Another political rift is stirring U.S. universities, this one rooted in India, and it has resulted in a federal complaint being filed against the University of Pennsylvania.
The Hindu American Foundation, led by Philadelphia-based cofounder and executive director Suhag A. Shukla, has asked the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to investigate Penn’s treatment of students and faculty of Indian and Hindu descent.
The foundation asserts that Penn faculty, its South Asia Center, and its department of South Asia studies were involved in “planning, sponsoring, hosting, and/or participating in a one-sided conference about India and Hindus that promoted negative stereotypes, slurs, and distorted facts.” It also says they helped prepare a “field manual” that perpetuated negative stereotypes.
The three-day online conference, “Dismantling Global Hindutva,” which was held last month with at least 30,000 attendees, failed to adequately distinguish between Hindutva, generally defined as Hindu nationalism, with Hindu, the religion, Shukla said.
“When an entire country, an entire religious tradition, and its people are painted as dangerous, bigoted, an anathema to democratic ideals, you have no choice but to defend yourself,” said Shukla, whose husband is a Penn medical professor.
Penn did not respond to a request for comment. The Department of Education said it does not acknowledge complaints it receives until they have been accepted for investigation.
Several faculty members who participated disputed that characterization: A few speakers did argue the two were the same, but it was far from the overarching view, they said.
“They were being hotly contested by other panelists, and that’s the point of a conference,” said Suvir Kaul, an English professor and president of the American Association of University Professors chapter at Penn, who attended the conference.
He dismissed the foundation’s concerns as unfounded.
“Hindu nationalists want to conflate criticism of a political ideology, namely Hindu nationalism, which is also know as Hindutva, with criticism and discrimination against an entire broad-based religion of Hinduism,” said Audrey Truschke, an associate professor in the department of history at Rutgers-Newark, who attended the conference. “That is incorrect.”
Hindutva, she said, advocates for the supremacy of Hindus over other religious minorities, similar to Christian nationalism and white supremacy.
Truschke said the conference included a mix of speakers from India, the United States, and elsewhere and offered a variety of viewpoints.
And she added that another national Hindu group, Hindus for Human Rights, wrote a letter supporting the conference and condemning Hindu nationalism.
The conference involved professors or departments from dozens of universities, including Harvard and Princeton, and garnered a letter of support from more than 1,000 faculty members, including 17 at Penn. Other locals include Rutgers, Widener, Villanova, Lehigh, Lafayette, Drexel, Swarthmore, Stockton, Princeton, and Pennsylvania State University. The foundation has filed a complaint only against Penn, alleging that faculty there initiated it, though some professors involved said that’s not the case.
While less than 1% of the U.S. population is Hindu, India accounts for the second-largest number of international students at U.S. colleges, nearly 200,000.
The conference has drawn international media attention with some supporting scholars saying they have been subjected to death and rape threats over their involvement. The Hindu American Foundation mounted an intense writing campaign to universities whose scholars were involved.
It’s not the first such international conflict to reach university campuses. The Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel on college campuses also brought intense debate and accusations of anti-Semitism.
Regarding the Hindutva conference, several professors and students contacted, both supporters and critics, asked not to be identified because they feared professional repercussions or threats.
Truschke said she and her children have been threatened multiple times over the years, most recently in August when a threat was called in to Rutgers and she was contacted by police. It was traced back to India, she said.
She has come under fire from some Rutgers students. Last March, a group of Hindu students in a petition asked the university to prevent Truschke from teaching courses on India or Hinduism. Rutgers in a statement to The Inquirer defended Truschke’s freedom to pursue her scholarship and said it “emphatically affirms its support for all members of the Hindu community to study and live in an environment in which they not only feel safe, but also fully supported in their religious identity.”
Truschke’s area of study is 16th- and 17th-century South Asia when a Muslim dynasty ruled over Hindus. Because of the rising Hindu-Muslim tensions in India today and “the rising death toll of Muslims who are being lynched by Hindu nationalist groups in India, my work is considered to be politically explosive,” she said.
She said the Hindu American Foundation, which is suing her for defamation, has supported the current Indian government, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a right-wing Hindu nationalist who campaigned in the United States for Donald Trump.
Shukla, of the Hindu American Foundation, called threats against academics “horrible” and “not acceptable.” She disputed Truschke’s account that the foundation supports Modi. Shukla believes that a conference should explore multiple views.
“Anyone who disagrees with the predominant ideology that was being promoted at this conference is labeled a fascist, is labeled a supremacist,” she said.
One speaker listed Hindu surnames of people alleged to have had a long history of participating in violence, she said. She found about 60 people at Penn with those names, she said.
A medical professor at Penn who asked not to be identified said Penn should have spoken out against the conference or at least disassociated itself from views shared.
“We would never say anti-Semitism is OK or Islamophobia is OK,” he said. “We want to hear from our university that what happened is not OK.”
The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has investigated more than 1,000 complaints about discriminatory conduct at colleges and universities over the last decade. Many have ended with resolutions in which a school agrees to change its practices or take steps to work with the complainants.
Projit Bihari Mukharji, an associate professor in Penn’s department of history and sociology of science, who was born and raised Hindu, said he was not offended by the conference and in fact signed the letter in support, though he was not able to attend.
“I’m not necessarily supporting this or that view,” he said. “What I do support is the right of university spaces to have civilized conversations in a serious, orderly fashion, where people have the right to push back and disagree.”
He said he was appalled that professors who supported the conference were threatened.
“That was not the Hinduism my parents taught me,” he said.
Kaul, the Penn English professor, said what’s happening in India under the current government “is a real problem.” He noted a New York Times story from last week, which says Modi has used an antiterror law to silence critics, jailing thousands, including poets, political organizers, and a Catholic priest.
A Penn freshman who is Hindu and whose parents are involved in the foundation said that although he has always found Penn welcoming and diverse, the conference was offensive.
“I have no problem with professors expressing their opinions on political issues in India, but the problem right now is they are conflating that with Hinduism,” he said. “That conflation contributes to negative stereotypes about India.”