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Intertwined History: Hindutva Attacks and the Study of Hinduism

Sundaram, Dheepa; Gandhi, Supriya; Pillai, Rupa; Truschke, Audrey
Journal of the American Academy of Religion

THE LARGE-SCALE campaigns orchestrated by Hindu supremacist groups against academics working on South Asia, and especially on Hinduism, are hard to ignore. As our roundtable contributions demonstrate, this is not a new phenomenon. The pervasive and ongoing attacks on academics build upon decades of organizing and mobilizing by Hindu far-right groups. The suppression of academic freedom in India has been the subject of a recent study (Sundar and Fazili 2020). Here, we focus on a parallel phenomenon—the relationship between the Hindu Right and the academy in North America. There are significant differences between the campaigns of intimidation and suppression in North America and India. Most notably, in India the Hindu nationalist government imposes a range of coercive measures on the academy, ranging from syllabus reform to the incarceration of students and professors (Kinzelbach et. al. 2023). Although the context in North America is quite different, the field of South Asian studies here is not isolated from the burgeoning connections and shared practices of the global far-right.

The attacks on scholars of South Asia have emerged in a broader context of right-wing mobilization against the academy. Although conservative and far-right criticisms of American universities go back to the nineteenth century, in recent times these have intensified (Giroux 2006). During the last two decades, academics working on an array of topics—race, ethnicity, gender, climate science, Middle East Studies—have experienced a proliferation of targeted harassment. Although a range of motivations and ideologies guide these assaults—religious conservatism, ethnonationalism, Islamophobia, white power—they share common cause in a critique of the academy and liberal democracy. A network of well-funded institutions buttresses these assaults on universities and academic scholarship. Similarly, far-right attacks by those claiming to speak for all Hindus are often aided, even orchestrated, by organizations that support Hindutva, that is the ideological and political program of Hindu nationalism, both in the diaspora and in India, where a Hindu nationalist government has ruled since 2014. The Hindutva attacks on academic freedom thus fit into a larger global pattern in which the delegitimization of universities is a pillar of far-right politics.

These Hindu nationalist attacks on academics stem from a broad range of individuals and groups advancing Hindutva interests together with its supremacist worldview. Some, though not all, have formal affiliations with the global “family” (parivar) of organizations linked to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist paramilitary organization that wields a profound influence in India today. Regardless of the terms they use to identify themselves, Hindu nationalists generally hold that India is at heart a Hindu nation and that only those who promote this view possess the privileged authority (adhikara) to speak about Hinduism and India. They also adopt selective, self-serving and often contradictory attitudes toward academic and political freedoms. For instance, many Hindu nationalists advance their cause in the United States by invoking the language of religious rights for minorities, all the while supporting an authoritarian government in India that has curtailed minority rights there (Kurien 2007; Chopra 2021). Some groups employ the rhetorical moves and strategies of social justice movements developed by minoritized communities in the United States. In attacks against the North American academy, Hindu nationalist organizations and individuals often invoke the language of toleration in advocating for the inclusion of their far-right views, even while promoting intolerance toward discourses and scholarship that challenge ethnonationalist constructions of Indian history and religion (Patton 2019).

The four essays of this roundtable treat key moments and themes in the progression of Hindutva attacks on the academy. Supriya Gandhi shows how campaigns against academics in the early 2000s laid the groundwork for right-wing Hindu nationalist narratives of today. Rupa Pillai examines the California textbook controversy as a pivotal moment in galvanizing efforts to rewrite school curricula along the lines of other conservative movements that have targeted educational materials in the United States. Audrey Truschke demonstrates that in the move from attacking white scholars to those of South Asian origin, the Hindu Right, broadly conceived, has appropriated white supremacist notions and put diverse scholars at disproportionate risk. Dheepa Sundaram addresses how Hindutva attacks on the recent Dismantling Global Hindutva conference represent a strategic pivot that co-opts student voices to both deflect critical attention away from their own ideology and frame academic inquiry and critiques of Hindutva as perpetrating harm on US Hindu students. Collectively, the timeline and essays serve to highlight the fraught yet intertwined relationship between the history of the field of religious studies and the history of US-based Hindutva movements. Taken together, they reveal that these campaigns against academics, far from being sporadic, isolated incidents, are part of interrelated global phenomenon of right-wing consolidation and expansion.