Trolled, Hounded, Academics in Canada Pay for Calling out Hindu Extremists

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Prof. Chinnaiah Jangam of Carleton University in Ottawa says harassment he has received intensified in 2017 after he spoke out against a controversial Hindu figure giving a talk at Carleton. (Larry Carey/CBC)

Katie Swyers, Judy Trinh 

Chinnaiah Jangam opened his computer and saw a cartoon of himself cleaning a white person’s boots.

The history professor at Carleton University in Ottawa said he received thousands of hateful emails like that over the past five years, along with abusive voicemails on his office phone. He said he has also been accosted in person by groups picketing his academic lectures because they disagree with his politics.

“Imagine every Monday, you get up and see that picture,” said Jangam. “Half your day will go, coming to terms with it.”

He closed most of his social media accounts in response, in part, he said, to try to shield his family.

Jangam is one of several Canadian academics whose work relates to India who say they are being harassed and threatened by diaspora groups for being critical of both the country’s politics under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Hindutva, the right-wing political ideology it espouses.

“There is a growing violence against Muslims and Dalits,” said Jangam, who is Dalit — the lowest strata of the Hindu caste system. It’s a group previously called “untouchables” because their low status meant they weren’t even touched by others.

“I come from that background. I have a social responsibility and also moral responsibility to speak out.”

Steven Zhou, a former researcher with the Canadian Anti-Hate Network who has chronicled far right movements within diaspora groups, said Hindutva is a superficial politicization of Hinduism.

Its aim, said Zhou, is “to cast the Indian society as one that should be for Hindus first and foremost above other religious minorities.”

Zhou said Hindutva is a modern political ideology that advocates for Hindu supremacy and seeks to transform India, a secular democracy, into an ethno-religious country.

Although the supremacist ideology of Hindutva has its roots in Hinduism, there is debate as to whether the political aspects of the ideology can be separated from its religious and cultural foundation. Many academics argue it is separate.

Gopala Krishna, director of Dwarapalakas, a self-described Hindu advocacy group in the Greater Toronto Area, said Canadians don’t understand Hinduism and are presently getting their perspectives from “non-Hindu religions talking to and talking down to Hinduism.”

Sectarian violence

Zhou said the Hindutva ideology has led to discrimination and sectarian violence against minority groups in India such as Muslims and Christians. Human Rights Watch has also attributed religious and ethnic violence to alleged Hindutva groups.

Researcher Steven Zhou says academics critical of Hindutva ideology or BJP policies often face an online backlash so severe it shuts down debate and imposes a kind of self-censorship. (Joe Firorino/CBC)

In December 2021, in the northern Indian city of Haridwar, Hindu religious leaders openly called for a genocide against Muslims at a Hindutva-organized event. And in March, an Indian court upheld a ban against hijabs in schools — the matter is before the Supreme Court of India.

Zhou said while Hindutva has not led to physical violence in Canada, the ideology has become “rhetorically violent” and is used to silence academic criticism of Indian politics.

CBC News spoke to 18 Canadian academics who say they have been harassed or threatened by those supporting Hindu nationalism. Their harassment ranged from abusive emails to death and rape threats.

Most did not want to speak publicly for fear of increased harassment, being denied visas to India and endangering loved ones in their homeland.

At the end of January, York University in Toronto held an online forum discussing the growing challenges and threats academics face while working on projects pertaining to India. Professors noted that co-ordinated online attacks often follow any criticism of Modi and the BJP. Jangam was one of the speakers.

He said he’s been targeted by right-wing Hindu groups abroad and in Canada because he is one of the first tenured academics in Canada who is Dalit.

Since Modi and the BJP came to power in 2014, Jangam said violence and discrimination have increased against Dalits.

“Dalits constitute nearly 20 per cent of the Indian population. That means that more than 250 million … people have been mistreated for centuries and denied access to education,” said Jangam.

The professor has been outspoken in his criticism of the Modi government and its treatment of minorities and has been targeted by numerous online attacks against his character.

Despite the harassment, Jangam refuses to back down.

“We have to speak truth to power,” he said.

The eight years the BJP have been in power in India have emboldened groups supporting Hindutva, said Ingrid Therwath, a Franco-Indian journalist who has been researching Hindu extremism for more than 20 years.

Therwath said large online networks established in India harass academics abroad.

How Hindu nationalism spreads abroad 

Hindutva is well-established in India and is the bedrock of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary national volunteer organization founded in 1925, with numerous sister organizations and an active membership estimated at more than five million people, including Modi and the majority of ministers from the BJP in government.

Jangam shows Google search results for his name on Feb. 4, 2022. The most recent posting accuses him and his work of being ‘Hinduphobic.’ (Larry Carey/CBC)

The BJP has historic links with the RSS. Therwath said the RSS network was founded on the principles of Italian facism, is ideologically similar to Nazism and was exported abroad by the Indian diaspora. She said the first Canadian branch of the RSS’s international organization was established in Toronto in the 1970s.

Therwath said Canadian Hindu extremist groups often create seemingly benign cultural organizations and use them to promote far right views.

“They are factually hate groups,” said Therwath, adding the groups promote hate speech and discrimination in India, participate in online harassment and channel funds from abroad to India for sectarian and political projects through various charities.

Kristin Plys, director for the Centre of South Asia Civilizations at the University of Toronto, found herself in the crosshairs of Hindu nationalists in the Greater Toronto Area after supporting an online conference on contemporary Indian politics last September.

Conference targeted by online campaign

The virtual conference, called Dismantling Global Hindutva, was endorsed by more than 50 universities across Canada and the United States, including McMaster, Harvard and Princeton.

The event featured international scholars discussing the implications of Hindutva — more than half the speakers and moderators were Hindu. Dalit and Muslim speakers also participated.

In a bid to prevent harassment, the organizing committee stayed anonymous. Despite the precautions, Al Jazeera reported that Hindutva groups claimed to have spammed participating universities with 1.3 million emails. They posted private information online and some American participants received death threats.

Before the start of the conference, about 50 protesters demonstrated on the U of T campus in an attempt to pressure the university to retract its endorsement.

Following the protest, Dwarapalakas sent Plys a series of emails that frightened her. In one email shown to CBC, Dwarapalakas accused her of being a Taliban sympathizer and warned her that they were “in her backyard.”

Dwarpalakas then sent her a food delivery gift card, which campus police told Plys may have been an attempt to get her home address if she activated the card. After reporting the threats to campus security, Plys said she had to “change everything about her life.”

Campus security gave her a panic button that sets off an ear-splitting alarm when pushed.

Professor given self-defence classes

She changed her office hours, varied her commute and enrolled in self-defence classes. Her university department asked her to temporarily teach her courses online to help protect her colleagues.

When Plys reported the incident to police, she was told her complaint was being investigated as hate speech.

“I received countless emails from various groups that were threatening in nature,” said Plys

Volunteers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh attend a conclave on the outskirts of Pune, India, on Jan. 3, 2016. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

“But this was the only group that really crossed the line to try to take the online hate into the real world.”

Krishna, the director of Dwarapalakas, who also occasionally hosts a community program on the OMNI television network, admits to writing the emails, but said he wasn’t trying to intimidate Plys. Instead, Krishna said he wanted her to know that Dwarapalakas was watching her to “expose her intellect.”

Even though the conference the University of Toronto sponsored was called “Dismantling Hindutva,” Krishna said the event was attacking Hinduism in all its political, cultural and religious aspects.

“What they are doing is exactly that, they want to dismantle Hinduism,” he said. “You attack us from all directions — Muslims, Dallits, [gender], academics.”

Krishna said Plys is “promoting hatred against Hindus of Canada by sponsoring” the event.

Criticism called ‘Hinduphobia’

In his interview with CBC News, Krishna labelled anything he perceived as critical of Hinduism “Hinduphobia.”

He said academics are planting “divisive ideas” that have a “direct impact on violence on the streets of India.”

Journalist Therwath disagrees with that idea.

“This is disinformation,” Therwath said of the assertion that Hindus are under attack in India, where they make up more than 80 per cent of the population. The researcher likens “Hinduphobia” to the concept of anti-white racism.

Malavika Kasturi, a South Asian history professor at the University of Toronto, said those who critically study India or disagree with Hindutva are labelled one of three things by harassers: Hinduphobic, anti-Indian or, if they are of Indian origin, anti-national.

Kasturi said a “Hindutva army” has harassed her with a barrage of email threats.

She wants the Canadian government to take the intimidation seriously, just as it would threats from white supremacist groups.

“It is a Canadian issue. It’s not a South Asian cultural issue,” said Kasturi. “It’s a question of human rights.”

When asked by CBC News if the RCMP is monitoring the rise of Hindu nationalism in Canada, an agency spokesperson said by email “the RCMP does not comment on or investigate movements or ideologies,” but investigates individual criminal activity.

The spokesperson added it is important for individuals in Canada, regardless of race, religion, nationality, ethnic origin, gender, disability or sexual orientation “to know that there are support mechanisms in place to assist them when experiencing potential threats to their safety and security.”

“Anyone who feels threatened online or in person should report these incidents to their local police.” — CBC News

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