Narendra Modi @ Wharton: is Freedom of Speech the Issue?

As many readers will already know, this week the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania had to retract a speaking invitation to Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of the Indian State of Gujarat. Modi was to speak to a conference at Wharton via teleconference, as he has, since 2005, been denied a visa to visit the United States by the U.S. State Department. 

The withdrawal happened after a group of faculty at Penn wrote a letter to the president of the University, objecting to Modi's participation. The full text of that letter can be found here. Today there is also a clarifying interview with one of the faculty involved, Ania Loomba, at the New York Times' India Ink blog. Needless to say, there has been widely covered within India -- see stories at the Hindustan Times and Deccan Chronicle for starters.

As Ania Loomba herself points out in the interview at the New York Times I linked to, doing this keynote at Wharton was clearly intended to serve as part of the rehabilitation of Narendra Modi's image in the West. This rehabilitation is important to Modi as he is thinking of leading the BJP and competing for the Prime Ministership in next year's nationwide elections.

Many Indians have questioned Penn/Wharton's decision to withdraw its invitation to Modi, with "freedom of speech" cited in several columns and blog posts I've come across in the past couple of days. The Wall Street Journalist columnist Sadanand Dhume criticized the move, for instance (though his column on this appears to be paywalled and I cannot access it or link to it at present), as did the ostensibly liberal writer and politician Shashi Tharoor (see here).

Let's look at this a little bit more. First of all, here's what Ania Loomba says about the freedom of speech issue in response to a question from the Times' India Ink reporter:

Q: [NYT] In 2007, Columbia University invited President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, a highly controversial international figure, to address its students, amid protests by a host of groups. In a culture that embraces free speech, some have asked, should Mr. Modi’s address have been boycotted?

[Loomba] 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. 
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.
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 organizers change their mind? Was it only because of us? According to the organizers, there were several “stakeholders” whose opinions influenced their views, including members of the alumni. (link)

I think it's really important to note that this isn't a question of not allowing a person advocating a particular point of view to speak. What's really at stake is whether a person with Modi's particular record -- his connection to actions that suggest criminal liability -- ought to be given a platform that confers respect and authority at an institution like Penn/Wharton.

To that effect I believe I have a slightly different approach to the freedom of speech question than does Ania Loomba in this instance. 

First, people with views in line with the BJP/RSS have no problem at all on American university campuses. Many American college campuses do have student organizations that support what might be seen as Hindu right/Hindutva positions -- there are Hindu Student Council and VHP-A groups at many college campuses. These groups do their thing, inviting speakers, and expressing their views alongside all of the other campus groups. They are not harassed or bothered; their freedom of speech is respected. 

Second, Modi was not actually going to speak his mind on communal issues at this venue; since 2002 he has actually done everything he can to downplay and minimize what happened in February of that year. The event where he was to speak was the "India Economic Forum," and one could reasonably expect that he was not going engage the communal issue in such an address. In recent years, it has been part of Modi's strategy of reinvention to not come across as particularly communal. But he has done so without ever acknowledging any responsibility for the deaths that occurred in 2002 while he was Chief Minister -- or even the slightest smidgen of regret. 

That said, we should be clear that the intention here was to prevent Narendra Modi from speaking, not on the grounds of views but on the grounds of actions. The question is this: is someone who is implicated with mass deaths, who should be considered therefore a person with criminal liabilities, be given a free pass to reinvent himself as a "Development Man," as if that's all he is? 

Incidentally, for people who maybe aren't totally clear on what Modi did in 2002, the best thing I have seen on the subject was published at Caravan Magazine in 2012. Look closely at the sections related to what happened to Ehsan Jafri's compound (where I believe 100+ people were killed and there is strong evidence that Modi knew all about it and did nothing), and what happened, later, to Naren Pandya after he spoke against Modi in a private commission on the 2002 riots. Then: should we still be worrying about his particular freedom of speech? Shouldn't we start with asking him to be accountable for the lives of those people?


Saheli said...

Well explained Amardeep. As institutional members we have the freedom to voice our objections to being associated with celebrating leaders we don't want to celebrate. Our institutional leadership has the responsibility to weigh our opinion in consider who they will and will not honor, and who they will and will not invite.

As a Columbia Alumna, I would also protest Ahmedinajad's being invited today, given the 2009 electoral violence, and in general I'm not sure heads of state and diplomats from whose elected credentials are questionable should be given any sort of honored position at a University. They can be hosted as having something to say on behalf of their government or being able to inform students about their state and opinions, but they shouldn't be hosted as being personally accomplished people. I don't think anyone has ever disputed the prima facie validity of Modi's election, so that's not the smell test that's applicable here. (Though I think it is applicable to Ahmedinjad, Putin, Karzai, etc..) What is applicable is the smell test is that an officialwho has a substantial cloud of human rights abuse hanging over them, even if they have escaped a proof of guilt in a court of law and even if they have been democratically elected, should not be given an honored speaker's position. The problem is that there are *lots* of world leaders for whom that test applies, and communalists can easily point to one or another double standard. "You're pcking on *my* community's oppressive leader, not *that* community's." If Universities were to create a consistent list of conditions that need to be met by political leaders before they are given by a platform, and also create a required protocol for dealing with people in a gray zone (okay, we'll let them speak, but we'll make sure the person who introduces them acknowledges the controversy) and were to transparently apply that checklist to all invited political leaders, it would be both more interesting and less filled with overwrought feelings.

Victor_47 said...


As a person who witnessed the 1984 riots first hand, I find all the flagellation by the leftists, hypocritical to say the least. None of our intelligentia squeaks about Rajiv Gandhi's tree falling justification or the many days the butchering was permitted.

The Supreme Court appointed SIT went through all the evidence against Modi, and found nothing for which he could be personally held accountable for.

The voters of Gujarat have voted him in, thrice.

But to the intelligentia, neither the Supreme Court or the will of the voters has any significance; they hold themselves above the institutions of the Indian Republic.

Why is the role of the INC us marginalized? What about the INC MLC Haji Bilal who led the Godhra mob? Or the INC leader Chaudhary, a protege of Ehsan Jafri who was a key player in Jafri's death?

And regarding insinuations about Pandya, does anyone wonder why Rajesh Pilot, Madhav Rao Scindia, & YSR met untimely deaths? What is the probability that three leaders who could have challenged the Gandhi family in UPA all meet untimely deaths?

Do you wonder how come there hardly any riots in the past decade in Gujarat while under the Congress rule the city used to simmer? Who benefits from the simmering tension? Which group is easy to manage by keeping them under constant tension?

Shashi Shekhar said...

Dear Professor

The Caravan piece you cite as an authoritative reference is short on hard facts and long on hearsay by unnamed sources.

Two blogposts you may want to look at. Feel free to ignore the commentary, but do pay attention to the original source news reports cited from 2002 etc



Saurav said...

Excellent post, Amardeep, on an issue that feels more thorny than it appears on the surface.

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