By Priyali Prakash
It aims to offer guidance to academics “targeted by hate” – specifically those who find themselves “the target or a witness to a Hindu Right assault”. That’s the stated objective of the Hindutva Harassment Field Manual, which was launched on Tuesday by a group of academics in North America who call themselves the South Asian Scholar Activist Collective.
“The Hindu right has attacked US-based scholars for the past few decades, attempting to dissuade and discredit academic research, and the assaults have intensified recently,” some members of the collective wrote in The Washington Post this week.
They explained, “Such hate seeks to undermine our genuine, nuanced research, which presents a vision of South Asian history, religions and cultures as multifaceted and pluralistic. In so doing our scholarship undercuts Hindutva’s project to remake India and Indian history.”
The manual explains to readers the difference between Hindu religion from the Hindutva political ideology. “Those who advocate Hindutva views sometimes try to shield their far-right politics and prejudices from criticism by claiming – in bad faith – that they are expressing Hindu religious views,” the document says.
It elaborates that this “attempted cover-up is harmful” because “it seeks to deflect legitimate criticism of an extreme political ideology that is harmful to many groups and individuals” and also “tries to narrow the diverse range of Hindu traditions and expressions of Hindu identities”.
The manual also lists “legal considerations” for targets of Hindutva hate in the US, offering advice on contacting the police and launching civil litigations against attackers.
Among the members of the South Asian Scholar Activist Collective are Manan Ahmed, Purnima Dhavan, Supriya Gandhi and Audrey Truschke.
Scroll.in spoke to Truschke, historian of South Asia and associate professor at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, about the initiative. Excerpts from the interview.
When did you first notice a pattern of assaults against academics in particular from supporters of Hindutva?
I would date the first attacks back to two or more decades. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, we saw scholars such as James Laine, Wendy Doniger, and Sheldon Pollock attacked for their views and writings. There were responses to each of those events but they were largely treated individually. When Sheldon Pollock was attacked, a series of scholars came out to support him and then the whole thing fizzled out and we all moved on. One reason why we formed this activist collective and then wrote the Hindutva Harassment Field Manual is that we no longer feel that it is most productive to address these attacks as individual assaults. It is useful to think of them as similar in broad strokes, and thus having a go-to manual as well as a scholarly community that can offer support helps.
Were there any specific incidents of concern that acted as inspiration for the scholars of the collective to come together and write the manual?
Late last year, the parents of Vinayak Chaturvedi, who teaches at the University of California, were “swatted” – somebody called the police and a heavily armed Special Weapons and Tactics team showed up at his parents’ house in a clear intimidation attack. There was also the assault on me that began in March with online harassment and came to a crescendo with a bad-faith lawsuit. In association and sort of spinning off of the attacks on me, numerous scholars across the US received hate mails that were xenophobic, racist, and misogynistic in nature. Law enforcement had to be contacted. These three discrete events from the last year made the group feel that this is the time to bring this project to life.
When did you first start working on this project? How much time did it take to put it together?
We put together the manual in three months. Although it seems pretty quick, it should be noted that in a way, we formalised what we had been doing for a very long time. Many of us had been in touch for a while, providing each other support. We began putting together our resources in April, with different people focussing on different aspects of Hindutva and the harassment associated with it, and we launched the manual in July.
How prevalent is Hindutva hate in the US?
In US society, Hindutva hate is pretty mild. That’s because the Indian diaspora is still a minority here. Indian Americans form about 1% of all Americans – that’s not a huge number, but that’s obviously not insignificant. A part of the problem is that most people in America have never heard of Hindutva or of Hindu nationalism. This, however, has been changing in the last couple of years because of the accelerating human rights abuses of the Modi regime that have garnered more and more international attention. Every week, there are more abuses and hence, more people take notice. Especially in a democracy like the United States, many of us across the political spectrum do not look kindly on that.
That said, only the educated elite by large is noticing this, which is why we wrote the harassment field manual. It is to provide educational resources, not only for the university community – our employers, students, and colleagues who don’t research on South Asia – but also hopefully the broader public because this form of hate, while minor in the general North American scheme of things, is very real for those of us targeted, and it is also very dangerous.
The collective talks about “manufactured complaints” in the manual. What has the response of institutions been like to such complaints?
This is a sensitive matter. It is very delicate to explain to people how complaints of discrimination and bias are sometimes not real. But, this has come up for many of us. One thing that we have done informally is called upon each other to explain to our administrators why some claims of scholars being racist or anti-Hindu or prejudiced may be false. The reason that we have garnered support within the community is that it is a fundamentally unanswerable claim for any individual.
Racist playbook 101 is “deny being racist”. If you are accused of racism, there is nothing you can say. But, as a collective and as a group we can do what scholars do – we can point to evidence or the lack thereof.
The bitter truth is that anti-Hindu bias is not systemic. It does not have a long history. That does not mean that there are not individual instances of it. A rough parallel would be anti-Christian bias in the United States. There are individual cases of it, it happens, but it is not systemic – it is not overarching in any way, shape, or form. The only people who talk about it in this particular way are right-wing forces who are trying to perpetuate this politics of grievance.
The idea of making false claims of bias, usually in bad faith to provoke majoritarian ideas, is not new in the US. The politics of white grievance are very real here. This is no one’s first trip to the rodeo on this one.
Can you talk about the bad faith bias claims at a time when racial attacks against South Asians are already at a high in the US?
One of the harms of bad faith claims is that they serve to undercut real claims. People of South Asian descent face a lot of racism. A survey released a few weeks ago showed how almost half of the Indian American population in the US have personally faced discrimination. Many members of SASC have faced anti-Asian racism. It’s real, it’s painful, and it’s a problem. And, we want to talk about it and work on it. Above all, we really want to educate people to end racism and discrimination. The members of SASC are doing this hard work in our classroom, we are teaching about South Asian history, modern South Asia, politics, so on so forth. Bad faith claims undercut that mission.
What are your hopes from the Biden administration to tackle Hindutva?
I hope the Biden administration will uphold the core values that the US is supposed to strive for, which are inclusion, democracy, human rights, transparency, and freedom of the press. President Joe Biden’s government should use the tools at their disposal to put pressure on the Modi government.
This story first appeared on scroll.in