A month back, on March 26 to be specific, a University of Pennsylvania student forum for debating government and politics (GPA) invited me to participate in a discourse on Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat. Engagement of students in analysis of contemporary issues is fairly commonplace in premier Universities, and the world’s largest democracy that India is, its vibrant politics will presumably induce enthusiasm abroad. But, this particular discourse had been precipitated by the infamous disinvite that a conference under the aegis of University of Pennsylvania extended to Modi and the subsequent international opprobrium that the University invited on itself. My colleague from medical school, Aseem Shukla and I had censured the move at venues such as Niti Central, NYtimes, Daily Pennsylvanian (Upenn newspaper) etc. I had also spoken at a protest organised by an association called ‘Americans for Free Speech’ on the day of the conference.
On the other hand, the disinvite was initiated by a concerted campaign launched by A Loomba, T Ghose and S Kaul. The convenors of the debate sought to constitute a representative panel by inviting all the above stakeholders. Shukla and I readily acquiesced to participate as we anticipated an ideal forum to deliberate on the affair and the academic lessons learned therein. Loomba, Ghose and Kaul however procrastinated on the acceptance of the invitation for more than a week. It was only after GPA resolved to go ahead with the panel without their participation and accordingly invited us, that Loomba and subsequently Ghose consented to debate Narendra Modi at Upenn.
The scope of the debate comprised of (i) the invitation and the subsequent rescission and (ii) Modi’s governance of Gujarat. While I had definitive persuasions as to the first, I apprised myself more on the latter in preparation. I reconciled to focusing on two specific issues in which I could meaningfully con-tribute, that of women’s empowerment and the pursuance of energy security through alternate energy generation – the latter constitutes my recent research interest as well. On request, the Chief Minister’s office directed me to extensive online resources with due professional alacrity – a pleasant surprise I must concede given my institutional affiliation. The debate would inevitably dwell on the unfortunate riots of 2002; I accordingly delved into the online news archives around the time, some synopses of history of riots in India and deciphered parts of the investigative report authored by the task force instituted by the supreme court of India (SIT).
I had the pleasure of being introduced to Loomba and Ghose on the evening of the debate, April 16, only to discover that Loomba could at best manage a curt nod. Ghose was however genial enough to extend the customary courtesy with which colleagues greet each other. Shukla initiated the debate with an outstanding and well-received address that derided the capitulation of the University on the virtues of plurality of discourse.
It was Loomba’s turn next. To start with, she equated the political choice of supporting Modi to the agenda of Hindu supremacy. Subsequently, she circulated a leaflet which prominently displayed a snapshot taken of me during my speech at the Wharton protest followed by excerpts from an agenda, which some would call puerile, for constituting a pro-Hindu Government in India. The agenda, it seems, was articulated by an organiser of the protest in a blog he authored. The leaflet was evidently conceived with the intent to cast aspersions on my credibility through innuendos. Loomba, the intellectual fountainhead of a premier university, also resorted to justifying the indefensible censorship she advocated, through a prominent display of certain inane protest placards conceived by those who do not stake any claim to furthering the frontiers of human knowledge. I was outraged by the design, but in hindsight, have been excruciatingly naive to not have anticipated such a move.
Has it not been a long-standing ploy of the leftist ideology which Loomba is closely associated with to counter content through campaign of calumny? Liberty to dissent is a concept non grata, till date, in communist nations and voices thereof are brutally silenced by the state machinery. Back home, one of the champions of Nehruvian socialism, a Cambridge-educated Mani Shankar Aiyar habitually lavishes encomiums, such as mass murderer, demon and other endearments that may not be reproduced in print, on a democratically elected Chief Minister of his country, without a shred of substantiation. Worse, he is liberally granted airtime in national television channels like NDTV, and CNN-IBN to perpetuate his uncivilised tirade and occasionally abuse his fellow debaters, some of whom happen to be women.
The left-leaning print media is not far behind either. One such outlet, Tehelka, recently published an article authored by Rana Ayuub, alleging incentivised blogging and anonymous tweeting by organised groups in support of the politics of Modi. The same article cited one of my tweets in this context oblivious to the easily veritable detail that I am hardly anonymous in social media, and incognisant of another trivia that I have not been compensated directly or indirectly for any of my contributions. It is worthy of note that I am relatively inconsequential in the world of political commentary, which suggests that attempts to denigrate more regular contributors constitutes a norm. Digressing little more, several left-leaning journalists routinely bemoan unparliamentary censure they are subjected to in social media. Ironically, one of the torch-bearers in this domain, an erstwhile Rhodes scholar, Sagarika Ghose, recently used the same medium to ascribe the virtues of a ‘guttersnipe’ to a young editor of a blogging site.
In defence of my innocence, none of the above violators happen to be academics anywhere let alone at an Ivy league institution. But, then in the words of an eminent advocate of free speech, Professor Kors at the history department of Upenn, didn’t the likes of Loomba and Ghose betray their profession, their students and their moral obligations by demanding censorship of a speech that the students intended to learn from? Their presumption of a moral crusade against a political ideology they perceive to be fascism would naturally sanctify the denigration of a colleague who has, in their home turf, challenged the inviolability of the censorship they enacted. Thus, started the debate.
The inauspicious commencement confronted me with a Hobson’s choice. I could seek to impeach the credibility of Loomba through guilt by association that she sought to invoke against me. While I was accused of once sharing a stage with so-called Hindu supremacists, she had a long-standing academic collaboration with Angana Chatterji and had signed a petition opposing the denial of entry of her partner to India. Chatterji has prominently participated in several conferences organised by Gulam Nabi Fai, who was arrested by the FBI for concealing the transfer of a whopping $3.5 million from Pakistani secret services, ISI, which he used for lobbying on Kashmir in US. He has pleaded guilty of conspiracy and tax evasion. Chatterjee’s academic position has now been suspended on grounds of misappropriation of funds, which perhaps explains why she did not sign the petition advocating the disinvite to Modi, despite earlier leading the campaign that lead to the denial of his US visa. I however chose to steer clear of denigrating Loomba so as not to reduce the debate to a Loomba-Sarkar forum and further vitiate the atmosphere through continued mud-slinging. But, lest the credibility crisis she instigated overshadows my participation, I rebutted the vilification relying on the views that I expressed in my protest speech as also my articles.
That the ambience of the discourse undermined the intellectual content is an understatement as the video footage will reveal. The distinguished debaters sought to argue why the debate itself was illegitimate. They made a compelling case by branding Modi and his supporters as fascists, right wing nuts, collaborators and the students who invited Modi as incompetent at best and Hindu supremacists at worst. They furnished a letter from a Muslim who was apparently intimidated by the very presence of the supporters of Modi. And, the distinguished academicians were aghast that some Wharton protesters appealed that their positions be discontinued all because they signed a petition. The tale of Gujarat riots and development deficiencies they narrated were as expected replete with subterfuges, misrepresentations and half-truths. Given the limited time at our disposal, some distortions were refuted, while the rest remained unchallenged; our rebuttals were distorted and the saga continued. Yet, I remain disappointed that the decimation of the web of falsehoods the cottage industry of riot activism seeks to foster day in and day out ensured an abbreviation of our commentary of the decade long success story of Gujarat. But, perhaps the truth of progress would have more conclusively countered the shrill voices that howl accusations without awaiting systemic determination? I remain unsure given the hostile discourse.
The sublime of academic discourse was scaled when Loomba sought to silence a student who was impertinent enough to seek a specific answer. She continued her verbal duel with those who posed inconvenient queries during the succeeding question and answer session. One of the admonished pupils alleged that she was as much in violation of the principles of free speech as the Wharton protesters who demanded sanction on her. Due to severe constraints on time, we could not seek her views on the closely related discontinuation of a summer course in economics that Subramanium Swamy offered every year at Harvard on the ground that he penned an opinion piece which has no bearing whatsoever on the course or the discipline.
My eminent colleagues liberally speculated on whether the industrialist Adani’s sponsorship of the Wharton India Economic Forum was contingent on the plenary invitation extended to Modi. The association was apparently substantiated by the withdrawal of the sponsorship after the rescission of the invitation; it was inconsequential that most of the other sponsors withdrew after the unsavory incident as well. It was also surmised that the disinvite was extended because Modi refused an interactive session after his speech. They confirmed this hypothesis with the irrefutable evidence that he walked out several years back of the Devil’s Advocate show conducted by Karan Thapar on CNN IBN. It was of no import that neither the Wharton school or its student body is yet to affirm their contention. The theatre of the absurd continued as they transferred the burden of ruling out their conjecture on us – it didn’t suffice that neither the students nor the Wharton Dean alluded to such a possibility in the correspondences we had.
One of the students detected a logical inconsistency in Ghose’s address. He argued that religious minorities vote for Modi out of apprehension of violence, and also that 70 per cent in this group do not exercise their democratic mandate in favour of Modi. Yet large scale violence has not been reported in Gujarat in more than a decade after 2002. Ghose’s response did not seem to further enlighten the audience on this topic. Loomba directed the moderator to allow the queries of some (likely) acquaintances. One of the chosen individuals observed that it was immoral to count the dead — true, nonetheless necessary to counter the factual distortions that my colleagues sought to disseminate on the same topic. The daughter of Ehsan Jafri, a riot victim, enquired about the housing discrimination against the Muslims in Gujarat, a question which Shukla fielded. He clarified that such unfortunate discrimination was not limited to Muslims and the nature of the discrimination depend on the sub-area in question, eg: only Jains are encouraged to reside in Paldi in Ahmedabad.
Another attendee commented that the denial of US visa establishes Modi’s complicity in the riots. Not many were privy to the information that one Nelson Mandela would be responsible of abetting terrorism based on the same rationale – he continued to be on a watch list for terrorists, since the African National Congress was designated a terrorist organisation in 1980s, and until as late as 2008, a decade and a half after he was awarded the Nobel Prize.
Eventually, the moderator called for closing statements. Shukla started his, at which point Loomba and Ghose decided to call it a day, unilaterally. We remain confounded as to why the commendable equianimity they displayed thus far deserted them towards the fag end. The debate thus concluded just as it began, with hostility. In the end, Indian political enthusiasts will justifiably be disappointed at the paucity of new information that emerged from this academic debate. Yet truth was told at least in part to the Philadelphia audience.