Co-sponsored by departments and centers from more than 53 universities, mostly from the United States, including Harvard, Stanford and Princeton, the “Dismantling Global Hindutva” conference will address various issues relating to Hindu supremacist ideology in India and beyond.
Hindutva refers to a century-old right-wing movement that aims to create an ethnic Hindu state out of a multicultural India, home to over 200 million Muslims.
The three-day conference, which begins on September 10, will host various panels on Hindutva around the world, caste oppression, Islamophobia and the persecution of minorities in India, with more than 25 academics, activists and journalists alike speakers.
During the past three weeks, the conference organizers and speakers have faced harassment and intimidation from various right-wing Hindu groups and individuals fiercely opposing the conference, calling it a “Hindu-Muslim gathering.” .
The organizers insist that the conference aims only to discuss the global implications of Hindutva and to develop resources for anti-Hindutva pedagogy in the academy.
“The Hindutva Handbook Approach”
Since the day Meena Kandasamy’s name was leaked by conference organizers as a speaker, she has been endlessly harassed and abused online.
A poet and caste activist, Kandasamy told Al Jazeera that a poem she wrote 10 years ago was picked up by Hindu groups, claiming it was offensive and ridiculed the Hindu gods.
Kandasamy received several emails warning him not to attend the conference. On Twitter and Instagram, the Hindu right has targeted his family, his children and even made death threats.
This is what happens when you oppose Hindutva & caste & religious atrocities carried out in the name of Sanatana Dharma. First of all, the character assassination. Then target your kids. Not to share to amplify the hate but to show that their hate is aimed at the most vulnerable part of you. pic.twitter.com/XrmJrKvVyz
– Dr Meena Kandasamy இளவேனில் iḷavēṉil (meenakandasamy) September 3, 2021
“This is the approach of the Hindutva manual. They are just engaging in personality assassination, slandering my personal life, questioning my children’s parentage, asking if they were born to one father, ”Kandasamy told Al Jazeera.
“The Hindutva groups in the US and India are upset by the huge academic support for the conference and they just want to silence us at all costs. “
On September 3, Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, a far-right group whose members are accused of murdering journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh in 2017, wrote a letter to Indian Interior Minister Amit Shah, calling for action against conference speakers based in India.
Delhi University professor Nandani Sundar, who is also a speaker at the conference, received hate emails and was trolled on Twitter.
“This is what Hindutva groups have done in India – closing seminars by threatening the organizers, physical disruption, etc. Now they are doing the same in the world, ”Sundar told Al Jazeera.
Accusations of “Hinduphobia”
Some US-based Hindu groups have campaigned aggressively and pressured participating universities to withdraw from the conference, claiming it promotes “Hinduphobia and anti-Hindu hatred,” a charge denied by the organizers.
Over the past three weeks, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), the Coalition of Hindus in North America (CoHNA) and the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) claim to have collectively sent over 1.3 million emails to dozens universities to withdraw their support for the conference.
Last week, the HAF issued an email action alert, calling on Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) to write letters to the Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to persuade the co-sponsoring universities to reconsider their association with the conference.
We see right-wing Hindu American groups harassing, intimidating and endangering academics, including students.
What you are doing is beyond the unacceptable. It is unethical, hateful and very, very dangerous. Stop. Now. #Hindutva
– Dr Audrey Truschke (@AudreyTruschke) September 5, 2021
David Ludden, professor of history at New York University, one of the co-sponsoring schools, admitted to receiving thousands of emails, but said his department would not back down.
“Administrators received emails claiming that the conference represented anti-Hindu ideology. They contacted me and I explained that this was 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, ”Ludden told Al Jazeera.
Ludden further said the recent efforts were part of a global strategy to stifle critical discourse that Hindutva supporters say “would undermine their credibility as claimants of the Hindu tradition.”
Ohio State Senator and Republican politician Niraj Antani also issued a statement condemning the conference and calling it “racism and bigotry against Hindus.”
“I will always be firm against Hinduphobia,” he said.
Al Jazeera has contacted CoHNA and Senator Antani to seek further clarity on their “Hinduphobia” allegations, but received no response.
“The campaign against the conference aims both to end the conference and to send a clear signal to all critics of Hindutva,” conference organizers told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement.
— Rashmi Samant (@RashmiDVS) September 2, 2021
Organizers and other academics are calling it a concerted effort by US-based Hindu right-wing groups to quell any criticism of Hindu nationalism while amalgamating Hindutva, the political movement, and Hinduism, religion.
Gyanendra Pandey, professor of history at Emory University, one of the participating schools, said a deliberate attempt was underway to create confusion over the use of the terms Hindutva and Hinduism.
“Anyone with a serious knowledge of South Asia knows the difference between Hindutva and Hinduism,” Pandey told Al Jazeera.
“Hindutva is almost the 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 which requires careful study and analysis, c is what the “Hindutva Dismantling Conference” is proposing. will help, ”he said.
Attack on academic freedom
Purnima Dhavan, associate professor of history at the University of Washington, Seattle, and member of the South Asia Scholar Activist Collective, has expressed serious concerns over the intimidation of conference organizers and speakers by right-wing Hindu groups.
“This will have serious and negative consequences for academic work,” Dhavan told Al Jazeera.
“It creates an atmosphere of fear in the classroom when faculty and students know they will be trolled, harassed or threatened for any discussion or debate on these topics. “
Last week, more than 50 South Asian diaspora organizations, 937 academics from around the world, including scholars on genocide and mass violence, released a statement in support of the conference and called for an end to the attacks of the Hindu right against academic freedom.
“The intimidation campaign by Hindutva affiliates cannot be allowed to take root in the academy in the United States, Europe or the world. Freedom of expression must be protected, ”the statement said.
John L Esposito, professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University, echoed Dhavan’s concerns. He said that the Hindutva movement in the United States is very active and uses various means, such as writing letters to university administrations and the threat of lawsuits for academics, to disrupt academic freedom.
“The threat from these groups has increased dramatically in recent years. These groups wish to silence any empirical and factual analysis and criticism of Hindutva by academics, ”Esposito told Al Jazeera.
He called on American academia to initiate more debate and discussion on Hindutva.
“Academics have a professional and moral obligation to respond to Hindutva, as they would on charges of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or racism,” Esposito said.
Stanford University anthropologist Thomas Blom Hansen, a leading scholar of Hindu nationalism, who has himself been the victim of attacks from the Hindu right in recent years, called on US-based institutions to vigorously defend academic freedom.
“It is important not to give up and not to give in to pressure from forces which present themselves as representing Hindus as such but which actually represent the interests of a foreign government,” Hansen told Al Jazeera.
“Institutions need to come together to help in this task, rather than worrying about reputation or potential donors,” Hansen added.