It is by now common knowledge that a conference under the aegis of the Wharton School at Upenn retracted an invitation for a plenary speech to Narendra Modi, the third time democratically-elected Chief Minister of a State of the world’s largest democracy. I will present an academic analysis of the implications of this saga. It would be worthwhile to note that I am a faculty member of the engineering school of Upenn, but the assessments offered are entirely in my personal capacity.
How we failed our students
I am personally convinced that the decision is severely flawed. It would perhaps have been easier to persuade my readers as to the merits of my argument if I could denounce Modi’s politics right at the start and then present my case based entirely on the virtues of exposure to plurality of ideas. But, the truth is that I am sanguine that Modi represents a new political phenomenon that draws from sound economics, if the repeatedly dissected Gujarat growth story is anything to go by. And, that is why I hoped that the bright students of a premier Ivy League business school would have had the opportunity to hear him. They may have bought into whole or parts of his message or may have summarily rejected it. But, the process of rejection would have significantly contributed to their intellectual nourishment.
Yet, divesting our students of an opportunity to attend Modi’s lecture in itself has been the least of our failings as Penn academicians. As enthusiastic citizens of this new information age, they will have every opportunity to tune into one of the addresses of the tech-savvy Chief Minister of Gujarat. If at all, the censorship that we enforced and the resulting publicity will stimulate their curiosity and thereby facilitate their exposure to Modi’s vision. We, however, failed to instil key values that constitute the core of academic ethos. Let us then investigate the sequence of events as it unfolded.
The conference extended an unsolicited invitation for a keynote speech to Modi which he was gracious enough to accept. The conference extensively publicised the keynote speech, as it should. Subsequently, a group of three faculty members affiliated with the School of Arts and Sciences led a petition for cancellation of the plenary speech and communicated their intent to protest if their request was not granted. The petition was directed to the university management and, as I am given to understand, a decision to unceremoniously rescind the invitation on the basis of “potential polarising reactions from sub-segments of the alumni base” was arrived at within an unusually short time, likely spanning a day.
This decision troubles me on several counts. First, Modi is very much a public figure. His Wikipedia bio mentions the controversies surrounding the Gujarat riots which outraged the petitioners. Was the invitation process for plenary speakers appropriately vetted? I learned from an informative article authored by a Wharton alumnus, Praveen Chakravarty, who co-chaired the conference a decade back, that the speakers are selected through a “meticulous process undertaken by the speaker sub-committee of the conference” based on “student interests” and “diversity of views”. It is therefore safe to presume that the organisers decided that Modi’s plenary talk will add substantial value to the conference notwithstanding the controversies.
There were no material changes regarding the controversies in recent past. Is it, therefore, the case that the invitation was retracted based on the outrage that a section of the Penn community expressed? But, then brilliant ideas are often disruptive and may well spark an outrage within another sub-section of our ecosystem. Should that prevent us from exposing our students to the same and providing them the opportunity to challenge them in an academic forum? Is this then laying the groundwork for allowing violations of academic freedom so as to avert offending sensibilities of constituents? Are we then dangerously close to a concept non grata in any vibrant academic community?
Hypothetically, even if there were extenuating circumstances compelling the disinvite that we do not understand, shouldn’t the decision at least be preceded by an elaborate debate involving all stake-holders? This question emerges from my presumption that the retraction was enacted based on the merits of the views presented in the petition rather than on the basis of the mere fact that there exists a section of Penn or Indian American community that disapproves of Modi. It was then mandatory to provide an opportunity for challenging the arguments presented in the petition.
I will make my point through three chosen examples. First, the petition relies heavily on a Human Rights Watch report that alleges complicity of a section of the police and politicians in Gujarat in the riots. It conveniently forgets the fact that the report was issued in 2002 and since then several participants have been convicted in Indian courts; they are currently serving hefty prison sentences. Modi’s personal complicity has been repeatedly investigated by multiple commissions, including a Special Investigative Team (SIT) whose investigation was monitored by the Supreme Court of India.
Modi subjected himself to a lengthy deposition before the SIT. The task force submitted a detailed report conducted through several years of investigation (Human Rights Watch released its report within a few months of the violence) which exonerates Modi of all complicity in the riots and acknowledges that he called in the Army to control the riots.
Next, the petition appealed that the invitation be rescinded lest it provides international respectability to Modi. This is a hypothesis I would have loved to contest: An academic conference does not and ought not to choose its plenary speech based on who it wishes to legitimise but only on the value the choice adds to the conference. Another, yet more outrageous, ground articulated by one of the petitioners in a TV debate, is that a part of the Indian American community did not believe that Modi represents India. I, for one, find this premise entirely erroneous given that the electorate of the State Modi represents has thrice resoundingly spoken otherwise.
What, however, offends me most is that the decision defies all established norms of not only intellectual, but also, civilized engagement. The faculty at any premier institute is charged with educating its students to honour their commitments, and this unprecedented course of action contradicts this very ethos. We in effect encouraged or possibly persuaded the students to adopt the path of least resistance.
(To be concluded.)
Saswati Sarkar is a Professor in the Electrical and Systems Engineering Department at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. She has been teaching at Upenn since 2000.