A Conversation With: Ania Loomba, Professor at University of Pennsylvania

By NIHARIKA MANDHANA, in India Ink, nytimes
Ania Loomba.Courtesy of Ania LoombaAnia Loomba.

On March 23, when students and prominent Indians meet at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania for the India Economic Forum, one person will be conspicuous by his absence: Narendra Modi.

The chief minister of Gujarat was invited to join the conference via Skype to discuss Gujarat’s development model, but student organizers of the annual conferencewithdrew their invitation on Sunday after a few University of Pennsylvania professors circulated a petition opposing Mr. Modi’s invitation.

Their letter accused the right-wing politician of not doing enough to prevent riots in Gujarat in 2002 that led to the death of over 1,000 people, most of them Muslims. Mr. Modi has consistently denied these allegations, but the United States has refused to provide him with a visa over concerns about these accusations.

India Ink contacted one of the professors who helped mobilize opposition to Mr. Modi’s speech, Ania Loomba, who teaches English at the University of Pennsylvania. In an e-mail interview, Professor Loomba explained why she objected to Mr. Modi’s participation in the conference.


What were your main objections to the Wharton India Economic Forum’s invitation to Narendra Modi to speak at the conference?


As is well known, Narendra Modi is a very controversial figure. We were concerned that this conference would help contribute to his efforts to sanitize his government’s record. Specifically, his government’s actions and inactions during the communal violence in Gujarat in 2002, which devastated the state’s Muslim population, and whose worst excesses have still not been redressed.

Mr. Modi has increasingly attempted to recast himself as a “developmentalist” with a strong economic record in Gujarat. This has been his campaign agenda both in recent state elections, and in his current bid to be projected as a major prime ministerial candidate in India’s next general election. We are firmly opposed to any attempt to de-link development from human rights: the kinds of atrocities minority communities suffered and continue to suffer in Gujarat are not neatly separable from economic development.

Moreover, there is mounting scholarly evidence that Gujarat’s economic growth has not yielded improvements in human development. Specifically health and educational outcomes, such as child nutrition, where the state remains among the worst performers in India.

In this troubled context, providing Mr. Modi with a plenary position to speak on economic development is a deeply political act. We should also note that the Adani Group was a platinum sponsor of the event –they have since refused their sponsorship after the student-organizers of the Forum rescinded their invitation to Mr. Modi. Gautam Adani, chairman of Adani Group, is a well-known Modi supporter, and his pulling out is a reminder that his sponsorship was part of an attempt to re-launch Mr. Modi in the U.S.

Mr. Modi’s proposed plenary address fit very much with his sanitizing campaign. He was due to speak on his state’s economic record, and there was no forum for questioning his human rights record. While the Wharton conference organizers say they do not ascribe to any political ideology, we felt that providing an opportunity that so closely fits the campaign agenda of a controversial politician is inherently political, particularly since it repressed any attention to Mr. Modi’s record on human rights and justice.


Would it have been better, as some have suggested, if Mr. Modi had been allowed to speak, followed by a question-and-answer session, where he could have been questioned about human rights and Gujarat’s human development record?


No. I doubt that any substantive debate could have been part of an event like this. If the organizers wanted a debate, they could have invited someone opposed to Modi and staged the dialogue. This was not set up to be a dialogue. Moreover, a man who has prosecuted whistle-blowers and activists who had tried to bring the guilty to justice in Gujarat is hardly someone who is open to a debate and dialogue. As we wrote in our letter, the Supreme Court has criticized the Modi government for using trumped-up charges to harass activists fighting for justice.


In 2007, Columbia University invited President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, a highly controversial international figure, to address its students, amid protests by a host of groups. In a culture that embraces free speech, some have asked, should Mr. Modi’s address have been boycotted?


It is part of a vibrant democracy to dissent and indeed to boycott speakers. Our letter to the student organizers of the Forum simply expressed our objections to their invitation. There is a big difference between shutting down free speech and raising principled objections to inviting a man with a sordid human rights record.

Let us be clear: we are not opposing his right to free speech. He has those rights, and avails of them on a daily basis: he has full and immediate access to the news media in Gujarat and India. What we are opposed to is the Forum, which is an element in a larger institution of which we are a part, granting him a position of honor to increase his personal legitimacy, and thus further a political agenda which we find reprehensible.

Finally, the media has been presenting it as a few professors shutting the desires of students. But many students were signatories too. As well as doctors, lawyers and concerned citizens. We did not speak from a position of any authority because student groups at Penn have the right to invite anyone they want. And, of course, anyone has the right to raise objections to that. Why did the organizers change their mind? Was it only because of us? According to the organizers, there were several “stakeholders” whose opinions influenced their views, including members of the alumni.

The reason Modi supporters are turning this into an issue of free speech is that the whole event has coincided with the massive effort to project Modi as a viable prime ministerial candidate. And this shows why he is not.


Narendra Modi has earned a reputation as an incorruptible politician and a good administrator. To that extent, many say, his insight and inputs are very valuable in any discussion on India’s economic promise. How would you respond to that?


As I said earlier, this is precisely what needs to be contested; in the emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, many extolled the efficiency of her regime. Many terrible regimes have come to power the world over in the name of economic development. How can Mr. Modi be considered a good administrator if he presided over a carnage and has refused to address or remedy its consequences for over a decade now?

But even if we set that aside, a recent Planning Commission report noted that Gujarat has slipped in its ranking in terms of the human development index among Indian states, and has made lower-than-average progress on crucial indicators such as infant mortality, child malnutrition, and maternal mortality. We are troubled with the exclusive focus on particular indicators of development, to the exclusion of others, particularly those most relevant to the “capabilities” — to quote the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen — of Gujarat’s poorest citizens.

(The interview has been lightly edited and condensed.)