The Dismantling Global Hindutva Conference – scheduled for September 10 and featuring a number of reputed scholars, activists and journalists who are intimately acquainted with different aspects of Hindu nationalism – is a long overdue, important and necessary initiative.
The conference is jointly sponsored by over 40 departments in major American universities and colleges.
Hindutva, as described by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in a publication in 1923, is an ethno-nationalist majoritarian ideological project. The ideology of Hindutva proposes that India is essentially a Hindu country defined by a Hindu cultural ethos, Hindus are the true and authentic inhabitants of the land and religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians, are outsiders who are allowed to live in the country by the grace and willingness of the Hindu majority.
The organisers of the conference are understandably keeping their identities private for reasons of safety and security, given the long history of the global Hindu Right of threatening scholars, whether Romila Thapar, Wendy Doniger, Paul Courtright or Audrey Truschke. By way of disclosure, I should mention that my institution is not involved in any way in organising the event.
Hindutva versus Hinduism
Predictably, the global Hindu Right, in a near-perfect illustration of some of the themes of the conference, has its knickers in a twist and is trying its best to shut down the event through an arsenal of desperate tactics. A somewhat hysterical petition on Change.org accuses the conference of promoting “genocide” against Hindus.
A range of Hindu-American organisations, like the Hindu American Foundation, for all their rhetoric of supporting liberal values, have written to participating academic institutions urging them to withdraw their support for the conference. Aside from an utter lack of understanding of how academia works and of the concept of academic autonomy, Hindu American Foundation’s stance also reveals a bewildering ignorance of the principles of freedom of speech and inquiry.
Cynically and mendaciously, the individuals and organisations that are opposing the conference are conflating Hinduism and Hindutva, although the title and focus of the conference make it amply clear that the conference is centred on the latter.
This fact has also been reiterated by Hindu groups, like Hindus for Human Rights, which support the conference. It may be an innocent coincidence, but a few days ago, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, the Indian ambassador to the US, organised an event with the heads of US universities, many (if not all) of whom appear to be of Indian origin.
Perhaps, this was intended as a subtle message to them to abstain from supporting the conference. In any case, given the timing, it is hard not to see the event as an attempt at damage control by the Bharatiya Janata Party government.
As the formal political wing of the Hindu Right, the BJP, it is worth stressing here, endorses the ideology of Hindutva and has left no stone unturned in the last few years to realise its agenda of reshaping India as a Hindu religious state.
The suspension of Kashmiri autonomy, the endorsement for building the Ram Janmabhoomi temple, the Citizenship Amendment Act and the green signal to vigilante and militant Hindu groups to take the law into their hands are all manifestations of this goal.
It is easy to see why the Hindu Right and the segments of the diasporic Hindu and Hindu-American population that are sympathetic to Hindutva are rattled by the conference. For years, the Hindu Right has benefited from a general lack of awareness about Hindutva in American academia and American society at large.
The framing of any criticism of Hindutva as Hinduphobia and anti-Hindu sentiment, and the strategic invocation of the language of genocide, pogroms, and holocausts to claim victimhood, is likely to confuse US organisations, which may otherwise wish to support principles such as the rights and freedoms of religious minorities in India.
Without a clear understanding of the ideology of Hindutva, universities, non-profits and corporations are likely to see both the critique and defence of Hindutva as merely two positions in an internal squabble within the Hindu-American and diasporic Hindu communities, one that they would prefer to stay clear of. This false equivalence and obfuscation greatly benefit Hindu Right and crypto-Hindutva groups in the US.
American universities do not want to alienate Hindu-Americans or American Hindus as a cultural group, nor be seen as ethnocentric or racist – for Hindu, in the American context, has effectively been rebranded as a form of ethnicity. It is the threat of this accusation that diasporic adherents of Hindutva dangle in front of universities when they use terms like “Hinduphobic”, “symbolic violence” or “Orientalist discourse”, to claim they are being attacked as Hindus.
The global Hindu Right has also long sought to influence the study and teaching of Hinduism in US universities, by linking offers of donations with demands for a role in hiring candidates, control over the content of courses on Hinduism and Indian history, and, allegedly, even a veiled insistence on the dietary preferences of scholars of Hinduism.
At least one such attempt, by the Dharma Civilization Foundation, to endow a Presidential Chair in Vedic and Indic Civilization Studies at the University of California Irvine, fell through in 2015, though the foundation has apparently regrouped and refined its strategy to not make the same errors again.
Beyond the institutional apparatus of the global Hindu Right, significant numbers of Hindu expatriates and Hindu-Americans contribute to the project of global Hindutva in other ways. Since the early nineties, following the invention of the world wide web, a large number of Hindu nationalist websites have been hosted in the US and managed by Non-Resident Indians, who often work in Silicon Valley as programmers and engineers.
In the more recent high noon of social media, these NRI groups help populate the armies of trolls who harass any critics of Narendra Modi, the BJP and the Hindu Right. Along with the irony of sons-of-the-soil nationalists being located in a distant land – which supporters of Hindutva also rant about as a Christian, Western society out to denigrate Hindus – the hypocrisy of global supporters of Hindutva needs to be called out.
Praising themselves as model minorities who can boast the highest income of any ethnic group, who have spawned the greatest number of spelling bee champs and who practically run the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NRI supporters of Hindutva seemingly have no problem supporting secularism, freedom of religious expression and minority rights in the US and the United Kingdom where they are minorities while seeking to deny Indian religious and caste minorities the same rights and freedoms.
Modi and his initiatives remain wildly popular among these groups, who turned up in thousands and cheered loudly as the newly crowned Indian Prime Minister danced away on a stage in Madison Square Garden in 2014.
For all their woke-ness about the alleged demonisation of Hindus in the US, there has been nary a squeak from them over the last seven years as Modi and his government have sought to disenfranchise Muslims in India through the Citizenship Amendment Act and as the routine humiliation of Muslims and lynchings have become a national Indian sport.
The American academy’s long-standing and mostly robust commitment to free speech, no matter how unpopular the opinions themselves, should by itself be sufficient cause for the Dismantling Global Hindutva conference to proceed.
But universities are also places committed to supporting the values of human rights and dignity and spaces where the most vulnerable and marginalised among us can have their stories heard, whether in their own voices or through those who speak for them. For these reasons too, the conference, which seeks to bring a long-delayed global awareness to the operations of an exclusionary and discriminatory ideology like Hindutva, is critically urgent and most welcome.
Rohit Chopra is an Associate Professor of Communication at Santa Clara University and the author most recently of The Gita for a Global World: Ethical Action in an Age of Flux.