The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Under fire from Hindu nationalist groups, U.S.-based scholars of South Asia worry about academic freedom

The audience reacts as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at a rally in Houston in September 2019. (Thomas Shea/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI — After U.S.-based researchers announced an online conference to discuss the rise of Hindu nationalism, a right-wing political movement with roots in India, the backlash was swift and staggering.

Nearly a million emails were sent out in protest to universities, the event website went offline for two days after a false complaint, and an email account associated with the event was attacked with thousands of spam messages. Hindu groups said the event was Hinduphobic and fostered hate against the community.

By the time the event unfolded Sept. 10, its organizers and speakers had received death and rape threats, prompting some to withdraw. Pro-government news channels in India aired commentaries that alleged the conference provided an “intellectual cover for the Taliban.”

“I was shocked and certainly concerned about how to move forward safely,” said Dheepa Sundaram, a professor of Hindu studies at the University of Denver and part of the team organizing the conference. It is not normal, she said, for an academic gathering to face bomb threats.

Hindu nationalism in India has been resurgent under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who rose to power in 2014 and has pursued an agenda that critics say threatens the rights of its minorities and compromises its democratic institutions. The result has been deepening polarization not only in India but also in diaspora communities.

Now those tensions are seeping into American universities. In interviews, a dozen academics based in the United States say pressure from Hindu nationalist groups and supporters of the Indian government threatens to undermine academic freedom on American campuses, creating a hostile environment for those specializing in India and South Asia. Some of those interviewed did not want to be named for fear of being targeted or because of employment concerns at their universities.

While academics say that American universities have largely withstood the pushback from the Hindu right, professors without tenure say they worry the pressure could hurt their future employment prospects. The threats have also prompted some schools to require security at public events about South Asia.

“We are at a tipping point,” said Rohit Chopra, one of the conference organizers and a professor of communication at Santa Clara University. He said the issue went beyond the conference. “It’s about the principles of freedom of expression, academic freedom and of a university being a space where people can speak for the most vulnerable.”

The online conference, Dismantling Global Hindutva, included panels on the hierarchical caste system, Islamophobia and differences between Hinduism the religion and Hindutva the majoritarian ideology. The event was co-sponsored by departments of more than 40 American universities, including Harvard and Columbia.

The protests against the conference in the United States were led by advocacy groups such as the Hindu American Foundation and the Coalition of Hindus of North America, which both organized mass emails to universities.

“It’s an academic exercise to critique, maybe even to deconstruct, but dismantling is very squarely a political activity,” said Suhag Shukla, co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation, referring to the conference title.

The letter sent out by the foundation to the universities said the conference provided a platform for activists who support extremist movements” and who deny the “resulting genocides of Hindus.” Both groups said they supported academic freedom and denied responsibility for the threats.

But for some, the threats and backlash were the tipping point. A professor who has taught at a Big Ten public university for 16 years made the difficult decision to withdraw from the conference. He spoke on the condition of anonymity over security concerns.

The professor is an academic and expert on the subject of the conference. But his immediate worry was an upcoming trip to India to visit an ailing parent.

He said he doesn’t want to end up in a situation beyond his control. “As an intellectual, it’s utterly demoralizing. I’ve been miserable and depressed,” he said.

Others, like Audrey Truschke, a professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University, have lived under the shadow of this fear for years.

She frequently receives hate mail laced with death and rape threats from Hindu nationalists for her work on Muslim rulers of India. This month, she said, she was notified by the Rutgers police about a violent threat made against her on a university phone number. The matter is under investigation.

She is battling a lawsuit from the Hindu American Foundation for what it says are defamatory statements. A group of Hindu students from Rutgers petitioned the administration that she not be allowed to teach courses on Hinduism and India. She often requires armed security for public speaking events.

Frustrated by repeated smear and misinformation campaigns against scholars, Truschke and other South Asian scholars from North America recently created a guide for academics facing harassment from Hindu nationalists on how to defend themselves and educate others.

Scholars say that though individuals had often faced the ire of Hindu nationalists in the past, the concerted effort to shut down the conference is unprecedented.

Shutting down ideas

In January 2020, the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas at Austin hosted an educational panel open to the public and featuring faculty members. The topic was the citizenship law passed by the Indian government that had provoked widespread protests in the country.

Critics said the law was discriminatory against Muslims because it fast-tracked citizenship for immigrants of six faiths but excluded Islam. The government said the law was necessary to offer refuge to persecuted religious minorities.

Vrinda Marwah, a doctoral candidate who was in the audience, said a group of Indian men in attendance fanned across the room and repeatedly interrupted and heckled some of the speakers.

“It was shocking because of how I’d experienced the university until then, even on prickly matters,” said Marwah, now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Utah.

For the next event held at a local community center, things got worse.

Marwah, who was delivering a presentation on the citizenship law protests, said she was booed and cut short her speech.

Laxminarayan Raja, a professor in the aerospace engineering department at the University of Texas at Austin who was present at the two events and knew some of the audience members who raised questions, disagreed that there was an attempt to disrupt the meetings.

He said there was no opposing viewpoint on the panels and the events had an anti-Modi, anti-India and anti-Hindu stance. “When people feel frustrated, they will raise their voice,” he said.

At a time when American campuses have been roiled by the issue of racial injustices, critics say Hindu nationalists have used the diaspora community’s religious minority status to shut down criticism.

“They use the language of American multiculturalism to brand any critique as Hinduphobia,” said Gyan Prakash, a historian at Princeton University who was a speaker at the Hindutva conference.

The India connection

Recent research published by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace concluded that members of the Indian diaspora in the United States overwhelmingly vote for Democrats and support secularism, but in the Indian context, they lean toward the Hindu right.

Modi’s party and its progenitor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have cultivated a relationship with diaspora communities for years, building on the notion of Hindu pride. When Modi ran for reelection in 2019, hundreds of Indians who reside in the United States and Britain traveled to India to campaign for him.

Months later, Modi was feted by thousands of cheering Indian Americans at a massive rally in Houston, accompanied by President Donald Trump. Rishi Bhutada, on the board of the Hindu American Foundation, was a spokesperson for the event. The foundation has routinely advocated before the U.S. Congress for causes aligned with the Indian government’s policies, on contentious issues like Kashmir, the restive Muslim-majority region in the north claimed by India and Pakistan.

The foundation has also attempted to shape how Indian history is taught in the United States. In 2016, the foundation campaigned for California’s textbooks to use the word India instead of South Asia and to describe the caste system as a cultural phenomenon instead of a discriminatory Hindu practice.

Several scholars, including Thomas Blom Hansen, an anthropologist at Stanford University, disagreed with these positions. He said Hindu groups took advantage of California’s accommodating policy of incorporating minority viewpoints to “shut down a critical account of the history of India to serve their own political purposes.”

For some scholars, the political pressures have come from home.

In October 2019, Angana Chatterji, an anthropologist at the University of California at Berkeley, was preparing to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the status of human rights in Kashmir. On Aug. 5, India had revoked the state’s autonomy and statehood, instituted a communications blackout and detained thousands of people.

Three days before the hearing, Chatterji received a warning call.

On the other side was someone she recognized from India. The caller, whom Chatterji does not want to name for fear of reprisal that could be directed at them by the Indian government, asked her to reconsider her participation at the congressional hearing, she recalled.

The caller, Chatterji said, told her that someone close to the Indian government had sought them out to make the call. The caller reminded Chatterji that she held Indian citizenship. (Chatterji has permanent residency in the United States.) To confirm her account of the call, The Washington Post reviewed a text message from the caller and spoke to two people whom Chatterji confided in at the time.

“If the call was made at the behest of Indian authorities, it felt like a warning, trespassing on my rights as a scholar,” said Chatterji, who went ahead with her testimony. “Were Indian officials ostensibly trying to influence an event being held by the U.S. Congress?”

A spokesperson for the Indian Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the matter.

For Chatterji, the consequences of her human rights work in India — from Kashmir’s mass graves to Assam’s citizenship tests — have been exacting. In 2010, under India’s Congress government, her spouse, Richard Shapiro, an anthropologist, was deported from the Delhi airport over what the government described as “political activism” in Kashmir.

On the advice of her lawyer, she has not visited India since the fall of 2014. There are times when she said she despairs, realizing that she cannot visit home when she wants, which has also made it difficult for her to pursue her academic research.

“This is my life and the only work I know how to do,” Chatterji said. “For those of us who have spent so long doing this, there is an obligation to speak out.”

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