Columbia University is sticking by its appointment as a Religious Life Adviser of activist Sunita Viswanath, despite a petition claiming that she is “anti-Hindu” and demanding that the varsity cease all affiliation with her.
Religious Life Advisers or RLAs, according to the varsity website, are local faith leaders who partner Columbia’s Office of Religious Life to ensure that students are supported in their diverse traditions and practices.
“While they are not staff members of the university, our advisers nonetheless play a deeply meaningful role within our community,” the website says.
The Change.org petition against Sunita claims: “Viswanath’s long history of divisive activism, endorsement and open support of anti-Hindu bigotry and individuals, and shutting down those who don’t agree with her politics, make her unfit for a position where she will be advising students who may come to her for a genuine understanding of Hinduism as well as matter related to the Hindu community.”
In response to an email from indica News asking about the varsity’s stand on the petition, Caroline Adelman, media relations director, Columbia University, sent a statement by Rev Dr Ian Rottenberg, dean of Religious Life.
“The University has received this week a petition demanding that we cease our newly formed affiliation with Sunita. Doing so would undermine the same essential support of our students that the RLA roles are designed to provide. The Office of Religious Life exists to support the diverse religious and spiritual needs of our students. In precisely that spirit, we support HSO [Hindu Student Organization] as they welcome their new adviser and we welcome Sunita to our broader community,” Rottenberg was quoted as saying.
“The challenges of this most remarkable semester offer us regular reminders of the essential human need to receive guidance and counsel from people we trust,” he added.
Asked for her reaction, Sunita Vishwanath told indica News she would rather concentrate on the needs of students.
“Out of respect to the Columbia University HSO, I would rather not comment on this petition,” she said.
The petition points out that Vishwanath is the founder of Sadhana, Hindus For Human Rights and Coalition Against Fascism in India, and claims that by having her as the Hindu Religious Life Advisor, Columbia is legitimizing bigotry and Hinduphobia.
At 5.49am Eastern Time, the petition, which targets 5,000 signatures, had 4,662 signatories.
Vishwanath was honored by President Barack Obama in 2015 as a Champion of Change for her work with Sadhana, which she co-founded in 2011 to “connect Hindu Americans to their faith through social justice and human rights.”
In June 2019, co-founded Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR), a US-wide human rights advocacy group that is “committed to the ideals of multi-religious pluralism both in the United States and India.”
The Change.org petition was started by someone named Abhimanyu Arjun, who on his blog page describes himself as “a young American Hindu whose immigrant parents instilled a sense of pride in our spiritual and cultural heritage.”
Most of his writings refer to what he alleges to be an international conspiracy against Hindus and Hinduism.
Abhimanyu cites as inspiration the New Jersey-based Rajiv Malhotra, who was made made honorary professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi by the government of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi.
Malhotra’s critics refer to him as the “Ayn Rand of Internet Hindutva.”