Encoding Hindutva: Shalini Kantayya and Coded Bias

The producer and director of Coded Bias, Shalini Kantayya is a poster child for the Hindu American Foundation’s (HAF) fundraising efforts. Westerners may not be immediately familiar with the Hindutva think tank cloaked in “janus faced multiculturalism” and its open links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an Indian right wing paramilitary organization. However, examining Kantayya’s ability to nationally fundraise for a fascist organization while simultaneously producing a film translating academic discourse around artificial intelligence to the mainstream, reveals the extent to which Hindutva have utilized liberal notions of bias as a trojan horse for their agenda.

I watched Coded Bias about a month ago and was deeply disturbed by the uncritical sinophobic framing. As an essay in New Bloom, rigorously argues, we ought to examine the “convergent political behavior between the world’s two superpowers, the United States and China. Apart from large domestic carceral populations and an increasingly brutal domestic police state, both seek to expand their global influence through coercive means.” The US’ critique of China is not indicative of greater privacy protections in America, rather, it’s a boogeyman deployed by the US within a larger dynamic of inter-imperial conflict.

A brief respite from the film’s Cold War drum beat comes from Turkish sociologist and journalist, Zeynep Tufecki who comments the only difference between the US and China government’s use of surveillance technologies is China discloses how much data it is collecting. Unfortunately, this alone cannot unsettle the Netflix film where the only Chinese national is depicted with a full face grin declaring their uncritical love of facial recognition.

I have a lot of respect for most of the scholars featured whose work I’m very familiar with. Having read for example, Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression, Cathy Oneil’s Weapons of Math Destruction and Virginia Eubank’s Automating Inequality, I did not encounter anything that felt like US State Department Cold War V2.0 fan fiction. Gender Shades, Timnit Gebru and Joy Buolamwini’s groundbreaking research drawing the world’s attention to facial recognition’s inability to recognize dark skin did not advocate for imperial solutions either. I began to wonder how a storyline ripped from former Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter’s mouth ended up superimposed onto their work.

In the process of researching the production of Coded Bias, I stumbled upon a tweet from HAF advertising Shalini Kantayya as the keynote speaker for their January 2018 Dallas Gala. The gala’s #HowdyModi styled flyer, featured a name I immediately recognized. As Executive Director of HAF, Samir Kalra collaborated with Hindu Education Foundation (HEF) in pressuring major publishers including Pearson and McGraw Hill to remove content they deemed “denigrating to Hinduism” from K-12 textbooks. Mirroring the positions of Indian based Hindutva organizations, the HAF/HEF camp requested edits that “sought to erase or whitewash more unsavoury aspects of Hinduism and South Asian history, such as patriarchy and caste.”

Some argue, HAF’s desire to erase caste oppression from textbooks is not just about burying the past, it is an attempt render illegible the ongoing oppression of Dalit and caste oppressed people in Silicon Valley today. In June 2020, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing launched a lawsuit against Cisco for caste discrimination toward an Indian American engineer, who claims he was harassed by two co-workers and faced retaliation after complaining to the company. Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a Dalit American founder and executive director of Equality Labs, a Dalit civil rights organization, wrote an op-ed last summer stating, “the lawsuit is a watershed moment for caste-oppressed Americans like me. It is the first time in U.S. history that caste is at the core of a discrimination case- — and an important recognition that caste discrimination continues here and around the world.”

Guess who wrote a legal brief against the Cisco lawsuit? None other than Samir Kalra. In a continuation of the strategy deployed in Santa Clara’s Textbook wars (where Kalra fought to remove all mentions of “Dalit”), the brief against Cisco sought to de-link caste from Hinduism. HAF claims that modifying existing US anti-discrimination law to include caste as a protected category “suggests that there is a prevalent form of prejudice and malice amongst only people of Indian and/or South Asian descent and Hindus”. In other words, identifying who is harmed by caste, will draw attention to those who benefit from it.

Why would Shalini Kantayya both want to champion an organization that seeks to erase evidence of discrimination and want to produce a documentary whose sole focus is the how technologies discriminate?

Filmmaking is a collaborative process by definition, it requires multiple stakeholders to be funded, released and develop the content. Despite Kantayya’s undeniable ties to Hindutva, there’s a larger question to be raised about the data and tech policy community’s adherence to a politically amorphous framework of Fairness, Accountability, Transparency and Ethics (FAT/E). Melinda Gates’ tweeted endorsement of Coded Bias as the ideal leadership for a movement to confront algorithmic bias is an indication of the corporate stranglehold. A cottage industry of critique often seems to grow with Big Tech rather than seeking to dismantle it. A thorough film review examining the intellectual and political lineage of “bias”as techno-capitalism’s corporate sanctioned movement is beyond the scope of this article but it’s provided a techlash that left room for fascism.

To better understand Kantayya’s co-existing desires to support Hindutva and produce Coded Bias, it’s worth noting that appropriating social justice language for a Hindu Nationalist agenda, is a tried and true strategy attuned to a liberal multiculturalism venerating anti-racist rhetoric over anti-racist action. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has also successfully undermined Black movements, mainly not by leveraging anxieties about anti-semitism, but drawing from the “much broader authority it has won over anti-black, anti-immigrant, and anti-queer “hate.” Hindu American Foundation has not garnered this same authority but it hopes to.

It’s unclear whether Hindutva organizations have established as formal a role in online content moderation as the ADL under the auspices of “hate speech” but the pattern of censoring posts critiquing Indian PM Minister Narendra Modi’s response to COVID-19 or repeatedly suspending Stand With Kashmir’s Twitter account for demanding an end to the occupation certainly mirror HAF’s uncritical positions on Modi, the BJP and “maintaining the integrity of India” [by refusing to grant self determination to Kashmir and expanding settlements].

Shalini Kantayya Responds

I shared the HAF keynote poster with some questions via a Twitter thread on Sunday and Kentayya’s Memorial Day response is instructive. Initially she states she has no affiliation with Hindu American Foundation and was just a guest speaker on water rights. Even if we were to indulge that she was completely unaware of Hindutva after filming in Gujurat during Modi’s tenure, who agrees to publicly raise money for an organization you know nothing about? How are we to suspend belief across at least four fundraising events nationally where her face was used for recruitment? Or as friend texted me, “Would she accept an invite to speak about water rights at a white supremacy gala?”

Instead of a responding to the points I raised, Kantayya invoked the spectre apocryphal Muslim American advocacy organization functioning as a trojan horse for nationalism. Meanwhile, the question at hand is her role in campaigning for the actually existing Hindu American Foundation with well documented ties to the RSS.

While publicly performing ignorance, privately Shalini was direct messaging me demanding I “stop slandering her reputation with falsehoods”, declaring she’s not Hindu and dedicated her career to working on the side of Dalits and religious minorities”. Slander is predicated on a statement being untrue. I am eager to know what part of this story is untrue, according to Kantayya. Before I could ask for more clarification, Kantayya blocked me on Twitter.

It’s worth noting that the BJP has been actively recruiting Dalits into the Hindutva political project through “engaging with new, micro-local religious-cultural icons of various smaller, marginalised communities” Badri Narayan describes in his recently published book, Republic of Hindutva, anew RSS emerging in the grassroots level” that “evolved appropriation and inclusion as a process to expand itself.” Narayan elaborates further on the post-1990’s era impact of globalization on Sangh discourse:

New issues such as ecological concerns, transgender issues, and questions of water and virus appeared before them as test cases, and they handled them successfully…The inclusion of Dalits in the Sangh’s Hindutva is one of the most important plans of action. Reaching to marginal sections with reinterpreting their histories and icons creates for them the space to relate with subalterns.

Where do we go from here?

Accountability is acknowledging and listening to those you have harmed. The speed and scale at which artificial intelligence and machine learning systems are being developed by private companies and adopted by public sector services demands we find ways to bring fragmented critiques into a broader civic discourse. The fact that one of the few opportunities we have to engage through film was produced by someone with ties to Hindutva is deeply concerning. Accountability looks like Shalini Kentayya publicly disavowing the Hindu American Foundation and the genocidal world view some argue they stand for.

We cannot control others, but as I argued in The Moral Collapse of AI Ethics, “Innovation and technological progress, in the context of racial capitalism, are predicated on profound extraction so the next disaster is inevitable, our failure to respond and offer an alternative worldview is not. We can do better.” An analysis of tech and power that’s ambivalent to the particulars, ultimately allowing for Hindutva to take the wheel, is no analysis at all.

Bearing witness to the present. Tentatively hopeful for the future. Middle name preferred. Follow me on twitter @upfromthecracks.