The Daily Pennsylvanian is a student-run nonprofit.

Please support us by disabling your ad blocker on our site.

A recent study session for an Urdu language exam took an unexpected turn when the Modi controversy came up. My Urdu tutor, who happens to be a Muslim woman from Pakistan, hesitantly asked my view on the issue. When I replied that Wharton was correct in its decision to rescind its invitation to Narendra Modi, she looked relieved.

But then I became disconcerted. Call me naive, but the fact that she worried that I would give the opposite reply troubled me and it still does. Her concern speaks to the longstanding precarity of Indian Muslims who have been consistently failed by the Indian state at the local, regional and national levels. The 2002 violence in Gujarat in which government officials oversaw and at times even participated in attacks against the state’s Muslim minority is a particularly glaring example. See the 2007 Tehelka expose in which Hindu right leaders admit that the attacks targeting Muslims occurred with Modi’s blessing. One stated that he was present at a meeting in which Modi said that Hindus had a 72-hour window after the Godhra train incident in which they could do whatever they wanted. Similarly, a government attorney, Arvind Pandya, stated that “[Modi] gave oral instructions to the police to remain with the Hindus.” It would be a profound understatement to say that Gujarat remains an adverse environment for Muslims.

The avowed mission of the Wharton India Economic Forum is to “provide a platform for thought leaders to discuss the opportunities present to India and the challenges that need to be addressed.” Saturday’s agenda is dominated by panels on private equity/venture capital, infrastructure, entrepreneurship and finance, which focus on issues pertinent to neoliberal capitalism. There is a panel on Women’s Empowerment, yes, but consider that it appeared only after the Modi keynote was dropped. While it remains unclear whether this panel was added in response to the Modi fall-out or the brutal gang rape and subsequent death of an Indian medical student that has received worldwide attention, one thing is certain: the topic wasn’t included in the first instance. Note that as of last Wednesday, March 13, Women’s Empowerment was not on the agenda.

There are many other significant challenges in India without which there cannot be any sustained or equitable economic development. I think WIEF should allot greater space for related conversations integral to India’s development story like human rights, state corruption and the future of India’s secularism, all key issues emerging out of the Modi controversy.

Make no mistake: an invitation to deliver a keynote address at one of the premier business schools in the world is not a matter to be taken lightly. It suggests approval of the speaker’s credentials and what he or she brings to the table. The WIEF organizers’ March 2 statement says as much (linked as a Word download in the sixth paragraph of this Inside Higher Ed article). While they claim that they “do not endorse any political views and do not support any specific ideology,” they go on to explain that “[the student organizing body] was extremely impressed with Mr. Modi’s credentials, governance ideologies, and leadership, which was the primary reason for the invitation to him.”

Modi has long been a controversial figure in India. It’s no secret that the Bharatiya Janata Party — the dominant Hindu nationalist political party in India — is almost certain to put him up as its candidate for prime minister in next year’s general election. A prestigious WIEF keynote would have honored Modi with the global brands of Wharton and the Ivy League and helped him bury his complicity in the 2002 violence under claims about development. It would have fit very nicely into a PR campaign to make him acceptable outside of Gujarat and internationally.

Though the WIEF chairs want us to think otherwise, there is nothing here that is not political. Their invitation to Modi to deliver a prestigious keynote address was a clear political act and this is precisely what my fellow petitioners and I objected to. We shudder to hear him considered a “thought leader” and that anyone could be impressed with his “governance ideologies.”

The screening and discussion of Rakesh Sharma’s “Final Solution” on Monday evening was part of a larger effort to educate the Penn community about why the invitation to Modi to deliver a keynote address in the first place was simply outrageous. The documentary provided an intimate look at Modi’s undeniable promotion and exploitation of divisive Hindu nationalist politics that has helped him maintain power for over a decade. Modi’s supporters repeatedly point out that he has been democratically elected three times. But when you consider his policies of hate-mongering against Muslims as well as how their homes and businesses fell into the hands of the Hindu majority in the wake of the violence, it’s not hard to see why this is the case (see John Lancaster, “Hindu Nationalists Win Indian State Election; Riot-Torn Gujarat Picks Hard-Liners,” Washington Post, Dec. 16, 2002, A16). Last year the Human Rights Watch published an article that describes how, a decade later, the Gujarat state government continues to shirk its responsibilities towards Muslims affected by the violence of 2002 and its aftermath.

Like their invitation to Modi, the WIEF agenda for Saturday betrays the flawed idea that human rights can be easily separated from development and growth. History is riddled with instances in which human rights have been violated in the name of economic progress and the practice persists. Consider the role that China’s suppression of human rights has played in its rapid industrialization. India desires to attain a similar status as China but the question is how will it do so. To pretend that human rights and economic development are not fundamentally intertwined is irresponsible and unethical. It is even more troubling that there are many people who believe that it is perfectly acceptable to sacrifice the human rights of Indian minorities if necessary for India to become a righteous Hindu superpower. Take a look at the comments in response to any of the anti-Modi articles on the DP and those that are sure to appear below this one as well.

This is precisely why my tutor was worried. I am too.

I take seriously WIEF’s claim that it fosters serious conversations about India’s emergence as a key global player and the challenges that it continues to face. In this spirit, I urge the WIEF to pay due attention to the imbrication of human rights and development when it convenes this Saturday. As a first-generation Indian American and a teacher of Indian politics and culture, I am extremely invested in seeing these conversations happen both in and out of the university setting. It is my hope that through such discussions the WIEF chairs will rethink their chilling pledge to reinvite Modi “at a more appropriate forum where he can interact with students without the distraction of this kind of attention.” The future of India as a secular and pluralist nation is at stake.

Monika Bhagat-Kennedy is a fourth-year English Ph.D. candidate studying colonial and postcolonial Indian literature.

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.