The Hindu right is quietly funding—and lobbying—American universities

UCI students objected to the donation by Hindu group.
UCI students objected to the donation by Hindu group.
Image: AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
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In October 2015, the University of California, Irvine, announced the creation of an endowed chair—the Thakkar Family-Dharma Civilization Foundation Presidential Chair in Vedic and Indic Civilization Studies—supported by a $1.5 million grant.

As reported in this article in a local newspaper, following pushback from faculty and students because of the suspected Hindu nationalist or Hindu-right sympathies of the foundation, and concerns about excessive interference in the hiring process, the plans for the chair seem somewhat uncertain at present.

Compared to the shenanigans of Hindu-nationalist organisations and their supporters, the controversy, thus far, appears relatively tame, more of the order of a dull tussle between faculty and administration about procedural autonomy than about anything else.

The interventions of the Hindu right in the academic field, in India and more broadly, have generally fallen into the category of the absurd or the violent. The former is exemplified by the routine claims of the achievements of the ancient Hindu civilisation—Vedic aeroplanes, plastic surgery, intergalactic travel, and so on. The recently concluded 103rd edition of the Indian Science Congress, for instance, featured a bizarre conch-blowing performance by an officer of the elite IAS (Indian Administrative Service), ostensibly as an act of impeccable scientific merit.

The “violent” category, of course, includes actual physical violence against and intimidation of scholars—in India or abroad—perceived to be hostile to Hinduism. The murder of Kannada writer MM Kalburgi and threats to Wendy Doniger and Paul Courtright are some instances. It also includes the symbolic violence of erasing views deemed anti-Hindu and non-Hindu perspectives from school or university curricula, a prime example of which was the removal of AK Ramanujan’s essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas,” in 2012 from the Delhi University syllabus.

In a response to criticism levelled against it, the Dharma Civilization Foundation (DCF) strongly stresses its independence from Indian organisations, arguing that “[s]uch a conflation imputes guilt by association, marginalises Hindu Americans and portrays them as a dangerous fringe group allied with a political party in India, instead of fellow American citizens.” It also emphasises the distinct American-ness of the Indian-American experience, to which it seeks to give a voice.

With the coming of age of the Indian community in the United States of America, it has matured to second and third generations of successful professionals excelling in their fields of technology, medicine, entrepreneurship, law, and finance etc. The Indian Community in North America is now part of the fabric of American society; they are neighbours, friends, colleagues and fellow-citizens of everyday Americans. These Religious traditions of Indian origin are now American Religions too, and not foreign exotica.

Neither of these goals, taken by itself, is exceptionable. As is the DCF’s argument that other ethnic, religious, and cultural groups have also sought to have some say in the formal study of their groups in the academy. Or the general point that endowed positions in universities often come with conditions attached.

Yet, when examined closely, the logic of its philanthropic project appears contiguous with Hindutva’s intervention��both absurdist and violent—in academia. The DCF’s professed goals—as spelled out in its response to objections raised by the faculty and students of the University of California, Irvine—stand testimony to this.

Underlying all this is the belief that authentic “practicing” Hindus must control representation of Hinduism, whether within India or globally, and the nativist grouse that Hindu civilisational achievements have not been given their due recognition because of ideological reasons. The DCF’s response echoes the first sentiment in its insistence on the need to have “scholar-practitioners” teaching Hinduism in American academia.

The somewhat bogus and simplistic distinction between “-emic” (or insider) and “-etic” (or outsider) views of Hinduism has been a constant refrain of Hindu nationalist attacks on American academia for the better part of two decades. These are repeated endlessly by the so-called “intellectual kshatriyas” on email discussion lists, online forums, and publications produced by dubious Hindu-American think tanks.

Scaffolded on sweeping but incorrect statements like “[h]istorically, the study of Hinduism and other Indic traditions have been conducted predominantly through area studies,” the DCF presents a romanticised view of indigenous “non-Western” Indic knowledge as a much-needed corrective to bias. The “culturally sensitive” perspective of “self-understanding” that it advocates, however, is little more than a sophisticated nativism that informs the philosophy of Hindutva, running from the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) to the assorted Senas that haunt India’s cities and towns today.

Ironically, for all the claims of intellectual autonomy, challenging Western representations of Hinduism, and defending an indigenous dharmic tradition that has somehow miraculously survived unsullied for millennia, this line of thought is consistent with the colonial construct of the Indian identity. According to it, Hinduism is the soul and foundation of Indian civilisation; Sikhism, Buddhism, and Jainism are homegrown and legitimate Indic faiths; other minority religions, particularly Islam and Christianity, are essentially alien to India’s cultural spirit.

The creation of an area of academic expertise called “dharmic” studies through philanthropy reflects an important shift in strategy of the global Hindu right, understood as a network of loosely affiliated organisations in India and elsewhere. Even if they do not share formal ties, the basic belief that Indian civilisation is defined by Hinduism is common to them.

I am not by any means suggesting some well-orchestrated conspiracy at work here, but it is likely that the global Hindu right will consider similar initiatives in other American and international universities as well. The goal is to build a pool of scholars considered sympathetic to a generally conservative view of Hinduism and India. The DCF has funded a research position at the University of Southern California and a Center for Dharma Studies at Claremont Lincoln University. This philanthropic project may use the vocabularies of minoritarian identity politics (such as “Hinduphobia”) and concepts borrowed from postcolonial and social theory (such as the critique of Western epistemologies), but in its troubling insistence on Hinduism and India as primarily the property of certain kinds of Hindus it continues to echo its less savory past.

For this reason, it deserves close and careful scrutiny.

You can follow Rohit on Twitter @Indiaexplained. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.