A national Hindu organization released a letter Friday directed at University President Steven Knapp, saying that the group opposes the University’s treatment of the student who posted a swastika on a bulletin board in International House last month.
The group said the symbol may have been incorrectly connected to anti-semitism, because it is a sacred symbol in religions like Hinduism and Buddhism.
After a swastika was posted in International House, Knapp said in a release that the incident – as well as one in February – had been referred to the Hate Crimes Unit in the Metropolitan Police Department. The student was expelled from his fraternity two days later.
Harsh Voruganti, associate director of public policy for the Hindu American Foundation, wrote the letter and said that calling the swastika a symbol of hatred “alienates” GW’s Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Native American students.
“By completely ignoring the context and of the posting in this case, your actions themselves risk intimidating and creating a hostile environment for Hindu, Buddhist and other GW students, who might otherwise seek to display the swastika as a symbol of their faith,” the letter to Knapp read.
Voruganti, who is an alumnus of GW Law school, questioned GW’s commitment to religious diversity on campus and said in the letter that GW’s attempt to expel the student from the University could lead to a ban on any use of the swastika on campus.
University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said that GW has not banned nor is attempting to ban religious symbols on campus.
Voruganti said in a phone interview that instead of saying that the swastika is always unacceptable, the University should have considered whether the student intended to send a hateful message in posting the symbol in deciding disciplinary action.
“If I would have still been a student, I would have been outraged,” Voruganti said.
GW law professor John Banzhaf said the first incident of a swastika being posted in International House in February could be legally prohibited because it was posted in a nature that is threatening against Jews. But he said the University may have overreacted following the March incident, because the student picked up the swastika on a trip to India and it is sacred in religions like Hinduism and Buddhism.
“It’s completely illogical to discipline a student for putting up an Indian religious symbol, one that goes back 2,500 years simply because it might be mistaken for a Nazi swastika,” Banzhaf said.
Pointing to the 1977 Skokie case in the Supreme Court that gave neo-Nazis the right to march around the town wearing swastikas, Banzhaf said it is illegal for the University to ban any display of the Nazi swastika because it is also protected under the First Amendment.
“It is very clear by law that even if someone lawfully put up a swastika or a confederate flag or a noose or any horrible symbol that we all logically would oppose, legally, free speech and academic freedom trumps that,” Banzhaf said. “And I’m not sure the University understands that.”
Bhairvi Trivedi, a co-president of GW’s Hindu Student Association, said in an email that her group still uses the symbol in religious ceremonies because it has a “deep religious significance” in Hinduism and other religions. She said she wants the University to keep in mind that there are people on campus that use the swastika for appropriate religious reasons.
“As with any religious symbol, using the swastika inappropriately for the purpose of insulting or triggering someone is disrespectful to the targeted individuals and the religions that revere the symbol,” Trivedi said.
Trivedi added her group understands that many people in the West associate the swastika with the Nazis and that anyone who uses it for an inappropriate purpose should face consequences.