ne would not think that an open letter to Silicon Valley tech leaders and entrepreneurs from eminent scholars of South Asia, published in an academic journal, would cause a huge public uproar spanning two continents. But indeed it has created a tidal wave of incensed reaction from the activists and others associated with the wider Hindu nationalist movement in India and around the world, which points to a number of sensitive issues and ingrained antipathies.
Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi, a veteran Hindu nationalist organizer, is scheduled to arrive in Silicon Valley to promote his government’s “Digital India” initiative, whose rationale is this:
It has been felt that a lot more thrust is required to ensure e-Governance in the country [to] promote inclusive growth that covers electronic services, products, devices and job opportunities. Moreover, electronic manufacturing in the country needs to be strengthened.
In order to transform the entire ecosystem of public services through the use of information technology, the Government of India has launched the Digital India programme with the vision to transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy.
In their letter, the writers, which include such prominent scholars as Partha Chatterjee, Wendy Doniger, Sheldon Pollock, Arjun Appadurai, Sheila Jasanoff, and Siva Vaidhyanathan, expressed their concern about the reach of this “knowledge economy” and its possible political effects, stating that:
… the project’s potential for increased transparency in bureaucratic dealings with people is threatened by its lack of safeguards about privacy of information, and thus its potential for abuse. As it stands, “Digital India” seems to ignore key questions raised in India by critics concerned about the collection of personal information and the near certainty that such digital systems will be used to enhance surveillance and repress the constitutionally- protected rights of citizens. These issues are being discussed energetically in public in India and abroad. Those who live and work in Silicon Valley have a particular responsibility to demand that the government of India factor these critical concerns into its planning for digital futures.
To most this concern would seem non-controversial. But the issue of how such information might be used raised issues regarding not only privacy, but also freedom of expression, academic freedom, and possible censorship.
The threat to academic freedom that this project might present is what led Sheila Jasanoff of the Harvard Kennedy School to sign, despite the fact that she says she’s usually not the type to do so:
As a scholar of the politics of science and technology, I felt I had to sign this letter. The digital media can be used to mobilize all sorts of forces in our world, both benign and malignant. I do not believe that the “Digital India” initiative has received the kind of thorough public scrutiny or deliberative engagement that a project of this scope demands… Because the Indian diaspora has produced such strong ties between Silicon Valley and India, I felt it was important to show that thoughtful academics, with no axes to grind, were concerned by the absence of adequate democratic oversight over a project like “Digital India.” I was also in India in August and had a chance to see how the apparent retreat from core values of secularism and free speech make these developments in the digital realm all the more threatening.
It is this concern about how this particular government might use this technology that drew backlash. What likely provoked the viral reaction we are witnessing today comes in the next passage of the letter, which again begins innocuously enough — “We acknowledge that Narendra Modi, as Prime Minister of a country that has contributed much to the growth and development of Silicon Valley industries, has the right to visit the United States, and to seek American business collaboration and partnerships with India” — but then asks the readers of the letter to remember why Modi was prohibited from visiting the U.S. for over a decade, between 2005 and 2014: “there is still an active case in Indian courts that questions his role in the Gujarat violence of 2002 when 1,000 died.”
The letter then goes into detail regarding his first year in office, citing “well-publicized episodes of censorship and harassment of those critical of his policies, bans and restrictions on NGOs leading to a constriction of the space of civic engagement, ongoing violations of religious freedom, and a steady impingement on the independence of the judiciary.” The letter also mentions serious threats to academic freedom in India. In other words, in moving from the general case of Internet privacy, the letter hones in on the specific ways that in which Modi’s “Digital India” could be severely compromised by political and ideological motivations.
The reaction, found in the comments section of the online letter, has largely been fed by Hindu nationalist factions that are outraged by what they see as an attack on Modi’s championing of Hinduism:
I see your attack on Mr. Modi as an attack on Hinduism because Mr. Modi is a proud Hindu. He is clearly a leader who far from being ashamed of being a Hindu, has pushed for International Day of Yoga, to celebrate Hindu culture and heritage… I think you have made a serious mistake by petitioning against the freedom of India to blossom in its Hindu cultural traditional roots which have historically been non-violent and peace loving. You have only exposed your biased and imperialistic mindset that refuses to allow freedom to the Indian democratic process that elected a prime minister of its choice by a resounding majority.
But blended in with such impassioned defenses of Hinduism are comments that threaten actual retribution:
I dismiss your petition as worthless, undiplomatic and an essentially futile blackmail ploy aimed at Silicon Valley CEOs and the hugely popular Mr. Modi. And you will suffer the consequences of your folly, the Indian nationals in particular. Already the names of the signers of that petition are being widely disseminated through social and other media as sepoys and foreign-based enemies of Mr. Modi and the Modi government, and as members of the despised “Breaking India” gang. Indians and Hindus in the 20 million-plus Indian diaspora and the billion-plus in India itself will be adding your names to the list of people like Romila Thapar, Amartya Sen, Anant Rambachan, John Dayal, the sex crazy woman who doesn’t read Sanskrit Wendy Doniger, Sanskrit perverter Sheldon Pollock and the like.
I asked the scholars who composed the letter why they decided to write it in the first place, what the reaction was to scholars who were approached for signatures, and what they made of these sorts of reactions — were they entirely expected, or not?
Thomas Blom Hansen, professor of anthropology at Stanford and one of the signatories of the letter, explained that the letter…
… was initially drafted by some of those who initiated the successful petition by academics to have Modi barred from entry into the U.S. in 2005. The draft was amended and discussed among many of the signatories. The shared feeling was that considering the largely uncritical adulation of Modi among the millions of people of Indian origin in the U.S., it was necessary to remind the wider public in the U.S. and indeed Silicon Valley of the many disturbing developments we have seen since Modi took power in May 2014. It is a disturbing fact that the usually vibrant Indian press and many commentators and intellectual in India feel intimidated by the aggressive conduct of the Hindu nationalist movement. In view of this we felt that we as U.S. based scholars of India should stand up for civil liberties, justice and academic freedom.
Hansen also explained their concerns about possible repercussions, including a curtailment of academic freedom:
As scholars were approached for support there were some worries that the Government of India might deny research visas or in other ways block the future work of people on the list. This is a legitimate worry considering the record of vindictive actions taken by the Modi government especially against those critical of Modi’s record in the state of Gujarat… For those of us who have researched and published on Hindu nationalism for many years, the violent reactions, and the thinly veiled threats are not surprising… The slightly surprising element in the responses is the vehement branding of those of the signatories of Indian background as “traitors” and “saboteurs” of India’s development and well-being. This has come with suggestions of stripping these individuals of the citizenship and of course vague threats of other forms of retribution to be exacted by the vast majority who supports Modi. The actual fact is that his parliamentary majority rest on the slimmest proportion of the popular vote ever in the history of independent India (31 percent).
A report entitled “Hindu Nationalism in the United States: A Report on Non-Profit Groups” makes the following claims regarding the strength and nature of the Hindu nationalist movement in the United States:
1. Over the last three decades, a movement toward Hinduizing India–advancing the status of Hindus toward political and social primacy in India– has continued to gain ground in South Asia and diasporic communities. The Sangh Parivar (the Sangh “family”), the network of groups at the forefront of this Hindu nationalist movement, has an estimated membership numbering in the millions, making the Sangh one of the largest voluntary associations in India. The major organizations in the Sangh include the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Bajrang Dal, and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
2. Hindu nationalism has intensified and multiplied forms of discrimination, exclusion, and gendered and sexualized violence against Muslims, Christians, other minorities, and those who oppose Sangh violations, as documented by Indian citizens and international tribunals, fact-finding groups, international human rights organizations, and U.S. governmental bodies.
3. India-based Sangh affiliates receive social and financial support from its U.S.-based wings, the latter of which exist largely as tax-exempt non-profit organizations in the United States: Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), Sewa International USA, Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation-USA. The Overseas Friends of the Bharatiya Janata Party – USA (OFBJP) is active as well, though it is not a tax-exempt group.
According to one of the initial drafters of the letter, Professor Kamala Visweswaran of the University of California, San Diego,
The takeaway from all this is that the Hindu Nationalist movement is a transnational one and its U.S. affiliates are much emboldened since Modi became Prime Minister. They are not only heavily invested in his visit to Silicon Valley, but orchestrating it behind the scenes. We are also seeing some of the same forms of harassment, bullying, and intimidation tactics used against colleagues in India in use here.