The Edit Wars

How Wikipedia earned the ire of the Hindu Right

30 November, 2020

“IT MIGHT BE AWKWARD, but please don’t scroll past this.” In July this year, the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation launched a donation campaign in India. A banner pinned at the top of every Wikipedia article noted that fewer than two percent of users made donations and that, if those who saw the banner would contribute Rs 150 each, the online encyclopedia “could keep thriving for years.”

For an open-source collaborative website that does not carry any advertising, the appeal was business as usual. The Wikimedia Foundation relies on contributions to maintain the website and its servers, as well as to pay its employees. According to the foundation’s financial statement for 2018–19, it raised nearly $111 million in donations and contributions, accounting for over ninety percent of its total revenue in the fiscal year. The campaign, however, was met with stiff opposition from right-wing figures in India. Accusing the website of being “full of editors who are biased, anti-Hindu and anti-India,” the columnist Shefali Vaidya tweeted to her half a million followers, “#StopFundingHate do NOT donate to @Wikipedia or @PetaIndia. They use YOUR money against you—to peddle Hindu hatred.”

“Wikipedia has published many questionable statements about Hindu writers, leaders, causes and historical issues,” David Frawley, the founder of the American Institute of Vedic Studies, tweeted, adding that it was “not an unbiased forum. Hindus should protest against its anti-Hindu views.” The filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri tweeted that “Wikipedia has #UrbanNaxals editors.” The author Rajiv Malhotra, who claimed to have first criticised Wikipedia during the 1990s—he clarified, after people made fun of him by pointing out the encyclopedia was founded in 2001, that he meant its predecessors in the collaborative-encyclopedia space—argued that it stood for the gamification, rather than the democratisation, of knowledge. “Those with better gaming skills overrule others with lower privilege level,” he tweeted, comparing Wikipedia’s hierarchy of editors to a caste system.

Over two decades of its existence, Wikipedia has been seen in India as a relatively uncontroversial source of information, providing a surface-level introduction to just about everything. The Hindu Right, however, has long been harbouring frustrations against the encyclopedia. In the past year, those frustrations found a voice. Once perceived as an apolitical platform, Wikipedia has now turned into a new front in India’s culture wars.