n Friday, March 18th, 2005 the U.S. Embassy in India turned down Narendra Modi's application for a diplomatic visa on the grounds that he was not planning to travel to the U.S. for diplomatic business. Further, in an unexpected move, the embassy also revoked Modi's existing tourist/business visas for his role in the Gujarat violence citing INA Section 212(a)(2)(G) which falls under the category "Criminal Grounds of Inadmissability (Exclusion)". Modi was planning to embark on a five-day visit to the U.S. and was going to address the annual convention of the Asian-American Hotel Owners Association in Fort Lauderdale as well as at a gathering organized by a newly floated organization called "The Association of Indian-Americans of North America."
While these two events were widely reported in the coverage of the visa denial, the media did not mention the fact that Modi had at least anothervisit planned and was scheduled to inaugurate the "Yadunandan Center for India Studies" at California State University, Long Beach. In response to a flurry of protests, a Mr. Rick Goady of the Office of Public Affairs of CSU-LB, offered the following:
"The invitation to the Chief Minister was originally extended by members of the local Indian business community. Cal State Long Beach, in the interest of academic freedom, had agreed to provide the venue. Since the speech has been canceled, however, there does not seem to be need for further comment."
This was not the first time that the pretext of "academic freedom" was being used by a U.S. university to offer a platform to Hindutva nationalists. In October 2004, the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University and the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) at the University of Pennsylvania had hosted the official spokesperson of the RSS, Ram Madhav at their institutions. Madhav had given his expected stock speech, blaming the ills of India on Muslims and other minorities while raising the bogey of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis "infiltrating" and "invading" India, thereby destroying its democracy. Gujarat was mentioned, but only briefly and casually, with Madhav referring to the violence that reached the levels of a pogrom, as simply "unfortunate."
When news of Madhav's proposed visit reached the U.S., both universities received hundreds of letters of protest. In response to these, Anjali Sharan, the Program Coordinator of JHU wrote: "While we belief that the policies of [the RSS] are often viewed as controversial, our belief is that such views need to be openly discussed, debated and challenged. We believe that intellectual transparency is the best policy for an academic institution and program..." Despite Ms. Sharan's claim, Madhav's talk was neither a debate nor a discussion. Accompanied by a belligerent coterie which shouted down any attempts to challenge the speaker, Madhav offered his bigoted views to the audience and left. Further, there was little "intellectual transparency" on view. As a matter of fact, the JHU announcement of the event described the RSS as simply "the preeminent nationalist Hindu organization of India."
So why was Madhav accorded this honor by JHU and UPenn? Sunil Khilnani, Director of the South Asia Studies Program at SAIS contended that he wanted it to be a "battle of ideas" while Francine Frankel, the Director of CASI claimed that listening to Ram Madhav would allow people to learn about the RSS. Neither argument is particularly convincing. It would be one thing if an RSS scholar, historian, or academic were invited to offer her/his views, however problematic they may be. But Ram Madhav is clearly nothing more than an ideologue of a group that has a transparently clear past (and present) of pushing a narrow brand of cultural and religious nationalism and is widely acknowledged as a purveyor of hate. Let us just say this and move on: Khilnani and Frankel probably succumbed to the seduction of power. Rubbing shoulders with the spokesperson of what could be future-India's fascist regime might have been a turn on. Or perhaps, it was a function of their disciplinary affiliations. Studying "power" possibly produces a perverse attraction to it in all its manifestations. These were no reasoned debates, no pedagogical exercises. What was on display was Bigotry strutting about on an academic stage.
More important to the point I am making is the question of why the RSS sought this platform. Yes, sought, for in response to a question at CASI, Madhav admitted that he had initiated the invitation himself. The RSS had approached several institutions of "higher learning" in the U.S. and had offered Ram Madhav as a speaker. "I felt we needed to present our views," he said, adding that "you get so many ideas about us from others" and therefore "we want to give the correct story...clear misconceptions." I suppose this is how a "battle of ideas" gets waged in liberal academic spaces these days. 1
Rewriting history is one of the Sangh's pet projects. During its years of power, the BJP systematically appointed its ideologues to positions in the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) and the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), who then went about furiously erasing generations of historical scholarship and replacing it in, among other places, school textbooks with the Sangh's own fantastical representations of a glorious Hindu past plundered by foreigner Muslim armies. Since a large part of secular scholarship is produced by academics of South Asia in the U.S. and the U.K., it is not surprising that the Sangh is also making an effort to influence how this scholarship gets conducted in the West.
It would be inaccurate, however, to assume that this is a recent move. Ram Madhav's trip and the aborted attempt to have Modi inaugurate the CSU-LB Center are but the latest in a series of similar events that have a long history. Rich NRIs have been attempting to play a role in influencing the direction of South Asian scholarship for quite some time now. The Center for South Asian Studies in Berkeley has been raising money from the community for several years. Its web site says the following:
Besides the traditional sources of funds, the State of California and the U.S. Department of Education, we have in the last three years looked elsewhere for additional resources. The most obvious and most promising direction for funding is the South Asian American community... The community is well educated, economically successful, concerned about transmitting its heritage to its youth, interested in explaining its heritage to Americans, sends many of its children to UC and is increasingly interested in and aware of the need to mainstream itself in American society.
The (now-defunct) Dharam Hinduja Indic Research Center at Columbia University sought to promote "Vedic Studies" through working groups that attempted to "interpret ancient Indic traditions", focus on "the role and status of women in Hindu tradition with particular attention to those sets of beliefs and practices based on Vedic and Shastric authority" and conduct "Sita" symposiums that explored the role of "the wife of Lord Rama as a role model in historical and contemporary times." 2
I am, of course, not suggesting that there is anything "wrong" with studying ancient Indian cultures and historical/mythical figures in Indian history. What is interesting is that these attempts to produce a particular form of scholarship about India are substantially driven by the anxieties of the Indian-American first generation migrants who are deeply concerned about losing their "culture" and their "identity." The slippage between an Indian identity and an upper-caste Hindu identity is all too evident in the programs offered by these centers of study. Indic and Vedic are used almost interchangeably, a move that is facilitated by the Indic Studies departments in this country which have always-already imagined an India of ancient (Hindu) civilizations that were potent, prosperous, and peaceful (the absent referent -- Islam -- is the elephant in the room).
There has been another, unheralded movement that has been going on for a while: that of trying to create a specific Hindu-American identity (in stark opposition to the attempts by progressive groups to generate wider and more inclusive formations), which while one-step removed from the Indian-American identity is ironically one-step closer to contemporary India and its RSS influenced discourse. This movement, that seeks to draw young second-generation Indian-Americans into its fold is spearheaded by another one of the Sangh's multiple organizations in the U.S. -- the campus based Hindu Students Council (HSC). For long a formal part of the VHP of America, the HSC has recently been spun off as an independent organization. Taking a leaf from the Sangh play-book of using development and educational organizations to indoctrinate people, the HSC is attempting to replicate that strategy in the U.S. through an initiative called NetSEVA. For the moment, NetSEVA is engaged in fundraising for Ekal Vidyalaya (one-teacher schools set up by the VHP in India ) and Indicorps (an organization fashioned along the lines of the Peace Corps which sends students to India to work on development issues). While this is interesting and instructive in terms of how the Sangh functions, what is rather fascinating (in a morbid sense, of course) is a brand-new HSC-Sangh push called the "Educators Society for the Heritage of India", a body that has been formed to recruit college professors to teach the Sangh version of Indian history. Indic/South Asia scholars are being cultivated, engaged, supplied with reading material and invited to address a variety of fora in order to persuade them that the brand of Indian history they have been exposed to is a Marxist conspiracy, that archeological studies of the pre-Vedic Indus Valley civilization are bogus, and that True Indian History is consonant with the Sangh version. Western writers such as Konrad Elst, David Frawley and Francois Gautier are invoked as the true scholars of a glorious Indian past.
The peddling of a particular version of Indian history and a specific brand of 'India-studies' goes hand in hand with active opposition to and (attempts at) discrediting an established body of knowledge - of the highest quality, one might add - by secular scholars of India which is anathema to their brand of virulent religious nationalism. The organized protest against Romila Thapar's appointment as the Kluge Chair at the Library of Congress and the hysteria generated around the writings of James Laine, Wendy Doniger, and Paul Courtright are recent examples of this new form of activism 3 - as is the work of groups like 'Hindus Against Defamation' (clearly modeled on the Anti-Defamation League which protects Zionist interests in the US - one more lesson that Hindutva in the US diaspora has learnt from the Zionists).
Many of the Sangh initiatives -- the promotion of a romanticized history of India and Hinduism, protests against the 'defamation' of a 'minority' community 4, the setting up of organizations that purportedly serve the poor, appropriating the discourse and projects of development and 'community education', the creation of identity-based student organizations -- dovetail neatly with the liberal agenda of U.S. academic institutions and their multiculturalist discourse, and with the "apolitical" politics of certain kinds of Indic study departments, particularly since this assertion of identity is more than comfortable with the structures of Capital.
Given this, the Sangh's best strategy is to infiltrate these institutions, sometimes by setting up Centers, sometimes by funding chairs, sometimes by creating think-tanks. Deep pocketed NRIs are more than willing to finance these projects. The recent developments must be seen in this light. The fact that the RSS is now making public appearances in spaces it abhorred and was abhorred by, and the attempt to have Modi inaugurate an India Studies Center (which was aborted only due to his visa denial) is a clear indicator of the emboldening of the Sangh in U.S. academic spaces. Watch out for more such forays; be prepared to resist.
References and Notes
- Editorial note: This is, of course, entirely in keeping with the general strategy of the Right with regard to both media and academia; it has successfully managed to embed the idea that both have a 'liberal bias' in the common sense of the American public. This 'liberal bias' then needs to be corrected and 'balanced out' by yet more Rightist propaganda. This is, after all, the reasoning behind the Fox News Network's infamous tag-line of 'Fair and Balanced'. As Chi-Ming Yang points out in her contribution to this issue, this is an incredibly clever move - amounting as it does to using a quintessentially liberal position to illiberal effect, with the implicit and/or explicit complicity of the Liberals.
- Hinduja Foundation, Newsletter 11 (1998), 9.
- See the editorial 'Brahmanizing the Diaspora' from Ghadar's last issue for more on this issue.
- Hindutva has been very successful in playing the 'minority' card within the US - whether it be in accepting the terms of the 'model minority' game or in using the discourse of multiculturalism to take on the mantle of victimhood.