Suhag Shukla | Why the Hindu American Foundation is asking the Department of Education to investigate Penn

Suhag Shukla | Why the Hindu American Foundation is asking the Department of Education to investigate Penn

Guest column | Penn should take a toxic episode of Hinduphobia as an opportunity to extend its support to Hindu students and faculty

By Suhag Shukla

As a resident of Philadelphia, I see the University of Pennsylvania as a beacon of educational excellence and a cultural touchstone for our region. My family and friends were educated there, work there, or are supported by scholarships endowed by Penn. 

That’s why it’s heartbreaking for me to file a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, on behalf of the Hindu American Foundation, saying that Penn has not done enough to combat a hostile environment for Indian and Hindu students, faculty, and staff on its campus. In its failure to act, we believe Penn may have violated its responsibilities under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The catalyst for HAF was the co-sponsorship by the South Asian Studies Department of an online conference called “Dismantling Global Hindutva,” a conference we were told was conceived of by Penn faculty.

Hindutva is a term with many definitions. Many practicing Hindus and Hindu spiritual leaders define the term literally, according to its Sanskrit root, as the essence of being Hindu. Others define Hindutva as a political ideology, ascribed to the current ruling party in India, and use words like “fascist,” “supremacist,” and “violent” to describe it. The faculty at Penn co-sponsoring the DGH event ascribe to the latter version of Hindutva. 

As soon as the conference was announced, tens of thousands of letters were sent to all co-sponsoring universities, including Penn, by Hindu Americans who feared that disclaimers made by the organizers that their critique would focus on Hindutva would prove empty and Hinduphobia would be platformed by the conference. 

Penn ignored all of those letters in which Hindus said they were convinced that the invited faculty, with long histories of activism, would conflate and condemn Hinduism and Hindutva, without distinguishing between them. 

During the actual conference, in back-to-back panels, that is exactly what happened.

Speaker after speaker discarded any pretense of separating Hinduism from Hindutva and pointed to Hindus as violent and inherently bigoted and a danger to democratic values. 

“I take Hindutva as political Hinduism, not a distortion of some inherently benign religion, but a historical expression of it,” said one speaker.

“Harboring the idea that Hinduism is harmless and Hindutva is the culprit will not do anything to further democratic ideals,” said another.

“I emphasize, without hesitation, that Hindutva is inseparable [from] Hinduism. And arguments that Hindutva is not Hinduism are deeply dangerous and will not lead us to the future we want,” said a prominent academic and another featured speaker at the event.

 I’m worried that the University, through its silence, is allowing scholar-activists to trump the rights of students and other faculty to freely engage in open inquiry or to express different ideas or perspectives from the loudest among them without fear of censure or retaliation.

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