Chants of “We want Modi!” were heard all along 34th Street Saturday afternoon.
A group known as Americans for Free Speech marched to protest the removal of Gujarat chief state minister Narendra Modi from the Wharton India Economic Forum this afternoon.
The march, followed by a series of speeches from guest speakers, was held across the street from the conference, which took place in Harrison Auditorium at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Members of the press were denied entrance to the conference.
About 200 protesters from across the nation rallied to march. The event was scheduled to begin on 34th and Chestnut streets at 11:30 a.m., but was delayed by an hour due to late arrivals. Two buses from New Jersey and one from Queens, N.Y. came to deliver people to the protest.
The march is “carrying the funeral of free speech,” Narain Kataria, a speaker at the event, said. During the march, a sign was posted outside of Fisher-Bennett Hall by the protesters that read “In memory of Free Speech 1776-2013. Killed at Wharton by the English Department.”
Protesters held up signs that read “First they came for the Hindus…”, “End McCarthyism against Hindus…”, “Stop Academic Jihad” and “Fire Ania Loomba” among others. One organizer shouted to the crowd that the march was as important as that of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Modi was first invited to the forum to speak as a keynote speaker, but he was disinvited once a petition from Penn faculty and students was sent to organizers of WIEF. The petitioners were concerned with Modi’s connection to 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat.
Since they have rescinded their invitation to Modi to speak at the conference, Wharton and WIEF have received much attention from news outlets throughout India. Cameras and reporters from Indian news organization ITV attended the event as well.
Several police officers were present to direct the protesters through traffic. People on stilts and a jazz band marched with the protesters to “push the excitement,” said musician Devon Taylor. Bystanders watched as the crowd of protesters slowly moved their way to Franklin Field.
First year engineering graduate student Bridrinath Rayadurg came to watch his friends march. He has been following WIEF in the news, but didn’t want to participate in the protest because he believes “right of speech doesn’t actually hold for a private event.” He added that he was surprised more students were not involved.
“There was a lot of activity on Facebook, but only one or two students are here,” he said.
Most of the people involved with the protest came from outside of the University in support of Modi, though a few students did come out to show their support.
“Protests are something you don’t see on a regular basis at Penn,” College junior Kelly Rhodes said. “You expect Penn to be pretty liberal. I guess it’s cool that they can do this.”
Speakers after the march included Engineering professor Saswati Sarkar, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education spokesperson Peter Bonilla and several freedom of speech activists and Modi supporters.
“It seems like students are organizing an activity that they’re not proud of,” Sarkar said in her speech about the removal of Modi.
However, after her speech, despite the enthusiasm of the crowd, she said the protest could have been better organized.
History professor Alan Kors, who was invited to speak but could not, instead sent in a statement to the group about the issue.
“As you meet, Penn is planning closer collaboration with China, home of the laogai work camps and deaths by government beyond counting. Narendra Modi, on the other hand, may not even be heard on matters economic,” he said in the statement. “What hypocrisy!”
Bidyut Sarker, a supporter from New York, said he felt the conference was one-sided in its focus.
“This is not right. Justice should be for everybody,” he said.
Contributing writer George Rosa contributed reporting.
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