Like him or hate him, Modi has a right to speak
The debate over Narendra Modi’s aborted address at Wharton seems new and top of the mind. But actually, it is almost as old as the principle of free speech itself. And it is a debate that has been played out year after year in university after university since time immemorial.
In the late 1970s, when I was at university in England, the National Union of Students (NUS) issued instructions to its members that no university was to provide a platform to fascist or racist speakers.
It was a mistake, the NUS said, to provide them with the oxygen of publicity.
Because the students who framed the policy were bright and articulate they managed to make their views seem reasonable.
The principle of free speech, they said, was integral to a liberal society. But did the liberal society grant the right of free speech to those who were either opponents of the liberal society or those who would, if they could, destroy the liberal society itself?
This was not an isolated position or an unusual one. Shortly afterwards Margaret Thatcher asked the BBC to stop interviewing IRA leaders.
Why should the liberal society provide them with the oxygen of publicity, she also asked.
Leaving aside, the difference in targets – the NUS opposed fascists while Mrs Thatcher opposed Irish separatists – the two positions were broadly the same.
Those who did not subscribe to liberal values did not have the right to claim the protection offered by those values (i.e. the right to free speech) even while they tried to subvert the liberal society and liberalism itself.
I was one of those who opposed the NUS – and Mrs Thatcher, for that matter. I had two problems with the NUS’ position.
First of all, who was to decide which speaker qualified as a fascist or a racist? Once you gave student bodies the right to censor free speech by arbitrarily deciding that speakers were fascist or racist, you set a dangerous precedent.
For many members of the NUS, for instance, Mrs Thatcher was a fascist and the IRA were freedom fighters.
I had a second objection to the NUS’ position. Yes, the liberal society did face a threat from its enemies.
But that threat did not consist of words and ideas. That threat consisted of violence. If a fascist spoke at a students’ union and said that Hitler had the right policies then he did not, in my view at least, challenge the foundations of the liberal society.
If, on the other hand, he and his followers assaulted members of the audience or set fire to the hall then yes, of course, they challenged the liberal society and deserved to be locked up.
My views were often put to the test. In the late 1970s, the Oxford Union invited speakers who wanted Indians in the UK to be sent back home.
Others suggested that Indians were basically lazy and useless. My friends asked if I didn’t find these speeches offensive. Well, of course I did. But I would much rather let the bigots offend me than go against my own belief in free speech.
A test case of sorts occurred when a society in my college invited the historian David Irving to speak.
Irving is now a discredited and forgotten figure but in the 1970s he was a best-selling author who claimed that there was no evidence that Hitler had ordered the extermination of the Jews.
My Jewish friends were appalled. How could an Oxford College offer a platform to a man who was effectively a Holocaust denier? We stood our ground. We did not rescind the invitation to Irving and he addressed a stormy gathering at my college.
My view is that we made a fool out of Irving and exposed him for the humbug that he was. Far better, I said, to fight bigotry with facts and reason than to hide from the bigots.
At one level, the debate about Narendra Modi and the Wharton students’ forum is much the same sort of thing.
Many people believe that Modi had a hand in the massacres of Muslims in 2002. And yes, some of his views are deeply offensive. But as far as I am concerned, if he has not been convicted of any crime and occupies an elected constitutional office, then it is entirely wrong to refuse him a platform.
But the debate also exists on another level. As far as I can gather, what happened was this: a group of students organised an Indian economic summit that was partly financed by the Adani Group, Modi’s great supporters and decided that it would be a good idea to hear Modi speak.
When news of the invitation got out, academics petitioned the university management not to offer Modi the legitimacy of a Wharton endorsement. Modi’s supporters, they said, had already gone around announcing that Modi had been invited to speak at Wharton.
They were using the Wharton name to suggest that Modi now had international intellectual acceptability. Surely, said the protestors, Wharton did not want to be regarded as the university that conferred legitimacy on a man who had been denied a visa by the US government?
Ultimately, the Wharton management sided with the protestors and asked the students to reconsider. So, the invitation was rescinded and the Adanis dropped out.
Seen in those terms, the incident is not one about free speech. It is one of being wary about letting somebody use the Wharton name to advance their political careers.
The protestors say that they have not curtailed Modi’s right to free speech. If he wanted to address the same students by video-conference on another occasion then this would be fine just as long as the event was not linked in any way to Wharton University.
Obviously, this is a complex issue. It is not as simple as free speech vs censorship. The protestors are liberals and their concerns are with the misuse of the Wharton name. Even so, I think they are wrong.
For what it’s worth, I am on Modi’s side on this one. If an India Economic Forum is organised then it is entirely appropriate to invite the chief minister of an Indian state. Yes, he may use Wharton’s name to gain legitimacy.
But Wharton in turn should recognise where the Gujarat chief minister’s legitimacy ultimately comes from: from the people who elected him to a constitutional office in the world’s largest democracy.
I am not one of those people. But I respect their verdict.