US-based scholars of South Asia worried about academic freedom

New delhi   –  After US-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 September 10, its organisers 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 organising 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 polarisation 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 specialising 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 organisers 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 organised 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 demoralising. 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.

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.

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