Sunita Viswanath Should Not Be Columbia's Hindu Religious Life Advisor

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Dear President Bollinger, Provost Katznelson, Chaplain Davis, Rev. Dr. Rottenberg, the Hindu Students Organization at Columbia, et al.:

We, the undersigned seek your urgent attention regarding the appointment of Ms. Sunita Viswanath as the Hindu Religious Life Advisor at Columbia University, and demand that she be removed from this position, effective immediately. Ms. Viswanath's long history of divisive activism, endorsement and open support of anti-Hindu bigotry and individuals, and shutting down those who don't agree with her politics, make her unfit for a position where she will be advising students who may come to her for a genuine understanding of Hinduism as well as matter related to the Hindu community. Her appointment essentially legitimizes bigotry towards the Hindu community and promotes Hinduphobia, rather than providing an authentic representation of Hinduism on campus.

Consider the following:

  • Ms. Viswanath and the organizations she belongs to, do not enjoy the support of any prominent Hindu organization and community leader in the United States. This is mainly because of her long history of working hand in glove with those who hold pejorative views on Hinduism and Hindus.
  • Ms. Viswanath is a founder of Sadhana: A Coalition of Progressive Hindus ("Sadhana"), Hindus for Human Rights ("HFHR") and the Coalition Against Fascism in India ("CAFI"). All three organizations are heavily involved in peddling Hinduphobia and conjuring up images of Hindu savagery. For example, she and the organizations are key supporters and ideological backers of Students Against Hindutva Ideology (f.k.a. Holi Against Hindutva). This group has declared the beloved and popular Hindu festival of Holi as a casteist, violent and misogynist festival that celebrates the burning of a lower caste woman – a patently false claim given that the festival actually celebrates victory of good over evil, unity and harmony. On March 3, 2020, Ms. Viswanath penned a letter of support for Holi Against Hindutva on behalf of HFHR, applauding the group's "creative approach…[and]…the youthful energy." It is important to note that the Holi celebration at Columbia brings together hundreds of Hindus and non-Hindus to promote a message of universal love, harmony and mutual respect, rather than promoting violence and misogyny.
  • In 2017, Ms. Viswanath and Sadhana threw their full support against Hindu parents fighting biased portrayals of Hinduism vis-a-vis other major world religions in 6th grade California textbooks. Without respecting the sentiments of their own community and caring for the ongoing bullying faced by Hindu children, Ms. Viswanath and Sadhana declared these parents and kids as extremists and ‘right wing.’ That is even after the fact that she and Sadhana admitted that they had not done full research on the issue.
  • Ms. Viswanath is also a founding member of CAFI. One of the coalition members - The Alliance for Secular and Democratic South Asia ("ASDSA") - has had known ties to individuals who have openly supported violent Maoist terrorism in India. In 2001, M.V. Ramana, a founding member of ASDSA, wrote a Hinduphobic article, "The Bomb of the Blue God," juxtaposing the image of Hindu deity Shri Krishna on a bomb and linking the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most sacred Hindu texts, to violence. One of the other coalition members - Raja Joseph Swamy - has openly labeled Hinduism as nothing but casteism, declaring: "Hindu 'dharma' is caste-based; Hinduism is casteism; to be Hindu means to belong to a caste, and not as it is in most religions, to merely subscribe to a set body of beliefs."
  • In 2010, Ms. Viswanath and fellow Sadhana co-founder Rohan Narine were at the center of a controversy around a cartoon called Sita Sings The Blues by Nina Paley. The cartoon portrays the sacred Hindu text the Ramayana and key Hindu deities in a highly pejorative manner – from belittling Hindu deities, to portraying them as blood thirty, misogynist or simply bizarre. In one instance, Shri Rama, one of the most revered Hindu deities, is shown as walking over and kicking his pregnant wife Sita! In another instance, Sita, who is also a very revered Hindu deity, is portrayed as a blood thirsty woman. Blasting the Hindu community for raising concerns about such a portrayal of their religion, Ms. Viswanath insisted that the cartoon "…is a wonderful way to keep Hindu mythology alive."
  • In August 2020, Ms. Viswanath, along with HFHR, CAFI and other groups decried Hindus for celebrating the fact that after nearly 500 years, a temple for Shri Rama will be built at one of the holiest pilgrimage sites, in accordance with an independent and democratic verdict by the Supreme Court of India. Ms. Viswanath, HFHR, Sadhana and CAFI deemed this celebration as a "spectacle of hate" and a "naked display of fascism."

The above examples are just a tip of the iceberg, Yet, they illustrate a clear pattern of Hinduphobia, extremely divisive activism and open support for anti-Hindu sentiments, not to mention disdain for important matters pertaining to the Hindu community.

Columbia is a university that places great value on diversity and inclusion. In fact, Columbia's own commitment against hatred and bigotry is illustrated by the following quote by Ixchel Rosal, Associate Vice President for Student Life and co-chair of Columbia’s Race, Ethnicity and Inclusion Task Force: "Make no mistake that Columbia rejects racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, white supremacy, bigotry, misogyny. But beyond statements, can we show up as members of one community, especially when we are in a particularly challenging place?"

By allowing Ms. Viswanath to continue as the Hindu Religious Life Advisor, Columbia and the Hindu Students Organization are reneging on the above commitment, and allowing young Hindus to be subject to views that do not promote a better understanding of Hinduism within Columbia, but rather legitimize bigotry and hatred of their religion and practices.

We therefore demand that Columbia and the Hindu Students Organization remove Ms. Viswanath from her position as Hindu Religious Life Advisor, effectively immediately.