If you’re a second generation South Asian American like us, you might be wondering “Who is Narendra Modi? Why should I care?”
In the last week, as we were on spring break, Penn’s revocation of his invitation to speak the Wharton Indian Economic Forum has been at the headline of nearly every Indian newspaper. The responses have ranged from outrage to celebration.
This uproar has raised many important questions: What are the repercussions of our decisions as South Asian Americans both in India and within the diaspora? As Penn students, what say do we have in our university’s global presence? Why and how do Indians abroad have a stake in Indian politics? Where is the student voice on this issue and why does it matter?
The fact is, Modi was invited by Penn students, including undergraduates. His cancellation, which was also driven by Penn students and professors, has had real political consequences. Penn’s name attached to Modi would have granted him all of the legitimacy that comes with that name, and his cancellation is potentially a huge blow to his political ambitions.
We take a strong stance against Narendra Modi getting a Penn-endorsed voice by being the plenary speaker at this forum. Unlike the organizers of the WIEF, we do not approve of his “credentials, government ideology, and leadership,” which they stood by in their statement to rescind his invitation. We stand against his failure to protect citizens of his state from horrific communal violence, his ongoing persecution of activists who are seeking justice for the victims and his development record which we believe is an example of development for few at the expense of many.
We contend that Modi’s presence — even his virtual presence — at the forum would have legitimized him and all his political ambitions. Granting him a platform to speak at the Wharton School would have given him a clean slate on his human rights record in the name of “development,” and as conscious and critical-thinking students, we question how minority mistreatment can be overlooked by questionable economic progress.
We do not want our university’s name associated with his attempts at remarketing himself. It is inappropriate to make comparisons with Columbia University’s invitation to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, because that platform left room for debate on his human rights record, whereas WIEF placed Modi on a pedestal that could not be touched. The right to free speech does not imply an obligation for our university to grant him a platform to exercise that freedom.
The South Asian diaspora not only has a huge stake in what is going on in Indian politics, but also a significant influence on the way those politics unfold. Much of the debate has been happening outside of Penn. As students of an institution founded by Benjamin Franklin who said, “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are,” we would like to bring the conversation back to campus.
We see this as an excellent time to put forth a new politics of solidarity as members of the diaspora, a politics that affirms our support for the human rights of our brothers and sisters regardless of religion, caste and race, and for a development that includes all. We encourage you, South Asian Americans, Americans and Penn students, to come to your own understandings and engage in your own way. That, we believe, is freedom of speech.
Carthi Mannikarottu is a College junior. Umar Sheikh and Meghna Chandra are College seniors. Students who are interested in learning more and participating in a discussion about Narendra Modi, the Gujarat riots and the influence of the Indian Diaspora are invited to come to a screening of Rakesh Sharma’s documentary “Final Solution” at 401 Fisher-Bennett Hall on Monday, March 18 at 5 p.m.