Credit: Tyler Kliem

By Raju Rajagopal and Sunita Viswanath

As practicing Hindus and members of Hindus for Human Rights, we write to express our support for the University of Pennsylvania in the Title VI Civil Rights complaint filed against it for co-sponsoring the Dismantling Global Hindutva Conference earlier this year.

The complaint was filed by the Hindu American Foundation, which claims to speak for all Hindus. As an alternative progressive Hindu voice for the large diversity of Hindus here and in India, we would like to offer the following comments in opposition to HAF’s complaint and in support of Penn’s participation in the conference.

We have great respect for the intellectual traditions of American universities, which are sustained by a deep commitment to academic freedom, pluralism, and open-minded inquiry. These traditions, which exemplify Penn and the 40 other American universities which supported the conference, were also the driving force behind the conference on Hindutva (Hindtuva is also referred to as Hindu nationalism or Hindu supremacy). It is also in the same spirit that we created Hindus for Human Rights two years ago as a platform for progressive Hindus to speak out in support of democratic freedoms and pluralism.

We believe that the DGH conference was held within the spirit of critical inquiry that underlines academic work. The conference brought together prominent scholars and public intellectuals from around the world to understand the ramifications of the political philosophy of Hindutva in India and elsewhere. Many have argued that the foundational principle of the Hindutva ideology is the establishment of a pure Hindu state (Hindu Rashtra) in India and the marginalization of its Muslim and Christian minorities. Extensive scholarship has argued that Hindutva is a specific political ideology that is akin to fascism, including that its founders explicitly referenced German fascism as an inspiration.

The rise to political power of groups associated with Hindutva has led to unprecedented violence against India’s minorities in recent years and dramatic declines in civil liberties. Leading global research institutions have downgraded India’s democracy, citing the curtailing of freedom of the mediaacademia, and civil society.

The goal of the DGH conference was to examine the ascendency of this repressive ideology and its ramifications. As a Hindu organization staunchly opposed to the misappropriation of our Hindu faith by the violence of Hindutva, we at HfHR believe that such inquiries are valuable, and indeed necessary.

Opponents of the conference have cherry-picked statements from the conference and taken them out of context to falsely characterize the conference as anti-Hindu. However, as we mentioned in our own letter to the Department of Education, such groups cannot claim to speak for all Hindus.

The conference examined Hindutva from multiple scholarly perspectives including history, political economy, and religious studies. Within this context, some scholars explored the caste position of Hindutva’s founders and the way that the Hindu caste hierarchy influenced Hindutva ideology. There is a long history of scholarship that explores the way in which caste distinctions are deeply embedded in Hindu traditions and South Asian communities more broadly.

Opponents to the conference falsely characterized such scholarship as Eurocentric constructions and colonialist slurs. They ignore the fact that B.R. Ambedkar, India’s eminent intellectual and primary drafter of the Indian constitution, directly confronted the exclusionary aspects of the caste system. As a member of the Dalit (formally called “untouchable”) community, he also wrote extensively about Brahminism and the hegemony of Brahmins and dominant-caste groups within many Hindu traditions.

We take inspiration from Ambedkar and others who have challenged caste inequities. At the same time, we are also inspired by several past and present faith leaders who have fostered more inclusive visions of Hinduism. We are deeply committed to this vision of inclusion as practicing Hindus.

At the same time, we also understand that many members of the historically oppressed groups — such as Dalits — have chosen to totally repudiate the Hindu faith, equating it entirely with casteism as had Ambedkar. But this has not stopped us from actively engaging with Dalit groups on how we can work together to end caste discrimination in India and now in the U.S.

The DGH conference provided space for both of these points of view. One of HfHR’s founders participated in a conference panel which debated the differences between Hindutva and Hinduism. The claim that engaging in such discussions is an indication of the tyranny of certainty or that the conference merely propagated negative stereotypes about Hindus are demonstrably false. Progressive Hindu voices such as ours were included in the discussion, as were the voices of other practicing Hindus, including a Hindu priest and scholars of Hinduism. In no way was this a trampling of the rights of Hindus to express their perspectives.

However, Hindutva-aligned groups are opposed to any critical inquiry of Hindutva, often labelling such efforts 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 an inquiry against Hindutva is always directed against Hinduism.

Nuanced inquiries about Hindutva ideology, such as the DGH conference, are not anti-Hindu. They neither promote discrimination against Hindus nor do they threaten the safety of Hindu students. In fact, conference organizers and participants themselves faced virulent and vicious threats from Hindu nationalists. These threats have been well-documented in the media. 900 academics worldwide signed a statement condemning threats to the conference as an attack on academic freedom.

As 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). We welcome all Hindu students and campus community members to join us in our efforts to create awareness and build coalitions against discrimination faced by our own community and other minority groups.

As a community that has greatly benefited from the tradition of excellence and inquiry at American universities, we strongly feel that it is our duty to come together and show our support for these institutions and their commitment to critical inquiry.

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