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Was Wharton right to disinvite Modi?

Business Standard 

It compromises the Gujarat CM's freedom of expression, but is politically & morally progressive in upholding American ideals of justice

Gurumurthy Kalyanaram
Professor and Management Consultant

"It's an asymmetrical situation since the critics had their say, but not Modi. While we heard their allegations, we did not hear Modi's arguments"

The decision by the of the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) to revoke the invitation to Chief Minister to address the on March 23 is unfortunate and wrong. My reasons are as follows:

* Principles of civil discourse and should not be compromised: In denying Modi the opportunity to present his ideas, we have missed our opportunity to serious issues concerning governance, growth and prosperity that we all care about. Modi was invited based on his credentials and accomplishments, and he had set no prior limits or ground rules to his keynote address. He was ready to be challenged, and his critics could have done the same by questioning him. Alternatively, they could have protested peacefully (the right to peaceful protest must be respected), and/or sought time to present their ideas on growth and governance. But that was not to be.

In opposing Modi's address, the petitioners have made various allegations with regard to the 2002 incident. While we heard their allegations, we did not hear Modi's arguments. Certainly, Modi's has been compromised by this asymmetrical situation, since the critics had their say, but not Modi.

Lee Bollinger, Columbia University president and a constitutional law scholar, summed up the arguments on free speech thus: "… the arguments for free speech will never seem to match the power of the arguments against, but what we must remember is that this is precisely because free speech asks us to exercise extraordinary self-restraint against the very natural but often counter-productive impulses that lead us to retreat from engagement with ideas we dislike and fear".

* Guilt by allegations, association and speculation is unfair, unwise and unjust: Since the 2002 incident, there have been many investigations, judicial proceedings and adjudications, including pronouncements by the Supreme Court. But Modi has not been found culpable in any of these proceedings. (The Supreme Court has permitted another application to be filed against Modi.)

Till such time as allegations are contested and proved to be true, they are just speculation. In the contestation process - over the last 10 years - Modi's arguments have prevailed. So, holding Modi guilty by allegations, association and speculation is fundamentally unfair, unwise and unjust.

* Democratic and judicial processes and outcomes must be respected: The Gujarat electorate has reposed its confidence in Modi three times - in 2002, 2007 and 2012. Serious arguments and allegations were presented against Modi in each of these elections, and the electorate, in its collective wisdom, chose to repose faith in Modi repeatedly. Besides, as already mentioned, no court, including the Supreme Court, has implicated Modi.

* As intelligent men and women, we must update our belief and opinion: The US denied Modi a visa in 2005. To use this fact as a disqualification of Modi is a straw man argument. Because, since 2005, there have been many outcomes, including the robust signals from major European countries and the Indo-US Business Council, that have been favourable to Modi.

For arguendo purposes, even if one had believed in 2005 that Modi may have been culpable for the 2002 incident, the probability of that plausible culpability is now minuscule because of the substantial volume of objective data in favour of Modi since 2005. (This is what scientists call the Bayesian Update). Any reasonable person should update his belief and So, to insist on the US' 2005 decision now is neither reasonable nor scientific.

Suppose the Supreme Court finds Modi culpable in the future, we should and will update our belief and then. For now, 10 years is long enough, and there has been plenty of objective evidence to deny Modi' culpability.

The UPenn and the are both great institutions. In its decision to deny Modi deliver the keynote address, the university has erred. But one erroneous decision does not dim the university's monumental contributions to higher education.

While there are no disagreements on the remarkable growth of Gujarat's economy in the last decade, there are critiques about its inclusiveness and fairness. That's an important debate, and a in which Modi also wants to engage, as evident from his recent public postures.

Ashwani Kumar
Professor of Development Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences

"The claim of Modi representing a talismanic "idea of India" presented the potential of the evil of 'clear and present danger' to of those who disagree"

The Wharton India Economic Forum's invitation to Gujarat Chief Minister to speak as a "chief guest" at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) has rightly and legitimately raised the hackles of liberals and progressives around the world. Benjamin Franklin, founder of the UPenn and one of the founding fathers of the US Constitution, would have heaved a sigh of relief after the withdrawal of the controversial invitation to the poster boy of politics of Hindutva. Citing liberal traditions of freedom of expression, especially the right to dissent, the troika of UPenn professors, namely Ania Loomba, Torjo Ghosh and Suvir Kaul, launched and defended their protest against Modi who presided over the "first full-blooded pogrom in Independent India", in the words of Ashutosh Varshney, India's leading theorist on Hindu-Muslim relations.

Though the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team has given Modi a clean chit in the post-Godhra Gulberg massacre, circumstantial evidence and numerous accounts of victims of the riots in Gujarat suggest his involvement and his government's role in encouraging anti-Muslim violence in 2002. His failure to protect the Muslim minority in Gujarat was criticised by the then prime minister and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh colleague Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as a failure of "raj dharma".

Given the majoritarian nature of electoral democracy, it is not strange that Modi has continued to win elections in Gujarat and now nurses prime ministerial ambitions. The polarised party politics of Hindutva, segregated neighbourhoods, exclusionary economic growth model and communal ideology have created enough electoral incentives for him to win elections regularly. Students in the US universities often recall Alexis Tocqueville's caution about the dark side of majoritarian tyranny in democracy.

By withdrawing its invitation in the face of mounting local and global resistance, the has indeed respected Franklin's ideals of public education, citizenship and justice. Worse, if Modi had represented himself, it would have resulted in the horrors of "consensual cannibalism" of free speech that does not distinguish between free speech and freedom of expression at public forums. The US Supreme Court recognises three forums of freedom of expression - traditional public forums, limited public forums and non-public forums. Universities and schools like Wharton come under the purview of limited public forums. And all forums of expression face the obligation of complying with the US Supreme Court-determined thumb rule of "clear and present danger" while speaking at public forums. Modi may justifiably seek forgiveness for his "past mistakes" anywhere in the world. But his supporters' claim of him representing a talismanic "idea of India" at the Wharton School is not only dangerously illiberal, but also presented the potential of the evil of "clear and present danger" to freedom of expression of those who disagree with his ideology and politics.

Following my graduate days in the University of Oklahoma, notorious for racial discrimination before the civil rights movements in the US, I don't think Modi and his admirers can legitimately evoke the principle of free speech on an American campus to espouse politics of genocidal violence and endorse ideologies of bigotry. The First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees only freedom of expression; it does not guarantee free speech that can be construed as "hate speech". In many campuses, especially in southern US where legacies of Jim Crow laws, politics of the Ku Klux Klan or traditions of white supremacy or Neo-Nazi alliances are still strong, free speech often masks "hate speech" directed at blacks, ethnic minorities and sexual minorities. In the several judgments, including Morse vs Frederick in 2007, the US Supreme Court has decided that the First Amendment does not prevent educators from suppressing the so-called free speech of students.

In short, the withdrawal of the invitation by Wharton is not only a legally permissible act, but also a progressive step, politically and morally, because universities are not a partying place for libertarians and tyrants of all kinds but a "moral infrastructure" to advance the cause of justice and inclusiveness in society. The Wharton School incident shows that universities are places where, in the words of philosopher Michael Sandel, the "second life" flourishes - a moral life whose reality depends on human solidarity rather than violence and bigotry.

First Published: Mon, March 11 2013. 21:42 IST