[Ed. note: The following piece by Anthony Ballas was initially supposed to take the form of an interview with philosopher Divya Dwivedi. In light of the the political situation in India, however, Dwivedi has been advised to refrain from interviews, fearing retaliation from India’s right-wing government. Ballas has instead converted his initial text into the one published here. Accompanying the piece are two statements of support for Dwivedi from prominent Indian academics.]
Far right extremism is on the rise globally, not least in the embattled sphere of education. As I’ve written previously, far right extremism and neofascism, along with neoliberal austerity, have forcefully descended on education in the United States, Hungary, Brazil, and elsewhere. The situation in the United States is well-known: Ron DeSantis’s “STOP Woke” campaign and his frequent attacks on “Critical Race Theory” and the teaching of African-American history in Florida, similar bans enacted in Arkansas under the aegis of Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, as well as the recent partnership between the Oklahoma Board of Education and the right-wing propaganda outlet PragerU, all point in the direction of a mounting crackdown on the idea of education as such.
Germany has also faced an incursion of right-wing extremism into education, as two teachers at the Mina Witkojc School in Burg recently found out after they were run out of town for combatting far-right practices among their students. On the tail of this incident followed Björn Höcke’s extremist statements calling for German education to be “freed from ideology projects” like “inclusion,” in reference to students with disabilities. Höcke, a member of the German far right party AfD, is currently facing trial for his alleged use of a banned Nazi slogan.
But what has received scant attention, at least in the west, is the plight of education and intellectual life under the influence of right-wing extremist ideology in India.
Last year, for instance, two prominent philosophers, Shaj Mohan and Divya Dwivedi, received threats of decapitation from right-wing extremists for their criticism of the caste system. The attacks on Dwivedi and Mohan date back at least to 2007, when they were ostracized from academic circles due to their political writings. In 2019, Dwivedi made headlines for her participation in an NDTV debate during which she advocated for the “annihilation of caste,” an argument which one writer described as “unthinkable.” Dwivedi argued that the “Hindu Right is the corollary of the idea that India is a Hindu majority population and this is a false majority. The Hindu religion was invented in the early 20th century in order to hide the fact that the lower caste people are the real majority of India.”
After the clip went viral, Dwivedi received targeted death threats from Hindu extremists. In a reserved display of self-conscious altruism, Dwivedi subsequently “refused every further invitation to participate in television debates and opportunities to clarify her position,” stating that she “must never be the news” and, furthermore, that she considered herself “a servant of the lower caste majority position.”
In response to the swarm of threats on social media and elsewhere, the international intellectual community came to Dwivedi’s, Mohan’s, and, their co-author, J Reghu’s defense. Notably, the late French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy wrote a glowing defense in Libération in 2021 of Dwivedi, Mohan, and Reghu’s article, “The Hindu Hoax: How Upper Castes Invented a Hindu Majority,” written for The Caravan. Commenting on their work, Nancy stated that the authors “analyze how ‘Hinduism’ as a religion comparable to Western religions, with an identifiable doctrinal corpus, was developed under English colonization with the dual aim of allowing legal equivalence with the religion of the colonists…and on the other hand to guarantee to the upper layers of India retains the caste system still in force today.”
Nancy continues, describing how the “artificial religion… was not until now a state religion—the Indian Constitution affirms the secularism of the State,” even though it is “increasingly claimed by the Indian state,” which “has just adopted a law clearly opposed to Muslims and is increasing, with the support of its nationalist zealots, the gestures of a ‘Hindu’ confessional obedience. Not surprisingly, the authors of the article were violently attacked by supporters of Narendra Modi and the caste system.” (Translation mine.)
After the fallout, and the temporary suspension of The Caravan’s Twitter account by Indian authorities, another interview by Dwivedi to Asianlite in 2022 was visciously attacked by the right-wing, and a petition in defense of Mohan and Dwivedi was signed by many leading intellectual figures around the globe, receiving over 200 signatures, including Etienne Balibar, Slavoj Žižek, Barbara Cassin, Antonio Negri, and others.
In September 2023, threats of violence resurfaced, targeting Dwivedi. She has received significant backlash, including calls for her employer, IIT-Delhi, to fire her over her most recent criticism of the racial caste system in India. “There are two Indias,” asserted Dwivedi for France 24 in mid-September, “There is an India of the past, of the racialised caste order which oppressed the majority population, the lower castes… And then there is the India of the future, that is an egalitarian India which would be without caste oppression and it would be without Hinduism and that is the India that is not yet represented but is waiting, longing to show its visage to the world.”
Although Dwivedi has faced backlash in the past, the gravity of the current situation is quite different. With Narendra Modi ramping up attacks on journalists and intellectuals—in many cases, simply jailing his opposition—the threat of reprisal from right-wing forces, whether state-sponsored or acting in a stochastic capacity, is becoming ever realer by the day. On October 3rd, 2023, state forces detained 50 journalists and raided over 100 homes in a violent show of fascist force against the intellectual left in India, prompting a swift statement from the International Peoples’ Assembly and from Marxist intellectual Vijay Prashad, condemning Modi’s actions.
This fascist backlash reveals the state of education and the status of the intellectual in India under Modi’s regime. As Dwivedi and Mohan put it in 2020, highlighting the persistence of the country’s historical inheritance of colonialism, “In India, universal education arrived through colonialism and struck the first blow at the oppressive caste order which even today strives to exclude the lower caste people from the remains of the university; the university is even now dominated by the upper-caste ‘scholarii’ who come from less than 10% of India’s population.” The recent raids on journalists, intellectuals, and researchers only serve to buttress this caste division in the education system. As Dwivedi put it powerfully in 2019 (in her NDTV appearance), “The only relevant question today in politics is the annihilation of caste,” asking whether or not “we have the courage to make a new beginning in politics.”
As expected, there have been numerous attempts to discredit Dwivedi, most notably on social media. One tabloid-style headline even took to employing sexist and racialized language suggesting Dwivedi looked like a “glamorous” Bollywood star, more than a philosopher. Such rhetoric would seem inconsequential were it not for the issue of the real threat of right-wing violence currently experienced by India’s public intellectuals at the hands of Hindu nationalists.
In an interview with Kamran Baradaran in 2020, Dwivedi argued that “a left worthy of its name today shall have the courage to refuse the regional power deals from snake oil salesmen of anti-politics, who roam India in the garb of subaltern and postcolonial historians.” Dwivedi insists that today “we must begin to recognize [that] national forms of politics are the locus of the real crisis, and democracy can now be secured only through the assertion that the world belongs to all.”
Amid the disturbing revelations about India’s alleged role in the assassination of a Sikh activist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, in Canada, it is clear that the right-wing tendency—the very same critiqued studiously and courageously by Dwivedi and others—has made the entire world its battleground. The global left needs to not only recognize this tendency and take it seriously, but also seek to internationalize our approach to it in order to respond accordingly.
Dwivedi’s refrain offers a philosophical basis for this urgency; let “the world belongs to all” serve as a foundation for the the future of India, and the future of a world without right wing extremism, fascism, or religious nationalism of any variety. We must follow in Dwivedi’s and Mohan’s intellectual footsteps and actively resist the mainstreaming and normalization of right-wing extremism at every level of politics, not least in education and intellectual life more generally.♦
Statements of Support For Divya Dwivedi
Statement by Dr. Ajay S Sekher, Assistant Professor of English, S S University of Sanskrit, Kalady, Kerala.
“As an academic intellectual critiquing the caste system and its Vedic Varnasrama ideology, the foundation of the Hindu religion in my work, I was targeted and attacked in sly and deceitful ways to tarnish my image as a critical writer and intellectual many times, misusing institutional apparatuses. It happens with all the critics of the caste/gender inequalities and its legitimizing Hindu religion in India. Even in Kerala which is said to be progressive and left, the right-wing caste-Hindu hegemonic ideology is common sense across the political and institutional spectrum.
Divya’s work is highly commendable as she exposes and criticizes epistemologically the violence of the caste-ridden society and its evil Brahmanic patriarchy that is proclaimed as the Sanatana Dharma. She has expressed her concerns over the suicides and institutional violence on the dalit or outcaste students in elite educational institutions in India like IITs, IISCs, and IIMs. She is targeted as she raised such human rights issues on a global level in European and American media.
Ethical and just academic intellectuals in India face the severe threat of incarceration and imprisonment today as in the case of Anand Teltumbde or Hanny Babu. Media persons and social activists are also under threat under the Hindu Nationalist regime that is increasingly becoming totalitarian.
As Gramsci and Ambedkar have identified, the people are not given their just representations in a democracy and an elite caste Hindu oligarchy is ruling the Nation State. A survey on social representation and a social inclusion census in the manner of the recent Bihar caste census is the only panacea to expose this oligarchy and to struggle for democracy in the country. Let us hope for the best. Let truth and justice prevail and democracy be regained in India as Ambedkar and the people have expected.”
Statement by Dr. Meena Dhanda, Professor of Philosophy and Cultural Politics, University of Wolverhampton & Visiting Professor, London School of Economics and Political Science
I have been targeted for raising the caste question in the diaspora. The Dismantling Global Hindutva conference was almost canceled a week before it was due to be held in September 2021, due to death threats to some speakers, notably Meena Kandasamy and others, but some of us initially involved as invited speakers stood ground and offered ad hoc organizational support to keep the conference on schedule. It was a massive success receiving support from many US academic institutions and professional academic organizations. My paper on ‘Hindutva and the simulation of caste-blindness’ was misquoted and attacked in OpIndia, as is typical of propaganda magazines. More crucially in October 2021, following the announcement of an EU funded conference on ‘Anti-Caste Thought: Theory, Practice and Culture’ that I was co- organizing at the University of Wolverhampton, there were letters written to halt the conference. A webpage, hinducampaigns.com—which still exists—pasted my photo and made defamatory claims, asking people to write to my university to throw me out of my job. Creating the conference space for academic criticisms of Hinduism, or Brahmanism, was misrepresented as an attack on Hindus. Luckily my university stood by me.
Divya is a bold philosopher, who has recounted with Shaj Mohan an intellectual history of a defining idea of Hinduism in a way that allows them to make explicit the work of construction that underpins it. The implication of their work is that Hinduism is not a ‘Sanatan Dharma’ and that its end can be envisaged. They also show that only a century ago the term ‘Hindu’ was not a badge of honor for many reformers. Today the claimants of an all-encompassing Hindu ‘dharma’ have forgotten their own history.
What is unique about Divya is that she had the gumption to express this critical thought in public. One may not agree with particular formulations she has used, but, surely, she must have the space to pose a fundamental challenge to the provenance of Hinduism. She is following the tradition of Ambedkar and Periyar whose scathing attacks on caste within Hinduism opened the possibility of imagining alternative socio-religious formations. Divya has raised the profile of critical thinking by Indian philosophers on an international stage. She works with many renowned European philosophers.
She is threatening to her opponents within India because she is thinking against the grain, when others are falling in line. Either because they cannot afford to take the risk of losing their jobs, or because they want to keep their heads down till there’s a change in the political culture of ascendency of Hindutva, there are few academics like Divya. But there are some exemplary academics, artists, journalists, lawyers, and activists she joins in battling with the constraints of a rapidly shrinking space of academic freedom and oppositional political expression in India. The recent formation of India Academic Freedom Network as a bulwark is a welcome development.
A long line of academics has suffered. PhD scholar Umar Khalid of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi has been behind bars charged under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) A t (UAPA) since January 2020; he has not yet had bail. Student activists, for example, Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita, Gulfisha Fatima, Safoora Zagar, Sharjeel Imam and others have been slapped with several charges ranging from “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony” (Sec. 153A IPC), to sedition, and terrorism, and have been in and out of prison, or like Umar, yet to be released on bail. Their crime is that they protested peacefully against dubious new laws, like the discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 promulgated by the government in power.
These are bright young intellectuals whose future is being snuffed out. The most tragic in recent years is the case of Father Stan Swamy who died in custody, accused in the 2018 Bhima Koregaon violence, on the basis of what appears to be planted evidence. Accused in the same case, but unrelated to Father Stan, is the internationally renowned academic Prof Anand Teltumbde, author of several books on Dalits, caste, Ambedkar, and also Hindutva. Anand was recently released on bail, but the trail under the draconian UAPA is yet to take place. A Delhi University historian, Prof Ratan Lal is facing a police case for a ‘sarcastic’ social media post. This professor hosts a channel AmbedkarNama and routinely discusses caste issues.
Through the support organization International Solidarity for Academic Freedom in India, we learn about cancellation of talks, conferences, last minute reneging of invitations due to slashed funding – all because dissent, indeed any criticism of the ideology of Hindutva, and truthful divulging of the abysmal record of the present Indian government in safeguarding citizen’s rights are treated with suspicion. The pursuit of truth is in peril in India today. On 3 October 2023, Delhi Police raided the homes of 46 journalists, editors, writers, and professionals linked to the online news portal, NewsClick. Two persons have been arrested under various sections of UAPA. Threats to freedom of expression have evidently intensified since the present government came to power for the second term in 2019. It’s imperative for the survival of critical thought in India that they do not return for a third term in the upcoming elections in 2024.
Anthony Ballas teaches composition and rhetoric at the University of Colorado at Denver and philosophy and social sciences at Northern New Mexico College. He has published numerous articles, reviews, and chapters on topics ranging from music, literature, film, and architecture, to COVID-19, class politics, internationalism, and the Haitian Revolution. Along with Kamran Baradaran, he is currently editing a volume on the global rise of the far right, and a collection of interviews with Gerald Horne. He is the host of the De Facto Podcast. You can find him on Twitter @tonyjballas.