Editor’s Note: The 2014 Fall semester began last week and by now University Managements & Professors are back at their desks in full strength. This is the right time, in our opinion, to re-address the censorship & suppression of free scholarly debate by AAS & its Board of Directors. Frankly, the nature of AAS and behavior of its board is a far more important issue than Doniger’s book. For context, our first article on this topic was published on March 22, 2014, & titled Association for Asian Studies & Tom Friedman’s Narrative.
The Association of Asian Studies (“AAS“) is a “scholarly” non-political and non-profit organization with around 8,000 members according to its own website (quotes ours). In April 2014, the Board of Directors of this body published a statement on “academic freedom and censorship” during their annual conference in Philadelphia – a statement ostensibly directed at Penguin India.
To be perfectly frank, this is a pompous self-serving statement that was issued not to further academic freedom but to justify their own suppression of legitimate freedom of speech & free robust discussion of views at their Philadelphia conference in March 2014.
Below we lay out our rationale.
1. Why is the AAS statement directed at Penguin?
An American writer named Wendy Doniger published a book titled “The Hindus: An Alternate History”, a book that outraged Hindu thinkers, writers, and practitioners. There have been multiple articles and correspondences by many writers who have pointed to what they think are serious mistakes, incorrect assumptions, and in some cases blatant prejudices dressed up as Freudian arguments. In fact, some scholarly Hindus have even termed parts of Doniger’s book as “hate speech” against Hinduism.
An “advocacy group”, to use an AAS term, filed a lawsuit in India against Penguin India, the publisher of Doniger’s book. Penguin India strongly defended their position for some time until earlier this year. Presumably on advise of counsel, this global giant of publishing settled the lawsuit by agreeing to withdraw Doniger’s book from India and destroy all unsold copies in India.
The statement from the AAS Board of Directors is ostensibly directed against Penguin India and in defense “freedom of expression and academic freedom“.
2. What is Wrong with the AAS Statement?
Nothing if you think professors at American Universities should act like Talleyrand. Known to some as the prince of diplomats, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754–1838) was a French diplomat who served several governments of the French Revolution and then for Napoleon, Louis XVIII, Charles X, and Louis-Philippe. A deeply polarizing diplomat, his name has been converted by some as a synonym for crafty, cynical and always self-serving diplomacy. Talleyrand is most remembered for his favorite dictum:
- La parole a été donné à l’homme pour déguiser sa pensée – Speech was given to man to conceal his thoughts
In our opinion, the well sounding statement from the Board of Directors of AAS is designed to conceal their actions at their Philadelphia conference in March. Below we present how we reached our opinion.
3. What actions of AAS do we refer to?
AAS invited Wendy Doniger to deliver the keynote address at their March 2014 conference in Philadelphia. The topic was “Academic Freedom and Censorship: Publishing Controversial Books in India“.
Our first question is why Doniger? By their own statement, the AAS Board put the entire responsibility on Penguin for withdrawing Doniger’s book from India. No one, to our knowledge, believes that Doniger took that decision or even understood the legal reasons that forced Penguin to settle the lawsuit. Penguin unilaterally settled the lawsuit against them based on the advise of their counsel, presumably highly paid expert counsel of the level a global giant would retain.
Think for a bit. Wouldn’t a true “scholarly” body invite a legal expert on the relevant Indian Law to deliver a keynote address about “publishing” controversial books in India. And wouldn’t a true “scholarly” body arrange a two-sided discussion about the finer points of law and how to work within that law and still retain freedom of expression? How is Wendy Doniger the right person to address these legal issues?
It is important to note that Doniger’s own freedom of expression was not curtailed in India. She has given many interviews in defense of her book to Indian publications. And we ourselves have publicly and privately defended her right to express her views however hateful they might seem to Hindus in America, in India, and around the world.
Did the AAS Board invite a second keynote speaker to present an opposing viewpoint? Absolutely not. In fact, they doubled up by deciding to invite Pankaj Mishra to be their second keynote speaker. Mr. Mishra is a fan of Doniger’s book and goes so far as to argue that Hinduism as we know it was invented by British colonial occupiers of India. Presumably that is also the belief of the “scholarly” board of directors of AAS. Why else would they have chosen Mr. Mishra to grace their conference?
To the best of our knowledge, this AAS conference did not invite any Indian expert in the relevant Indian law, any member of the advocacy board that sued Penguin or any Hindu practitioner, scholar or writer who finds Doniger’s book as “non-scholarly” to put it very very mildly.
Is this the standard of “academic freedom” of the “scholarly” Board of Directors of AAS?
We do understand the deeply emotional stand of the AAS Board and its membership. The decision of Penguin India is a blow to their own reputational & monetary self-interests. Having settled the Doniger case, presumably Penguin and other publishers are likely to become less willing to publish similar books by other AAS directors or members. Such unwillingness would hurt these “scholarly” directors and members where it hurts most, right?
We also recognize that the AAS members look out for each other and we understand their desire to stand up for one of their colleagues. As we said, this is a highly emotional issue for them. So we can even empathize with them to an extent.
But we must ask,
- Does their emotional anger give the “scholarly” AAS Board the right to engage in reverse undermining of free robust two-sided discussion of the issues involved? Does their intensity of emotion give the “scholarly” AAS Board the right to to exclude all inconvenient discussion at their conference?
Look at who and what were excluded from the AAS Conference in March:
- experts in Indian law who could argue for and against the Indian law that governed the Penguin legal case,
- serious discussion of how the Doniger book violated the relevant Indian law and how future books could avoid violating that law,
- Hindu scholars, thinkers, and practitioners from India and America,
- serious discussion of whether Doniger’s book is indeed “scholarly” or flawed, inaccurate, fanciful or “hate speech” as has been argued by some Hindu practitioners.
The above is based on what we have heard and what we believe to be true. AAS directors have not responded to our emails and so we do not have any formal information from them about what they excluded and what they did not. So we urge them publicly and we will again urge them privately to tell us where we might be factually wrong about their exclusionary decisions & actions at their conference in March.
4. Is the Statement of the AAS Board of Directors Talleyrandic?
The AAS statement says:
- “This decision undermines freedom of expression and academic freedom, both of which are the foundations of serious scholarship.”
Yet, as we have shown above, the AAS Board themselves undermined “freedom of expression and academic freedom” from their own conference that made the Penguin lawsuit its central topic.
The AAS statement also says:
- “We stand firmly in defense of academic freedom and strongly condemn threats to academic scholarship and discussion”
As we have shown above, the actions of the AAS Board in themselves constituted suppression and censorship of serious scholarly discussion as well as exclusion of participants with opposing viewpoints. In other words, the Board of Directors of AAS proved to be real and effective threats to “academic scholarship & discussion“.
So based on the above facts, we find the Statement of the Board of Directors of AAS to be crafty and in service of their own self defense and so Talleyrandic.
Unlike the “scholarly” Board of AAS, we are fair and willing to listen to the other side. So we, in the tradition of this Blog, invite any and all AAS directors & members to tell us where we might be factually wrong and also tell us where, in their opinions, our rationale might be wrong. We will print verbatim any response received for public dissemination.
5. Efforts at University Presidents & Boards of Trustees/Regents Level
Several Hindu writers, thinkers, and practitioners had written to AAS members without any response from them. Frankly, that did not surprise us. A couple including us had written to Presidents & Boards of Regents/Trustees of some Universities that employ some key AAS members & directors. We did hear back from a few of them and had some dialog with them.
The main argument from the Boards and Presidents has been that they have little to do with AAS and the decisions of the AAS Board. We think these arguments are both specious and invalid. As we told them:
- “Their professors serve AAS as agents of the Universities that employ them. If they looked at the AAS website, they would notice that their professors are always referred to via their university affiliations. In other words, the positions of AAS Directors are entirely due to their employment by & at their universities. So the University Leadership is responsible for their positions in AAS and thereby is an enabler of the actions taken by these professors at AAS.”
This makes the University leaderships responsible stakeholders in AAS with a formal responsibility to ensure that the AAS Board of Directors upholds the standards of the stakeholder Universities.
The reality is that the actions of AAS clearly violated the lofty principles laid out by these Universities and often emblazoned on the University websites. So by penalizing AAS for violating the standards they have established, the University Leadership teams would be simply walking the walk.
What did we ask these University Presidents & Regents/Trustees to do?
- Write a letter of protest to the AAS Board of Directors and, as a second step,
- Suspend their relationship with AAS for one year.
This, by the way, is what the NCAA does routinely to Universities whose football programs break NCAA rules.
How simple, effective and fiduciary would these two steps be? Yet not one University we contacted has bothered to even write a letter of protest to AAS, not at least to our knowledge.
6. Is AAS a Cartel? A Cartel for Business, Career, & Monetary gains?
If you look closely, you might notice that AAS seems to behave far more like a cartel than an academic body. The principal aim of a cartel is to increase member benefits by reducing external competition. It does so by protecting interests of existing members, by restricting entry of members into the cartel, and by excluding prospective members who are not expected to play ball.
This is why when the AAS statement uses the word “academic”, they don’t mean the basic definition of “relating to education and scholarship“. They use the word “academic” in a purely cartel like sense – belonging to an “approved” University within their cartel. Then they go to the next stage and define “serious scholarship” as that of an “academic” professor from one of their “approved” universities.
These are smart self serving definitions, the kind that cartels have made famously successful. These definitions first restrict new entry to students of one of their own cartel, allow their members to coerce publications to only approve papers & books from one of their own cartel, exclude entry to any outsiders and enable them to label non-members as non-scholarly.
This cartel-like structure is what allows AAS to label most Hindu writers, thinkers, practitioners as non-scholarly, non-academic, and thereby exclude them from their conferences.
Just think – Mahatma Gandhi & Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar would tower over any AAS member as “educators” and in “scholarship” about India. But they would not be accepted as such by AAS. In contrast, AAS has done everything they can to defend the “scholarship” of Wendy Doniger.
This cartel like structure makes it impossible for any one or even a few professors to speak against AAS. Actually, this cartel like structure is what makes it difficult for the leadership of any single University to act against AAS, however sympathetic they might be to our arguments and however critical they might privately be about the behavior of AAS.
7. The Next Step
This is why this battle, this struggle for “Truth & Justice” must be waged in the American political arena. It will not be easy. But neither was Mahatma Gandhi’s fight. There is a reason the Mahatma fought his battle in the political space. For the same reasons, this fight must now be taken to the level of your local State Senators, Governors, your representatives in the Congress & the Senate.
This is a fight for justice, fair play for Hinduism & Hindu scholars, and for removal of unjust obstacles & biases against Hinduism in the American University System. So if you concur that this is a fight for “Satya”, then fight like Mahatma Gandhi did.
Remember even the Mahatma had to wage a long struggle because Satya only prevails after a long fight.
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