Guest Column | The Penn Hindus are right: This is about freedom of speech (they are also right on the facts)




Recently, several University of Pennsylvania professors made accusations in The Daily Pennsylvanian against the Indian politician Narendra Modi as part of a campaign of social pressure that managed to stop his presentation at the Wharton India Economic Forum. The facts I will present here should encourage Hindus and others who have reacted against such tactics and who are fighting for freedom of expression at Penn.

Narendra Modi, as chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, has been accused of “allowing” the Gujarat riots of 2002, which involved violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims. A picture has been painted of violent Hindus attacking peaceful Muslims and Modi as an instigator. Let us therefore examine how the media treated the events that sparked the Gujarat riots to better evaluate the climate of media accusations against Modi. Then we shall return to the Penn professors who agitated to keep him from coming to Wharton and their claims.

On the day of the events, Feb. 27, 2002, the BBC reported on the cause of the Gujarat riots: “At least 57 people were killed when a furious mob set fire to a train carrying Hindu pilgrims in north-western India … Police blamed Muslims for the attack and imposed a curfew in the area.” Among those burned to death were men, women and children.

Though numerous eyewitness accounts attested to the Muslim mob attacking Hindus on the train, the BBC wrote “Police blamed Muslims,” as if this were not entirely clear. By July, the BBC was more emphatic: “Hindu pilgrims travelling by train were said to have been attacked by a Muslim mob in the town of Godhra which forced the train to stop and set fire to one of the carriages … But a report by forensic scientists in Gujarat [now] says … [that] the fire was started inside a carriage, not by a mob outside.” The BBC editorialized: “The new theory … seems at odds with eyewitness accounts given at the time.” But how can the forensic investigation — which concerned a very specific issue: the exact source of the fire — call into question the “eyewitness accounts” of Muslim mobs attacking the train?

The BBC’s peculiar reasoning is easily found on the internet, for the two articles referenced above are of the kind published by the BBC for mass consumption. Less easily found are the news wires that professional journalists rely on before deciding what to share with the public. Here is an example of what the news wires reported on the day of the events:

“At least 55 people were thought to have died when an express train was set on fire in the western Indian state of Gujarat on Wednesday morning … The fire was lit when a clash between radical Hindus and Moslems that began as an exchange of verbal abuse at Godhra station turned violent. Officials are not yet certain who set the train on fire.”

Here we see that there was uncertainty from the beginning about how the fire began and also zero doubt concerning a “clash” with Muslims. Moreover, “Another person was stabbed to death a few hours later when the same train, minus the burned carriages, was attacked by a mob when it pulled in at Vadodara station, in Gujarat.” [1]

The second attack reported here suggests that the Muslim mobs had not been sated by the first 60 Hindus burned to death, for this second attack happened after the mentioned fire. This makes it obvious that the BBC cannot logically use the forensic investigation into the source of the fire — whatever its conclusions — to question that Muslim mobs attacked the Hindus on the train. And yet, nine years later, the Muslim mobs attacking the train had completely disappeared from BBC accounts of the Gujarat riots: “More than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, died when riots erupted after a train fire killed 60 Hindu pilgrims in 2002.” A “train fire,” nothing more. Further down, the BBC concedes that there is a “controversy” over how the fire started but never once mentions Muslim mobs attacking the train.

The point of this exercise is to lay bare a media bias. The BBC went out on the thinnest of limbs — hoping it would support fallacies of reasoning — in order to disappear from public consciousness the cause of the Gujarat riots. And this disappearing act of the aggressor Muslim mobs was reproduced in the wider mainstream media representation of those riots. In my view this is symptom of a systematic media disease: an effort to apologize, whitewash or ignore Muslim violence whenever possible and to portray the confrontations that result from Muslim violence as gratuitous attacks against Muslims.

The Penn faculty members who accused Narendra Modi appear to be afflicted by this disease. They have stated that Modi “is responsible — as the chief minister — for the pogroms in 2002 in which 2,000 Gujarati Muslims were massacred and hundreds of thousands displaced.”

Let us examine the problems with this statement.

First, it was the Muslim mobs, the ones attacking Hindus (twice) on the aforementioned train, and the rioters themselves who are responsible for the riot. State and municipal authorities are not responsible for a riot just because a “human rights” organization accuses them. Examination of the Human Rights Watch accusation — to wit, allegedly that “the police were under instructions from the Narendra Modi administration not to act firmly” against the Hindu rioters — reveals that it was based on a reporter’s assertion that HRW took at face value and which was itself based on unnamed “insiders” alleged to exist and alleged to have spoken with this reporter. Nothing more. Anybody can fabricate this kind of accusation, which brings us to the next point.

Second, “pogrom” is incorrectly used. This term originates in 19th-century Tsarist Russia where it was first used to label attacks against Jewish civilians that were instigated by the authorities but carried out by civilian mobs who acted with impunity while the police watched idly by. It is now often applied to any kind of mob attack that official authorities unofficially assist. But in Gujarat, the violence resulted from a Muslim attack, not instigation from the authorities. The authorities actually declared a curfew immediately after the attack — and this was spelled out even in the original BBC reports (see above) — in order to lower the probability of riots. And the police tried to stop the rioters and actually fired on both Hindus and Muslims. In the aftermath a good 31 people were sentenced to life in prison for their part in the riots, most of them Hindus, so the rioters did not act with impunity. The rioters included Muslims, who were also prosecuted.

Third, it is false that “2000 Gujarati Muslims were massacred.” According to Webster’s, the term “massacre” refers to the “the act or an instance of killing a number of usually helpless or unresisting human beings under circumstances of atrocity or cruelty.” But here, according to the estimates, in addition to the 790 Muslims killed (not 2,000), an additional 254 Hindus were also killed (plus the almost 60 Hindus who died on the train). This was a fight.

These Penn faculty members also state that “During [Modi’s] regime, school textbooks have been re-written to celebrate Nazi Germany’s efficiencies.” This gets it exactly backwards. During Modi’s regime, these textbooks, which were introduced by the Congress party communists back in 1986, were removed.

It is a bit shocking that three Penn faculty members, two of them holding doctorates in English, should take such liberties with the meaning of words in common English usage such as “pogrom” and “massacre.” Of greater concern is how little they value basic research, for it takes minutes to check the facts of this case. More objectionable still is their behavior, seeking to undermine freedom of speech at their own university.

Full disclosure

I am an interested party here. I am interested in preserving the guarantees of freedom of speech and academic freedom at the University of Pennsylvania, where I was once proud to teach as an assistant professor of Psychology. I was hired there on the strength of my work on racism and ethnic prejudice, but when I began investigating the media whitewashing of Islamist terrorists in Yugoslavia and also the media whitewashing of Islamist terrorists who attack Israeli citizens, I was told by my colleagues — in no uncertain terms — to stop. Then, after I explained that I wouldn’t stop, my contract was not renewed. One naturally hopes that this kind of thing is an isolated, freak instance. But recent events at Penn suggest that the problem may be systemic and that Islamist apologetics has somehow become more important in the academic world than the values of the Enlightenment, values that gave rise to our modern universities. To see Penn’s brave Hindu students demanding freedom of thought, freedom of expression and academic freedom is to witness a dramatic demonstration that the values of the Enlightenment are truly universal. Hopefully, academics at the University of Pennsylvania — and Westerners more broadly — can be shamed back into defending academic, political and speech freedoms for all.

[1] Deutsche Presse-Agentur; “2nd Roundup: 55 die as Indian train burns after communal riot”; February 27, 2002, Wednesday, 15:49 Central European Time.

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