By Steven Zhou
Canadian Anti-Hate Network
Source: Queens University
The polarized debate between supporters and critics of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP),has long migrated into India’s large diaspora communities in the West. Among the BJP’s most vocal critics have been Indian academics who’ve taken up posts in North America. Many of their critiques of the BJP’s philosophy of “Hindutva,” or India as a primarily Hindu state (along with the party’s policies), have drawn online hate from what some call the “Hindutva troll army.”
This form of mass backlash has been dogging Indo-Canadian academics for years. One blatant example involves scholars who presented at a 2019 panel in Toronto regarding the plight of Muslims and Dalits (those belonging to the lowest caste in India) under BJP rule.
Sanober Umar, then a PhD student at Queen’s University, spoke about the treatment of Muslims. Chinnaiah Jangam, a Dalit himself, spoke about caste discrimination. Both argued that the BJP’s Hindutva ideology generates discrimination against millions of Indians.
“The event was totally disrupted by supporters of the BJP and Hindutva,” recalls Jangam, who recently became the first tenured professor of Dalit background in Canadian history. “It was mostly elderly looking protestors who tried to paint the event as anti-Indian.”
Sun News columnist and anti-Muslim activist Tarek Fatah tweeted about the panel, calling it “Islamist” propaganda and “anti-Hindu hate.”
Fatah’s tweets generated thousands of retweets, likes, and responses, which contributed substantially to hate directed at Jangam and Umar (as well as the organizers of the panel). Most accuse the panel of spreading anti-Hindu sentiment.
“Initially I was mortified and upset to see baseless allegations and subsequent vitriol directed against me with no evidence to back those claims whatsoever,” Umar says. “The deeply misogynistic and Islamophobic attacks on me are indicative of intimidation attempts to silence academics through either a deliberate distortion of their words or by violent threats.”
In addition to attacks against her academic integrity, much of the online trolling and hate against scholars like Umar include allegations that she denigrates Hindu gods as “rapists.”
Umar vehemently denies ever saying such a thing and her accusers haven’t brought forth any evidence to back up their assertions. But such accusations have provoked threats against Umar, sometimes alluding to sexual assault.
Umar says these experiences alerted her to the necessity of protecting scholars who criticize the BJP government, though she has since scaled down her social media presence to preserve her mental and physical safety.
“You attract online backlash if your academic work does not fit the narratives that Hindutva supporters want to promote—and no academic work does, because the narratives are false,” says Sonia Sikka, a Full Professor of Philosophy at the University of Ottawa.
“Scholars do not mind criticism of our ideas, of course; we thrive on it. But these personal insults are different. They are designed to silence rather than to promote dialogue.”
Sikka herself has been called all sorts of names over the years on Twitter when speaking up about the BJP’s policies against Indian Muslims and other minorities in the country.
For example, she was accused of being an “Islamist” or “Khalistani” this year on Twitter ostensibly for her criticisms of the Indian government. The latter term refers to a Sikh separatist movement that has a long history of antagonism with Hindutva nationalists and the BJP.
When she responded to a tweet by NDP leader Jagmeet Singh (himself a very visible Sikh) criticizing the BJP’s 2019 citizenship law reforms that drew global criticisms for being anti-Muslim, she received a slew of Islamophobic retorts.
Plenty of these tweets seem to be from outside of Canada, and refer to Indians in the West as upper class, posh ex-pats, out of touch with real (mostly Hindu) Indians. Jagmeet Singh himself is often portrayed by aggressive BJP supporters as a leading sympathizer of Khalistani extremism, which New Delhi has long regarded as a security threat.
The effects of online intimidation against critical scholars are not limited to their academic lives. Many fear that too much negative online attention will make them known to hateful bad actors in India, where most Indo-Canadian scholars have family.
One scholar wrote an incisive critique of how the BJP has deepened India's long-standing violence in the disputed region of Kashmir. The piece drew, among other things, a string of hate mail last year.
“You are a traitor,” reads one email. “We don't want non-Indian citizens to comment on our internal Issues without knowing the gravity of the situation.”
The emails go on and on about how Kashmir is full of Muslim terrorists who have the sympathy of traitorous Western academics. One even includes a mocking “traitor” poem.
The scholar eventually decided to take the piece down to avoid further threats and harassment.
The theme of being a traitor is replete throughout such online attacks. The violent language at least implies that anti-India turncoats should suffer for their duplicity.
Additionally, critical scholars often draw unprovoked online ridicule, particularly on Twitter, as happened with an Indian professor who criticized what she saw as the BJP’s Islamophobic policies in at least one public event. She was tagged in tweets last year referring to her as a “fake Muslim” and alleging that she lied about “false rape charges.”
Allegations of Hinduphobia
A common thread running through a lot of the insults and trolling against critical scholars is the characterization of their motives as discrimination against Hindus.
One leading scholar on Hinduism who has become academia’s most vocal critic of the Hindutva ideology is Rutgers University’s Audrey Truschke. Her consistent criticisms of the Hindutva ideology’s original 20th century ties to European fascism has made her one of the most recognizable targets of online pillorying by the Hindutva right, who argue that her outlook is both anti-India and anti-Hindu.
The administration at Rutgers had to put out a statement in March backing Truschke’s academic freedom in response to the barrage of “vile messages and threats” thrown her way. Umar, Jangam, Sikka, and dozens of Canadian scholars researching and writing about India then signed a joint public letter supporting Rutgers’ decision.
About two weeks later, every signee of the letter supporting Truschke got an email—signed “Concerned Hindu Community”—deploring their support for the Rutgers professor and her “Hinduphobia.”
The email compared Truschke teaching Hindu history to “Hitler or a Nazi supporter teaching Jewish history.” And that her supporters are “normalizing Hinduphobia.”
At around the same time, a website called The Dialogue published a similar online letter, accusing Truschke and her supporters of being insecure scholars who “bring in distortions or make attempts to undermine” the richness of Hinduism “under the canopy of academic freedom.”
This level of contention between self-appointed representatives of Hindus in the Indian diaspora versus critics of Hindutva has intensified online and elsewhere after the election of the BJP in 2014 (re-elected with a parliamentary majority in 2019).
It’s yet more indication that the conflicts abroad aren’t bound by national borders, and that what unfolds abroad continues to shape the lives of those in Canada’s diaspora communities, both inside and outside of the academy.
Follow Steven Zhou on Twitter at @stevenzzhou.
This article is part of a project which has been made possible in part thanks to the the Canadian Race Relations Foundation and Sun Life financial.