Hindu foundation files lawsuit against University of Pennsylvania, claiming online conference perpetuates stereotypes

Another political divide is shaking American universities, this one rooted in India, and it has resulted in a federal lawsuit against the University of Pennsylvania.

The Hindu American Foundation, headed by Philadelphia Co-Founder and Executive Director Suhag A. Shukla, asked the US Department of Education Civil Rights Office to investigate Penn’s treatment of students and teachers of Indian and Hindu descent.

The foundation claims that Penn’s faculty, its South Asian Center, and its South Asian Studies Department have been involved in “planning, sponsoring, hosting and / or attending a conference. one-sided over India and Hindus which promoted negative stereotypes, insults, and distorted facts. He also says they helped prepare a “field manual” that perpetuated negative stereotypes.

The three-day online conference, “Dismantling of Global Hindutva“, held last month with at least 30,000 participants, failed to distinguish between Hindutva, generally defined as Hindu nationalism, and Hindu, religion,” said Shukla.

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“When an entire country, an entire religious tradition and its people are portrayed as dangerous, fanatical, anathema to democratic ideals, you have no choice but to stand up for yourself,” said Shukla, whose husband is a professor. of Medicine at Penn.

Penn did not respond to a request for comment. The education ministry has said it does not acknowledge the complaints it receives until they have been accepted for investigation.

Several faculty members who attended disputed this characterization: A few speakers argued that the two were the same, but that was far from the general opinion, they said.

“They were hotly contested by other panelists, and that is the purpose of a conference,” said Suvir Kaul, professor of English and chapter president of the American Association of University Teachers at Penn, who attended the conference.

He dismissed the foundation’s concerns as unfounded.

“Hindu nationalists want to confuse criticism of a political ideology, namely Hindu nationalism, also known as Hindutva, with criticism and discrimination against an entire broad-based Hindu religion,” said Audrey Truschke, associate professor in the history department. to Rutgers-Newark, who attended the conference. “This is incorrect.”

Hindutva, she said, argues for the supremacy of Hindus over other religious minorities, like Christian nationalism and white supremacy.

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Truschke said the conference included a mix of speakers from India, the United States and elsewhere and offered a variety of perspectives.

And she added that another Hindu national group, Hindus for Human Rights, wrote a supporting letter 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 over 1,000 faculty members, including 17 at Penn. Other residents include Rutgers, Widener, Villanova, Lehigh, Lafayette, Drexel, Swarthmore, Stockton, Princeton, and Pennsylvania State University. The foundation filed a lawsuit only against Penn, alleging that the faculty initiated it, although some professors involved said it did not.

While less than 1% of the US population is Hindu, India has the second highest number of international students at US colleges, nearly 200,000.

The conference drew international media attention, with some academics arguing that they were subjected to death and rape threats on their involvement. The American Hindu Foundation organized an intense writing campaign among universities whose academics were involved.

This is not the first such international conflict to hit college campuses. The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel on college campuses has also sparked intense debate and accusations of anti-Semitism.

Regarding the Hindutva conference, several professors and students contacted, supporters and critics, asked not to be identified because they feared professional repercussions or threats.

Truschke said she and her children had been threatened on several occasions over the years, most recently in August when a verbal threat was made to Rutgers and she was contacted by police. It has been traced to India, she said.

She has be under fire of some Rutgers students. Last March, a group of Hindu students in a petition asked at 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 she “emphatically affirms her support for all members of the Hindu community to study and live in an environment in which they feel they are not. only safe, but also fully supported in their religious identity.

Truschke’s field of study is 16th and 17th century South Asia, when a Muslim dynasty ruled the Hindus. Due to the growing tensions between Hindus and Muslims in India today and ‘the increasing death toll among Muslims who are lynched by Hindu nationalist groups in India my work is seen as 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 the threats against academics “horrible” and “unacceptable”. She took issue with Truschke’s account that the foundation supports Modi. Shukla thinks that a conference should explore several points of view.

“Anyone who does not agree with the predominant ideology that was promoted at this conference is called a fascist, is called a supremacist,” she said.

One speaker listed Hindu surnames which they believe have a long history of involvement in violence, she said. She found around 60 people in Penn with those names, she said.

A professor of medicine at Penn who asked not to be named said Penn should have spoken out against the conference or at least disassociated himself from shared views.

“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 Civil Rights Office of the Ministry of Education investigated more than 1,000 complaints on discriminatory behavior in colleges and universities over the past decade. Many have resulted in resolutions in which a school agrees to change its practices or take action to work with complainants.

Projit Bihari Mukharji, associate professor in the Department of History and Sociology of Science at Penn, who was born and raised Hindu, said he was not offended by the conference and in fact signed the letter of support, although he could not attend.

“I do not necessarily support this or that point of view,” he said. “What I am supporting is the right of academic spaces to have civilized conversations in a serious and orderly manner, where people have the right to push back and disagree.”

He said he was dismayed that professors supporting the lecture had been threatened.

“It was not Hinduism that my parents taught me,” he said.

Kaul, Penn’s English teacher, said what is happening in India under the current government “is a real problem”. He noted a New York Times story from last week, which says Modi used anti-terrorism law to silence critics, imprisoning thousands of people, including poets, political organizers and a Catholic priest.

A Penn freshman who is Hindu and whose parents are involved in the foundation said that while he always found Penn welcoming and diverse, the lecture was offensive.

“I have no problem with professors voicing their opinions on political issues in India, but the problem right now is that they are confusing this with Hinduism,” he said. “This confusion contributes to negative stereotypes about India.”

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