Intolerance unplugged

The academic Meera Nanda is under attack for her article on the Hindu right wing’s positions on the history of science.

Published : Sep 28, 2016 12:30 IST

Meera Nanda.

Meera Nanda.

MEERA NANDA, a prominent academic based in the United States who works in the field of history and philosophy of science and religions, is being hounded for her views in the article “ Hindutva’s science envy ” in Frontline (September 16, 2016). With publications such as The God Market: How Globalisation is Making India More Hindu , the award-winning Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodern Critiques of Science and the Hindu Nationalism in India , and Science in Saffron: Skeptical Essays on History of Science , Meera Nanda is no stranger to attacks from Hindu majoritarian agenda-setters. She does not mind criticism and even welcomes it if it is constructive. But the circulation of mass emails to her peer circle without substance and with personal attacks is something she considers uncalled for. “I am not worried that people are attacking me. They have chosen this particular method to humiliate me in front of my colleagues and as a form of censorship,” she says.

Her colleagues at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Mohali, where she is currently a visiting faculty member, and other eminent persons in institutions across the country were spammed by emails sent from Canada and Australia. Insinuating that Meera Nanda uses academic freedom to denigrate Vedic science, Ragini Sharma, one of the spammers, attached a response published on the online forum Hindu Post. She quoted Rajiv Malhotra, founder of the Infinity Foundation. The Foundation promotes Indic Studies, and Malhotra, a Hindu nationalist, and his followers have often targeted Western scholars whose works do not subscribe to the Hindu majoritarian world view. In her mail, sent on September 6, Ragini Sharma went on to attack Sheldon Pollock, Wendy Doniger and Paul Courtright. All three, in addition to others such as Jeffrey Kripal, Richard Fox Young and Anantanand Rambachan, have been the favourite targets of Malhotra at some point or the other.

The spammer wrote: “So what is the context for Nanda’s work? She is, using Malhotra’s terminology, a Sepoy—loyal to her American Orientalist heritage and its creators towards the political and academic goal of denigrating Hindu Dharma (what they label as Hinduism). This is evident in her callous depiction of Hindu scholars and icons such as Swami Vivekananda and others, as described earlier.” Malhotra himself subsequently tweeted Ragini’s response to Meera Nanda.

Another spammer, Prabhat Gupta, on September 5 did not even keep up the pretence of an academic engagement and called Meera Nanda a traitor, a cocky fool, a dog with a collar, a canine and so on and so forth. Sample this: “I note that you are strong on ATHEISM... but I see something that I need to describe to you first. It is called ‘dog with a collar’ effect. Effectively a collar around the neck keeps the dog behind a line. How does it work, I hear you say?: Well if the dog crosses a line, the master, via a remote, is able to pass a small voltage which is non life threatening and therefore keeps the dog in line. Academics like you remind me of that canine ...they will bark but never cross a line. Let me illustrate it further: We know you are a leftist/marxist radical and some of you call for separation of India with POK etc.”

Meera Nanda’s colleagues at the institute have stood up for her right to academic freedom. Dr Arvind, Professor of Physics at IISER, wrote to Prabhat Gupta requesting him to not copy him in such mails in the future.

Prof. Anu Sabhlok, a member of the Humanities faculty at the institute, felt that academic disagreements could be expressed in a more respectful manner and in appropriate forums such as journals and conferences. She told Frontline : “If Meera published her piece in Frontline , then a commentary on the piece by those in disagreement can be sent to Frontline —and so the discussion can continue in a public forum. Alternatively, if people do not agree with her book, then they can write a book review and circulate it in public forums. Writing personal e-mails and cc-ing it to her colleagues is an act of cowardice and is very unprofessional.” She also felt that social scientists are trained to look at social structures, political processes, economic exchanges and cultural transformations in an analytical manner, which is often critical. “We cannot let our work be driven by fear. Such intimidation has to be dealt with seriously at the outset as it has the potential to silence a lot of critical and good work. Meera is an established scholar and is also courageous—if there are threats and undignified backlashes, then a lot of younger scholars who are not yet secure might self-censor their work. This will be the death of good scholarship,” she said.

Prof. V. Rajesh of the Department of History objected to the language used in the mail and said it amounted to a racist and patriarchal attack on Meera Nanda in the garb of patriotism and national pride. “Clearly, this is a tactic to intimidate and issue threats in the form of exerting pressure on colleagues and officials in power to ‘act’ for the views expressed by the author. This is a fascistic attempt to impose outdated views and values which don’t stand the test of scientific rigour and verification. In fact that shows their [the Hindu right wing’s] poverty of imagination, method and scholarship: they don’t have any other civil and civilised methods of response apart from intimidation, personal slander and issuing threats,” he said.

Defending Meera Nanda’s article in Frontline , Prof. Rajesh said: “Those who sent emails to us against Meera Nanda have totally failed to understand the method and the corresponding argument of the author in her publication. For example, they were accusing Meera Nanda of being an agent of American Indology, so on and so forth—all familiar tropes of the Hindu right wing’s accusations —atheists, Marxists, colonialists, and so on. What Meera Nanda attempts in her writings on the history of science is a comparative method and a scrutiny of some of the claims made in the history of science in India. The comparative method is totally alien to nationalist and Hindu right-wing ideology, which thrives on misplaced patriotism and Hindu pride. When some of the received wisdom in the history of science in India is questioned using the method of comparative history, the typical response from the nationalist and Hindu right-wing groups is to attack, dismiss and dump the author as agent of American Indology.”

Part of a trend

The attack on Meera Nanda cannot be seen in isolation. It is part of a dangerous trend of the Hindutva brigade becoming increasingly hostile to individuals and groups not conforming to their world view. And the Internet serves as an easy battlefield. A case in point is the attack on Wendy Doniger. Her book The Hindus: An Alternative History was pulped after a legal complaint was filed by Dinanath Batra of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, a right-wing NGO. An egg was hurled at her at a lecture in 2003 in London by a protester who objected to a non-Hindu like Wendy Doniger talking about Hinduism. But there are also others who have been similarly hounded. Prof. Richard Fox Young, who teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) along with Andrew J. Nicholson, author of Unifying Hinduism , accused Malhotra of plagiarism from Nicholson’s book in his Indra’s Net . When Prof. Young called him out on Twitter with evidences of plagiarism, mass emails went out to his colleagues at the seminary from Ram Jagessar, an Indo-Caribbean Canadian-Hindu journalist writing from Toronto. “Characterising my tweets as the ‘rantings of a person crazed by envy and rage’, Jagessar referred to himself as a member of the ‘5,000 strong Rajiv Malhotra Discussion Group’. Stating that he was ‘about to launch a wide ranging expose’ of me as ‘an ugly Christian academic troll’, he boasted of being able to unleash against PTS a barrage of digital missiles, using a ‘list of 4,500 Hindu organisations world wide’. The ‘gloves [would] come off’, Jagessar warned, unless his conditions were met—an apology from me to Rajiv Malhotra, ‘admitting the error of my ways’ and promising to ‘cease and desist [my] idiotic and useless tweets’,” wrote Prof. Young in Caravan . Malhotra subsequently removed all references to Nicholson’s work from his book and earlier this year, when he was at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, he defended the plagiarism charge by passing it off as “copy editing errors of a technical nature”.

Young bemoans: “My experience has much in common with that of Anantanand Rambachan, a professor of Hinduism Studies here in the U.S. who has been a target of Malhotra’s anger even longer than I have. And when PM Modi first visited the U.S. after his election, and American South Asianists and Indian American scholars signed a petition warning of the risk of IT projects involving the Indian government, the same Malhotra poison pen writers went to work, the most mischievous of all being a Toronto-based follower, @ Ram Jagessar. Jagessar, though, was exposed by IndiaWest , a California online magazine catering to the NRI community. He was named and shamed for his harassing letters laced with vague threats of retaliation. Where is the solidly academic, non-polemical essay that appears in the mainstream print?”

Do these attempts at silencing alternative viewpoints through intimidation resonate with the academia there? “Scholars generally want to be left alone, but when the smallish, loud-mouthed and obnoxiously RW cohort in the NRI population breathes down their necks, they often become guarded and self-protective. For good reason, considering the injuries many have suffered!” says Young.

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