University of California Rejects $6 Million Gift to Endow Four Chairs in India Studies

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The University of California, Irvine has decided to reject over a $6 million gift from donors affiliated with the Dharma Civilization Foundation, which would endow four chairs in Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Buddhist studies. The decision comes after faculty members objected to the establishment of the chairs, saying proper procedural practices had not been followed, and alleging that DCF is affiliated with Hindu fundamentalist organizations.

Catherine Liu, a professor at UC Irvine’s Film and Media Study Department, said that due diligence was not followed in accepting the donation and that DCF had not been properly vetted. Moreover, Liu claimed, South Asian scholars at UCI were excluded from the process of consultation. She reiterated the protesting professors’ belief that many of DCF’s members have ties to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh.

“This country has studies of most religions, but not Hinduism. We need Indian scholars to defend and create a narrative,” Ushakant Thakkar, who has helped establish a Chair in Indian Studies, said. Thakkar refuted such statements, noting that he is married to a Catholic woman, and his children practice Jainism and Buddhism.

The Thakkar Family chair was established at UCI in May 2015 in the university’s School of Humanities. Donations have also been secured to endow a chair in Jain Studies, one in Sikh Studies, as well as the Swami Vivekananda-DCF Chair in Modern India Studies. Plans are also in the works to endow a chair in Buddhist Studies and one in Parsi Studies; DCF has connected with the Godrej family to possibly fund the latter.

DCF was established in 2012 with the goal of establishing Indian religious and cultural studies at several U.S. universities. The organization was created after Shiva Bajpai, who served as professor of history and director of Asian Studies at California State University, Northridge, and psychiatrist Manohar Shinde, who was on the teaching faculty at UCLA’s School of Medicine, found there was a lot of misrepresentation of Hindus and India in current academia, and a lack of religious scholars, according to Thakkar, who serves as the chairman of DCF. Bajpai, who has a Ph.D. in ancient Indian history, has few contemporaries of his genre.

“I feel strongly violated, humiliated and discriminated against,” nephrologist Ushakant Thakkar, who gave $1 million to fund the Thakkar Family-Dharma Civilization Foundation Presidential Chair in Vedic and Indic Civilization Studies, has been reported to have told the media. “The university pursued us for two years. We never wanted to be in a place that was not receptive,” the Indian American physician added.

But shortly after the first chair was established, faculty at UC Irvine began a petition drive protesting the endowments. A total of 391 professors from UCI and other universities throughout the world have signed an online statement, which states that DCF has ties to fundamentalist groups in India, and seeks to establish its own agenda through the gift.

DCF has stipulated, however, that the chair of Vedic Studies must be held by a Hindu scholar and practitioner, and also proficient in Sanskrit as the Vedas are written in Sanskrit. DCF will take its money elsewhere, though it will be difficult to endow chairs at other universities as “the name of DCF has been tarnished as a fundamentalist organization,” said Thakkar.

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