Your Voice | On WIEF and Narendra Modi

· March 10, 2013, 11:57 pm

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In response to a letter of protest written to them by a large group of Penn faculty and students, as well as concerned citizens, the organizers of the Wharton India Economic Forum withdrew their invitation to Narendra Modi, the chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat. The organizers “felt that the potential polarizing reactions from sub-segments of the alumni base, student body, and our supporters, might put Modi in a compromising position, which we would like to avoid at all costs … .” A storm of media coverage followed — every major TV network and national newspaper in India (and elsewhere) debated Modi’s being disinvited. Several of us were asked to comment and we have done so in a variety of fora.

We wish to reiterate briefly here why we (and virtually every member of the faculty teaching South Asia at Penn) objected to Modi being invited to deliver a keynote:

1. He is responsible — as the chief minister — for the pogroms in 2002 in which 2,000 Gujarati Muslims were massacred and hundreds of thousands displaced. (That is why the State Department has, since 2005, refused to grant him a visa.) The Supreme Court of India has spoken out against Modi’s government for impeding investigations and for harassing activists and lawyers who have sought to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice.

2. Modi’s style of politics is deeply threatening to India’s secular constitution. During his regime, school textbooks have been re-written to celebrate Nazi Germany’s efficiencies. His style of functioning is equally authoritarian. Recently, one of India’s most respected historians has written that “Mr. Modi seeks to make his party, his government, his administration and his country an extension of his personality” and notes his “brash, bullying, hyper-masculine style, the suspicion (and occasional targeting) of Muslims.” His supporters claim that he is an elected leader but so were several dictators in history.

3. As Modi makes a bid for national power, he claims that his policies are setting standards for economic development in India. The organizers of the WIEF too say they have been “extremely impressed with Modi’s credentials, governance ideologies, and leadership.” The truth lies elsewhere: Modi’s policies have resulted in the systematic underdevelopment of vulnerable sections of Gujarat’s population. Gujarat ranks in the bottom five of all states in India on the prevalence of malnutrition among children, and lags in important development measures such as the state hunger index and child mortality rates among scheduled tribes. Health indices in Gujarat for people who belong to scheduled castes and tribes are lower than the national average.

We could go on detailing all the reasons why Modi’s brand of economic development, based as it is on the marginalization of minorities and the poor, is no exemplar for India’s future, but those details are widely available.

For us, the question specific to the WIEF, Wharton School and Penn still remains: why was Narendra Modi invited in the first place? The alacrity with which the WIEF cancelled their invitation tells us that something must have been wrong procedurally with the original decision to invite him, or else Wharton, like any other academic institution, would have defended the importance of controversial speech on campus. Did the Adani Group, which began as a platinum sponsor of the Forum before it pulled its sponsorship, have anything to do with the issuing of the invitation?

Since the organizers knew that Modi is a controversial politician, is there any reason why they could not invite him to debate his critics? These are questions that still beg answers.

Our letter of protest, which asked the organizers of the WIEF to rescind their invitation, also promised creative ways of educating the Penn community to Modi’s political record. With that in mind, we invite all those interested in these issues of development, administration and human rights to attend a screening of “Final Solution,” Rakesh Sharma’s documentary on the Gujarat riots and their aftermath (at 5 p.m. on March 18, in 401 Fisher-Bennett Hall). We anticipate a vigorous discussion afterwards.

Suvir Kaul
A.M. Rosenthal Professor of English

Toorjo Ghose
Assistant Professor at the School of Social Policy and Practice

Ania Loomba
Catherine Bryson Professor of English

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