- We filed a complaint against the university because the ‘Dismantling Global Hindutva’ conference is only the latest in a string of anti-Hindu activism and scholarship promoted or sponsored by faculty and departments.
This past September, thousands of Hindus across the country were raising an alarm over a planned conference called Dismantling Global Hindutva (DGH). DGH organizers insisted that their aim was to “dismantle” Hindutva, a contested term with varied meanings, but we worried that the conference would veer into attacking Hinduism, a spiritual tradition for a billion adherents. We were concerned this would happen because the event website featured resources and speakers known to promote Hinduphobia and anti-Hindu hatred.
Watching the virtual conference for three entire days, those concerns were entirely validated.
In back to back panels, we heard speakers go on about how Hindus were violent, inherently bigoted, and a danger to democratic values. Hindus were solely responsible for all of India’s social inequities. Slurs such as ‘Brahmanism’ — a term that perpetuates racist, Eurocentric constructions about Hinduism and Hindus that were also informed by deep anti-Semitism — were rampant. Hindu texts were discussed not as profound religious treatises, but falsely as wellsprings of inequality, promoting caste, and perpetuating bigotry and exploitation.
And despite disclaimers issued by DGH organizers that their target was the Hindutva they defined as a nationalist, exclusivist ideology entirely separate from Hinduism the religion, speaker after speaker repeatedly insisted that Hindutva and Hinduism were inseparable. One moderator, a former faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, even asked panelists that instead of focusing on dismantling Hindutva, should not the focus be on dismantling Hinduism.
Though several universities originally listed as co-sponsors distanced themselves from the event, others failed to even acknowledge that the wariness of the Hindu American community — a community that sent close to one million concerned emails to university presidents, diversity and inclusion leaders, and other key staff — merited a response.
Among these, and possibly ground zero for conceiving the event, is the University of Pennsylvania.
Prior to the conference, my co-counsel and I reached out to key University of Pennsylvania administrators, expressing concerns about the conference’s one-sidedness, the platforming of speakers’ with extensive histories of perpetuating negative stereotypes, slurs, and distorted facts about Hindus and Hinduism, and the potential effects this kind of vitriolic scholar-activism would have on the psychological and professional safety of Hindu students and faculty on campus. We know other parents, students, and alumni called or wrote thousands of letters raising similar concerns.
None of us received a response.
The conference is unfortunately just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the fomenting of Hinduphobia by largely South Asia studies faculty on college campuses like Penn. That’s why the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) filed a Title VI complaint with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, because a university cannot benefit from taxpayer dollars and at the same time fail to address concerns of a hostile environment created by its faculty that is directed at Indian and Hindu students, faculty, and staff.
We filed this complaint because the DGH conference is only the latest in a string of anti-Hindu activism and scholarship promoted or sponsored by faculty and departments at the University of Pennsylvania.
Take for instance a guide called the “Hindutva Harassment Field Manual” authored by the South Asia Scholar Activists Collective. This “student resource,” attributed to faculty members from mostly elite universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, engages in unbelievable fear mongering of only Hindu students. The manual warns Muslim, feminist, LGBTQ+, and other students that they are at risk from Hindu students who may espouse, “elite Hindu-centric ideas.” No elaboration is provided to explain what “elite” or “Hindu-centric” actually means.
This manual also dismisses the existence of Hinduphobia, alleging that Hindus are merely appropriating social justice and anti-racism language and that “‘Hinduphobia’ rests on the false notion that Hindus have faced systematic oppression throughout history and in present times.” This is academically dishonest and erases well-documented religio-ethnic cleansings and genocides of Hindus throughout South Asia and the institutionalized discrimination and human rights violations they face in other parts of the world, not to speak of bias, discrimination, and hate crimes faced by Hindus right here at home.
The manual perpetuates racist stereotypes, falsely equating caste and caste discrimination with Hinduism, even citing an activist group’s report that cherry-picked data resulting in fabricated conclusions about the alleged prevalence of caste-based discrimination in the U.S. In fact, a major survey by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins) dismissed that very report, and found that the majority of the approximately 4.2 million people of Indian descent in the U.S. (accounting for less than 1.3% of the entire population) do not identify by caste and less than 5% reported having faced caste discrimination.
Then there is Students Against Hindutva Ideology (SAHI), which the authors of the field manual encourage students to join (one of the manual authors is a SAHI advisor). SAHI hosts anti-Hindu campus protests on campuses across the U.S., inviting students of all religious backgrounds to wear black and desecrate Holi, a sacred and color-filled Hindu festival, ostensibly to condemn policies of the Indian government and Hindutva. SAHI does not similarly appropriate the sacred holidays of any other faith, underscoring the specific and targeted hostility directed towards Hindus and Hinduism by students who are being advised by faculty. University of Pennsylvania’s South Asia Society Board, Radical South Asian Collective, Muslim Student Association and Christian Association are all participating signatories behind SAHI events.
As a parent of two college-aged children, I am horrified that too many educators, presumably trained in the rigors of research and scientific method, and entrusted with the safety and wellbeing of all students regardless of background or beliefs, are now describing themselves as “scholar-activists.” These activists seem so intoxicated by the power of the Academy and a tyranny of certainty in their ideological stances, that they believe targeting Hindu students for their beliefs and practices with negative stereotypes, slurs, and distorted facts is an acceptable exercise of “academic freedom.”
The purpose of liberal education is for educators to teach students not what to think, but how to think. This can only happen if scholars separate their scholarship and responsibilities as educators from their personal politics, and universities insist on academic integrity, promote open inquiry, and encourage viewpoint diversity.
Suhag Shukla is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Hindu American Foundation.