Student organizers of a forum at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania have canceled a keynote speech by a controversial foreign political figure after faculty circulated a petition protesting his appearance -- thus handing their invited guest what one former panelist described as "the intellectual equivalent of an eviction notice."
Narendra Modi, the chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, was to speak by videoconference to the Wharton India Economic Forum later this month. Although named as a hopeful for prime minister, Modi is widely condemned for his government’s failure to suppress anti-Muslim riots that killed about 1,000 people in Gujarat in 2002. Human Rights Watch has argued that officials in the police and state government were complicit in the violence. In 2005, the U.S. State Department revoked Modi’s tourist visa under a provision that renders ineligible any foreign government official who "was responsible for or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” (A State Department official on Tuesday refused to confirm whether Modi remains ineligible for a tourist visa.)
“It is incomprehensible to us that this is the man who the Wharton India Economic Forum wishes to celebrate as an exemplar of economic and social development,” reads the petition opposing Modi’s talk. “We find it astonishing that any academic and student body at the University of Pennsylvania can endorse ideas about economic development that are based on the systematic oppression of minority populations, whether in India or elsewhere. Our role as scholars and students — and indeed as would-be entrepreneurs and business managers — must be to develop conscientious and efficacious modes of economic organization, not to piggy-back onto the inhuman policies of politicians who not only lack a commitment to human rights and to ideals of social justice, but whose political success is based on the suppression of substantial sections of their own citizens.”
The petition calls for the revocation of Modi’s invitation. A joint statement sent by Ania Loomba, a professor of English who was one of three Penn (non-Wharton) professors who led the petition drive, asserts that while student groups have the right to invite any speaker they wish, "of course anyone has the right to raise objections to that."
"Let us be clear: we are not opposing his [Modi's] right to free speech. He has those rights, and avails of them on a daily basis: he has full and immediate access to the news media in Gujarat and India. What we are opposed to is the Forum, which is an element in a larger institution of which we are a part, granting him a position of honor to increase his personal legitimacy, and thus further a political agenda which we find reprehensible." Loomba said about 200 signatures have been collected, from faculty, students, and concerned citizens.
In a statement, the four student organizers of the conference defended their decision to invite Modi, but said they were cancelling his talk in order to avoid putting him in a “compromising position.”
“We do not endorse any political views and do not support any specific ideology. Our goal as a team is only to stimulate valuable dialogue on India's growth story, and to act as a forum where students and audiences interact with influential leaders from across India. 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,” they wrote.
“However, as a responsible student body within the University of Pennsylvania, we must consider the impact on multiple stakeholders in our ecosystem. Our team felt that the potential polarizing reactions from sub-segments of the alumni base, student body, and our supporters, might put Mr. Modi in a compromising position, which we would like to avoid at all costs, especially in the spirit of our conference's purposes. Even, as we stand by our decision to invite him, we believe that this course of action would be the most appropriate and in line with the multiple stakeholders involved.”
The decision to cancel the forum has been a hot topic in the Indian press. The Indian Express reports that another prominent politician, Suresh Prabhu, will not be attending the forum in protest. "It was Wharton which invited him,” Prabhu told the paper. “Modi did not ask that he be invited. And if you are calling off the invite, I think it is not only an insult of the Gujarat Chief Minister but of the entire country.”
Closer to home, Sadanand Dhume, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed explaining his decision to withdraw from a panel at the forum (it was he who employed the eviction notice analogy above).
“With more courage and creativity, Wharton might have instead made Mr. Modi engage with his critics,” wrote Dhume, who further argued that Modi’s pro-growth, pro-investment message “is worth pondering dispassionately on its merits.”
“To many Indians and Indian-Americans, the University of Pennsylvania ends up looking less like a place of learning that appreciates diverse viewpoints, and more like a repository of a shrill brand of political correctness fundamentally out of touch with the economic debate in India,” he wrote.