Organizers and participants in an online U.S. academic conference on Hindu nationalism say right-wing Hindu groups targeted the meeting, calling it “anti-Hindu” and “Hindu-phobic.”
These organizers and participants in the September 10-12 Dismantling Global Hindutva (DGH) conference — “Hindutva” refers to a right-wing Hindu movement aiming to turn India into a Hindu state — say they received hate mail and death threats and that the attacks came from right-wing Hindu groups and their supporters.
Indian poet and activist Meena Kandasamy, a conference speaker, told VOA September 18 she had received an online death threat, while Rohit Chopra, an associate professor at Santa Clara University in California and conference organizer, said several participants had received death threats.
While the death threat to Kandasamy was apparently from an individual, “Only right wing groups are officially targeting me through tweets, conferences, posters, articles and mass trolling. I am certain the threats are coming from members of those groups,” she told VOA.
The threats and harassment have been “relentless and unimaginable in their scale and scope,” said Chopra.
“There have been direct threats of violence sent by phone, email and on social media to specific individuals associated with the conference. These hateful messages include threats of death and sexual violence to the individuals in question and to their families. The rightwing media frenzy in India and the attacks on the conference launched by right-wing Hindu Organizations in the U.S. have, and are, contributing to this climate of violence.”
An email received by one organizer said: “If this event will take place, then I will become Osama bin Laden and will kill all the speakers, don’t blame me.”
Hindu groups have accused the conference of being an attack on Hinduism. The India-based group Hindu Janjagruti Samiti, or Hindu Mass-Awakening Committee, held a discussion on Twitter September 15 in which several speakers said that the DGH conference was anti-Hindu and it was held to launch a campaign against Hinduism.
Sourish Mukherjee a spokesperson of Vishwa Hindu Parishad or World Hindu Organization, the largest Hindu group in India — which has not been accused of any attacks on the conference — told VOA, “The conference was part of a global conspiracy to malign Hinduism.”
Conference organizers, though, call the accusation “false” and say the conference was only an academic discussion on the political ideology of Hindutva by the participating scholars.
The Hindu groups, identified by the organizers as “far-right fringe groups” and their supporters, sent more than a million emails to universities sponsoring the conference urging them to withdraw and take action against staff that participated, organizers say.
Kandasamy has faced violent threats since her name as a speaker at the conference became public last month. Pictures of Kandasamy and her 4-year-old son were posted online with vulgar captions and threats. She also received threats of being raped on Twitter.
A well-known Indian documentary maker and activist, who participated in the conference, told VOA he received at least two death threats from one group called Kalki Army for taking part in the conference.
Chopra said that several of the speakers, mostly with their roots in India, withdrew from the conference.
Despite the pressure campaign, Chopra said no university dropped support for the conference.
“In fact, since news of the highly organized attack against the conference, and, indeed, the principle of academic freedom, has become public, we have received overwhelming support from all segments of global civil society, including academic associations, PEN International, academicians, and others,” Chopra told VOA.
Several Hindu groups charged that the conference is aimed at demeaning Hinduism.
The Hindu American Foundation said that it never tried to stop the DGH conference, but sought to present its views to counter those of the speakers there. The foundation never encouraged opponents of the conference to make violent threats against its organizers, speakers and supporters, the statement said.
“We are aware of threatening and harassing messages on social media targeting organizers of the event and some of those who are promoting the conference, and even their family members. Some report receiving violent threats and menacing phone calls. We emphatically condemn all such actions,” the statement said.
Ben Baer, the director of South Asian Studies Program at Princeton University, said that his university had received thousands of emails calling the conference “Hindu-phobic.”
Chopra said that the organizers of the DGH conference had repeatedly emphasized from the very start, on the conference site and in all materials related to it that “Hindutva is not synonymous with Hinduism.”
“Hindutva is a very specific historical phenomenon but meaningful analogies to that accusation would be to label a conference on global rightwing Christian fundamentalism as Christian-phobic or to designate a conference on White Supremacy as motivated by hatred of all White people. It is precisely because the Hindu Right and pro-Hindutva organizations opposing the conference want that Hindutva should be seen as the authentic incarnation of Hinduism that they are making such untenable claims,” said Chopra.
Audrey Truschke, an associate professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University, who has received several violent threats despite not being involved in the DGH conference, said that the right-wing Hindu nationalist groups have attacked U.S.-based academics, on and off, for a few decades with the goal of stifling academic discourse.
“These right-wing groups have become significantly emboldened and virulent in their attacks over the past few years, deploying standard Hindu nationalist strategies of disinformation campaigns, trolling, threatening and filing lawsuits, intimidation, and pressuring employers. Such attacks seek to silence a wide range of scholars, including those who work on Indo-Muslim history, Hinduism, Kashmir, and, of course, Hindu nationalism,” Truschke told VOA.
“Such attacks are infringing on academic freedom and so are being opposed by a broad array of scholars, academic organizations, universities, and civil society groups,” she said.