No Right to be Heard
First published in The Pioneer, March 16, 2013
The Wharton India Economic Forum (WIEF), organized by students, and hosted by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), extended an invitation to Chief Minister Narendra Modi to be one of the keynote speakers at their 17th annual event. Modi accepted. A week ago, the students withdrew the invitation succumbing to pressures, self-wrought or by unnamed forces, after three professors of UPenn, of Indian origin, wrote a petition full of half-truths, if not lies about Gujarat’s development under Modi, and the Gujarat riots of 2002. They threatened disruption of the forum’s activities scheduled for March 23. Modi kept mum. The petitioners went to town: gleeful and smug about their destructive abilities, and the fact that their petition garnered signatures of about 150 faculty, graduate students, and activists who have proved to be unrepentant Hinduphobes.
We now know that following the February 27, 2002 arson-mass murder of 58 Hindu pilgrims by a Muslim mob there were riots all over Gujarat. According to official estimates, 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus were killed and 223 people were reported missing. Nearly 61,000 Muslims and about 10,000 Hindus fled their homes, and about 18,000 Hindus and 3,600 Muslims were held under preventive detention. In total, about 28,000 Hindus and 7,700 Muslims were arrested for rioting, murder, rape, destruction of property and general mayhem. Those who have accused Modi of being complicit in provoking or abetting the riots have termed the killing of Muslims as “genocide” or “pogrom,” and have brushed away the Sabarmati train massacre in Godhra as an unexplained accident. These activists, both domestic and international, have sustained a successful decade-long campaign against Modi, who has become one of the most vilified of modern-day politicians. Any number of epithets has been hurled against him, with “Hitler”, “Nazi”, and “Fascist” the most vicious and common of those. Modi has successfully and successively won three elections – in 2002, 2007, and 2012 -- and can serve out his third term as Chief Minister in 2017. If he retires then, he would have held the post of chief minister for 16 years, only seven years less than Jyoti Basu who served as West Bengal’s Chief Minister from 1977-2000. In this context, the brouhaha over Modi is an example of the theatre of the absurd that is Indian politics, replicated on an Ivy League campus. It is also an indication of the sheer number of academics, of Indian origin, whose radical-left credentials and illiberal tendencies have won them power and clout, ironically, in capitalist America. Professors Toorjo Ghose, Ania Loomba, and Suvir Kaul of the University of Pennsylvania, the drafters of the petition, have inserted themselves into a couple of other battles which have brought them some local notoriety, but no success. This petition, however, was successful in browbeating the students of Wharton, and has gained them a little bit more prestige among their Left/Marxist colleagues. It has also garnered their well-coiffed images some media attention.
Their petition is an example of nothing more than partisan political pamphleteering. If it were just the run-of-the-mill political activists who had drafted it, then we could dismiss it as the usual sloganeering by the ideologically inclined. But we should be troubled when Ivy League professors stoop to false, misleading, and provocative speech. That they have continued to rationalize their extremist rhetoric should not only make us wary of their political gamesmanship, but of their disdain for America’s traditions of free speech and fair hearing.
These Indian exports of Left/Marxist extremism have had their careers boosted over the past two decades, since the destruction of the Babri Mosque. Over the past decade, the Gujarat riots have been leveraged even more successfully as thousands of academic papers and many hundreds of books have been churned out – alarmist and shrill about the danger that confronts modern India: Hindus and Hinduism. Nothing else registers on their moral radar screens – not the continued terrorist attacks on India; not the ethnic cleansing of Hindus from Kashmir (ironic, since one of the Upenn petitioners, Suvir Kaul, is a Kashmiri Hindu); not the daily, brutal attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh; not the exodus of Hindus from Pakistan -- threatened, bullied, and their daughters abducted and raped by Muslim neighbors; not the marginalization and eviction of Hindus from Bhutan, the supposed Shangri-la and land of the “happiness index”; not the brutalization of Tibetans by the Chinese; and not surely the extraordinary and vulgar levels of corruption by the most powerful in the UPA government; and not the rampant caste-ism in regional political parties in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar whose leaders have criminalized politics to the extent that vast stretches of the country have become “goonda-land”. For almost any ill that has scourged India and its neighbors, these radical-left academics have a simple panacea: get rid of those “Hindu nationalists.”
Modi therefore is now the man they love to hate, and they get angrier each time they find him successful in his endeavors at making Gujarat a vibrant state, winning over the Muslims of Gujarat, succeeding in attracting billions of dollars in foreign investment, and getting some good press. As foreign leaders make a beeline to meet with him, seeking leverage for their business interests, and even as he studiedly ignores all the vile epithets hurled at him, they cannot see the writing on the wall: that the post-Godhra riots were unfortunately not unique, given the sub-continent’s history of centuries-long wars of religion-inspired attrition, nor was Modi’s response to the riots anything different from the response of other Indian politicians caught in the web of knee-jerk reactions by an anarchic citizenry and cunning political opponents. Indeed, post-Godhra, the decade-long quietude between Muslims and Hindus of Gujarat shows that Modi, whatever his lapses may have been as a novice Chief Minister (the Godhra train massacre took place four months after his assuming office in October 2001, and two months after the attack on the Indian Parliament and the mobilization of Indian troops along the border with Pakistan in December 2001), has been a strong, determined, and intelligent leader. If, however, the courts find him answerable to the deadly violence that engulfed his state, then he should pay the price for it, and as he has promised repeatedly, he would.
It is pertinent here to listen to Jagdish Bhagwati, the doyen of Indian-American economists, who responded to the rescinding of the invitation to Modi: “If Modi had spoken at the WIEF and been questioned by the UPenn petitioners, ‘he would have wiped the floor with these opponents because he is a brilliantly articulate person who has been examined and cross-examined for more than a decade over the 2002 riots’.” However, the petitioners, mixing metaphors, conflating issues, and effectively falsifying the data on Gujarat’s development indices went unchallenged for the first few days as the media, including the venerable New York Times gave them wide coverage.
Then the dominoes started to fall: Sadanand Dhume of the American Enterprise Institute, an invited speaker at the forum, withdrew expressing anguish and distress at this clamping down on free speech, and the unfair treatment of Modi and his demonization by the petitioners, and plain bad faith by the forum’s organizers. Other speakers also withdrew, and major sponsors dropped out: they did right by both the American and Indian traditional standards of morality and ethics. But invitees like Montek Singh Ahluwalia seem determined to speak, and replacing Modi will be Arvind Kejriwal, the maverick co-founder of the Aam-Aadmi Party who most probably is doomed to lose any election he contests. And then there will be Shabana Azmi to add some glamour and speak the well-worn clichés of selective secularism and Bollywood minutiae. Yawn.