were sent to co-sponsoring universities. Many Hindus took to social media to discuss the DGH event and what it implied for Hindus worldwide. Alumni and faculty at those institutions mobilized to contact universities and challenge the use of logos to support what is in essence a political event.
College students released videos admonishing that the DGH event’s combative messaging left them feeling unsafe on campuses and intimidated into silence if their views were viscerally opposed to the South Asian faculty orthodoxy on their campus.
The message in the letters and statements of political leaders was clear: not to cancel the conference, but to expose how South Asian studies departments were failing Hindus in inveighing against Hindutva.
Letters to universities argued that logos should be removed to institutionally dissociate from an overtly partisan political event, and that universities must not financially support a political event in contravention of relevant not-for-profit regulations and their very mission of providing a liberal education.
Universities were reminded of their responsibilities to students and faculty. Students and faculty must also have the academic freedom to explore questions, posit ideas, and express opinions without being viewpoint policed or fearing being labeled a “supremacist” or “extremist” and paying a professional price, as many academics have.
The response from universities was immediate.
Several universities sent letters to students, alumni and HAF offices categorically stating that their logos were used without permission, and that the university was dissociating from any semblance of sponsorship.
Logos were promptly removed from the DGH website. The communist politician from India was removed as a conference speaker at some point too.
Nearly a hundred academics from around the world prepared to publish a letter opposing institutional endorsement of the DGH event, and prominent academics and authors excoriated conference organizers for engaging in Hinduphobia denialism.
After over 150 Hindu American temples and Hindu cultural organizations voiced their collective opposition to the conference and several Hindu advocacy organizations raised objections to the institutionalization of Hinduphobia, the extent of opposition to the DGH conference in the Hindu American community became clear.
DGH organizers now lacked credibility when they pointed to a small human rights group claiming to offer Hindu community support to their effort.
DGH may say they are attacking Hindutva and not Hinduism, but conference messaging was interpreted by Hindu Americans only as the latter.
If there is a silver lining to the cruelty of the DGH event, it will be in its uniting of Hindu Americans and Hindus globally in opposition to it.
No other event in recent times has galvanized those finding inspiration in Hinduism to root out a rot afflicting a heavily politicized and activist South Asian academy, or expose the muzzle that mutes any reasonable consideration of Hinduphobia.
Endowments made to South Asian studies departments by prominent Indians and Indian Americans are being viewed through a new lens, and I am aware of several that are contacting institutions they support to register their disapproval.
Ultimately, the DGH event will happen as scheduled and Hinduism will survive another attempt to undercut the spiritual significance it holds for billions.
But what the events of the past few weeks have confirmed is that, while Hinduphobia may manifest in various ways and get normalized in the cloistered walls of academia, the struggle against Hinduphobia will not relent.
Suhag Shukla is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Hindu American Foundation.