The Chairs Are Saffron
- The DCF is pushing four new India studies chairs at the University of California, Irvine
- A group of students and professors charge it of coercion, Hindutva links and agenda
After whetting its appetite in Indian schoolyards, the right-wing Hindu juggernaut is making a push into campuses overseas. Some professors and students at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), a top US public university, has been fighting off a Hindu body keen to gift UCI around $6 million to study aspects of “Indian civilisation” like the Vedas, Jainism and Sikhism.
The Dharma Civilisation Foundation (DCF) is pushing four new India-centric chairs at UCI, but its controversial approach has many scholars and professors aghast. For instance, the foundation openly claims that the world views scholarship on Hinduism through a “lens of suspicion”. In sync with its sense of being persecuted, the foundation wants to raise, within US academia, a small army of ‘scholar-practitioners’ on Hinduism and ‘Indian culture’.
“The DCF’s ‘scholar-practitioner’ line is another way of saying that only Hindus can teach Hinduism. This is just wrong—UCI is not a seminary but a public-funded secular university,” says Catherine Liu, professor, film and media studies, UCI. In the past, DCF had ‘blacklisted’ India experts such as Wendy Doniger.
Liu and others at UCI believe the DCF gift is a Trojan horse, bringing unwelcome visitors such as concerns over the religion of faculty rather than their talent, and undue donor influence. They also resist the foundation’s effort to decouple India from South Asian studies, seeing it as an effort to shut down the critical academic gaze over the region.
Kalyan Viswanathan, executive vice president, DCF, says the foundation will not interfere in UCI’s hiring process, though he admits that Hindu, Jain or Sikh (‘scholar-practitioner’) academics are preferable for DCF-funded chairs. “Christians, Muslims and Jews have...foundations representing their views, and nobody opposes that.” Viswanathan reasons that DCF is keen to study Indic religions, and so steers clear of Indian Islam and Christianity. “The protest is often excessive against Hindus,” he complains. “Christianity is investing billions of dollars in India, but nobody protests.” He denies that by excluding Christianity and Islam while including Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism, the DCF zooms ideologically into the arms of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh.
Viswanathan says that India studies, when delinked from South Asia studies, will make room for topics beyond “Aryan invasion, casteism, untouchability and inter-religious tensions”. “What South Asianists don’t study is Vedanta, yoga, vegetarianism and Indian contribution to global thought.”
But when they dug up facts on the foundation, Liu and others found close links between the DCF board and the RSS. It also found that people associated with the DCF had previously attempted a controversial rewrite of California’s school books along Hindutva lines.
UCI’s History Graduate Student Association president Ali A. Olomi started an online petition against the proposed grants last December on concerns that the foundation is “trying to buy its way into the university” while silencing opposition by coercive tactics, such as calling critics ‘disrespectful’ or ‘Hinduphobic’. “We have a handful of South Asianist scholars on campus and none were consulted in the process of creating chairs in their expertise. We find this undermines the principles of shared governance,” Olomi says.
The petition, which has over 350 signatures, also charges DCF with making “threats, implicit or explicit, to faculty, staff and the academic community at large”. Viswanathan admitted to “attempts by our board to reach one doctor Chaturvedi, but in a fund-raising context”. He is referring to the father of Vinayak Chaturvedi, an associate professor of history at UCI.
Prof Chaturvedi declined comment, for he is on the committee investigating the disposition of the endowed chairs. His colleagues confirm that a DCF official visited Chaturvedi and tried to browbeat him while another called Chaturvedi’s father. Under the UCI rules, a donor can only recommend a candidate for the chair. “We approached some community members to contribute—it is being misrepresented as an effort to pressurise,” Viswanathan says.
As things stand, an ad hoc panel set up under pressure from teachers and students is reviewing the grants and alleged Hindu nationalist connections of the DCF.