Sunday, April 22, 2012

US academics for and against censorship

The internet discussion list of the Religion In South Asia (RISA) section of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) invites to its membership all scholars with a terminal degree related to the field of religion in South Asia and who are dues-paying AAR members. For several years, I was an active participant in the RISA conversation. I was merely tolerated, though, for the dominant circle there tended to dislike my position, deemed too pro-Hindu. And even that toleration came to an end shortly after the AAR meeting of November 2011.

In an attempt to comprehend listmaster Deepak Sarma’s lie that I had violated list rules, an allegation which he failed to specify both to me and to an enquiry by Prof. Francis Clooney s.j., I venture to link it to two incidents on the RISA list in the preceding months. One is an incident with prof. George Thompson, the other was an incident on the notion of interreligious dialogue, where my critics violated list rules but which will form the material for separate posts. For now, we will discuss the contradiction between the RISA scholars’ defence of freedom of speech elsewhere and their approval of censorship on their own platform.

Quite a few RISA (Religion in South Asia) scholars are inveterate enemies of freedom of speech. When I spoke on the Aryan Invasion Theory in Prof. Andrew Sihler’s Department at the University of Wisconsin in 1996, Biju Mathew and Vijay Prashad of the Forum Of Inqilabi (= Revolutionary) Leftists distributed a leaflet demanding that I be denied a platform to speak at American Universities. This leaflet was subsequently condoned explicitly by Prof. Michael Witzel (7-2-2003) and Prof. Robert Zydenbos (10-2-2003) on the secretive Scholarly Services list. So we know where the enemies of liberty are.

Fortunately, some scholars are also in favour of freedom of speech. Or to put that more precisely, the very same scholars are in favour of or against freedom of speech depending on whether it is one of their friends or one of their enemies whose right to freedom of speech is being challenged. We don’t know exactly which ones are for freedom of speech in general and which ones want to limit freedom of speech to their friends, but we know that a lot of them want to safeguard the freedom of speech of the late A.K. Ramanujan.

Not that his freedom is really threatened by censorship, i.e. by a state’s intervention to have his books or articles censored. What happened is that his publisher, the private company Oxford University Press, refused to republish his essay Three Hundred Ramayanas in 2011. The Delhi University refused to include this essay among its mandatory reading. Immediately an online petition was started to protest against this act of “censorship”. I signed it too, because of course I don’t believe in hampering the spread of ideas, not even when it has the lofty goal of preventing the spread of a fundamentally flawed perception of the Ramayana. Hindus had better learn to hold their own in the marketplace of ideas; clamouring for censorship is a weakness bid. But that shouldn’t foster any illusions about the rightness of A.K. Ramanujan’s thesis, nor about the motives of the Professors who suddenly discovered the value of his freedom of speech.

Meanwhile, an act of censorship at RISA

On 27 November 2011, shortly after my return from the annual session of the American Academy of Religion (of which RISA is a subsection), I sent to listmaster Dr. Deepak Sarma the following mail: “Dear Deepak, “could you please change my RISA address from […] to “Thanks, “KE”

This was because my old address did not match my RISA address anymore, so that for every intervention I had to trouble the listmaster to give me access. It was just a technical matter.

But much to my surprise, this is the reply I got on 28 November: “Subject: your RISA-L membership status

“Dr. Elst:

“The RISA-L Advisory Committee has decided not to renew your membership to RISA-L. The decision was made based on both the eligibility criteria as well as the list rules ( It was determined that you are not eligible and have violated list rules. Yours, Deepak”

I asked Deepak for the coordinates of the members of this mysterious “advisory committee”, not mentioned on the RISA instructions, so that I could contact them, but he didn’t reply.

So, cut off from the list archives and its addresses, I sent a mail to three scholars whose addresses I did have and who just made themselves remarkable by opposing the act of censorship in Delhi to A.K. Ramanujan’s disadvantage. It went like this:

“To:,, “Subject: Fw: your RISA-L membership status."

“Dear Professors,

“During the AAR annual conference of 2006 in Washington DC, I attended a ‘debate’ on the Danish Mohammed cartoons, then the target of both a campaign of violence and another campaign in favour of censorship. Not a single one of the six or so panelists took a stand for unfettered freedom of expression as guaranteed in the US Constitution's First Amendment. Each one started out with: ‘Of course freedom of expression is important, BUT...’ Since the organizers must have known the invited panelists and their positions in the matter, it seemed to be AAR policy to support certain higher values against the secular value of freedom of expression. In question time too, not one of the religion scholars in the audience challenged this consensus. I concluded that freedom of expression doesn't count for much in the guild of religion scholars, not even in the Land of the Free.

“Consequently, I was pleasantly surprised to see how last week, a clear stand for freedom of expression and opposing the ‘non-governmental censorship’ exercised by OUP-India against AK Ramanujan's essay Three Hundred Ramayanas was taken by you three on the RISA list. And by some others, but their posts are no longer in my inbox and I don't have access to the list archive for reasons discussed below, so I cannot address them here. But three voices for freedom should be enough to defeat the dark forces of censorship.

“Not every stand for freedom and against suppression of speech by state authority or by non-governmental agencies is equally demanding. Thus, it is easier to stand up against censorship exercised by a foreign body in distant Oxford and Delhi than against censorship exercised by a body of which one is a prominent and esteemed member oneself. And it is far more attractive to show solidarity with a censored author whose opinions one shares than with one whose positions one opposes. Yet, the latter instance is the true test of what side one is on in the struggle between liberty and oppression. Stalin and Hitler were all for the freedom of expression of those whose opinions they shared. What distinguishes democrats from those dictators is that they grant freedom to all without discrimination by status or opinion.

“Today, I am appealing to you to take a stand against censorship exercised by your own RISA list against someone whose opinions you may very well disapprove of, viz. myself.

“Shortly after returning home from the AAR conference in San Francisco, where I had read a paper on the Buddha's social conservatism (and another one on Buddhism's martial roots at the DANAM conference), to considerable acclaim, I found an e-mail in my inbox from the RISA listmaster, Prof. Deepak Sharma. After he had been conspicuously avoiding me at the conference as if held back by a troubled conscience, I considered it possible that he was at last sending me his apologies for his less than impartisan handling of several recent attacks against my person on the list. Instead, what I found was the following:

"From: Deepak Sarma to Dr. Elst:

"The RISA-L Advisory Committee has decided not to renew your membership to RISA-L. The decision was made based on both the eligibility criteria as well as the list rules ( It was determined that you are not eligible and have violated list rules. Yours, Deepak"

“From someone who hasn't even issued a mere reprimand against gross violations of list rules when these were targeted against Hindu list members or myself, this sudden concern for list rules seemed disingenuous. The step of excluding someone without first taking less extreme steps is also strange. Having served in a number of organizations myself, I was also surprised that there still exist organizations where such a step can be taken behind someone's back without even giving him a hearing. Finally, the stated reasons are obviously false. I satisfy the eligibility criteria just as much as (or even more than) the day when I was admitted to the list, being an AAR member with wide experience of teaching and research in the field of South-Asian religion and with a related terminal academic degree (actually three of them). And no, I have not violated list rules, on the contrary.

“When a list member, while stating his firm belief in the racialist interpretation of the ethnic data in the Rg-Veda and of the scriptural descriptions of Krishna, recently launched against me the grossest personal attack in the history of the list (if you know of a worse instance, I'd like to hear it, and also what punishment was administered to the offender), Deepak shot off a hurried request to me not to reply to it. Though my expectation that he would do the right thing and publicly reprimand the offender was in vain, I assured him that I would not make matters worse by reacting. Possibly that was poor judgment of mine, but it served the cause of relative peace on the list and a constructive atmosphere, already damaged badly enough by the offender. But now my cooperative attitude is rewarded with a consilium abeundi. It seems that this mysterious "advisory committee" cares less about the good atmosphere on the list than about ideological conformity.

“Fortunately, having witnessed your commitment to the cause of academic freedom and freedom of expression, I can be confident that at least one of you will take an initiative to remedy this injustice. I am looking forward to it.

“Yours sincerely, Dr. Koenraad Elst”

I received no reply to this mail. Since there is nothing that Gunga Dins like Deepak Sarma admire more than White Missionary Professors, I decided finally to ask Harvard Professor Francis Clooney S.J. for help. He asked Deepak for an explanation of his behavior, but all he got for a reply was the same mendacious affirmation that I had trespassed against list rules. The reality was that list rules had only been trespassed against when addressing me. But clearly, pressures on the listmaster from those conformists who wanted me out was stronger.

The Huffington Post debate on the censorship by Deepak Sarma

Under the title “Censoring Ramanujan's Essay On Ramayana: Intolerant Hindus And Confusing Texts”, Deepak Sarma pontificated in Huffington Post (30-11-2011) on freedom of speech in Hinduism. He argued that his mentor, Mâdhva, had nothing against adverse comments, which he qualified as Mohashâstra, “Deluded scripture”, and freely answered them. Among those who replied was Vishal Agarwal:

“But you can hardly expect Sarmas and Donigers to support lifting of these other bans, or the large scale censoring of History in India by 'secularist' historians in West Bengal, Kerala and so on. Their hatred is reserved for Hindus and Hinduism. The sarcasm in Sarma's email shows his pettiness. If he is serious and honest about free speech, he should reinstate dissenting scholars in the RISA-L list that he manages.”

My own reply was this (2-12):

“The ‘intolerant Hindus’ of your title may not be coterminous with the entire Hindu society, but they certainly include your esteemed self, Deepak. Your own record of partisan censorship as listmaster on the RISA-list is well-known to all insiders. In your case, the aim is not to humour any Hindu constituency but to please your American paymasters. And these tend to support your censorship, of course, because academics have ideological agendas too, and are more attached to those than to the First Amendment principle of freedom of expression. Approval of censorship exists also among those who, along with yourself and myself, have signed the petition against OUP's censoring Ramanujan. For many of them this is not a matter of principle, of standing up for freedom of expression. Instead, they are using Ramanujan as a tool in their own crusade against Hinduism in general (e.g. the Christian missionary lobby, a palpable presence in US Indology) or against specific schools of thought within Hinduism. The proof of being on the side of freedom of expression is defending it even and especially in the case of those you disagree with. As Rosa Luxemburg put it, ‘freedom is always the freedom of those who hold dissenting views’. You have failed that test.”

Deepak Sarma tried to justify his act of censorship as follows (4-12):

"In this connection, the rules for debate in the academic realm differ significantly from other realms, such as this virtual one. There are, for example, rules about evidence, and about how evidence is presented. If a participant violates these rules then s/he may be excluded from further conversations. In this sense, in the academic world, there is an intolerance of those who do not follow the rules for debate. These rules of rhetoric are themselves debatable. Lest there be an infinite regress of sorts (that is, how do we argue about how we argue?) they ought to be upheld stipulatively.”

But by the time I sent in my reply (5-12), Deepak Sarma’s allies at the Huffington Post had got into their usual act and censored it, i.e. it was not published. Still, here it is:

“Because most readers don't have access to the RISA list where Deepak exercises his censorship, he expects to get away with misrepresenting his own record there. His contentious interventions had nothing to do with ‘rules about evidence’ but with ideological conformity. Nobody has ever been muzzled or excluded there for being loose with evidence, nor for violating general rules of conduct (such as calling dissenting fellow list members ‘the scum of the earth’), as long as the offender belonged to the right ideological camp, i.e. the anti-Hindu side. And some contributions have been suppressed precisely because they did contain evidence, but of the ideologically unwelcome kind. However, we must welcome Deepak's honest admission that his own conduct is an instance of ‘intolerance’.

“That he adds an improvised justification for his intolerance of free debate, merely follows the pattern heard after every act of censorship. Hitler and Stalin were never short of reasons to deny freedom of speech to dissenters and other spoilsports of their utopian schemes. After the violent reactions to the Danish Mohammed cartoons, the leading American editorialists and all members of an American Academy of Religion panel discussing the incident came up with a variation on: "Of course freedom of expression is dear to us, BUT..." No ifs and buts on such a fundamental principle, please.

“In this case, it is particularly misplaced for Deepak to invoke academic standards as justifying censorship. In the most conspicuous recent incidents involving book-banning and Hinduism, the impression of a hot-headed Hindu opposition against objective scholarship has been created in the media, when the objection against the contentious publications was precisely that they were unobjective and academically sub-standard. Courtright's Freudian claims about Ganesha betray gross ignorance about Ganesha's many literary appearances in roles different from the stereotype on which he bases his theory. Wendy Doniger's book is not malicious, as Hindu critics have alleged, but it is flippant and full of inaccuracies, apparently because the author just doesn't take her subject seriously. As Vishal has briefly argued here, Ramanujan's essay too is substandard because its central claim simply conflicts with the data. But that is no reason to ban it, of course. Demands for censorship allow partisan writers to deflect attention from the contents of their publications and to pose as martyrs. They allow the Deepak Sarmas of this world to misrepresent the debate as one between scholarship and fanaticism, when in fact it is one between partisan writing and proper scholarship. Instead of clamouring for censorship, Hindus should publish and publicize well-prepared rebuttals. Open debate, as Deepak has correctly affirmed, is the Hindu way.”

A certain Sandalwood reminded us of some Hindu American Foundation remarks on the previous RISA debate:

"In the early moments of the RISA debate, an earnest minority of scholars courageously posted opinions that compelled their fellow intellectuals to understand the dimensions of the debate beyond the clear damage to the Hindu psyche — they realized the need to begin a meta analysis of what Dr. Courtright had elicited. Behold the audacity of Antonio de Nicolas, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at SUNY-Stony Brook (Stony Brook, New York, U.S.A), who resolutely declared, ‘A scholar who does not know how to present other cultures by their own criteria should not be allowed to teach those cultures. His freedom of speech is not guaranteed by his ignorance.’ Perhaps, most disturbing was the failure of the moderator of the RISA listserv, Deepak Sarma (Lecturer of Religious Studies at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.A.), to prevent such outrages while censuring Dr. de Nicolas for voicing his support for Hindu sensibilities."

In Vishal Agarwal’s posts on 2 to 5 December was also this comment on Deepak Sarma’s censorship:


“In your articles, you have continuously harped on the diversity of Hinduism as if your critics do not celebrate the same. What you and your ilk do not understand is the fact that in most courses, the student population has zero or very little background in Hindu traditions. It makes zero pedagogical sense to start these classes on the note – ‘OK, you have taken a class on Hinduism. But let me tell you that Hinduism does not exist. It is just a modern construct. And its internal diversity makes it impossible to be even classified as a religion.’ The sentences within quotes are repeated ad-nauseum to us Hindus, nay, parroted by ignorant people posing as scholars. They reflect merely a lack of imagination or a lack of academic brilliance or a lack of above average intelligence - and are just a toeing of the party-line you and your ilk.

“The reader of these forums will recall that you have ridiculed the Sunday schools for teaching a fake version of Hinduism that is make believe because it does not capture a diversity. Now, I actually help run a Sunday school with 260 kids, and have taught in various other Sunday schools (in addition to teaching in elementary, middle and high schools, or addressing interfaith adult forums all over) for over six years. Perhaps, I have done like 250 or more lectures on Hinduism and India. We teach the Ramayana to grade II-III students. (contd...)

“Those who defend the prescription of his essay at DU should show their respect for the same in RISA-L, where dissenting scholars are summarily expelled without a chance to defend themselves. The archives are similarly hidden from public view, so much for open-mindedness.

“If you want to celebrate diversity, first practice what you preach on the RISA-L that you manage! Instead of protecting the old boys' club brigade, treat dissenters fairly. (…) Get out of your own Hinduphobia that has resulted in your congitive dissonance. Instead of relying upon leftist and Hinduphobic tropes of Indologists, use your own prajna.”

A certain Rao123 wrote in (3-12):

“It is good that Prof. Sarma has begun to write for the Huffington Post, and now that he is willing to share his thoughts about matters Hindu and Hinduism he should have the courage of his convictions to respond to readers who have challenged both his command over the Shâstras as well as his ability to think critically through modern political, social, and religious issues confronting India. That he has not bothered to respond to the comments by Mr. Vishal Agarwal and Dr. Koenraad Elst while taking the time to respond to some little asides shows that he has neither the courage of his convictions nor is he the expert that he claims to be. (…) With all his parroting about a single stanza from Madhwacharya, I wonder if Prof. Sarma is not snared by the paradox of that parroting: he is steadfastly refusing to engage Prof. Elst and Mr. Agarwal, and by doing so he is not doing what Madhwa did -- engage the critics and the ‘moha-shastra-vadins’!”

Deepak Sarma’s reputation for exercising censorship on behalf of the anti-Hindu brigade is well-established. I was at first warned about him but refused to believe my US-based contacts. I should have known better, and now I do.

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