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Hindu Students, Alumni and Community urge Rutgers to address Hinduphobia on campus

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Nikunj Trivedi
Nikunj Trivedi signed this petition

To President Robert Barchi, Chancellor Nancy Cantor, Executive Vice Chancellor Sherri-Ann Butterfield, Executive Vice Chancellor Ashwani Monga, Vice Chancellor Enobong (Anna) Branch, and others:

We would like to bring to your notice events that have deeply shaken our sense of belonging as students and alumni of the Rutgers community and urge you to address our concerns outlined below. As students, alumni and parents, we still hold very dear the core values of Rutgers—students and community, inclusion, learning, and integrity. However, comments, tweets, and troubling political alliances made by Professor Audrey Truschke of Rutgers University-Newark have, in our view, seriously undermined precisely these core principles that bind us together. We are also appalled by the fact that the University decided to unilaterally stand behind and endorse her claims without taking into account the views and sentiments of Hindus.

  1. On April 19, 2018, Truschke tweeted, “During the agnipariksha, Sita basically tells Rama he's a misogynist pig and uncouth.” This casual dismissal and repugnance for what Hindus hold sacred has become a typical maneuver that Professor Truschke deploys in her “hard truth telling.” As you may be aware, Lord Rama is a revered and central figure in Hinduism and Jainism; his story is chronicled in one of the most sacred of Hindu epics, the Ramayana, which has been written and revisited by numerous indigenous Indian scholars. There is no shortage of interpretations and experts from the tradition. But, when Twitter users sought clarification from Truschke for her outrageous claims, she doubled down on her statement, claiming that she was paraphrasing from a prominent translation of the Ramayana by Professor Robert Goldman of U.C.Berkeley.  However, Goldman has himself clarified that Professor Truschke’s words have “nothing to do with our translation,” that her language was “highly inappropriate,” and that the whole saga was “extremely disturbing” and “quite shocking.” Would Rutgers administration fail to address a professor on campus characterizing the Prophet Muhammad, Jesus, or another other central religious figure in a similarly ghastly, bigoted way? Why is it considered permissible when it is about Hinduism? Does brazenly misrepresenting another professor’s work to support these specious, degrading claims align with Rutgers’ commitment to ethical scholarship? Isn’t it deeply concerning that a Rutgers professor is misrepresenting the work of one of the senior-most scholars of Hinduism in order to peddle anti-Hindu bigotry? Critically, would such a characterization serve as an example of inclusion and integrity and make the campus community feel welcomed?
  2. In another instance, on September 20, 2016, Professor Truschke tweeted an aerial view of a Hindu Swastika-shaped Sanskrit department at a prestigious Indian university, and then tweeted that the Swastika “represents Nazism to millions of people today…” This is a clear example of Hinduphobic fear-mongering behind the façade of "objectivity" and "critical thinking." This dangerous juxtaposition can be easily misinterpreted by the common individual, who is not familiar with the fact that the Swastika is a symbol from multiple dharma traditions and is thousands of years old, far predating World War II. But the clear intention of the tweet is to re-connect the Hindu sacred symbol Swastika with the Nazi Hakenkreuz (Crooked Cross) to somehow suggest that Hinduism has some connection with Nazism, and that modern Hindus somehow condone Nazism. This is especially problematic because she claims herself to be a Sanskrit scholar. Such misleading characterizations have already created hostile environments for Hindu and Buddhist students on other college campuses. It must also be noted that similar mischaracterization has led to hate crimes against Hindus and Hindu places of worship (see here and here), in the past, in various parts of America, including New Jersey, which Rutgers University calls home. In fact, New Jersey State has a dark history of Hinduphobic attacks, and a professor from such a reputed New Jersey university, creating open animosity against Hindus in a state which millions of Hindus call home, has left the New Jersey Hindu community deeply concerned about its safety.
  3. Equally dangerous is Professor Truschke’s normalization of historical atrocities committed against the Hindu community. In an interview (August 8, 2018) to the Indian media portal The Print, when prompted by the interviewer to explain “Aurangzeb’s complexity,” Truschke answered, “So—he destroyed some Hindu temples, but he protected more of them.” Such a gross statement erases the utter violence against Hindus in Aurangzeb’s reign. As cited by the New York Times, an estimated 4.6 million people were killed during his reign. Aurangzeb is also responsible for demolition of some of the holiest Hindu temples, out of sheer bigotry and religious supremacy. More importantly, by suggesting that protecting more temples than one destroys is a redemptive marker of religious pluralism, Truschke betrays how little value she has for Hindu lives and how little respect she has for indigenous Indian knowledge. Hindu temples were not simply places of worship, but centers of indigenous Indian knowledge production and sharing; they were the centers of Hindu society. Whitewashing Aurangzeb’s legacy is violent, unethical, unscholarly, and distinctly anti-Hindu. Truschke acts as an apologist for acts of violence and plunder committed against Hindus. For Rutgers to stand behind this professor’s scholarship is a dangerous precedent.
  4. On September 26, 2019,at a protest, Professor Truschke aligned herself with and endorsed Coalition Against Fascism in India (CAFI). Disturbingly, this group's members have a history of attacking Hindus and Hinduism for many years, openly supporting secessionism, a bigoted, violent political agenda, and even terrorism. One of the coalition partners of CAFI is the Alliance for Secular and Democratic South Asia (ASDSA). The group has known ties to individuals who have openly supported the violent Maoist terrorism in India and have supported Ghulam Nabi Fai, who was arrested by the FBI in 2011 for his role as an agent of Pakistan trying to lobby for Kashmir. In 2001, another founding member of ASDSA, M.V. Ramana, wrote a Hinduphobic article “The Bomb of the Blue God,” juxtaposing the image of Krishna (another central divine figure in Hinduism) on a bomb and linking the sacred text Bhagavad Gita to violence. Another coalition partner is India Civil Watch, whose key member and spokesperson, Raja Joseph Swamy (alias Raja Harish Swamy) has extensive links to bigots who have called Hinduism a “religion of violence.” In fact, he has personally demonized Hinduism as inherently and necessarily oppressive and violent. 

These are only a few examples, but they show a clear and demonstrable pattern of deep Hinduphobia, in ways that are not only offensive, but that sow seeds of misinformation with a clear agenda of creating a mistrust of Hinduism and Hindus. For many members of the Hindu community, Professor Truschke not only represents, but is a leader of fear mongering of the worst kind: she is engaging in academic and activist spaces, deploying intentional misinformation and cherry picking facts in order to justify a hatred and disgust for Hindus and Hinduism. In an environment where minorities are facing threats and hate crimes are on the rise, and where Hindu temples have been vandalized, such pejorative depictions of our faith can lead to serious consequences for our community. Furthermore, association with a group or coalition that has explicitly anti-Hindu stances and has openly supported terrorists is also deeply disturbing. What makes this even more dangerous, for Hindu people and for truthful, critical academic discourse about Hinduism is that Rutgers-Newark and Rutgers Newark History Department fully supported Professor Truschke and endorsed her Hinduphobic views as “fact,” without proper research and due diligence. 

While we share the university’s belief that academic freedom and scholarly inquiry ought to be championed, we believe that Professor Truschke’s actions run counter to these ideals. They belie Rutgers’ commitment to integrity, that “staff members must uphold the highest standards and principles. Ethics and integrity are characterized by trust and respect.”  

We can also conclude that Professor Truschke’s unnecessary and self-aggrandizing  sensationalism and her association with anti-Hindu elements directly undermines the University's efforts to “[create] a community that encourages and practices civility” (Students and Community) and one that “foster[s] the development and preservation of an inclusive community characterized by cultural understanding” (Inclusion). Quite the opposite. Professor Truschke’s behavior demonstrably reveals an educator’s prioritization of her own prejudice and career-building over both scholarly rigor and ethics vis-a-vis Hinduism and thoughtfulness towards the Rutgers Hindu community and the Hindu community of New Jersey.

Importantly, the effects that these actions have on Hindu and non-Hindu students—when they come from a professor who is accredited by the institution as being a “sought-after” subject-matter expert—are immense. Issues of power and privilege in this dynamic cannot be overlooked. Students of any faith tradition should not be inured to regular disrespect of their history, culture, and traditions, least not from those who have institution endorsement as both experts and educators. It is widely documented that denial of genocide can lead to devastating psychological impact on the surviving communities. One can only wonder how deeper the impact would be if such denial comes from a professor who uses her position of privilege to not only justify bigotry, but sugarcoats religious-supremacist-violence in academic nuance, despite widespread critique. We believe that we all deserve to uphold our identities with dignity and respect. We certainly hope that the administration agrees.

Rutgers University welcomes an extremely vibrant, diverse community. That diversity both includes and is enriched by the valuable contributions of the Hindu community. Some of the largest events hosted at Rutgers incorporate Indian culture and Hindu practices. Importantly, it is home to thousands of Hindu students and its campuses sit in areas with the largest concentration of Hindus in the United States. Rutgers’ Hindu students and alumni have contributed tremendously to its brand and educational prestige globally, and continue to support the University fiscally.

We hope that the clear, documented examples above compel you to have compassion for and a deeper understanding of our anguish at the repeated and shocking trespasses of Rutgers’ core values by Professor Truschke at the expense of the Hindu community and a legitimate, ethical representation of Hindu and Indian history.

As students, parents and alumni invested in the reputation of Rutgers as an institution of the highest integrity, ethics, and community of inclusion, and those who support the University with funding, we ask that you deeply consider and address the following: 

1.    Rutgers University should officially acknowledge that its unilateral and definitive support of Professor Truschke’s scholarship has caused real distress to Rutgers’ Hindu students, alumni and to the Hindu community at large.

2.    Rutgers University should also acknowledge that most Hindu students are children of immigrants, or are immigrants themselves, and that as a public institution, and an ethical one, there is an obligation to ensure that all students feel welcome and included, and that the University does not engender negative narratives about particular groups of immigrants under the pretense of scholarship.

3.    Rutgers University should officially recognize Hindu students are religiously minoritized, and most as racially and ethnically minoritized, and, thus, should provide them with the same protections and considerations that other minoritized students have.

4.    Rutgers University should take sufficient measures to ensure that Rutgers’ Hindu students feel safe on campus and that non-Hindu students are aware that they have been made to feel unsafe by Professor Truschke’s social media and activist presence.

5.    Rutgers University should make a concerted effort to engage indigenous Hindu scholars in official on-campus events that have the opportunity to debate and refute Professor Truschke’s outrageous claims in order to provide students and all-rounded perspective and in a spirit of academic rigor and inclusivity.

6.    Rutgers University should interrogate the ethical implications of Professor Truschke’s political alliances and affiliations, particularly in light of her Hinduphobic fear mongering, and address the fears of the community accordingly.

Sincerely,

The Undersigned