Monday, Oct 03, 2022

How not to unfriend Narendra Modi

The petition by academics and activists against Modi’s talk at Wharton misunderstands what a university stands for

Are you for Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi or against him? It is a simple question,and a simplifying one. It tells us who you are. Are you a saffron-clad,business-loving,Muslim hater? Or are you a staunch secularist,unwilling to lend voice to the growing clamour for Modi as PM? This is not a thought experiment; it is a question of identity. Choose where you belong.

In a letter delivered to a student-run conference hosted by the University of Pennsylvania,135 academics and activists told us which side they belonged to. The conference is on “India’s evolution from an emerging nation to a prominent global economic power”. Gujarat’s chief minister was invited to talk on Skype (since the US refuses him a visa). The “outraged” academics urged the organisers “to revoke their invitation”. Modi’s involvement in the Gujarat riots of 2002,they argued,was documented by the NGO Human Rights Watch,the US state department and — more importantly — by India’s Supreme Court. By providing a podium,the university would “endorse ideas about economic development that are based on the systematic oppression of minority populations”. Squeamish at a controversy,the organisers disinvited Modi.

The petition hurled accusations that readers of this page are familiar with. They have been subject to ferocious debate ever since that dark February of 2002. Since Modi has not been convicted by a court of law,we are left to rely on individual testimonies and NGO reports — some ideologically charged,many persuasive. I am personally persuaded,but that is no ground to disallow a man from speaking at a university. Modi is not a convicted criminal,even a charged one. Here’s how one man saw it: “it is [not appropriate to use allegations or anything less than a due process of law to make a subjective judgement to question a constitutional authority”. That man was PM Manmohan Singh — no Modi fan — defending Modi in Parliament when the US denied him a visa in 2005.

Modi runs a political apparatus that tom-toms itself as a growth engine. In a country now embracing FDI melas,where the path to growth is the burning political question,no one presents the pro-growth view more loudly than Narendra Modi. His electoral success is based on the “Gujarat model” of investment-friendly pro-business policies — of direct relevance to the conference topic. To be sure,Modi’s views are hotly contested,and are only one amongst many. Some doubt Modi’s statistics,others claim that Gujarat’s growth predates Modi. Yet more hold that pro-business policies and anti-Muslim bigotry are two sides of the same coin. In fact,a key petitioner,UPenn professor Ania Loomba,told me by email that one of the objections to Modi’s speech was that: “there is mounting scholarly evidence that Gujarat’s economic growth has not yielded improvements in human development.” But these are points to be debated,not banned and disinvited. Modi made his pitch to the voters of Gujarat. They heard him and chose. Why should students at the University of Pennsylvania be denied this chance?

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The petition misunderstands what a university stands for. It claims that allowing Modi to speak makes the university complicit in his crimes. This is dangerous. Universities are not Stalinist outfits,controlling all that emanates from within. A centre of learning should let a hundred flowers bloom,avoiding the red lines of politics around which we tussle in the world outside. I asked Ania Loomba whether a university should deny space to views it does not agree with. In response,she argued that: “There is a big difference between shutting down free speech and raising principled objections to inviting a man with a sordid human rights record”. She doubted whether a man so against free speech would allow the chance for his opponents to be heard. These are valid concerns. But it reminds me of a conversation I once had with the famed civil liberties lawyer,the late K.G. Kannabiran. Kannabiran frequently defended the constitutional rights of Naxalites in court. A judge once quipped that it was ironic that these Naxalites would rely on the same Constitution they were trying to overthrow. “Your Lordship,” Kannabiran replied,“constitutional values are a testament to our values,not theirs”. The right to free speech is a testament to our beliefs not Modi’s — and where better to practise it than in a place of learning? To drive this point deeper,consider the case of another UPenn professor who signed the anti-Modi petition,Toorjo Ghose. Ghose was part of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US and was arrested in 2011. His dean,Richard Gelles,saw no conflict with the university since Ghose had “a full range of his constitutional rights from freedom of speech to freedom of action.” The key assumption was that the university was not bound by — and therefore need not control — the statements of its faculty. Why deny this assumption to Narendra Modi (attempts to contact Ghose proved unsuccessful)?

This is hardly an article in support of Modi. It is in support of free speech in universities. You can conflate the two. That is your political choice. But academics mustn’t inhabit comforting binaries. When they calibrate their reactions to soundbite simplicity and shout down rather than argue with,they end up as inflexible as the man they’d like to shut out. What better way to make a martyr of that man?

The writer is a PhD candidate at Princeton University and visiting scholar at Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

First published on: 07-03-2013 at 03:27:21 am
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