IRVINE, CA – The Dharma Civilization Foundation is frustrated, even angry. After having done all it could to funnel millions of dollars to set up chairs in the School of Humanities at the University of California, Irvine, it now seems like the hours spent canvassing donors and negotiating with the school has all come to naught.
Dr.Ushakant Thakkar who’s proposal to set up a chair for vedic studies was backed by his donation of $1.5 million is stunned. Says he, “I am deeply distressed. The Thakkar Family Chair got presidential approval
after two years of talks and many, many, revisions to the proposal. They have not even written to us about the rejection. They have not had the decency even after agreeing to everything.” Indeed, it has to be made clear, that the email on the subject of the Thakkar Family chair has come several months after papers were signed and received approval from Janet Napolitano, President of the UC system on July 10, 2015. It should also be noted that no formal communication from UCI to DCF or to Thakkar has been made of the rejection. So what caused the campus to stop looking at a gift horse in its mouth?
The reasons boil down essentially to three central points. The first, that DCF ostensibly has right wing connections to groups in India; that DCF sought to interfere in the way the chair was administered threatening independent scholarly thinking; and that internal processes in whetting these matters and consulting with parties on campus had not been given due diligence.
DCF which was founded in 2012 has stated that its aim is to, promote and enhance philanthropic giving for the systematic study of India and Indic Civilization. The foundation wants to do this through academia by supporting and creating tenured professorships, endowment of chairs, instituting fellowships and by supporting visiting faculty among other things. Mostly a brainchild of Dr.Manohar Shinde, who has been on the teaching faculty of UCLA’s medical school and Shiva Bajpai who was faculty at Cal State Northridge, the foundation quickly drew adherents who too put in several volunteer hours. One of the results of the tireless work was the friendly hand extended by UCI in the form of Dean Abbeele. That initial interest quickly snowballed in the short span of May-Oct of 2015, into the setting up of the Thakkar Family – DCF Presidential Chair in Vedic and Indic Civilization Studies; the Swami Vivekananda-DCF Presidential Chair in Modern India Studies; the Shri Parshvanath Presidential Chair in Jain Studies; and the Dhan Kaur Sahota Presidential Chair in Sikh Studies. Every party involved was ecstatic. There was talk of these chairs becoming the nuclei for something larger – an India Center.
But as word spread through the UCI campus, rumblings from faculty and the student body grew loud enough by Dec. 2015 for all concerned to pay attention. Several hundred people signed a petition questioning DCF’s credentials and its alleged ties to fundamentalist organizations and expressing concern on what it meant for academic freedom. The Executive Committee at the humanities school directed Abbeele to review the chair proposals. He in turn appointed an Ad Hoc Committee to consisting of faculty members James Steintrager, Vinayak Chaturvedi, James Lee, Maria Pantelia and Alka Patel. Patel, was traveling at the time IJ’s deadline and in an email said, she would respond, “when possible.”
Their findings were damning.
But Thakkar, who is also the Chairman of DCF said, “the snafu was at their end. The Dean had no authority but we had no idea. We were encouraged to believe till very recently that even an India Center was possible.” Why or how Dean Abbelee lost sight of procedure is unclear.
Kalyan Viswanathan, the Executive VP of DCF was blunt in his response to the ad hoc committee’s report. “In part they have cited procedural issues; In part they have openly questioned the legitimacy of the Foundation. Whatever be their intentions, they have not advanced the cause of civil discourse,” he said in an email. In part, DCF’s frustration is that it’s position was not heard by the committee before it drew its conclusions.
DCF and UCI according to the chair proposal had sought for the Thakkar chair to have someone well versed in Sanskrit appointed. The committee keeping their eye on academic freedom noted, “We are particularly concerned about any language that implies that religious affiliation or participation in religious events is a prerequisite for chair holders…..We simply observe that is against UC and UCI policy to consider religious affiliation – either positively or negatively – as part of any hiring process or to require participation in religious activities as a condition of employment.” Thakkar retorts, “how do you conduct Vedic Studies without knowing the language?”
The committee had similar concerns about the Sikh chair stating that its call for the chair holder to, “organize Sikh-related conferences and events, including events to help organize student interest, such as visits to Sikh temples…” was not in keeping with the chair being separate with the aspirations of the donor.
Endower Dr.Harvinder Sahota though, while talking to IJ said that he had made no demands. “You can’t do that in American universities,” he said. Even though his ties with DCF were documented by the committee, Sahota was quick to disassociate himself saying, “I am not with DCF. We are friends. The Sikh chair is progressing.”
Ruing what he termed as, “miscommunication,” between DCF and UCI, Sahota said he had received assurances (after the ad hoc committee report) that things were moving forward on the Sikh chair.
The proposed Jain chair too has received word that it was on track said Dr.Jasvant Modi, who as the largest donor for this, has already given $500,000 as a first instalment toward the $1.5 million. “That’s the difference between the Dharma chair and this chair, we have already paid the money and will be putting down the next installment in June,” he said.
Modi also revealed that they were not completely beholden to any particular campus. The Jain and Sikh groups have met with officials at UC Riverside which has a full-fledged religious studies department as well as with UC Merced. Both have been very welcoming and the establishment of chairs there entailed even lesser money than UCI, he said.
It is this disassociation with DCF that has Thakkar in pain. The UCI report he says, “has tarnished us.” Since DCF has now been painted with an overarching brush of fundamentalism, it has now acquired in some parts of the public mind, negative connotations. Says Viswanathan, “It is one thing to say that the intentions of the Foundation are incompatible with the academic goals of the UCI School of Humanities, but entirely another to slander the Foundation for having those goals to begin with.”
Thakkar points out the immediate ramification of the UCI report. He asked the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, he says, whether he could make his donation there and was told to do so directly in his name and not through DCF. The growth trajectory of the organization has been abruptly stymied, he says.
At a personal level he says, he couldn’t be more disturbed. “They are talking about us being fundamentalist. They have not given us a hearing, due process. I am a proud Hindu and everyone should be proud of their heritage. It is who I am. But I also know and believe everyone is equal. I am also married to a Catholic, have two children who are Jain and a daughter-in-law who is Buddhist.”
In defense of its inclusive approach, DCF cites the fact that they were instrumental in pulling in Sikh and Jain participation. Further, talks were on prior to the rejection of the two DCF chairs, with the Godrej family in India for a Parsi chair and Shinde says he has been in touch with the Dalai Lama’s PM for a Buddhist chair.
In fact, it is Shinde himself who has had ties with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and is known to have ties with the current administration in India, which is viewed suspiciously by secularists. Nevertheless, DCF labors the point that those affiliations are not of interest to DCF.
“Everything is on the table,” says Shinde.
“We are looking into our options,” says Thakkar. DCF officials who plan to meet and thrash out the issue to see where to go from here, made it clear that they are exploring everything from citizen action to legal recourse.
What everyone was firm about though was that their work would go on. “Road blocks,” and “temporary obstacles,” not withstanding.