A student disciplinary process at George Washington University might not seem like hot news in India, but this weekend it was receiving attention in The Times of India, The Hindustan Times and elsewhere.
The case is being interpreted by some law professors as a move by the university to effectively ban the swastika from the university's campus. And the reason the case is attracting interest in India is that a student who posted a swastika on a fraternity bulletin board was Jewish -- and the symbol he posted was not a Nazi one, but something he had picked up on a trip to India to learn more about religions there, including some that used the swastika as a holy symbol for centuries before the Nazis adopted it.
As shown in the illustration above, the Nazi swastika was typically black on white, surrounded by red, on a 45-degree angle. Those of Eastern religions typically feature horizontal and vertical lines, sometimes with dots added and different color arrangements.
The dispute at George Washington comes as a number of colleges have in the last year responded to swastikas on campuses -- sometimes with Jewish students or organizations as the apparent target. A freshman at the University of Missouri at Columbia was arrested last week for a swastika graffiti and anti-Semitic vandalism. Numerous other campuses have reported swastika incidents in the current academic year. Among them: Emory University, the University of California at Davis and Northwestern University.
In those and many other cases, the swastikas were (regardless of what one thinks of hate speech regulations) acts of vandalism, sometimes at Jewish organizations, and so were clearly violations of university rules and/or local laws simply because people don't have the legal right to deface property that is not their own. That was also the case with a series of swastikas at GW this year (before the case of the student who picked up a swastika in India).
Some Jewish organizations have criticized some colleges and universities for not responding strongly enough (in the view of these groups) to swastika vandalism. Nineteen organizations wrote to GW President Stephen Knapp, saying he had not done enough, in March, after the first round of swastikas on campus this year.
Then came the student who returned from India. He put the swastika on the bulletin board of his fraternity (Zeta Beta Tau, a historically Jewish fraternity), and another student saw it and reported the swastika to the university before getting an explanation. As officials investigated, the student (whose name hasn't been revealed) came forward and said that he had been hoping to have a conversation about the symbol and did not intend to offend anyone. He stressed that this was an Indian swastika, not a Nazi one. The student has told people that while in India, he became fascinated by the idea that a symbol that was not one of hate could become so defined by hate, and that he wanted to explore this issue.
The student has been suspended and banned from campus and a hearing was held last week over his actions. He could face expulsion.
Knapp issued a statement after the ZBT swastika incident that two GW law professors say raises serious legal issues for the university.
"A member of Zeta Beta Tau has now admitted posting the swastika, which he says he acquired while traveling in India over spring break. While the student claims his act was not an expression of hatred, the university is referring the matter to the [police] for review by its hate crimes unit," Knapp said. "Since its adoption nearly a century ago as the symbol of the Nazi Party, the swastika has acquired an intrinsically anti-Semitic meaning, and therefore the act of posting it in a university residence hall is utterly unacceptable. Our entire community should be aware of the swastika’s association with genocide perpetrated against the Jewish people and should be concerned about the extremely harmful effects that displaying this symbol has on individuals and on the climate of our entire university community."
John Banzhaf, a law professor at GW who is backing the student but does not represent him, said that many people should be concerned by Knapp making it university policy that the student's intent is irrelevant. Banzhaf said he believed that many swastikas are illegal and a violation of university rules either because they constitute vandalism or are attempts to intimidate Jewish students. But that wasn't the case here.
Under the interpretation outlined by Knapp, Banzhaf said, a student from India with a swastika in his room would be violating the university's rules and could fear suspension or expulsion. Banzhaf also said it was important not to judge actions by their potential to offend, if the meaning was being misconstrued. As an example, he said that if a student or professor used the word "niggardly" and someone thought that person was using the racial slur, the person could be charged with a hateful act -- without ever having had that intent -- under Knapp's philosophy.
Jonathan Turley, another GW law professor, has written a blog post questioning whether the student who posted the swastika could be seen as having committed a hate crime when he committed no crime, since posting something on a bulletin board is legal.
The Hindu American Foundation is also calling on GW to withdraw the president's statement and to stop seeking to punish the student who posted a swastika from India.
"Contrary to the hateful and violent meaning the swastika has come to take on for many since its misappropriation by the Nazis, the original swastika is an ancient and holy symbol. It is still commonly used at the entrance of Hindu homes, in temples, and on invitations to special occasions such as weddings and other rites of passage. The four limbs of the Hindu swastika have diverse symbolic meanings: the four Vedas (Hindu holy texts); the four stages of life; the four goals of life; the four Yugas (eras); the four seasons; and the four directions. As such, the symbol cannot be dismissed as one of 'intrinsically anti-Semitic meaning,'" said a letter from the foundation to GW.
The letter added: "Furthermore, we are highly concerned with your attempt to expel the student who posted the symbol without any attempt to understand the context of his actions. The consequences of the university’s expulsion could very well be a de facto ban on the use of the swastika in any context on campus. As such, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain or Native American students who sought to use the symbol in a religious manner would be unable to do so without facing the risk of punishment. Such consequences violate both federal and D.C. law and call into question your commitment to religious diversity on campus."
A spokesperson for George Washington said via email that the university did not comment on individual cases. But she said it was not true that GW had banned any symbol. "The university has not banned nor is it attempting to ban religious symbols," she said. "Student organizations and individual students are free to examine and to discuss all questions of interest to them and to express opinions publicly and privately. They are free to support causes by orderly means that do not disrupt the regular and essential operation of the institution."