Behind the Hostility in Academia towards Narendra Modi: An Interview with Vamsee Juluri

The petition by several US-based academics (mostly of Indian origin) against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming…

The petition by several US-based academics (mostly of Indian origin) against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming visit to Silicon Valley has understandably garnered enormous attention. Counter petitions have been floated, counter activism, articles, blogs, and debates continue to be generated.

As recent history is witness, anti-Modi activism is nothing new. The most recent of such academia-originated anti- modi activism was the stopping of (then Gujarat Chief Minister) Narendra Modi’s video address to the students at Wharton. All of this anti-Modi activism and campaigns stems directly from the decade-long, agenda-based witch hunt against him for his alleged complicity in the 2002 Gujarat riots from which Indian courts have exonerated him.

And so, in an effort to understand an insider’s perspective as to what still motivates academics to continue this witch hunt, IndiaFacts Editor Sandeep Balakrishna contacted Dr. Vamsee Juluri, Professor of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco in an email interview, the full text of which follows.

Prof Juluri is the author of five bestselling books including his recent Rearming Hinduism, an important work that discusses a range of issues facing Hindus, Hinduism, and the overall narrative on Hinduism in the academia and public space.

Sandeep Balakrishna (SB): There has been a lot of interest of late in the state of humanities in the US given the fact that much of the antipathy to India, Hinduism and Modi is coming from these fields- most of the anti-Modi petition supporters are from there. What is your experience with the general state of humanities in US Academia?

Vamsee Juluri (VJ): My experience is that while there are certainly concerns about the institutional future of humanities in general, mainly from a professional and economic perspective (given how much more expensive college is in the US), I don’t think there is any disrespect for the humanities as a whole in academia or in society. There is a sense that humanities keep us human! So colleges encourage even students who don’t major in these fields to take some classes in these fields as Gen Ed requirements in the first two years.

Coming to the Hinduphobia problem now. It’s important for the community to recognize how the people in these fields view what they are doing. The humanities and social sciences in US academia have typically been a place for recognizing voices marginalized in mainstream media and political discourses. Naturally, the present moment of civilizational interest and rediscovery that is animating India and the diaspora should have been welcomed and nurtured in the academy too, rather than dismissed blindly as fascism or fundamentalism.

Unfortunately, there is a near breakdown in understanding and mutual engagement when it comes to Hinduism between Hindus and the academia. A lot of this is because of the peculiar relationship between Hinduism and South Asian studies and the people these fields study. In most area and identity studies fields, there is a close link between the scholars and the actual humans involved with it – for example, you won’t find students or faculty in women’s studies being implacably hostile to women, and so on, which is what makes the state of affairs in Hinduism and South Asia studies generally puzzling.  The experts in these fields of course maintain that they are not against Hindus or India, and they are speaking for the poor masses of the region. This is a groundless argument, in my view. But it needs careful debate to be defused.

SB: Why do these guys seem to be so interested in politicking rather than churning out good, decent and intellectually honest students and scholars?

VJ: Politics has come to acquire a different meaning in these fields than what it means in everyday life, or in the sciences, where we often see objectivity and politicking as opposite things.  Readers might recall the “Academic Mayasabha” chapter in Rearming Hinduism where I discuss this point.

American social sciences was very much about objectivity just like the sciences and engineering till the 1960s or so (and still is in many quarters), but the problem was that objectivity in many situations was not real—it was mere ethnocentrism sustained by power. It took a political effort from students and scholars to challenge the old myth of objectivity.

The idea of neutral or objective knowledge became discredited, and in many cases went to postmodern extremes. Any knowledge-claim became suspect, and this led to celebrated run-ins between postmodern academia and others such as the Sokal Prank <> .  There are several scholars and activists though, who haven’t abandoned the idea of objective social scientific research altogether, even as they maintain a political position, usually of a progressive nature, aimed at addressing injustices of race and class and gender in Western societies.

So, politics is not seen as antithetical to objective scholarship any more, but its very essence. If it is done correctly, in my view, there is no problem in that, and it is actually good for the world, and for previously marginalized communities who never had a voice in the discourse. Unfortunately, in South Asia studies, it is not done correctly. The dominance, if not inherent evil, of “Hindu” identity is taken as a mere given, and everything else (petitions mostly), dances grotesquely around it.

SB: Why do these academics find it so compelling to interfere in an alien nation’s affairs? After all, India doesn’t tell the US or any other nation who to elect, what their foreign policy should be, what their notion of religious freedom should be, how they should conduct themselves etc.

VJ: There is a strange and contradictory position that exists in academia today on the state of the nation. Since capitalism, neo-liberalism and such are seen as transnational forces, there is a tendency to view the nation is nothing more than one face of these oppressive forces. That is why many scholars and activists in this tradition see nothing wrong in viewing nationalism as a bad word, and in taking actions that average citizens might view as meddling in another nation’s affairs.  Many of these scholars do believe they are helping the poor majority of the world for whom the nation-state and national sovereignty don’t mean anything.

The truth of course is that even in a highly globalized world, the nation is still real and relevant, for rich and for poor. The terror attacks of 26/11 for example, which were portrayed by many South Asianist writers as some kind of poor-Muslims fighting back against rich-Hindus Robin Hood moment showed us all that the poor suffer as much as the rich, and actually far more in this age of state-supported international terror (just think of the Mumbai railway terminus victims).

It is ridiculous to think that the way to protect the poor of India against the violence of some paranoid megalomaniacal elites ruling another country is by abandoning the idea of Indian sovereignty and security altogether! Yet, this bizarre fantasy of India as somehow being an inherently oppressive idea that can be mitigated only by celebrating a mythical notion of “South Asia” remains.

The biggest contradiction in this approach to nationalism though, is a fact that’s obvious to most intelligent and honest observers today. We are living in a world in which transnational and global forces and contexts are important. From that perspective, it would be more accurate to view India, and Hindus, in a global context and understand why there is so much concern among Indians about the South Asianist fantasy as it exists today. The mythical picture of Hindu majoritarianism and alleged tyranny that South Asianist dogma paints does not really make sense if you view the reality of India in a global context.

Wendy Doniger

There is no real, accurate or locally rooted “progressive” South Asian account of India today; it is an utterly derivate discourse which replicates the American model in India, substituting Muslims with African-Americans and Brahmins with Whites (recall Doniger’s phrase “Dead Male Brahmins” for instance).

SB: And more importantly, what is the source of their rabid anti-India and anti-Hinduness?

VJ: This is a very interesting question, both in the way it is framed and the different ways it is being answered by Indians and Hindus today.

First, I will address it from my position as an academician who has a fundamental disagreement with the academic consensus today, and yet also has professional obligations in terms of how that disagreement can be expressed. In academia, it is difficult to approach this problem as one of a “rabid anti-India or anti-Hindu” feeling. It would be considered a personal judgment or aspersion. Moreover, many South Asianist faculty insist they are not against India or Hindus but only against Hindutva, which they view extremely simplistically as an Indian version of Nazism (there was a further response recently on the academe blog by the original petitioners petitioners to the various counter-petitions which reiterated such claims).

I therefore approach the problem of Hinduphobia in the way that makes sense to me within the scope of my field as a scholar of media and cultural studies, and there are a small number of other scholars too who share a similar outlook towards the problem. I view Hinduphobia basically as a form of orientalism, a colonial system of power and knowledge over colonial subjects; which in the case of Hinduism and Hindus simply did not get decolonized even though most other formerly colonized communities succeeded in doing so.

The second approach to Hinduphobia, and this is where there is a great deal of energy right now, is in the general Indian and Indian diasporic community. This consists of an eclectic and diverse range of voices, talents, and ideas (and ideologies) and is playing out outside academia and the official or privileged public sphere (mainstream newspapers, conferences, lit fests and the like) in social media, weekend meetings at temples and schools in suburban America, and the like.

It consists of several intellectual trends which overlap and sometimes diverge; a largely economic, libertarian approach which sees Hinduphobia as part of the old socialist baggage, a more blunt and critical civilizational conflict view which sees Hinduphobia as a continuation of a conflict between Abrahamic and dharmic religions, and several variations of the same, including a nascent attempt to offer a critique of Hinduphobia from within the terms of a modern Hindu or dharmic worldview.

So there are different counter-discourses, so to speak, about Hinduphobia. Some have popular and mass support, but that often lends to them rough edges that can easily be used to deny entry by the mainstream public sphere’s gatekeepers. Others have academic finesse, but also need much greater public participation and support to translate it into any real change.

SB: What is the way forward? Was there anything different about the response to the present petition from previous ones? Finally, what do Hindu activists who tend to be mainly in engineering and sciences need to understand about the liberal arts and non-engineering academia so that we do get the right kind of academic paradigms and institutions in place?

VJ: The counter-petitions are a watershed moment in the struggle against Hinduphobia in academia. The illusion that the Hinduphobic South Asian “consensus” is opposed only by “Hindu nationalists” and “trolls” has been effectively decimated by the fact that several hundred academics have spoken up at this time against it.

Two petitions explicitly critiqued the original petition and were strongly supported. Another petition did not mention the original argument but gathered a very large number of faculty supporters for its welcome message to Prime Minister Modi. All in all, it’s a clear sign that things will have to change.

How this change will actually take place is a very challenging question. There is a lot of energy and excitement outside of academia at the moment, but the problem is how do we professionalize it?

There is some disagreement in the community on how to deal with academia as it exists today. Some believe that high-level investment in higher education will change things and others with considerable wisdom and experience are cautioning against it. My own initial optimism about this idea has somewhat faded. It is good in theory, but a discourse simply cannot be bought like this. Neither investment nor an understanding of academic nuance are very deep among organizations attempting this. It is however a start, and we can hope for the best.

The key point of change will have to be the ways in which academia is engaged by the community, and its organic intellectuals and leaders. It is an amazing thing that the whole field of what ought to have been postcolonial Hindu cultural studies has emerged not inside academia like the other area and ethnic studies did but outside it, and mostly in opposition to it.

Having said that, I will have to say that there is much more that we have to do as a community, as intelligent interlocutors, if we want to overthrow one of academia’s last colonial legacies. This cannot be a management solution, like funding or creating institutions, alone. This will require a close understanding of the worldview, the habitus of academia and the humanities and social sciences, for starters. It is not enough to simply describe academia as some conspiracy theory and leave it at that. The truth that is driving the movement today is much bigger than terms like that.

There are many nuances still inside the discourse that are not immediately apparent to those who have not been trained in these fields. Many enthusiastic writers and lay intellectuals have studied in America, but rarely in the undergraduate setting or the non-engineering classroom, which is where the tone and substance of the discourse comes from. Without this knowledge, a lot of the general (“internet Hindu” if you will) criticism of Hinduphobia in academia gets dismissed very easily.

Now I understand the temptation to say it doesn’t matter, or that academia is irrelevant and the internet is the future. The internet has got us a long way no doubt, but the next stage will have to be a different one. We cannot simply create a parallel academic universe like a Trishanku swargam (but I do understand the righteous anger than informs such ideas). We will have to lay upon academia’s doorstep a far higher threshold than what it can handle in trying to keep the change out!

At the moment, to use a somewhat militaristic metaphor, the Hindu movement is hitting academia with both arrows and boomerangs – some of it is coming right back at the launchers! There has to be a more precise and self-mastered approach to this task from now. Words should not be used loosely – that is the single biggest problem today.

It is utterly inappropriate for example to take out one’s anger or frustration by blindly emailing faculty or university administrators simply because of a disagreement with their views. It looks like a complaint to management being made by someone who wasn’t even a customer in the first place!

The more encouraging suggestion I would like to end with is for all those dedicated people who are writing articles on the internet and keeping a relentless eye of scrutiny on Hinduphobia. Their work is very important, but it will become real only when it enters the threshold of the mainstream public sphere.

At the moment, it will not be allowed by most gatekeepers: that is a fact. One reason for that is the reality we all know, it won’t change right away. The other reason though is something that is very much in one’s own hands – that is the ability to practice restraint and civility in language. I can offer a simple example.

As a media scholar, I feel very happy when I see the active media criticism that is coming out of India and the diaspora against Hinduphobia. In its insightfulness and passion, it is exactly like the media activism that several previously marginalized social groups have pursued to challenge unjust and untrue narratives over them (and have since brought them into institutional settings; academic majors and minors, courses, conference interest groups, journals etc.).

But the key difference is that most of the articles we have on the internet today cannot be cited or circulated into academic or mainstream discourses in their present form. It is an uphill task for the handful of sympathetic scholars and writers who do have a mainstream presence to get these new ideas more play when it is framed as a personal, or even an inter-religious attack, rather than a professional argument for truth.

So civility, and making arguments about ideas rather than people, is extremely important. The truth is that many good ideas and arguments being made today against Hinduphobia are not reaching their potential impact because of words in them like “presstitutes” or “libtards” and the like. I am not unaware of the lack of civility on the other side. But if you have a sense that your sense of truth is important or sacred, then it is important to do what it takes to get it out there. May language be our friend and guide!

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