No safe place for Hindu students in UK-US academia – Avatans Kumar

Rashmi Samant & Abhijit Sarkar

Avatans KumarHinduphobia in academia is a legacy of orientalism, colonialism, Indology, and Marxism, and it is systemic and widespread. – Avatans Kumar

Rashmi Samant, a small-town girl from Udipi, Karnataka, was all excited about being elected the first Indian woman to be the president of the prestigious Oxford University Students’ Union. Samant, who ran her campaign on the “Decolonization and Inclusivity” platform, received 1,966 of the 3,708 votes cast in a keenly contested election. She made the headlines in India and across the world. All major Indian and diaspora news outlets proudly covered this news. Two days later, however, it all fell apart. Samant had to resign amid allegations of “racism”, “antisemitism”, and “transphobia”. These allegations had roots in some of Samant’s past social media posts when she was a teenager.

On her part, Samant promptly apologised, saying: “They were the posts of a teenager who just had access to the world of social media. I again reiterate my apology to those genuinely hurt for my ignorance but not to those with malicious intent who targeted me on ‘insensitivity’.”

A few days later, Samant quit Oxford and was on her flight back to India after being bullied, threatened, and abused for her Hindu faith.

Leading the charge against Samant was Abhijit Sarkar, faculty of History at the University of Oxford. Sarkar went hard after Samant with his personal, Hinduphobic attacks. “She has come to Oxford from Manipal Institute of Technology (MIT) in Karnataka,” Sarkar wrote in his Instagram post, “whose official website displays a photo of Modi, the supreme leader. She has come … from coastal Karnataka which is a bastion of Islamophobic far Right (sic) forces…. Yes, far Right (sic) Desi forces hate white people and Western modernity because they want to reinstate Sanatan Hindutva.” In another social media post, Sarkar gleefully wrote, “… when I was a kid, I broke several Saraswati idols…”

In a post carried by several media outlets, Samant attributed the cause of her resignation from the Oxford Union post because of “sensitivity”. Recounting her mental agony and trauma, she wrote: “I stepped down because my values taught me to be ‘sensitive’: sensitive to the feelings of the people who reposed faith in me, sensitive to my convictions that above all we need to respect fellow human beings, and sensitive to the welfare of the student community that deserves a working SU, and at the personal level, sensitive to the effects of cyber-bullying that is targeted against me in the name of ‘sensitivity’!”

Audrey TruschkeA few days later, nearly 5,500 kilometres away across the Atlantic Ocean, a group of college students grappled with a similar issue of Hinduphobic attacks from faculty. The Hindu students at Rutgers, represented by the Hindu Students Council and Hindu Youth for Unity, Virtues, and Action (YUVA), had gathered to tell their stories of bullying, mental agony, and trauma to university bosses. The Hindu groups have been fighting a long-drawn-out battle against Audrey Truschke, an Associate Professor of South Asian History at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. Truschke is well-known for her anti-Hindu bigotry, vile Hinduphobic social media commentary, cyber-bullying, and above all, shoddy scholarship.

Almost three years ago, Truschke had tweeted that Mata Sita, in Valmiki’s Ramayana, basically tells Bhagwan Rama that he is a “misogynist pig and uncouth”. She had also suggested that Bhagwan Lakshmana was “lusting after” Mata Sita. She tweeted an announcement of her extremely provocative new course, “History of South Asia II (Mughals to Modi)”. The tweet was accompanied by an image of the Capitol with an Indian Tricolour among numerous US flags and flags supporting then-President Trump in the foreground. The tweet read: “One of my opening images will be this, from DC yesterday, with the question—What do we need to know to explain why there is an Indian flag here?” suggesting Hindu organisations were involved in the Capitol riots of 6 January 2021.

Truschke is on the Board of Advisors of the rabidly anti-Hindu group “Hindus Against Hindutva” that had organised Holi Against Hindutva and anti-CAA Protests across US campuses. She tried to block a campus event on Kashmiri Hindus’ plight, where filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri was the main speaker. Truschke also started collating an online list on Twitter of individuals who were critical of her. All this, Rutgers students claimed, had created an environment unsafe not only for open and free academic exchange but also unsafe physically.

The students were shocked and crestfallen when they found out that the Rutgers administration did not only support Truschke, but also chided students and others for their “vile” attacks on Truschke and her “academic freedom”.

“We were upset,” said Prasiddha Sudhakar, a second-year student in Economics, Computer Science, and Critical Intelligence Studies at Rutgers University. “We felt excluded when the [Rutgers University] administration released their initial statement … they didn’t equally condemn the hateful messages and threats the students were receiving.” The students were afraid and concerned that such hateful rhetoric coming from a person of authority, repute, and connection who had tens of thousands of online followers, can do “significant harm” to the Hindu community.

Truschke also mobilised the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) to selectively condemn “hate speech” directed against Truschke while remaining silent on “hate speech” against Hindus in general and Hindu students of the university in particular.

Suraj YengdeThese are not isolated incidents. Hinduphobia in academia is a legacy of orientalism, colonialism, Indology, and Marxism, and it is systemic and widespread. Ashok Swain, a member of the faculty at Sweden’s Uppsala University, Department of Peace and Conflict Research, had made a “Gau Mutra” (cow urine, a common taunt against Hindus by jihadists) comment in his tweet. Suraj Yengde, a Harvard Kennedy School academic, had recently tweeted: “Hindus are sick people of India, it is their religious books who (sic) train the mind.” In India’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Mata Durga was depicted as a sex worker who tricks Mahishasura into marriage and kills him.

A few years earlier, many would have easily brushed such academic Hinduphobia incidents under the rug. However, with the Hindu diaspora reaching a critical demographic mass in North America and UK, its “response threshold” has been breached. A response threshold is crossed, writes Erick Sharp (The Encyclopedia of Religion, 1987), “when it becomes possible for the believer to advance his or her interpretation against that of the scholar”. When a faith community crosses its response threshold, it becomes hard for outsiders to ignore the community’s response to misrepresentations.

The student groups came armed with copies of Truschke’s social media posts. In their presentation to the university administration, they demonstrated how Truschke had repeatedly and consciously mocked Hindu deities, misrepresented revered ancient Hindu texts such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and had tried to whitewash the historical Islamic atrocities in the Indian subcontinent. “The administration was extremely supportive and apologised for not addressing it [Hindu students’ grievances] earlier,” said Sudhakar. “They assured it they would put out a statement supporting us—we are happy that they did,” she added. In their public statement, the university apologised for their “failure to communicate” their support for the Hindu community. The administration felt “sorry for the hurt” that members of the Hindu community have been experiencing and called for an immediate end to “the vile messages and threats that are being directed at Hindu students”. – Sunday Guardian Live , 20 March 2021

Avatans Kumar writes on the topics of dharma, language, culture, and current affairs. He is a JNU and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign alumnus and lives in Chicago.

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