A few themes emerge, if confused, from recent happenings at Wharton: freedom of expression, a possible insult to the nation, horrible regimes that the US is friends with. All worth addressing.
The insult, first. I accept that Narendra Modi feels injured by Wharton’s action. After all, how many of us get the chance to address some of the brightest business students in the world? Modi must have been looking forward to that. No doubt it came as a slap in his face that Wharton was persuaded to take back its invitation.
But let’s understand: it’s no slap in my face. The world over, institutions issue invitations, withdraw some, confer awards, annul some, and so on. They have their reasons, some of which I may agree with and some I may not, most of which I am not even aware of. (Why, for example, did Saginaw State University award BS Yeddyurappa an honorary doctorate in 2008?).
I feel no particular emotion about any of these events: they just happen, that’s all. Just because a fellow-Indian, even a fellow-Indian named Narendra Modi, feels insulted by one of them hardly means that I feel or should feel the same.
Though I realise Modi has long learned the value of labelling criticism of him as insults to Gujarat’s “asmita”. For a decade we’ve seen him do it to any questions about the massacres of 2002, reaping the electoral rewards such rhetoric is designed for. Now that he nurses wider political dreams, the labelling gets correspondingly wider too: it’s not just Gujarat, but, as the Shiv Sena’s Suresh Prabhu announced, “Wharton has insulted India.” Look, Mr Prabhu, I’m Indian and I’m not insulted. Please don’t presume to speak for me.
Regimes close to the US, next. Chetan Bhagat summed this up with this comment: “Dear Wharton, the country you belong to routinely makes friends with dictators and military govts who used guns to be in power. Remember that.”
This is so shaky an argument that it’s a wonder someone as erudite as Bhagat even tries to make it. For one thing, Wharton is a thoroughly private, independent institution that has nothing to do with its country’s government. For another, that country also makes friends with democracies. So?
But above all, let’s understand what this argument amounts to: “So you say Modi did these horrible things? What about your pals in country X, Y and Z? They did equally bad, maybe worse things!”
Note that there isn’t, as you might expect, an emphatic claim here that Modi did not do horrible things. There is merely finger-pointing in different directions. Thus what this argument boils down to is an implicit acceptance (“equally bad”) of exactly the criticism of Modi that got his invitation withdrawn. Point made: by Bhagat, no less, and no doubt plenty more Modi supporters.
And finally, freedom of expression. The extent to which this straightforward concept is misunderstood always mystifies me. What it means is, I’m free to express myself, just as you are and just as Modi is.
But let’s understand: so are those who don’t want to hear Modi. Here’s the absolute essence of free expression: views we find annoying or offensive enjoy just the same freedoms our own views do. Presumably there were people who wanted to hear Modi, and they asked the Wharton organisers to invite him. In just the same way, there were people who didn’t want to hear him, and they asked the Wharton organisers to withdraw the invitation. Freedom of expression applies equally to both those groups.
Of course it left Wharton with a dilemma, but that’s what freedoms can and must do, when strictly upheld. They are never easy to enforce, because they will invariably displease someone. That Wharton chooses to come down on one side of the dilemma is, by itself, no indictment of free expression. After all, Modi gave a talk at Delhi’s Shri Ram College of Commerce not long ago. That time too, those who did not want to hear him protested.
Did Modi’s supporters mourn any trampling of free expression then? No, because their man actually spoke. But SRCC’s choice of the other side of the same dilemma is also, by itself, no indictment of free expression.
If Modi’s supporters want to persuade the country that he should be PM, that’s fine with me. But let’s see them use reason and some logic, not handwaving about insults and freedoms they don’t understand.
Dilip D’Souza is a Mumbai-based writer and journalist. The views expressed by the author are personal.