DEBATE @ THE HINDU The Gujarat Chief Minister’s proposed address to a university forum in the U.S. was part of a campaign by his Indian-American supporters to sanitise his image

It has been a strange experience to witness the unfolding of events and rhetoric after I, along with some colleagues, drafted a letter to the student organisers of the Wharton India Economic Forum, protesting their decision to invite Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to be a keynote speaker at its 17th Economic Forum on March 23, 2013.

What we did not expect is that the Wharton India Economic Forum would disinvite him so quickly. Large sections of the Indian media have projected this as a case of UPenn faculty (i.e. those of us who initiated the letter) or the administration pressurising hapless students. This is not true.

Was our letter’s promise to protest at the event and “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” so threatening? Does that sound like a denial of freedom of speech, as has been made out by so much of the press? Student groups in the U.S. are free to invite whom they want, but that does not mean no one can protest their decisions. Few have noted that just last week, the President of Fordham University in New York blasted student Republican Groups for inviting the right-wing commentator, Ann Coulter, and that she was subsequently disinvited. When the questioning comes not from the administration but from faculty and students, as it did in the Wharton case, it is not anti-democratic but the essence of democracy.

Cancelling out atrocity

The reason so many commentators have chosen to project this particular incident as a freedom of speech issue is that it allows them to project Mr. Modi as a wronged party. Some commentators who argue that Mr. Modi should not have been disinvited connect the issue to the U.S.’s lack of concern for human rights, as if anyone who questions Mr. Modi is thereby condoning other atrocities. Others suggest that because the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 have also not been adequately redressed, we should simply move past what happened in Gujarat. This is the way in which a consensus begins to be built up in the public sphere, and in which pitting one atrocity against another exonerates those responsible for all of them.

Relaunching Modi

On virtually every TV show following the Wharton affair we have heard shrill voices harping on Mr. Modi being invited for his economic vision, and for his great skills as an administrator. They also repeat that there are no charges against him in the Supreme Court, and that he is a democratically elected leader. TV anchors across the board sound like Mr. Modi’s advocates as they press his critics to address this “fact.” We know that the so-called Gujarat model of development is hardly a model to be followed, that by the many indices of quality of life, it is doing worse and not better every year. But even if we discount those indices, the divorcing of economy from human rights is a very dangerous idea. In the brouhaha that has followed the Wharton affair, so-called impartial and unaffiliated commentators have also asserted this separation, which simply shows how far the rhetoric of Mr. Modi’s media machine has spread. The student organisers of the India Economic Forum assert that they have no ideology. One does not have to announce one’s political affiliations to have them. The Adani Group was a ‘Platinum sponsor’ of the event (they have since refused their sponsorship after the invitation to Mr. Modi was rescinded). 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 relaunch the Gujarat Chief Minister in the U.S. We should remember that the State Department continues to deny Mr. Modi a visa. The reason right-wing Indian groups in the U.S. are so eager to provide him a forum is to pressurise their government to revoke its stance. Mr. Modi’s proposed plenary address fit very much with this sanitising campaign, since he was due to speak on his State’s economic record, and there was to be no scope for questioning his human rights record. We have been repeatedly asked why we did not let him come and then debate him at the Wharton forum. But the very nature of the event was not designed for any real debate about Mr. Modi’s record or indeed his views about the kind of India he wants to build.

If we allow a broad consensus to build up that economics and politics are separate spheres we become party to an extremely dangerous ideology that has historically justified the coming to power of anti-democratic and repressive regimes. Such regimes have used the idea of progress and development, and yes, have often been voted into power. Our letter of protest is a reminder that not everyone buys the efforts to whitewash Mr. Modi’s grim record. And that not everyone buys into the idea that economic growth can be divorced from questions of human rights and social justice.

(Ania Loomba is Catherine Bryson Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania.)

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