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In the pages of The Daily Pennsylvanian and elsewhere, supporters of Narendra Modi have framed the issue of Modi’s disinvitation from the Wharton India Economic Forum as one of free speech. The framing is a clever one. Narendra Modi is a rather unsavory figure, and he is difficult to defend on any other terms. Extremist exclusionary politics, crony capitalism, an authoritarian style of governance and the infamous 2002 riots during which thousands of Muslims were raped, murdered, burned alive and displaced on his watch — Modi’s record does not sit well with the average reader of the DP. And so it behooves Modi supporters to repackage the issue as one of free speech. These are the only grounds upon which they stand a chance of winning the war of public opinion in which they are currently engaged.

But Saturday in the streets of Philadelphia, we got a much clearer picture of what it is that Modi’s supporters actually stand for. In a protest that was organized by a group describing itself as “Americans for Free Speech,” free speech seemed pretty low on the agenda. Instead, protesters (whom, the DP reports, had been bused in from New Jersey and Queens with only a token student presence amongst their ranks) held signs declaring support for Modi’s prime ministerial bid. Was this Americans for Free Speech or Americans for Narendra Modi? More alarmingly, protesters hoisted signs bearing caricatures of professors Ania Loomba and Suvir Kaul, two authors of the petition protesting Modi’s visit. This move of targeting individual professors by name or image for the purpose of intimidation is familiar from last year’s boycotts, divestment and sanctions controversy, when minions of the infamous David Horowitz Freedom Center distributed a pamphlet that juxtaposed Nazi imagery with the names of several Penn professors associated with the BDS conference. These aggressive tactics have been honed by other right-wing extremist groups, including anti-abortion militants, who have been known to circulate images of abortion providers in order to incite and facilitate violence against them. Americans for Free Speech is running a campaign of suppression and intimidation. Far from defending free speech, their aim is to quash it.

Equally disturbing were protest signs that used the language of Islamophobia to deride the organizers of the petition campaign. Slogans like “Stop Academic Jihad” and “Intellectual Al-Qaeda” were plastered alongside cartoon images of turbaned Arab and Muslim “terrorists.” This imagery taps into the kind of barely veiled anti-Muslim discourse that has become alarmingly commonplace in contemporary U.S. culture, from virulent ad campaigns on our city subways to the negative depictions of television dramas and blockbuster films. This is also the discourse of Narendra Modi and the Hindu right. Riding U.S. cultural coattails, Modi and his ideological bedfellows capitalize on sensationalized anti-Muslim tropes to promote their vision of a de-secularized Hindu India with no place for the country’s Muslim minority population. This is the dangerous, religious-supremacist, genocidal vision that underpinned the 2002 pogrom that Modi allowed to take place under his watch. It’s a vision remote from the constitutional value of open exchange. And it’s the vision that animated this weekend’s so-called “free speech” protest.

Ashley L. Cohen is an English doctoral candidate at Penn.

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