March 07, 2103: Narendra Modi’s keynote address at the India Economic Forum organised by The Wharton School of University Of Pennsylvania, scheduled for March 23, was cancelled after a protest petition by three University of Pennsylvania academics – Ania Loomba, Catherine Bryson Professor of English; Suvir Kaul, A M Rosenthal Professor of English and Toorjo Ghose, Assistant Professor at the School of Social Policy and Practice – which received support from various quarters of the American academic and non-academic society. Modi has always been a polarising figure and the Wharton saga has been no different. Many have supported him and some have not. IBNLive asked Professor Ania Loomba certain questions related to the controversy.
What were your main objections to the Wharton India Economic
Forum’s invitation to Narendra Modi to speak at the conference?
As is well known, Narendra Modi is a very controversial figure. Our objections were clearly spelt out in our letter (which we attach). We were concerned that this conference would help contribute to his efforts to sanitise his government’s record, specifically his government’s actions and inactions during the communal violence in Gujarat in 2002, which devastated the state’s Muslim population, and whose worst excesses have still not been redressed.
Many terrible regimes have come to power the world over in
the name of economic development.
Mr Modi has increasingly attempted to recast himself as a ‘developmentalist’ with a strong economic record in Gujarat. This has been his campaign agenda both in recent state elections, and in his current bid to be projected as a major prime ministerial candidate in India’s next general election. We are firmly opposed to any attempt to de-link ‘development’ from ‘human rights’: the kinds of atrocities minority communities suffered and continue to suffer in Gujarat are not neatly separable from ‘economic development’. Moreover, there is mounting scholarly evidence that Gujarat’s economic growth has not yielded improvements in human development (specifically health and educational outcomes, such as child nutrition) where the state remains among the worst performers in India.
In this troubled context, providing Mr Modi with a plenary position to speak on ‘economic development’ is a deeply political act, and one which we oppose. We should also note that the Adani Group was a Platinum sponsor of the event (they have since refused their sponsorship after the student-organisers of the Forum rescinded their invitation to Mr Modi). Gautam Adani, chairman of Adani Group is a well-known Modi supporter, and his pulling out is a reminder that his sponsorship was part of an attempt to re-launch Mr Modi in the US (we should remember that the US State Department continues to deny Mr Modi a visa). Mr Modi’s proposed plenary address fit very much with his sanitising campaign (he was due to speak on his state’s economic record, and there was no forum for questioning his human rights record). While the Wharton conference organisers say they do not ascribe to any political ideology, we felt that providing an opportunity that so closely fit the campaign agenda of a controversial politician is inherently political, particularly since it repressed any attention to Mr Modi’s record on human rights and justice.
Would it have been better, as some have suggested, if Mr
Modi was allowed to speak, followed by a Q&A, where he could have been
questioned about human rights and inequality in Gujarat?
No. I doubt that any substantive debate could have been part of an event like this. If the organisers wanted a debate, they could have invited someone opposed to Modi and staged the dialogue. This was not set up to be a dialogue. Moreover, a man who has prosecuted whistle-blowers and activists who had tried to bring the guilty to justice in Gujarat is hardly someone who is open to a debate and dialogue. As we wrote in our letter, the Supreme Court has criticised the Modi government for using trumped-up charges to harass activists fighting for justice.In 2007, Columbia University invited Iranian President Ahmedinejad, a highly controversial international figure, to address its students, amid protests by a host of groups.
In a culture that embraces free speech, should Mr Modi’s
address have been boycotted?
It is part of a vibrant democracy to dissent and indeed to boycott speakers. Our letter to the student-organizers of the Forum simply expressed our objections to their invitation. There is a big difference between shutting down free speech and raising principled objections to inviting a man with a sordid human rights record. If the logic in this question holds, then no one should have any objections to any speaker at any venue ever. But as we know such objections and protests take place all the time, and are part of the democratic process.
On the other hand, one can legitimately say that it is Mr Modi’s brand of democracy that has sought to silence anyone against him. He holds great state power and is in a position to shut down opposition; we are simply academics and other citizens with concerns about not only free speech but also of the safety and property of minorities and others within his state.
The principal argument we have heard against our position has been that we should allow Mr Modi his rights to free speech. Let us be clear: we are not opposing his right to free speech. He has those rights, and avails of them on a daily basis: he has full and immediate access to the news media in Gujarat and India. What we are opposed to is the Forum, which is an element in a larger institution of which we are a part, granting him a position of honor to increase his personal legitimacy, and thus further a political agenda which we find reprehensible. There is a long tradition of such student protests, both in India (where college students also recently successfully protested a speech by Mr Modi) and in the US. Such protests are far from anti-democratic – they are the hallmarks of democratic practice, and one in which we are proud to participate.
Finally, the media has been presenting it as a few professors shutting the desires of students. But many students were signatories too. As well as doctors, lawyers and concerned citizens. We did not speak from a position of any authority because student groups at Penn have the right to invite anyone they want. And of course anyone has the right to raise objections to that. Why did the organisers change their mind? Was it only because of us? According to the organisers, there were several ‘stakeholders’ whose opinions influenced their views, including members of the alumni. In other words, the portrayal of this decision as driven by a small minority of faculty misreads both the evidence of broader support for this disinvitation (signatories on the petition), and the organisers’ own referencing of multiple sources of dissent.
The reason Modi supporters are turning this into an issue of free speech is that the whole event has coincided with the massive effort to project Modi as a viable Prime Ministerial candidate. And this shows why he is not.Narendra Modi has earned a reputation as an incorruptible politician and a good administrator. To that extent, many say, his insight and inputs are very valuable in any discussion on India’s economic promise. How would you respond to that?As I said earlier, this is precisely what needs to be contested; during the Emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, many extolled the efficiency of her regime. Many terrible regimes have come to power the world over in the name of economic development.
How can Mr Modi be considered a good administrator if he
presided over a carnage and has refused to address or remedy its consequences
for over a decade now?
But even if we set that aside, a recent Planning Commision report noted that Gujarat has slipped in its ranking in terms of the human development index among Indian states, and has made lower-than-average progress on crucial indicators such as infant mortality, child malnutrition, and maternal mortality. We are troubled with the exclusive focus on particular indicators of development, to the exclusion of others, particularly those most relevant to the ‘capabilities’ (to quote the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen) of Gujarat’s poorest citizens.There appears to be a gradual shift in Mr Modi’s public perception in India and overseas. How would you explain that? Do you find it worrisome?Yes. This shift is very worrisome. As concerned scholars and citizens, we believe that we will come to regret it if we do not grapple with the reasons why it is being encouraged. This shift in perception-without any change in practice-is precisely what his supporters all over the world have been orchestrating for a while.
- ibn live