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The Tainted Lectern

An unchallenged platform for Modi, not free speech, is the issue

The Tainted Lectern
Illustration by Sorit
The Tainted Lectern

First, the facts as we know them: on February 28, 2013, an e-mail circulated in the University of Pennsylvania announced the 17th Annual Wharton India Economic Forum for March 23. The student-organisers of the forum listed Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, as a keynote speaker.

Several of us who read this announcement decided to write and circulate a letter objecting to the platform offered by this forum to Modi, for reasons that we detailed in our letter. In our concluding paragraph, we duly asked the organisers to revoke their invitation to Modi. We were hopeful the organisers would withdraw their invitation, but understood this was unlikely. Therefore, we also pledged “to protest his presence—virt­ual as it will be, given that he remains ineligible for a US visa—in a variety of ways, inc­luding at the meeting of the forum”.

Reminding the organisers of our pedago­gic interest in this situation, we concluded by writing: “We will also do all that we can to continue to educate our community about the incalculable and continuing harm done by Modi’s brand of politics to the secular values enshrined in India’s Constitution.”

As soon as we circulated our letter of protest in the university and on a social media site, signatures from students, faculty and members of the community poured in. By the next morning, Friday, February 29, when we e-mailed the letter to the organisers, with a copy to the dean of the Wharton School and to two members of the faculty at Wharton who run the Wharton Entrepreneurship Program (which was a sponsor of the forum), we had over 150 signatures (many more have come in since then).

Here is an important detail (which virtually no one in the media has examined, and most commentators have ignored): just as we were not privy to the decision that led to the issuing of the invitation, we were not told about the reasons for it being withdrawn. No one from the forum or from Wharton did us the courtesy of responding to our e-mail. The only statement issued from the forum organisers lists the dissent of “multiple stakeholders” within the university, including Wharton alumni. Yet we began to see an odd pattern emerging in the news coverage in India: one news portal leads with a story, and then that text is repeated, with only  minor changes, in story after story on competing news portals. Most stories or anchors spoke only of the objections expressed by a handful of faculty; hardly any journalist seems to have bothered to ask the student-organisers of the conference if they decided to rescind their invitation to  Modi because their own faculty-administrators overruled them (which would suggest an issue internal to Wharton), or whether they themselves changed their mind after reading about Modi’s abysmal record on human rights.

We could not have anticipated (I doubt the student-organisers could have either) just how much coverage the withdrawal of their invitation to Modi would receive. It was important to those of us who drafted and signed on to the letter of protest that Narendra Modi’s rise to national prominence in India not occur without hard questions being asked about his history as a Hindutvavadi politician and an administrator under whom minorities have been victimised and marginalised.

Now that we have followed the news fre­nzy that began after Modi was disinvited (and the Adani Group’s withdrawal of its pla­tinum sponsorship), we know that, in spite of every effort made to turn this into a debate about free speech, those questions about Modi’s role in the mass killings and displacement of Muslims in Gujarat in ’02 are being aired and debated once again.

This was never an issue of free speech:  Modi exerci­ses his unlimited access to the media at will (including now in a planned video address to supporters in New Jersey and Illinois). Instead, we sought to protest—and protest is the bedrock of institutional democracy—the forum’s offering him an unchallenged platform from which to further a political agenda which delinks economic development from basic human rights. This is, sadly, also an agenda subscribed to by many corporations and indeed B-schools. Further, we know that national debates like this one also invite us to think about the forms of human development in our future: should justice and equity not be central to our planning?

These are in fact the concerns that animated our letter of protest. As faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, we often have students from the Wharton school in our clas­ses, and there, as in our letter to the organisers of the forum, we serve our function as educators, whose job it is to identify difficult questions and enable students to learn to think broadly and humanely about their shared futures.

(The writer is A.M. Rosenthal Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania)

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