It was wrong to disinvite Modi, writes Upenn professor (Part 1)


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Saswati Sarkar8 Mar 2013

 
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The Wharton debacle

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.




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  • http://twitter.com/sri709 CA Srinivasan Anand

    A boy asked his father who was a successful businessman “What are the essential qualities to succeed in business?” “Honesty and Wisdom” replied the businessman. “What is honesty? And what is wisdom?” questioned the son. The businessman replied “Wisdom is ‘never make commitments’. Honesty is never break commitments once made”. Wharton violated both these principles. Knowing about controversies surrounding Modi, wisdom lay in not inviting him in the first place. But having invited Modi, Honesty lay in allowing him to make the speech. By disinviting Modi,Wharton failed on both wisdom and honesty.

  • shriraj

    Well said Make sense

  • gbz

    Around 2004 or so, I remember Ram Madhav was touring US.. trying to connect with US academia as part of an rss outreach. Most places refused to let him speak, but CASI under francine frankel invited him. There were lot of protests from the usual suspects, but he was allowed to speak in front of a small gathering. He gave a reasonable speech explaining the RSS viewpoint on various issues and counter-points to some usual criticisms. At the end, when the q&a started, this indo-american professor, forget his name, got up and mustered up all his anger and outrage, and shouted, “Mr. madhav, you represent fascism and I think your speech was completely unscholarly” (or something to that effect). Apparently, that was devastating refutation of mr.madhav’s speech. I almost fell over laughing.

    Frankel herself was much more measured, blurted out the usual lines on rss’s dark side, but also was sensible enough to call for a reasoned evaluation of the organization rather than emotional vituperation.

    Anyway, point being — the real travesty with the modi fiasco was that it was not the students who disinvited him, but a small, over-zealous, self-righteous group in SAS, who bullied and threatened the students into withdrawing the invitation. In the process, probably only helping rather than hurting modi, by making a spectacle of their own pettiness. As for the conference, its a stupid pointless event for wharton students to pass around resumes and land an internship for the summer, and for the megarich kids from mumbai to show off their india connections. In a way, its only appropriate modi didn’t show up.

  • Viivek

    Madam! Thank you!

    http://www.rediff.com/news/report/cctv-cameras-captured-one-of-the-hyd-blasts-suspects/20130309.htm

    It is so long since decent people of Indian origin stood up to the chronic anti-national, terrorist COMMIES who have been in the US and working with ISI, KAC and every Pakistani Islamic terrorist organization to spread terror against and destroy India. These corrosive, dangerous people are simply ignored by most people because no one wants to pick fights with these people. Because of their bellicose attitude, lies and connections to the funds/media, no one calls their lies. This is the first time several speakers and sponsors withdrew. I hope the Universities and US Govt. realize how dangerous and immoral these people are and don’t base future policies based on lies of a bunch of pathetic liars who contribute zero to the advancement of American or Indian interests. Their only interest is Kashmir American Council and similar terrorist organizations supported by ISI. The same people campaigned to abolish death sentence of Kasab and Afzal Guru.

  • sriram

    Appreciate your efforts in expressing yourself clearly and vigorously. Thanks.

  • rajesh

    I am happy Modi is not going to Wharton.
    He should not. These institutes are hallow citadel. Nothing more that that.

    Modi should go to World Hindu Economic Forum, which represents the Hindu Entrepreneurs and businessmen of whole world.

    http://www.wheforum.org

    Thanks
    Rajesh

  • http://WWW.google.com U.Narayan K

    Inviting one for lecture or otherwise is one’s prerogative. But withdrawing the invitation due to pressure from fundamentalists, Wharton School at Upenn have not only discredited themselves but also have made them look as most unreliable entities. They have treaded the the path of Pseudo Secular Congress here in India, who on a drop of hat change their programme as the wishes of Islamic fundamentalists & cancel anything to please them for vote bank Politics. Congress dilemma is understandable since they care two hoods for Country, other than staying in power at any cost, but why Wharton did this, they must explain their compulsion in doing so.

  • Ramesh Rao

    Many thanks to Prof. Sarkar for her eloquent defense of free speech, and for her brave stance, knowing full well the opprobrium she faces from her vituperous Left/Marxist colleagues at UPenn.

  • sneaha

    Well Said
    Truth is Truth.
    Narendra Modi’s silence was heard world wide….Upenn’s reputation down

  • Ramamoorthy

    Well said lady! Truth is that he stopped the riot in three days! ever think of it! The forefathers of USA have killed 132 million American Indians; think of it.