By Namta Gupta
New Delhi, May 6, 2020: First the Swastika and now a racist cartoon is making American Hindus take a deep hard look at the racism and Hinduphobia present in their elite sections of the society.
The Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA) has shot off a letter to Harvard University expressing their outrage regarding what CoHNA says is a deeply racist and highly evocative cartoon on Hinduism.
CoHNA in a statement gave the details stating that on April 23, 2020, the Harvard University Press (HUP) tweeted an announcement regarding Dr. Ajantha Subramanian’s upcoming virtual talk titled “Meritocracy and Democracy: The Social Life of Caste in India,” which also featured guest speaker TM Krishna.
The talk and discussion were related to her book “The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India,” and were organized by the Bangalore International Centre.
In promoting the talk by Dr. Subramanian, HUP failed to review the contents of the link, which contained a gory cartoon depicting a Hindu religious figure holding holy books while adding ingredients to a traditional millstone and conjuring up a skeleton from the ingredients, crushing many black human figurines and killing them or throwing them into what seems to be waves of fire. One black figurine is also seen holding on to the feet of the religious figure in a desperate attempt to save itself.
Hinduphobia may lead to persecution, Says CoHNA
CoHNA says that since this image is not found in the book anywhere and was specifically selected for the tweet for the sake of promotion of the event, therefore it smacks of Hinduphobia.
The image, known as “Millstone of Caste System” is the 1917 work of cartoonist Gaganendranath Tagore, it said adding that racist cartoons are reminiscent of the antisemitic caricatures about Jews in the late 19th and early 20th century, using bodily stereotypes and showing them as immoral, criminals, corrupt businessmen, usurpers, etc. Similarly, African Americans were depicted as animalistic, crazed, and savage based on pseudo-scientific anthropological theories of the late 1800s.
It is well known that such characterizations were used to openly justify oppression of the people and endorse a violent history of oppression of Jewish, African American, women, LGBTQ and other communities. The Hindu group also said that even the Indigenous people were also depicted in cartoons in prejudicial ways in early 20th century to justify their conquest.
While Tagore’s cartoon is different and comes from Indian culture itself, it is important to note that such a cartoon needs to be viewed and presented in a cultural context, which this use of Tagore’s art did not do.
“In our view, the use of the cartoon is prejudicial and sensationalist, and without providing that context of colonial critique, the cartoon seems to present a racist view of Hindus and can be seen as pejorative, and reinforces the kind of narratives that were created about Hinduism to justify colonial conquest and conversion,” remarked Nikunj Trivedi, president of CoHNA.
“At a time when Hindus have been the subject of attacks on college campuses and places of worship, endorsements of such bigoted portrayals of Hindus and Hinduism by Harvard and HUP further reinforce racist colonial theories, and are a matter of great concern in the Hindu community.”
It also said that such endorsement lends to the political view that Harvard endorses Hinduphobia and demanded that the HUP acknowledge this error of representation, and in good faith, issue an immediate apology to the Hindu community.
The group also wants Harvard to sponsor a seminar by Hindu scholars to discuss the problematic nature of such endorsements and the issue of representation about Hinduism to reduce prejudice.
In a statement CoHNA says:
“As an institution that prides itself in its rich intellectual history and on the inclusion of diverse voices, it is important to set the record straight about the absence of prejudice in such communications.”
The choice of the Tagore cartoon does not demonstrate that unprejudiced view, Rajeev Menon, Vice President of CoHNA, said.
Several prominent Hindus, including Tulsi Gabbard, have pointed to rampant Hinduphobia that is prevalent in the USA.