UC Berkeley Sikh Student Association releases letter in opposition to proposed endowment

Daniela Cervantes/Staff

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On Feb. 20, UC Berkeley’s Sikh Student Association, or SSA, released a letter expressing opposition to the campus Institute for South Asia Studies’ appeal for an endowment from India.

The Institute of South Asia Studies, or ISS, proposed an endowed program with the government of India on Feb. 11, according to the letter. This proposal calls for an endowed professorship position in Sikh and Punjabi studies in exchange for $9 million from the government of India.

The Sikh Student Association is concerned about this partnership, given the tensions that exist between the Sikh community and the government of India, according to the letter. In 1984, former prime minister of India Indira Gandhi ordered an attack on Darbar Sahib — one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites for Sikhs — leading to the deaths of hundreds of civilians. She was later assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, which triggered anti-Sikh riots, resulting in the deaths of about 3,000 Sikhs.

SSA also expressed concern about whether the endowed professor would be able to teach Sikh and Punjabi studies without misrepresenting history in favor of India. The letter stated that the Indian government could try to influence curriculum and minimize the struggles of the Sikh community.

A similar situation occurred at UC Irvine when the Dharma Civilization Foundation, or DFC, tried to create a chair in Vedic and Indian civilization studies, according to the letter. The Ad Hoc Committee on Endowed Chairs at UC Irvine reviewed this proposal and advised its rejection, as the DCF could be influential in its role as a donor.

Because Pakistan and India have had a strained relationship since the partition of India, SSA also raised concerns in its letter about the study of Pakistani history under the endowed chair.

SSA is also concerned about recent freedom of speech and expression cases in India, such as the arrest of Anand Teltumbde, a senior professor and chair of big data analytics at the Goa Institute of Management, according to the letter.

More than 20 religious institutions and several human rights organizations, along with 13 other Sikh campus groups, have appealed to SSA.

The University’s Sikh and Punjabi studies department currently only has one professor and two courses, according to the department’s website.

Emily Gottreich, chair of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley, said in an email that “in light of the constantly diminishing state budget allocations to our centers and institutes,” the ISS proposal “is entirely understandable.”

“(Donor) governments or private institutions or individuals, would in any event have a very hard time influencing programming of any sort given the solid safeguards in place at the university against such pressures,” Gottreich said in the email.

Contact Aishwarya Kaimal at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @Aishwarya_R_K ‏.