The Hindu Right and Attacks on Academic Freedom in the US

The Hindu Right and Attacks on Academic Freedom in the US

The Hindu Right and Attacks on Academic Freedom in the US

Every scholar who conducts research on India is aware that their publications are probably being monitored—and that taking a critical position can lead to threats, beatings, and even murder.

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When a scholar who teaches at a university in the United States arrived recently at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, the immigration officer who scanned his passport asked about the subject of his recent book on Indian history. The historian inquired how the immigration officer knew about it, and was told, “I have a list of your publications in front of me.”

Every academic who conducts research on India is aware that their publications are probably being monitored. Scholars who write on Hinduism, Hindu nationalism, and Hindutva—the extremist ideology of the Hindu right—assume that their work has been included in an Indian government database, especially authors who provide critiques of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the family of Hindutva organizations known as the Sangh Parivar. What concerns scholars is not only whether they will be allowed to conduct research in India, but whether they will be banned even from entering the country in the future.

In India, the situation for academics who disagree with the basic premise of the Hindu right—that India is a Hindu nation—face greater dangers. There is a growing movement to declare that India did not achieve genuine independence in 1947 when it was founded as a secular, pluralist democracy. Rather, India truly became independent in 2014 when Modi was elected prime minister. In August 2021, the first temple dedicated to Modi as a deity was constructed in the city of Pune. An argument made by some on the fringe of the Hindu right is that Modi is the modern avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu.

Any critique of the nation’s history and politics necessarily is often interpreted as reflecting the hatred of Hindus—even if these critiques are made by fellow Hindus. The consequence is that academics are declared “anti-national” in India—especially if they comment on human rights abuses in Kashmir. In the case of Nivedita Menon, a professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University, a student organization attached to the BJP called the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Manch filed a police complaint in 2016 for a speech delivered by Menon on her own campus. TV channels and newspapers sympathetic to the BJP picked up this story and repeated the declaration that Menon’s analysis of Kashmir was “anti-national.” There are scores of similar cases, especially targeting scholars based in Kashmir. Other faculty have been arrested and charged with sedition and terrorism, as in the recent case of Anand Teltumdbe, who was booked in 2020 under a legislation known as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) that is meant to protect India from criticism of its sovereignty and integrity. The former Supreme Court justice Madan B. Lokur has argued that UAPA, conflating critique and dissent with terrorism, often leads to individuals’ being imprisoned for an indefinite period without trial.

The writers Apoorvanand and Gauhar Raza have called the national student organization known as the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) “the bully that is destroying India’s academic culture.” The ABVP not only uses intimidation against faculty and university administrators, but often even resorts to violence, as in the vicious beating of Professor Prasanta Chakravarty at Delhi University in 2017. Following the attack, the Indian digital newspaper The Quint published a report detailing numerous attacks by the ABVP dating back to 2008. In the most serious attacks, scholars and writers have been murdered by the proponents of Hindutva, as in the cases of Narendra Dabholkar (2013), M.M. Kalburgi (2015), Govind Pansare (2015), and Gauri Lankesh (2017).

Scholars who conduct research on India are also aware that they are being monitored on their campuses here in the United States. American organizations that propagate Hindutva and are sympathetic to Modi, the BJP, and the Sangh Parivar have trained their scrutiny on the American academy. They have been inspired by the movement against academics in India. They argue that Hindutva is Hinduism, in direct contrast to V.D. Savarkar, the central architect of modern Hindu nationalism whose book Essentials of Hindutva (1923) popularized the concept of Hindutva. In the United States, “Hinduphobia” has become a term deployed to denounce anyone who is concerned about inequality based on class, caste, race, religion, gender, and sexuality in India. Any less-than-celebratory study of the history and politics of India is branded as “Hinduphobic.” Academic research that provides a critique of Hindutva is often condemned for “hurting the sentiments of Hindus”—a clarion call dating back to the early 20th century.

A recent academic conference titled “Dismantling Hindutva” that was organized by dozens of US universities was met with denunciations and threats. Online trolls advocated the use of violence against academic participants and their families. University administrators were inundated with messages that any critique of Hindutva must be viewed as Hinduphobia. For academics to analyze the oppression of women, caste discrimination, citizenship rights of Muslims, or farmer suicides was viewed as anathema to Hindus and Hinduism. The Hindu American Foundation (HAF), an advocacy group for the Hindu right based in Washington, D.C., led protests arguing that academic critiques of Hindutva were veiled assaults on Hinduism. By its own account, HAF helped to generate over 1 million e-mails against the conference organizers. PEN America and nearly 40 national academic societies and organizations, including the American Historical Association and the Modern Language Association, condemned the attacks on academic freedom.

Organizations of the Hindu right are only beginning their battles to publicly ostracize members of the academy whose writings are viewed as antithetical to Hindu nationalism. Nearly every major university in the United States has a student organization connected to the Sangh Parivar. Some leaders openly discuss the practice of background checks on academics. A Hindutva organization in California not only produced a report that condemned scholarship influenced by Marxism, feminism, critical theory, and subaltern studies, but it also included a blacklist of academics who should be specifically targeted. Several names on the list have been harassed for years, including receiving death threats on a regular basis. Some scholars now request security at their lectures in the United States.

To attack academic freedom is now viewed as a duty in the name of Hindutva. The question is whether university administrators will act to protect the academic freedom of faculty who write about India. The fear of being called Hinduphobic may be too powerful for academic institutions in today’s political climate. But it should be remembered that not all phobias are the same. Universities can also opt to take the position of an anonymous newspaper writer in The Tribune (Lahore), published in 1887, who asked, “Is not then this Hinduphobia a mere phantom?”

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