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Gripped By An Irrational Fear?

A seminar on Hindu Nationalism was set to begin on September 10, 2021 in the US at the initiative of 53 universities. However, several speakers received emails, with hateful comments and even death threats, just before the event. Hence, many of them did not take part in the discussion. Extremist Hindutva groups in India and the US are believed to be behind this.

Universities, like Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Columbia, Berkeley, Chicago, Pennsylvania and Rutgers, organised the three-day seminar, titled ‘Dismantling Global Hindutva‘. The organisers alleged that the event was branded as Anti-Hindu to put them under immense pressure to cancel the event. More than a million emails were sent to officials, including Presidents of various universities, on September 9. Among them, a university, based in New Jersey, received 30,000 emails in a few minutes!

Dr Meena Kandasamy, one of the speakers, was threatened with a photo of his son, as she was told: “Your son will face a painful death“. In addition to the threat of harming their families, the speakers experienced Misogynistic and Racial abuse. There were also threats of murder and sexual assault! Many speakers are afraid that they might be arrested as soon as they return to India. The organisers issued a statement on September 10, saying: “Our fear is that the speakers may be arrested because of all these lies. They may be physically harmed or even killed. Several speakers have distanced themselves from the event due to this in the last couple of days.

Since the organisers released Dr Kandasamy’s name as one of the speakers, she has been harassed and abused online. Dr Kandasamy, a Poet and Caste Activist, said that several Hindu groups started abusing her a decade ago when she penned a poem. Those groups alleged that her poem was offensive and ridiculed Hindu Gods. Commenting on multiple emails, Twitter and Instagram messages warning her against participating in the seminar, she stressed: “This is the Textbook Hindutva approach. They just indulge in character assassination, slandering my personal life, questioning the parentage of my children, asking if they were born to one father.” Dr Kandasamy added: “The Hindutva groups, both in the US and India, are miffed at the huge academic support for the conference and they just want to silence us at any cost.

Other spakers, too, slammed Hindu Right-Wing groups and individuals for calling the conference a Hinduphobic Gathering. Professor Nandani Sundar of Delhi University, who also received hateful emails and was trolled on Twitter, stated: “This is what Hindutva groups have been doing in India – shutting down seminars by threatening the organisers, physical disruption etc. Now they are doing the same thing globally.

David Ludden, a Professor of History at New York University, reportedly said that some US-based Hindu outfits aggressively campaigned and pressured the participating Universities to cancel the conference. They claimed that such a seminar would promote “Hinduphobia and anti-Hindu hatred”. However, the organisers denied the charge. According to Professor Ludden, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), the Coalition of Hindus in North America (CoHNA), and the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) collectively sent nearly 1.3 million emails to dozens of Universities, asking them to withdraw their support for the conference. Ahead of the event, the HAF issued an email action alert, urging the Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) to write letters to the Indian External Affairs Ministry to persuade the cosponsoring universities to reconsider their plan.

Professor Ludden told the media: “Administrators did receive emails claiming that the conference represents anti-Hindu Ideology. They reached out to me and I explained that this is an academic conference aimed at expanding the production of knowledge about Hindutva, including a critical analysis of its claim to represent Hindus, Hinduism, and Indian Culture.” He said that these efforts were part of a global strategy to strangle critical discourse that Hindutva supporters fear would “undermine their credibility as claimants to Hindu tradition”.

Ohio State Senator and Republican politician Niraj Antani is one of those Indian-Americans who condemned the conference, calling it “racism and bigotry against the Hindus” “I will always stand strong against Hinduphobia,” he stressed. However, the organisers told Al Jazeera: “The campaign against the conference is meant to both shut down the conference and send a clear signal to all critics of Hindutva.

David Ludden

Gyanendra Pandey, a Professor of History at Emory University, considered it as a deliberate attempt to create confusion over the usage of the terms ‘Hindutva’ and ‘Hinduism’. He said: “Anyone with any serious knowledge of South Asia knows the difference between Hindutva and Hinduism.” Professor Pandey explained: “Hindutva is almost the polar opposite of Hinduism. It is an aggressive Political Movement aimed at installing an exclusivist, Hindu nationalist regime in India, in line with Right-Wing Authoritarian Movements in many other parts of the world today and requires careful study and analysis, which is what the ‘Dismantling Hindutva Conference’ will contribute to.

For her part, Dr Purnima Dhavan, the Associate Professor of History at University of Washington and a member of South Asia Scholar Activist Collective, said: “It will have grave and negative consequences on academic work. It creates an atmosphere of fear in the classroom when faculty and students know that they will be trolled, harassed, or threatened for any discussion or debates about these topics.” She thanked more than 50 South Asian diaspora organisations, 937 academics from different parts of the globe, including scholars of Genocide and Mass Violence, for issuing a statement in support of the conference and calling for an end to the Hindu Right-Wing attacks on Academic Freedom. The statement read: “The campaign of intimidation carried out by Hindutva affiliates cannot be allowed to take root in the academy in the US, Europe, or around the world. Free Speech must be protected.

Professor of Religion and International Affairs at Georgetown University John L Esposito agreed with Dr Dhavan’s view. He said that the Hindutva Movement in the US was very active, as it used different means, like writing letters to University Administrations and threatening scholars with lawsuits in an attempt to disrupt Academic Freedom. “The threat of these groups has grown significantly in recent years. These groups wish to silence any empirical, fact-based, analysis and critique of Hindutva by the scholars,” stressed Professor Esposito. He requested the US academia to initiate more debates and discussions on Hindutva, saying: “Academics have a professional and moral obligation to respond to Hindutva, as they would to charges of anti-semitism, Islamophobia or racism.

Stanford University Anthropologist Thomas Blom Hansen, too, urged the US-based institutions to vigorously defend Academic Freedom. “It is important not to give up and not to cave in to pressure from the forces that represent themselves as representing Hindus as such, but who actually represent the interests of a Foreign Government,” he said. He further said: “Institutions need to step up to assist in that task, rather than worrying about reputations or potential donors.

It may be noted that Hindutva refers to a century-old Right-Wing Movement, aimed at creating an ethnic Hindu State out of a multicultural India, home to more than 200 million Muslims. Meanwhile, the conference hosted various panels on Global Hindutva, Caste Oppression, Islamophobia, and the Persecution of Minorities in India, with more than 25 academicians, activists, and journalists expressing their views on those issues.

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