Your Voice | Modi should have stayed
March 14, 2013, 12:30 am·
The Wharton India Economic Forum rightfully commands prestige as the premier venue to annually debate perspectives on economic policy and business strategy. The panelists and keynotes at the meeting reflect the grand pluralism of India and its diaspora.
With Montek Singh Ahluwalia, a leader of the center-left ruling party, and Narendra Modi, chief minister of the state of Gujarat and likely prime ministerial candidate representing the center-right nationalist party, agreeing to participate this year, organizers set the stage for a vigorous exchange of ideas. But an online petition started by few members of the Penn community that demanded Modi be disinvited — warning ominously of protests in a “variety of ways” — led to rescission of Modi’s invitation.
As members of the Penn faculty, we have shared our views on the mishandling of Modi’s invitation and are gratified that students at Penn rightly perceive this kerfuffle singularly as a matter of free speech. Our concern is not whether Modi should be feted or condemned, but that capriciously silencing an invited speaker without explanation wrought the following:
a) The rescission now is perceived internationally as an indicator of an institutional position in the vigorous ongoing political debate over upcoming elections in India. Extending an entirely avoidable discourtesy to Modi and the largest opposition party alliance effectively galvanized his legions of supporters. The citizens and press in India are indignant that the conference would seem to endorse the current ruling coalition. The move also fosters the perception that the University is corroborating a particular ideology, rather than considering the perspectives and aspirations of the greater Penn Indian-American community.
b) We must neither be supporters nor detractors of Modi to condemn extremist rhetoric and categorically false accusations to vitiate dialogue here at Penn. After a special investigative team appointed by India’s fiercely independent Supreme Court held that Modi did not launch a “pogrom” in Gujarat to target its Muslim minority, the United Kingdom and European Union lifted a ban on his diplomatic credentials — the United States has yet to follow. Gujarat under Modi enjoys the most economic freedom in India and, while there is much work to be done on various fronts, it showed the most rapid decline in malnutrition among all Indian states between 2007 and 2011. Most certainly, neither Modi nor any mainstream politician in pluralistic India is either an anti-Muslim or an anti-Semite. Modi has resoundingly won democratic mandates of several Muslim-dominated constituencies in Gujarat, and currently, Gujarat enjoys the strongest relationship with Israel in its history.
The Wharton India Economic Forum was right to invite Modi to join its prestigious forum. His is an influential voice in the Indian polity and relevant to any dialogue on the convergence of business, policy and governance. The public disinvitation of a thrice-elected leader of a state of 60 million people invited unprecedented international censure, loss of nearly all of the forum’s corporate sponsorship and several distinguished speakers. Protests against the disinvite are now planned at the forum’s venue.
However, the saddest consequence of the rescission is capitulation on the value that constitutes the core of a vibrant academic ecosystem — that of encouragement of a plurality of discourse.
Aseem Shukla is an associate professor at the Perelman School of Medicine. Saswati Sarkar a Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering professor.