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College Hall on Sept. 22.

Credit: Savanna Cohen

A Hindu advocacy group has filed a federal complaint against Penn for its participation in a conference that discussed the rise of Hindu nationalism.

The Hindu American Foundation asked the United States Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to investigate the University's treatment of students and faculty of Indian and Hindu descent. The Foundation filed a complaint on Oct. 6 following Penn's co-sponsorship of a three-day virtual conference titled “Dismantling Global Hindutva." The complaint alleges that Penn faculty, the South Asia Center, and the Department of South Asia studies promoted negative stereotypes and slurs about India and Hindus and “specifically target[ed] Hindu students for censure and marginalization" through the University's involvement in the conference. 

Penn community members, however — including the South Asia Studies Department and some faculty members — dispute the complaint. 

The conference, which took place starting on Sept. 10, was co-sponsored by departments in more than 40 American universities, including Penn, Harvard University, and Columbia University. The conference also received a letter of support from more than 1,000 faculty members, including 17 at Penn, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. Local universities like Drexel University, Swarthmore College, Lehigh University, and Rutgers University also supported the event.

Nearly one million emails were sent out in protest against the conference from Hindu groups such as The Hindu American Foundation that believed the event was Hinduphobic and fostered hate against the Hindu community, The Washington Post reported.

Panels at the conference included discussions on Islamophobia, the caste system, and differences between Hinduism and Hindutva, the latter of which is known to represent the ideology of the Hindu right. The ideology of the Hindu right is now represented by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has been the ruling political party of India since 2014.

Suhag A. Shukla, Philadelphia-based co-founder and executive director of The Hindu American Foundation, told The Daily Pennsylvanian that a lack of response from the Penn administration regarding their email protesting the conference compelled the organization to file the complaint. 

University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy wrote in an email to the DP: “We believe in and support free and open expression and debate on complex issues. There is nothing more I can add beyond that.” 

Student leaders of Penn's South Asia Society and the Penn Hindu and Jain Association did not respond to multiple requests to comment about the conference. 

A professor who spoke anonymously on behalf of the South Asia Studies Department in fear of retaliation, which supported the conference, wrote in an email to the DP that they believe Penn’s participation in the conference was “entirely appropriate” given the University’s commitment to supporting academic freedom.

The conference was “an academically rigorous discussion that involved some of the leading scholars in the fields of the politics, history, and religion of modern India,” the email read. 

The email also asserted the Department and School of Arts and Sciences’ commitments to diversity and inclusion, adding that the Department teaches and spreads awareness on campus about the scholarly study of Hinduism and other Indian religions. Because the conference was not hosted by the University itself, the Department wrote it is not aware of why Penn was the target of the federal complaint made by the Hindu American Foundation.

Political Science professor Rudra Sil, who has also been serving as the School of Arts and Sciences director of Penn's Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business since 2011, told the DP that while he is not aware of the conference, he has not seen or experienced anything that suggests a systematic mistreatment of those of Indian or Hindu descent during his two decades teaching at the University.

Like Sil, Anthropology professor Nikhil Anand wrote in an email to the DP that as an Indian faculty member of Hindu descent, he has not experienced racially based discrimination. Anand added that he has not heard of another professor of Hindu descent at Penn experiencing discrimination.

“I certainly do not believe that this discrimination is extended/imposed by the centers and departments that are named in the complaint, all of which are committed to serious, scholarly, and evidence-based research in India," Anand wrote.

Anand added that he believes that participation in conferences like this one is how the University can work to combat harmful racial stereotypes. 

“Unfortunately, in the buildup to the conference, those opposed to it mobilized the most egregious caste, gender, and religious stereotypes to intimidate its participants. But many, if not all, of those who were threatened and intimidated on social media and in their email by self-proclaimed Indian/Hindutva defenders, were Indian and/or Hindu,” Anand wrote. 

“The vitriol, threats, and hate directed towards the conference’s scholars, in a sense, reveals precisely why the conference was both necessary and important," he added. 

The event's organizers and speakers had received death and rape threats to withdraw from the conference, the Post reported.

One student, who requested anonymity in fear of retaliation, said that he believes some of the student apprehension to speak on the topics discussed in the conference stems from security concerns. 

“I have friends back in India who’ve been incarcerated without a trial for speaking against the Indian right wing,” the student wrote in an email to the DP. 

The conference garnered significant attention within Hindu media circles. Those who supported it believed it critiqued Hindutva rather than the faith of Hinduism as a whole. Many of those who found the conference's discussions to be offensive voiced concerns that the event perpetrated hate and negativity towards Hindu people. 

Hindus for Human Rights, another Hindu advocacy organization, issued a public statement of support for the conference, writing that it does not believe that the conference promotes discrimination against Hindus. 

“The differences between [Hindutva ideology and Hinduism] are glaring and irreconcilable,” the statement reads. “In fact, commentators are increasingly comparing Hindutva ideology to early signs of fascism from European history — not a surprise given that the founders of Hindutva ideology drew their inspiration from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.”

Shukla emphasized that the goal of filing the complaint against Penn was not for the conference to have been canceled, or for any of the speakers to be removed, neither of which happened. 

“We are just looking to ensure that the academic freedom of people who might disagree with the overarching theme of this conference is protected, and that those who might want to explore viewpoints that diverged from the predominant viewpoints expressed at that conference have the same protections of academic freedom so that they're not censored, disparaged, or defamed professionally, and that they don't face retaliation,” Shukla said.