The Propaganda War Against Hindus in Academia: A Response to Inside Higher Education

04/22/2016 09:49 am ET Updated Apr 23, 2017

Take a look at this alarming claim right at the beginning of an article entitled "The Religious War against American Scholars of India" recently published in Inside Higher Education:

Highly respected professors face intimidation, threats and smear campaigns for deviating from the views of the Hindu right.

A cultural and religious war is raging in which Western academics are the enemy.
...
And now at the K-12 level, the struggle over how Hinduism is taught in California public schools has been renewed. A new online petition that has received more than 23,000 signatures accuses a group of South Asian studies faculty who proposed changes to social studies curriculum documents of seeking "to erase India and Hinduism from California's schools." The Hindu American Foundation has even launched a #DontEraseIndia campaign. At issue are questions of whether it's historically accurate to use the word "Hinduism" to describe the religion of ancient India -- the members of the faculty group argue that it isn't -- and the faculty group's suggestions that certain references to "India" be replaced with "South Asia" or "Indian subcontinent."

I am the main author of the online petition with over 23,000 signatures noted in the last paragraph. I am a professor and a writer. I have taken a clear but civil, respectful, and reasonable stand against what I believe is a systemic distortion in a part of the academy's reading of Hindu and Indian history. I have never thought of myself as a "cultural" or "religious" "warrior," nor do I condone intimidations, threats and smears. Nor have I ever identified, however debatable that term might be, with the "Hindu Right."

And most importantly, the petition at hand (which is independent of and preceded the Hindu American Foundation's subsequent hashtag campaign mentioned above) is hardly an empty "accusation." The facts about the sweeping and brazenly delusional (in some places) expurgations to the California History Social Science Frameworks are a matter of public record. The South Asian Studies faculty referred to here have clearly stated that they recommend changing most references to India before 1947 to South Asia and Hinduism to "ancient Indian religion" (read their November letter here). They have modified the word "India" in key places in the curriculum so that sentences such as the conquest by Central Asian tribes of "Northern Indian states" now reads as a mere expansion of territory by them across the Indus river into "Northern Indian plains." They have deleted the word "India" from a line about "India and the Muslim world" to subsume it with a phrase about the "Islamic civilization stretching from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean."

All of these facts are in plain view.

And yet, the Inside Higher Ed's reporter chooses to smear by association my campaign and the scholars supporting it by saying there's a religious and cultural war on scholars by the Hindu Right (I will note though that I am acknowledged as the author of the petition, later, almost at the very end of the article, and as a professor of Media and Asian studies, well after my petition has been framed implicitly as one more part of this alleged Hindu "religious war").

Given the unfortunate framing of a position of academic dissent against a wholesale denial of India's existence in history books as a "religious war," I have to ask some specific questions. Is it a "religious war" if you point out that it is historically inaccurate to subsume "India" under the phrase "Islamic civilization"? Or contest the white-washing of history and evisceration of human agency through phrases like "expanding territory into Northern Indian plains"?

In a way, all of this is not surprising given the blatant disregard for facts that has marked some of the media reporting on the California textbooks issue (read my response to the LA Times here).

Between the dogmatic refusal by some academicians to respond directly and civilly to the concerns of fellow scholars about their publicly stated positions, and the seeming eagerness of some community organizations to be co-opted into a media narrative that grants them visibility as vocal opponents to academia (even if that visibility is incredibly "filtered"), the truth, which is what scholars and journalists ought to care about, is left to rot somewhere on the sidelines.

What then is the core issue here? "These disputes," writes the author, referring presumably to our petition as well as other issues she lists prior to it such as the controversy over the Murty Classical Library, "have frequently pitted Hindu believers against non-Hindu scholars... They have tapped into postcolonial anxieties and puritanical attitudes towards sex." Now, arguably, some of these concerns may apply to some of the criticism that has been made by one of several Hindu groups or individuals over the years against some of the non-Hindu scholars of Hinduism whose work they find offensive. But the issue quite clearly is a lot more than simply one of believers fighting scholars (after all, it would be quite absurd to dismiss a case nor not deleting "India" as a matter of mere "Hindu belief," I would imagine!). The real problem is something I described in my 2012 review essay "Hinduism and its Culture Wars" as follows:

There is however one truly strange thing about the supposedly liberal vision of Hinduism that has been offered by writers crusading against the Hindu right (such as Wendy Doniger, Martha Nussbaum and others). Their worldview seems to have little respect, if not consideration, for how Hindus themselves see their religion in the first place. Consequently, a whole contemporary era of writing about South Asia has come to answer the Hindu right's distortions of myth and history not by engaging with Hinduism as it is lived and understood by Hindus (which would mean acknowledging at least some grievances felt by them), but by a narrow and selective promotion of its own normative fantasy about what liberal, secular Hindus ought to believe.

It is an amazing example of intellectual inertia (it would be impolite and un-collegial perhaps to call it anything worse so I won't), that the same sort of clichés and evasions that I pointed out several years ago reappear even now. For example, the Inside Higher Education article then goes on to quote Martha Nussbaum:

"For about 20 years at least, members of the Hindu community in the U.S. have been carrying on a well-funded campaign to substitute an ideological Hindu-right version of Indian history for serious historical scholarship." Nussbaum said that this version of history, propagated by the Hindu right since the 1920s, overstates the age of the Vedas by at least 1,500 years and makes false claims for Hindu indigeneity to the Indian subcontinent (where, as Nussbaum summarized the narrative, they lived "peacefully, with no conflict or strife, until Muslims arrived to create strife and try to dominate Hindus" -- and until the British Christians arrived to participate in the oppression of Hindus after that). This version of history also holds -- again falsely, Nussbaum said -- that "traditional Hinduism was highly puritanical about sexual matters, and the sexual element has been introduced by leftist and Western scholars."

It is clear from this quote that what Nussbaum thinks of as an "ideological Hindu-right version of Indian history" contains some seriously debatable assumptions. At the heart of the battle between ideological Hinduphobia in the academy, and the much more complex, diverse, and disorganized (and hardly well-funded in my view) campaign in the Hindu community, is essentially the assertion by Nussbaum about "false claims for Hindu indigeneity to the Indian subcontinent." All the rest is a sideshow frankly, a mere distraction meant to conceal the fact that much of this supposed "critique" of the Hindu Right from some academics lacks real insight into Hinduism or Hindutva and is a mere cut-and-paste of criticisms more apt to their traditions than Hinduism or India (after all, has any Hindu organization involved with the California textbooks made any assertion about 'traditional Hinduism' being 'highly puritanical about sexual matters'?)

The most important issue in this needlessly prolonged conflict is the question of whether the diverse traditions that Hindus today broadly refer to as "Hinduism" ought to be recognized as an integral part of India or whether Hinduism is really nothing more than a Nazi-like ideology imposed by the mythical invading Aryan race in 1500 BCE. Although several South Asia Studies scholars today say that they do not subscribe to this now discredited pseudo-scientific and racist theory concocted during colonial times, we still find eminent voices among them dismissing contrary views as "false claims" by the "Hindu Right." As I wrote a few weeks ago in HuffPost, it seems increasingly clear that the widely spread canard about Hindu extremism and nationalism in the California textbooks controversy may well be a part of the same mythology among some scholars. They pretty much seem to equate any position that respects Hinduism's deep rootedness in India as Hindu nationalism. One wonders what will happen the day academia realizes that all this shadow-boxing has been an utter distraction from our duty to the world as scholars and public intellectuals.

It is indeed a pity that despite extensive reporting that included several voices from inside and outside academia, Inside Higher Education's article chose to privilege some opinions over facts and skewed the overall tone in several grossly inaccurate ways. Is "The Religious War against American Scholars of India" a fair and objective headline for a debate that very clearly has a lot more to do with issues of identity, representation and decolonization rather than issues of belief, mythology, or religious ideology? Where does that leave several scholars in American academia who disagree with the currently prevalent dogma in academia that calls "claims for Hinduism's indigeneity to the Indian subcontinent" as being "Hindu Right"? As someone who believes that academia is not above self-critique and growth, I can only keep hoping that some day all this shadow-boxing will stop, and academia will stop treating Hindus and Hindu Americans like some unrepentant World War 2 German militia that got even meaner with some "false religion" and a tan.