Harvard, India and Intolerance

Economist's op-ed calling for his home country to take steps against Islam leaves the university facing calls to dismiss him.
August 1, 2011

Subramanian Swamy isn't your average summer school instructor. Swamy was a Harvard University economics professor before returning to politics in India, where he is president of the Janata Party. But he comes back to Cambridge in the summer to teach at the university, still sharing his views in India -- views that are setting off a debate at the university and in his home country.

In an op-ed in Daily News & Analysis last month, Swamy responded to a recent bombing by Muslim terrorists in Mumbai. India could wipe out terrorism, he wrote, by taking certain steps, such as declaring India a Hindu state where "non-Hindus can vote only if they proudly acknowledge that their ancestors were Hindus," or demolishing mosques, or banning conversion from Hinduism to any other faith. The op-ed's author ID didn't note Swamy's Harvard connection, but it didn't take long for word of it to reach the university.

Some students said that, while respecting academic freedom, they find it offensive that an instructor could be advocating the removal of voting rights for people of a given religion.

A petition from Harvard students and parents, plus others, demanding that Harvard "terminate" Swamy's association with the university states that he has gone beyond what is acceptable discourse. "While free expression and the vigorous contest of ideas are essential in any academic community, so, too, are respect and tolerance for human difference. By advocating measures that would grossly violate freedom of religion and the unqualified right to vote for different religious groups, and by aggressively vilifying an entire religious community, Swamy breaches the most basic standards of respect and tolerance," the petition says.

The petition also raises issues about his fairness as an instructor: "Swamy's comments cast doubt on his ability to treat a diverse community of students with fairness and respect. The highly insulting and stereotypical nature of his comments suggest that he cannot be trusted to regard Muslims -- and no doubt other groups -- with anything but a jaundiced eye."

The dispute has attracted considerable attention in India, with some groups calling for Swamy to be arrested, and with the country's National Commission for Minorities planning a discussion this week of the implications of the article.

There have also been reports -- starting in The Harvard Crimson (based on quoting the summer school dean as saying "we will give this matter serious attention") and spreading elsewhere -- that Harvard is planing some kind of review of Swamy as well. The Foundation for Individual Rights last week wrote to Drew Faust, noting those reports, and calling on the university not to investigate Swamy's statements or take action against him. The statement about "serious attention," FIRE wrote, "will unacceptably chill expression among members of Harvard's community."

Despite that quote, there is no investigation, and Swamy has been teaching his courses (which conclude this week) without incident.

And a Harvard spokesman, Jeff A. Neal, released a statement Sunday that -- while noting the concern over Swamy's statements -- defended his free speech rights.

"As an institution of research and teaching, we are dedicated to the proposition that all people, regardless of color or creed, deserve equal opportunities, equal respect, and equal protection. Recent writings by Dr. Swamy therefore are distressing to many members of our community, and understandably so," the statement said. However, it added: "It is central to the mission of a university to protect free speech, including that of Dr. Swamy and of those who disagree with him. We are ultimately stronger as a university when we maintain our commitment to the most basic freedoms that enable the robust exchange of ideas."

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