Indian-origin students in US face backlash over pro-Hamas radicalism


Indian-origin students at Harvard have been trapped in JNU-style flippant radicalism in supporting Hamas along with their South Asian peers in the tide of anti-Israel activism sweeping the US academia.

Four South Asian groups with students of Indian origin in leadership positions signed a statement with 30 other Harvard student organizations after the Hamas attack that said they held the “Israeli regime entirely responsible” and refused to condemn the terrorist Hamas attack that killed at least 1,400 civilians in Israel.

Soon, there was a predictable backlash against the statement that sounded like a justification of the Hamas attack and support for it.

Things got really hot when hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman said that students associated with the statement should not be given jobs and about a dozen CEOs joined him demanding to know who the students were so they wouldn’t be hired in their companies.

Soon, a conservative group hired a truck with huge display monitors that went around the Harvard neighborhood with names and images of the leaders of the group who had hidden behind their organisation’s names tarnishing even members who did not support the statement.

Others published their names and contact details on social media leading to denunciations and threats against them.

Crumbling under the threat from the CEOs, one of the signatories, a ‘South Asian’ cultural organization, Undergraduate Harvard Gunghroo, with Indian-origin students in leadership positions, withdrew its signature.

Apologizing for signing the statement, Gunghroo said that it “strictly denounces and condemns the massacre propagated by the terrorist organization Hamas”.

Harvard Undergraduate Nepali Student Association also dropped its support for the statement.

South Asian Law Students Association, South Asians for Forward-Thinking Advocacy and Research, which have Indian-origin students in leadership positions, as well as Sikhs and Companions of Harvard Undergraduates, had signed the statement.

It is not known if they have dissociated themselves from the statement.

At New York University, a woman who later described herself in a statement as a “young Indian and Middle-Eastern, American, Hindu, girl” was seen in a video tearing down posters of hostages taken by Hamas that had been put up to draw attention to their plight.

She too backtracked after a student heading the law students association at the university found her job offer pulled back after she issued a statement backing Hamas.

A statement on behalf of the poster-ripper said, “She is forever sorry for her action of taking away the attention Israeli hostages on posters deserved then and now.”

The virulence of the Hamas attacks that indiscriminately killed children and the elderly and led to hostage-taking seen vividly on TV roused the ire of mainstream Americans to a degree that the students given to radical showmanship had not expected.

The nationwide protests against police brutality and racism — that sometimes turned into rioting and looting — in the aftermath of the killing of an African American man in 2020 received support from Democrats and in academia and its spirit of radicalism has fueled the pro-Hamas protests.

And now it threatens to open a national faultline between the student radicalism on campuses and schools in support of Hamas, often veiled as support for Palestine, and the national mainstream which overwhelmingly supports Israel. (A Quinnipiac poll found 76 percent of voters say supporting Israel is in US national interest)

This week saw protests on campuses and schools across the US in support of Palestine.

The Harvard episode cuts to the intersection of academic freedom and the cancel culture in universities.

At most universities, especially the elite ones, the left or the progressives have both claimed freedom of expression for their sometimes radical views and also shut down those whom they disagreed with through campaigns and sometimes by physically disrupting events.

The cancel culture at Harvard was weaponized to fire Subramanian Swamy in 2011, when he was a BJP MP, from a summer school professor position at Harvard after protests by a group of Harvard professors, some of them of Indian origin, over an article they considered “incitement” against Muslims.

A civil liberties organization, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, protested to the university that “this action violates Swamy’s free speech rights” and said that the policy of firing him for his protected free speech could lead to academic self-censoring.

At various times and in institutions, the left has demanded stifling people associated with the Indian government, or, in their view, with the BJP.

The Coalition of Progressive South Asian Students at Columbia University, for example, demanded that the university’s Deepak and Neera Raj Center on Indian Economic Policies “cut ties with current BJP party members” and accused it of inciting “mostly BJP supporters and party members”.

Now, though, the situation is reversed with academics and students asserting that the very action of publicly naming the students behind the joint statement on the Gaza crisis was a threat to free expression and they should not be targeted for denial of jobs or personally criticized.

Speaking up for Palestine and against attacks on civilians is not the issue, but it is the support to Hamas or the refusal to condemn its terror.

Some of the criticism of Israel has descended to anti-Semitism to a level that Jewish students and faculty feel unsafe.

At Cooper Union, an elite institution in New York. Jewish students were locked in a library as pro-Palestinians marched towards it and threateningly banged on its doors this week.

Swastikas, the symbol of Nazis, have shown up on other campuses and Jewish student centers have been trashed.

In the backlash, big donors to Ivy League universities like Harvard, Pennsylvania and Columbia have shut their checkbooks citing several reasons — the universities fostering the climate that gave rise to the radicalization and/or failure of the leadership to promptly condemn Hamas.

Some of the radicalizations have been directed against India and ‘Hindutva’, a broad definition that sometimes covers anything Hindu.

For Indian-origin students. South Asian identity can be a liability as they get clubbed together with Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who have their own religion or national-origin-directed causes.

Some Indian-origin students willingly embrace them; others, as with Harvard Gunghroo, get pulled in unwittingly.