Letter to U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in Support of Academic Freedom
Hindus for Human Rights sent the following letter to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights on October 8th, 2021.
To: Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Suzanne Goldberg and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Enforcement Randolph Wills
Re: We are Hindus who supported the “Dismantling Global Hindutva: Multidisciplinary Perspectives” conference held on September 10-12, 2021 and continue to support the academic freedom of University departments and faculty sponsors of the conference.
Dear Acting Assistant Secretary Goldberg and Deputy Assistant Secretary Wills:
I am writing to you on behalf of Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR), a two-year old US-based advocacy organization that provides a platform for progressive Hindus to speak out in support of democratic freedoms and pluralism.
HfHR advocates for civil and human rights in South Asia and North America, rooted in the values of our faith: shanti (peace), nyaya (justice) and satya (truth). We provide a Hindu voice of resistance to all forms of bigotry and oppression based on one’s faith, color, caste, gender, or sexual orientation.
We are writing to oppose the mischaracterization of the Dismantling Global Hindutva: Multidisciplinary Perspectives (DGH) conference and the Title VI Violation complaint filed on October 6th against the University of Pennsylvania for being a co-sponsor of the conference.
The DGH conference was co-sponsored by departments at over 40 American universities. It brought together scholars and public intellectuals from around the world to understand the ramifications of the political philosophy of Hindutva in India and elsewhere. The foundational principle of the Hindutva ideology (also frequently referred to as Hindu supremacy, Hindu nationalism, etc.) is the establishment of a pure Hindu State (Hindu Rashtra) in India. This would inevitably redefine over 200 million Muslim and Christian citizens of India as the ‘other,’ who do not legitimately belong and must therefore either accept second-class citizenship or be displaced from their homeland. Extensive scholarship has shown that the Hindutva ideology is akin to fascism, with its founders explicitly referencing German fascism as an inspiration.
The ascendance to political power of groups associated with Hindutva has led to unprecedented violence against India’s minorities in recent years. Beef bans and resulting mob lynching of Muslims and Dalits, restrictions on religious conversions and rising attacks against Christians, laws targeting interfaith couples, the imprisonment of activists without due process under modified anti-terrorism laws, punitive actions against press and academic freedom, etc. have today become defining features of the world’s largest democracy.
The goal of the DGH conference was to raise awareness about the Hindutva ideology in the academic community and explore its origins and the ways in which it has expanded its foothold in India and is attempting to do the same among diaspora groups globally. As a Hindu organization, staunchly opposed to the misappropriation of our Hindu faith by the violence of Hindutva, we were very much interested in and supported such an inquiry.
An intrinsic part of any scholarly inquiry is an exploration of the many different contexts and ideas that might have contributed to the development of an ideology. This conference was no different. Academic experts examined Hindutva from multiple scholarly perspectives, including historical, political economy and religious studies perspective. Within this context some panels also explored the language and context that Hindutva ideologues have borrowed from Hinduism. In particular scholars debated the caste position of Hindutva’s founders and the way that the Hindu caste hierarchy influenced and continues to influence Hindutva ideology.
There is a long history of scholarship about the way that caste is deeply embedded in Hindu traditions and South Asian communities more broadly. There is no question that those belonging to groups at the bottom of the caste hierarchy have experienced historic and systemic exclusion and discrimination within Hindu traditions and communities. Such scholarship and references to caste are not a Eurocentric invention, as characterized by the October 6 Title VI complaint letter. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, India’s eminent intellectual and primary drafter of the Indian constitution, directly confronted the exclusionary aspects of the caste system he experienced as a member of the Dalit community. He has also written extensively about Brahminism, the hegemony of Brahmins and dominant-caste groups within many Hindu traditions.
We take inspiration from Dr. Ambedkar and several other past and present scholars who have challenged caste inequities. At the same time we are also inspired by several past and present Hindu practitioners and faith leaders who have fostered more inclusive visions of Hinduism. We are very committed to this vision of inclusion as practising Hindus. Some others, scholars as well as those with Hindu heritage, disagree and have chosen to repudiate the faith for its casteism. What is important to emphasize here is that the DGH conference provided space for both of these points of view.
The DGH conference’s panel on “Hinduism and Hindutva,” for example, provided space for a variety of different voices. We ourselves were represented on the panel by HfHR co-founder and executive director Sunita Viswanath. In this panel as well as others there were highly nuanced discussions between those like us, who believe in an inclusive vision of what it means to be Hindu, and those who are legitimately more concerned about the endemic nature of caste within Hindu traditions. Such debates and differences are the very essence of an academic inquiry.
The October 6 Title VI complaint letter misrepresents this rich discussion by cherry picking statements and taking them out of context. Most importantly, it is simply false that this was a one-sided conference intended to marginalize or stigmatize Hindus. Our voice as an organization committed to an inclusive vision of Hindu identity was certainly included, as were the voices of other practicing Hindus, including a Hindu priest and scholars of Hinduism.
Sadly, a significant section of the Hindu American community, which has greatly benefited from America’s Civil Rights movement, seems to also support Hindu majoritarianism in India – a troubling contradiction of values that we have been speaking out against. A 2020 survey conducted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which found that 53 percent of Indian Americans agree that Hindu majoritarianism is a threat to India, found that only 40 percent of Indian Hindu Americans shared the same view. Hindutva-aligned groups are opposed to any critical inquiry of Hindutva and have long opposed the conference, labelling it as “anti-India” and “anti-Hindu.” Such a characterization clearly betrays a deliberate conflation of Hindutva ideology with Hinduism, perhaps in an attempt to co-opt the community into falsely believing that the conference is directed against Hinduism. However such groups cannot claim to speak for all Hindus.
As a community comprised largely of recent immigrants, there is no doubt that Hindus often experience discrimination, similar to the experiences of many other immigrant communities in our history. We are therefore quite sensitive to complaints of bias faced by Hindu Americans (and Muslim Americans too). However, we do not believe that nuanced inquiries about Hindutva ideology, such as this conference, promote discrimination against Hindus or threaten the safety of Hindu students.
In fact, it is the conference organizers and scholars and participants who have faced the most virulent threats. These threats, which nearly shut down the conference, have been well documented in the media now. 900 academics worldwide signed a statement condemning threats to the conference as an attack on academic freedom in the U.S. This latest Title VI complaint represents a continuation of this attempt to thwart academic freedom.
As Hindus, we stand for respect for all people, freedom of speech, and freedom of inquiry. Please be aware that many progressive Hindu and Indian Americans join us in disagreeing with those who have expressed discontent with the conference––because, not in spite of, the values of our faith. We hope that you will take our voices into consideration.
Executive Director, Hindus for Human Rights