Dear Professor Barlow,
I am a professor of media studies at USF (and a proud supporter of USFFA) and the author of several books. I have written for several publications and blogs including Foreign Affairs, The San Francisco Chronicle, On Faith, Huffington Post, The Indian Express, The Times of India, The Hindu, and have spoken about Bollywood, Hinduism, and India on PRI, KQED, Al Jazeera English and other fora.
I am writing to you after reading your most recent statement on “nastiness in the weeds” with a desire to broaden the context and explain the current climate of distrust and anger that exists between the South Asia studies faculty in the US and the Indian diasporic community. This is not a simplistic liberal-secular academicians versus religious fundamentalist-nationalists issue, as it is often made out to be.
The truth is that there has been a near-total collapse of credibility for South Asia studies academicians and activists in the eyes of many Indians in India and the diaspora for several reasons which are not reducible to but nonetheless tend to cluster inevitably on the figure of Narendra Modi. Narendra Modi’s election as Prime Minister is seen by many Indians as the return of an indigenous, yet pluralistic, anti-colonial civilizational aspiration in India after several decades of domination and misrule by a corrupt regime hiding behind secularism as a hypocritical fig-leaf (please see my article in Foreign Affairs on how Modi’s rise marks a generational process of decolonization in Hinduism, rather than a mere upsurge of anti-secular religious nationalism as our colleagues on the original petition might view it).
Most South Asia studies scholars, on the other hand, have failed to engage in open debate about these issues, and have resorted to an intensive campaign of strategic silencing which is widely viewed in the Indian community today as a form of racism and neo-colonialism. Why? For the simple reason that the academic consensus on India and Hinduism in particular was never decolonized from its old colonial-era Eurocentric, orientalistic assumptions, as were social sciences and humanities generally, leading to the rise of black studies, women’s studies and other fields in the 60s and 70s. There was no new Hinduism studies that emerged with Hindus in it at that time, and the same old assumptions remained, albeit somewhat re-invented in the guise of a progressive, secular project that, in my view, is yet to truly become one (I consider some of Prof. Doniger’s work, to which I respond in my new book, a prime example of this).
That, simply put, is the reason you see so much bitterness about this petition from the Indian and Indian American community. For my part, I have taken a leap out into the public sphere myself, addressing my work more and more to the general audience, hoping to build bridges between the Hindu American community and the academia it has grown so weary of. I have to say that South Asian academic activism of the sort we saw in the faculty statement has not only perpetuated nasty, racist epistemic violence on Hindu thought and sensibility, but has also affected many well-meaning peoples’ lives, including members of American academia like you and me unfairly tarnished with charges of supporting “Hindu extremism” and violence.
Anyway, you should be aware that several people writing to you on your comment boards in protest are not just some angry ill-educated bigots but also American faculty members and citizens of good standing. They care little for oppressing minorities as current South Asian theory might imagine. In fact, there are many more members of academia who have read the original petition but who have simply decided not to respond – that’s how crazy and irrelevant they think humanities and social sciences are. At times like this, I fear for the credibility of my field, more than anything else. I have no desire to endorse any politician or political group, but I do wish to see a real debate between the ivory tower world of South Asia studies and the real world of South Asian people.
If any of this seems meaningful to you, and you wish to offer space on Academe for a response, please consider publishing the text of the petition below which has gathered over 1,200 signatures in just two days. It has been signed by several professors in American universities, and several hundred students, postdoctoral researchers, and alums — though many of these signatories have declined to mention their affiliations for fear of repercussions. If you scroll through the comments, you will see the credentials of several people, the sane reasons offered by even those who did not mention their credentials – and at best a mere 3 or 4 somewhat intemperate comments out of several hundred.
The digital surveillance fear is a hoax, sir, as is the idea of Modi as a Muslim-hating mass murderer. Simple as that.
Once again, I fear for the credibility of my field, and for a future where “liberal” becomes a bad word in the eyes of a community whose religiosity was deeply liberal and tolerant of all faiths at a time when the monetheisms were slaughtering and colonizing others. Hence, my work.
Professor of Media Studies and Asian Studies
University of San Francisco
TEXT OF PETITION ON CHANGE.ORG
OPPOSE PREJUDICE AND FEAR-MONGERING IN THE ‘FACULTY STATEMENT ON NARENDRA MODI’S VISIT’
We, the undersigned, are professors, researchers, scientists, scholars, students, and professionals with undergraduate, graduate or doctoral degrees from universities across North America. We are members, partners, or products of a world-class higher education system and many of us are successful leaders of today’s global knowledge economy. We are well aware of the principles of scholarly research, scientific method, and objectivity, and we are also aware of the need to respect a wide range of opinions in academia, especially in fields like the humanities and liberal arts.
However, there are occasions when academic opinion strays so far from the scope of sane discourse, and worse, creates the risk of devastating human consequences in political and economic terms, that any one who has seen the insides of a university classroom and respects its worth, must step up and speak up to protect its integrity. The recent statement against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley by some faculty members who claim expertise on South Asia, is such an occasion. This statement lacks the slightest respect for facts and for academic integrity, and presumes to claim unilateral expertise over India by brandishing credentials in lieu of persuasive arguments.
We reject its claims for the following reasons, and we call strongly for introspection and change in the ossified and fantastic little mental world of South Asia studies as it exists today.
1) The allegation that Narendra Modi ought to be viewed with suspicion, if not disdain, by business leaders in Silicon Valley because of surveillance implications in the Digital India initiative seems a desperate ploy rather than any genuine concern for India. They offer no evidence for their claim, and neglect to mention that the Indian government has been pursuing several digital initiatives long before Narendra Modi assumed office, a fact that never bothered them when the UPA government, with which several U.S. based South Asian academics have had close ties of patronage and privilege, was in power.
2) Their attempt to invoke an admitted mistake on the part of the U.S government in denying Modi a visa as a “powerful signal” is a stark case of false reasoning (would the incident of a false complaint being made in a police station still be mentioned as evidence of culpability when due process had found there was no cause for even an arrest, let alone a trial and conviction?) and a deplorable attempt to exhume ugly lies about Modi’s attitude towards Muslims. Modi was cleared by several investigating agencies of any complicity in the riots that broke out in Gujarat in 2002 following the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims by a Muslim mob. He ran an inclusive campaign for Prime Minister and was vindicated by one of the largest mandates received by an elected official on the face of the earth. He has shown no sign at all that he disfavors someone because they happen to call God by a different name than he does. His recent visit to U.A.E. where he was received warmly by senior members of the government (who happen to be devout and proud Muslims) should be a reminder to academicians who somehow think they are protecting Islam better than Muslims themselves, many of whom have voted for Modi enthusiastically. The powerful endorsement Modi has received from two of the major institutions that govern civilized modern societies, law and democracy, should be proof enough of the inappropriateness of the allegations that have been relentlessly leveled against him by a section of academia and the press.
3) Their allegations that somehow academic freedom is under threat in India because of administrative changes at a couple of institutions are completely belied by the reality of what Indian citizens see in their news media every day. TV anchors, writers, journalists, columnists, and bloggers not only criticize Modi and his government, but often go so far as to promote baseless and sensational charges only to retract them quietly later. There is growing evidence of a systematic process of defamation against India and Narendra Modi in the international press and in a large part of the elite English-language Indian media. No government that seeks to restrict freedom of speech would permit the amount of calumny that passes off as news in India.
4) On the contrary, for all their talk about assaults on academic freedom, the signatories of the anti-Modi letter have never reflected on the possibility that the subject of the greatest censorship and distortion in South Asian academics in recent years might well have been Narendra Modi. Just a few years ago, Modi was effectively prevented from addressing by videoconference students and faculty at UPenn because of a campaign similar to the present one. The only effective (if invisible) restrictions on free speech and academic freedom that exist today are the ones that silence those scholars, writers and concerned citizens who have dared to question the South Asianist academy’s institutionalized Hinduphobia and disdain for facts.
We therefore reject the faculty statement against Modi in its entirety. We do so not necessarily in the name of any one person or political party, but in the name of the high standards of academic excellence we have worked towards building, in and outside of academia. We call on the authors of this petition to introspect, change, and for once seek to earn the trust and respect of the community in whose name they have been making a living all these years.
Signed by 1,294 supporters (as of Friday September 4, 2015) including (in no particular order):
Vamsee Juluri, University of San Francisco
Ramesh Rao, Columbus State University
Vishal Misra, Columbia University
Vineet Goyal, Columbia University
Shalendra Sharma, University of San Francisco
Arup Varma, Loyola University
Aseem Shukla, University of Pennsylvania
Jeffery Long, Elizabethtown College
Apurba Bhattacharjee, Georgetown
Prashant Banerjee, University of Illinois
Madhu Jhaveri, (Professor Emeritus) University of Massachusetts Dartmouth
Ganti S. Murthy, Oregon State University
Prakash Ishwar, Boston University
TRN Rao (Loflin Chair Professor Emeritus) University of Louisiana
M.L. Goel, (Professor Emeritus) University of West Florida
Murali Subba Rao, Stony Brook University
Vivek Natarajan, Lamar University
Independent and Post-doctoral researchers:
Pandita Indrani Rampersad
Karthi Sivava, University of Central Florida
Prashant Jha, Carnegie Mellon
Mayur Punekar, Texas A&M
Ritesh Seal, Pittsburgh/MIT Sloan
Pawan Rattan, Physician
Gururaja Vulugundam, University of Illinois Urbana Champaign
Overseas Faculty Supporters:
Pramod Kumar, Amrita University
Uma Challa, Ohio State University
Anil Challa, Ohio State University, UCSD
Suresh Chitturi, Emory, Harvard Business School
Amitabh Basu, Johns Hopkins University
Shivadev Shastri, UC Hastings School of Law
Soham Ghosh, Purdue
Ram Vemuri, Stanford
Ramesh Bhutada, University of Houston
Pavitra Krishnamoorthy, UC Irvine
Vidya Jonnalagadda, UPenn, MIT
Srinivas Udumudi, Worcester
Sucheta Mehta, CUNY
Murthy Vemuganti, Johns Hopkins University, Babson College
Krishna Gaddam, University of Aakron
Amit Gokhale, University of Wisconsin
Vijay Srinivasan, Carnegie Mellon
Virochana Khalsa, Caltech
Soumya Chowdury, West Virginia U.
Badrinath Setlur, MSU, WMU
Venkatachalam, Montana State
Vandana Jain, UMD College Park
Charudatta Galande, Rice University
Prashant Jha, CMU
Anupam Gupta, MIT, VT
Venkata Santhanaraman, University of Houston-Victoria
Ashok D, LSU
Abhinav Gupta, University of Kansas
Manjunath Raju, SDSU
Chandra Sivaguharaman, Nova Southeastern University, FL
Narsing A, SIU
Nirmal Dutta, University of Houston
Santi Dash , University of Miami
Kalyan Mankala, UDelaware
Pradeep Prabhu, USC
Sushama Maddipati, MIT, VT
Rajasekhar Gudla, Illinois Institute of Chicago
Mathangi Venkatesan, University of Illinois Chicago
Venkataraman Ganesan, San Jose State U
Jyotish Parekh, U Connecticut
Varma Dantuluri, Iowa State University, Ames
Indrajeet Chauhan , Queens College, CUNY
Sanku Saha, UT Dallas
Sneha Shukla , Queens College, CUNY
Anil Agrawal, Queens College, CUNY
Ritu Sharma, UT Arlington
Sumalatha Elliadka, San Jose State University
Phani Adidam, University of Nebraska
Adita Bhat, Buffalo
Suman Basyal, CUNY
Ramesh Yadawar, Brandeis
Sudhakar Tiruveedhula, San Jose State U
Mahendra Sapa, University of Maryland
Pratik Kumar Dhuvad, Temple
Mahak Singh Chauhan, Naples
Abul Meghani, FSU
Yogini Deshpande, Purdue