Over 150 professors and educators throughout the international academic community collaborated on a petition published in early February denouncing the University of California, Irvine’s decision to take a $6 million donation from the Thakkar Family-Dharma Civilization Foundation (DCF). The writers note the DCF’s ties to militant Hindu nationalism and their alleged commitment to staffing the four chairs with scholar-practitioners of their own faith.
The DCF donation would establish four endowed chairs in UCI’s South Asian department – one each in Vedic and Indic Civilization Studies, Sikh Studies, Jain Studies and Modern India Studies – but the foundation intends to staff the positions with their own professorial candidates instead of complying with university hiring protocol.
According to the Open Letter to UCI petition written by professors from Yale, Cambridge, Harvard, and several UCs, among others, which amassed 424 of a desired 1,000 signatures as of Feb. 14, “We are troubled by news reports that the [DCF] has put forward its own list of acceptable candidates based on race and religion. Further, we are concerned about reports that the DCF has already brought their favoured candidates to the UC Irvine campus, in the absence of any advertised search for these positions.”
The petition then states that the DCF’s four “suggested” hires are all active scholar-practitioners of the DCF’s Hindu nationalist ideology, and expresses concern regarding a Dec. 2015 Orange County Register report that UCI’s final acceptance of the DCF donation is contingent on the university selecting the DCF’s desired candidates.
The DCF has triggered controversy in the past for their right-wing Hindu nationalist ideology, and their commitment to “redefine true ‘Indianness’ in terms of a historically-fabricated continuity in “Indic” religions (a list of religions that excludes the sub-continent’s traditions of Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism), and a privileging of upper-caste, ‘Vedic’ Hindu identity,” according to the petition.
The DCF has also been accused of ties through its office holders to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Singh (RSS), a militant proponent of Hindu nationalism based on strict interpretations of Vedic thought. The RSS has been banned in India on three separate occasions for participation in mass violence against Christians and Muslims, and for its role in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.
The petition notes that the DCF’s long history of affiliation with the RSS has affected the organization’s prior donations to educational institutions.
In 2012, the DCF donated $150,000 to the University of Southern California (USC) to establish a visiting faculty position in Hindu studies for two years. The position was filled by Rita Sherma, an active scholar-practitioner, according to the DCF.
The DCF’s website states that, similar to their donation to UCI, “The next phase of engagement with USC will include the creation of a permanent endowed Chair in Hindu Studies. The fund raising effort for this Chair is currently under way.”
In addition to staffing Chairs of other universities with scholar-practitioners, the DCF has a history of altering educational materials to fit their ideology. DCF allegedly intends to continue altering established Hindu thought through the teachings of their suggested UCI Chairs.
“DCF affiliates have attempted to introduce factually inaccurate changes to California sixth-grade textbooks about Hinduism,” reads the petition. “The right-wing Hindu campaign to change California textbooks promoted a reductive idea of the religion, seeking to introduce elements that had been widely discredited by scholars of Hinduism. The Endowed Chair agreement between the DCF and UC Irvine, to our surprise, specifies that adherence to this intellectually discredited interpretation of Hinduism will serve as a litmus test for future faculty in the UC system.”
Besides the writers of the petition, UC students and faculty have expressed concern over the DCF donation, and the impact it might have on the credibility of Hindu studies at UCI. The implications it might have on UCI’s long term policy of taking major donations from private groups with ulterior motives was another concern that was expressed.
Catherine Liu, a film and media studies professor at UCI, argues that “UC Irvine’s reputation is at stake” throughout the international academic community should they accept the donation with the DCF’s conditions.
“The Open Letter to UC Irvine is signed by some of the most prominent South Asian experts in the world. If we were to accept these Chairs, UC Irvine would be committing its reputation and resources to approaches to Indian studies that lie far outside of academic norms and respectability,” says Liu.
She says that UCI should look to expand its Asian studies department, but needs to be more selective of where funds are coming from in order to prevent future donor controversies.
“UC Irvine needs to raise money for endowed Chairs; we certainly need [to study more] of South, East and Southeast [Asia], but we need to solicit these gifts in consultation with faculty,” Liu says. “Administrators are under pressure to raise money, but due diligence needs to take place. We welcome working [towards] advancement with donors, but faculty should be front and center in the process.”