Modi vs Wharton: is it about Free Speech at all ?

BY Saurav Datta| IN Media Freedom | 08/03/2013
True, the event was being organized by Wharton students, but to attribute it to the University of Pennsylvania and then use this to decry the assault on"academic freedom" is specious.
What is the real agenda, asks SAURAV DATTA

Every field of knowledge has its shibboleths and every era has its aphorisms. So it appears from the frenzied debate and paroxysmic expression of outrage which followed the 17th WIEF ( Wharton India Economic Forum) ‘s  (  withdrawal of its invitation to Narendra Modi (he was slated to address a plenary session).  In its aftermath, there was a predictable blitzkrieg over the mainstream media as well as social media.

The essence of this blitzkrieg, if summed up, runs along the following lines:

      1.  Mr. Rajdeep Sardesai in his show ( ) labelled it as the “social isolation” of Mr. Modi. Ms. Nirmala Seetharaman ( National Spokesperson, BJP) in all her righteous indignation, decried it as a shocking example of academic intolerance. She accused the US Govt of miserably failing in its duty to uphold the freedom of speech and liberty.

On the same show, Mr. Suresh Prabhu of the Shiv Sena (who was also one of the WIEF invitees and had called off his acceptance in a show of solidarity) characterized it as an affront to Indian democracy and the sanctity of the electoral process.

     2. Mr. Arnab Goswami  in his show ( ) marched quite some steps ahead and branded the invitation’s withdrawal as an effort at the “international isolation” of Mr. Modi. One of the panelists on this show, Mr. Swapan Dasgupta, even ventured so far as to compare it with the Middle Temple’s cancellation of Mohandas Gandhi’s Bar Licence in 1920 because of his effrontery towards the King Emperor.

    3. Mr. Manish Sabherwal, CEO, Teamlease , Wharton alumnus and an advisor to the Gujarat government on skills and jobs issues, writing in ET ( ) invoked Voltaire and Tagore’s “Ekla cholo re” to accuse his alma mater of cognitive bias and violating the cardinal principle of respecting diversity of opinion.

4. Seething with anger and frothing at the mouth, a certain Mr. Sandeep in his blogpost ( ) fired a stream of epithets against Professors Ania Loomba, Toorjo Ghosh and others who had moved the petition which resulted in the cancellation of the invitation. Some of Mr. Sandeep’s “adjectives”, like “Professor-Sepoys”, ‘academic Fascists”, “bullys” stretch logic by quite a few miles.  They also lead to an interesting observation- those very words which are used to criticize Mr. Modi and his politics, are hurled back as invectives against those who strove to have WIEF cancel its invitation.

     5.  A virulent Pamela Geller in her blogpost ( ) called it “Voices of freedom snuffed out by sharia enforcers”  due to the “leftist Obama adminstration working in tandem with the pro-Islamic supremacist corrupt Congress government that is ruling India.”

To me, one has to practise the art of the ostrich and be proficient in the wizardry of leapfrogging credulity in order to take such reactions even with buckets of salt. It is my contention that the issue, if any, is not about free speech at all.

Underneath this brouhaha, Is there something which does not meet the eye?

Beneath the layers of this sudden penchant for treating the cherished freedom of speech and expression as a hobby-horse by everyone- to express everything from petulance and excruciating indignation ( like those of Mr. Modi’s acolytes and supporters) to hate speech (think about Mr. Subramaniam Swamy’s vitriolic diatribe in his 16 July 2012 DNA Op-ed “"How to wipe out Islamic terror" ; though two wrongs never make a right, it is surprising that there was no such widespread outrage when Harvard showed him the door because of this article) and to other shindig which are too numerous to be dignified with a mention here, lies an insidious agenda to gloss over the real and pressing issues at stake. What might they be?

To begin with, let’s look at the “Wharton invite’.

The invitation was extended by the WIEF - “an annual student-run India-centric conference (which) is one of the largest and most prestigious India-focused business conferences  ...” ( ). The WIEF is NOT to be mistaken with The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, as these two screenshots amply testify :


True, the event was being organized by Wharton students, but to attribute it to the University of Pennsylvania and then use this to labouriously decry the assault on “academic freedom” would be quite specious an argument. Academic freedom, quite a dialectic topic, is involved in cases such as that of British historian and Holocaust-denier David Irving, or say, if Prof. Ashis Nandy had made his polemical statement about the Depressed Classes and corruption in the portals of a university classroom during the course of a lecture on Social Psychology. Academic freedom would have been involved if Oxford- Cambridge University had barred Gaddafi from addressing its students ( ), notwithstanding the fact that the late dictator’s speech was a study in “willing suspension of disbelief”).

Second, the freedom of speech and expression, if understood in its proper, pristine sense, is to protect an individual and the Fourth Estate from the State’s depredation of clamping down on expression, criticism, or dissent. It is meant to protect and promote the citizens’ right to information and right to demand accountability from the government.

For Mr. Modi’s supporters and even his detractors, to express outrage and claim that the cancellation of the invitation is a free speech issue is nothing but convoluted, self-serving and misconceived logic.

Third, and here I choose my words with unfeigned caution but secure conviction. A close look at the first screenshot shows that the event was being “presented” (read : sponsored) by the Adani Group. This enterprise is headed by Mr. Gautam Adani, renowned shipping-magnate and someone very close to Mr. Modi.  No wonder that the Adani Group pulled out as soon as the news of the cancellation of the invite broke, and the group’s logo was hastily removed from the WIEF ‘s website.

It is also pertinent to mention and observe that most of the trenchant criticism against the cancellation of the invite has come from those (both Indian citizens and members of the Indian diaspora settled in different corners of the world) running big businesses. The criticism has not come from the fields of social sciences or the law (members and practitioners of these two fields are usually the first to vociferously protest against any impingement on civil liberties).

This begs the question- what is the real agenda?

It is trite that Mr. Modi’s politics are different, and so is his principal poll-plank and his main constituency. It is “development”, but through a rampantly prolific expansion of business and industrialization, even if it is to the detriment of all other concerns pertaining to equity. And of course, anyone taking a contrarian position or even questioning this is branded as anti-national, or a boneheaded, myopic Left-Lib, or, as Justice Markandey Katju recently witnessed to his shock, a gadfly with his head in the clouds.

Therefore, “academic intolerance’, anyone ? Violation of the freedom of speech ?

Last, but not the least. As to Mr. Prabhu’s contention that this was an insult to Indian democracy, let us not be beguiled into not seeing that Mr. Modi’s entire agenda of seeking a sort of legitimacy from the hallowed portals of libertarian institutions swearing by unfettered trade is nothing  short of what is known in the US as “corporate free speech”. Let us not swallow the trope that this agenda has got nothing to do with election campaigning. Let us not ignore the criticism of the United State Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission ( ) is still weathering- that allowing untrammeled corporate funding in elections to political office, under the flawed assumption of free speech, is a gross violation of democracy, so much so that Mr. Barack Obama has been steadfast in his determination to get such a dangerous precedent overruled at the earliest.

In India, where the electoral process is besieged by muscle-flexing through unaccounted money-power and every conceivable form of rent-seeking, it is precisely such instances of manufactured hysteria over such craven manipulation of the free speech logic and principles which give democracy a black eye. Nothing else, howsoever much people tie themselves up in knots in trying to hammer home what they would coerce us to believe is the truth.

As for the media’s actions..well…in the celebrated decision in Miami Herald Publishing Company v Turnillo (1974), Chief Justice Warren Burger of the United States Supreme Court had proclaimed : “The Constitution guarantees a free press but does not require a responsible press.” (emphasis supplied ). Maybe, this latitude granted by the Court is being milked to its fullest advantage.

Or, as Christopher Lasch said in “Journalism, Publicity and the Lost Art of Argument”  ( ) : “Much of the press, in its eagerness to inform the public, has become a conduit  for the equivalent of junk mail.”

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