Practicing Hinduphobia in the guise of academic freedom

Academic freedom doesn't justify demonizing Hindus who don’t share a predetermined viewpoint.

A devotee carries a statue of elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha to take home for worship during Ganesha Chaturthi festival celebrations in Mumbai, India, Friday, Sept. 10, 2021. The 10-day long Ganesha festival began Friday and ends with the immersion of Ganesha idols in water bodies on the final day. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

(RNS)  — On the auspicious Hindu festival of Ganesha Chaturthi, a group of university professors and activists have organized a conference claiming to work to “dismantle” what they say is a global threat of politically motivated “supremacist” Hindus.

Dismantling Global Hindutva, a virtual gathering that begins Friday (Sept. 10), bills itself as an academic conference, but its participants and sponsors show little respect for academic principles — least of all the charge from the American Society of University Professors 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure that academics “should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.” 

This weekend’s conference, in dismissing and demonizing Hindus who don’t share their viewpoint, violates the letter and spirit of these principles. And when they are criticized for this, the organizers cry that any dissent constitutes a violation of their academic freedom.

This is why the Hindu American Foundation has asked the universities that have been listed as co-sponsors of the event not to support this politically motivated and Hinduphobic conference and to support those who are affected by this Hinduphobia. 

RELATED: Conference fuels growing US debate over Hindu nationalism

Academic freedom has never been questioned or criticized by HAF, despite the conference supporters’ many claims to the contrary. But there can be no psychological safety in academia as long as the vitriolic, identitarian politics of this conference holds sway. The organizers view the ideology they espouse as the only correct one, and anything else is perceived as dangerous. 

This tactic squelches academic freedom and creates an environment where arguments are predetermined and prejudices toward a particular group and a particular nationality become ingrained. 

Curiously, the organizers of the conference have no disagreement with a political philosophy or party, nor do they name a particular policy or practice of the Indian government. Instead they focus on Hindu identity, which they associate with a conception of Hindutva, or “Hinduness.” This is a perversion of academic discipline, wherein shallow research leads to misleading and confused arguments. 

But they have trouble even defining what Hindutva is, calling it “a set of often inchoate and even contradictory ideas and values.” On the conference’s website, Hindutva and Hinduism are all but melded together, politicizing Hindu identity. They claim that Hinduphobia doesn’t exist. 

They then prop up their prejudice with controversy in the guise of academic argument.

Hinduphobia describes a set of “antagonistic, destructive, and derogatory attitudes and behaviors” toward Hindus and Hinduism. In a 2020 survey of Indian Americans, the Carnegie Foundation found that “Indian Americans regularly encounter discrimination.” Twenty percent of Hindu Americans of Indian origin are discriminated against because of their religion. 

These behaviors range from everyday microaggressions on social media to significant military actions in South Asia, which have resulted in genocide. 

RELATED: Hinduphobia is a smokescreen for Hindu nationalists

Organizers of the conference consistently practice Hinduphobia on social media, in their classrooms and in their scholarship. Documented incidents include hate speech and derogatory comments toward Hindu deities. One keynote speaker at Dismantling Global Hindutva is the author of a poem that literally smears the deity Rama.

It would be easy to accuse the organizers of this weekend’s conference of acting in bad faith or to believe they are bad people. The actual case is more troubling: Many of the prejudices they have exhibited have become so ingrained that they are unable to recognize them as prejudice or to accurately assess how they are being perceived by the Hindu public.

(Deepali Kulkarni is a Hindu Indian American who serves as the director of human rights for the Hindu American Foundation. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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