Skip to main content

Wharton, Modi and Ania Loomba

Ania Loomba
By Rajiv Shah
This event took me back to my good old student days – mid-1970s. One of those who played a key role in the campaign against Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s aborted video-address to the Wharton India Economic Forum happens to be Ania Loomba, an active member of the left-wing student body in Delhi University to which I also belonged during my post-graduation days.
When Ania’s name appeared, I instantly informed about it to two of my other student-colleagues, Neeraj Nanda, who edits Melbourne-based South Asia Times, and Khursheed Latif, a Mumbai-based film-maker, who spends half the time in US. Neeraj was happy, saying it was “great news”, forwarding me her email ID and complete profile, while Khursheed curiously phoned me up to know more about Ania, and what she was doing. Ania is right now Catherine Bryson Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, and her academic interests are wide ranging, including histories of race and colonialism, postcolonial studies, feminist theory, and contemporary Indian literature and culture. She has written extensively on these issues, and published several books, too. I sent an email to Ania, to which she instantly replied, forwarding to me an explanatory note, in question-answer format, explaining her position on why she protested against Modi’s address.
Excerpts from this note were being published in the New York Times, she told me, adding, “You can imagine we are getting so much hate mail.” Nothing unusual, I told her. One has to only go through any critical article on Modi online, and you would find yourself in the company of innumerable others, who get similar hate mails. You would not be alone in being called a Congress chamcha, or a paid agent of Sonia Gandhi. A former bureaucrat of the Gujarat government, who is known in the babudom as an IT expert, told me a few weeks ago that a highly-paid net-savvy group expertises in “creating” these hate mails, all in fake names. I had no way to corroborate this, but one can just scan through a story in the Times of India, Ahmedabad, on October 27, 2012, which cites Status People, UK-based internet tool, to say that Modi’s claim of lakhs of online followers is misplaced. The followers include “46 per cent fake and 41 per cent inactive users”!
During my student days, I knew Ania somewhat peripherally. We did interact, but mostly during group meetings. This is because, as it would happen in any organization, we belonged to “opposing” camps of the student group. I saw Ania as belonging to the elite partocracy of the Communist party, one reason why, I thought, she was getting such importance in its student wing. If I remember well, her father was a communist leader from Punjab, and mother headed All-India Peace and Solidarity Organization, associated with the Soviet-backed World Peace Council. That Ania was a brilliant student wasn’t important to me then.
When Neeraj forwarded to me Ania’s profile, it was a pleasant surprise. She had turned into a reputed academic and remains socially aware. In her note she forwarded to me, she refers to a few commonplace arguments – that Modi is a human rights violator; that he presided over the 2002 Gujarat riots; and that he has persecuted whistle-blowers.
However, what struck me most in her note was, the Wharton organizers had wanted to ensure that there was no dialogue with Modi. While Modi was to speak on Gujarat economic “model”, Ania says, “there was no forum for questioning his human rights record”, adding, “If the organizers wanted a debate, they could have invited someone opposed to Modi and staged the dialogue.” Nothing unusual here, either. Perhaps Modi would have ensured it.
A Gujarat-based tycoon, who also withdrew with Modi, was Platinum sponsor of the Wharton event. It is a common knowledge in Gujarat how Modi shuns dialogue. In fact, he never likes being questioned, and reacts with an impulsive indifference if anyone asks him an odd question. For several years Modi has not taken a press conference, a common factor in Gadhinagar Sachivalaya before he came to power in 2001. He must be absolutely sure that there would be no questions on Gujarat riots if he gives appointment for interview. In fact, he despises any form of protest, especially those which can impact influential sections.
Not without reason, the Modi caucus is now finding ways to muzzle dissent now. A senior professor of sociology with a private university in Gujarat was made to resign recently because he was fond of academically explaining Modi as a modern fascist in the making. As the story goes, a top Indian tycoon – who runs the university – was influenced to pressure this professor to quit. The professor, whom my friend Prof Biswaroop Das refers to as “the top-most sociologist of the anarchist school”, was asked to put in his papers when he was in the midst of an interview. The university director told the professor that he was helpless, as it was the tycoon’s decision, and could not be ignored.
After he was “sacked”, the sociologist forwarded to me a draft paper, which analyzed Modi’s traits. Let me quote him to point towards what Modi may not have liked. The professor says, Modi was a “shrewd politician”, who “realised the limits of Hindutva politics conducted in Hindutva idioms. He unconsciously realised that a rampant Hindutva may eventually threaten Hindus. In that sense, his coreligionists were a problem as they were soft on history, preferring a soft democracy more in tune with their syncretic mentality. Modi realised that his role as the lumpen speaker gorging on the violence of the riots had to be a temporary phenomenon. He sensed that such resentment could be a layer in the unconscious but what one needed was an image of a more positive politics, something that could exorcise the ghosts of 2002. More than exorcism, one needed a semiotic makeover to create self-fulfilling prophecies around the new Modi.”
The professor continues, “Modi is a cultural construct whose semiotic grammar we have to understand. Semiotics as a theory of signs and symbols served to update Modi. Originally, Modi appears in the drabness of white kurtas, which conveyed a swadesi asceticism... Modi realizes that ascetic white was an archaic language. His PROs forged a more colourful Modi, a Brand Modi more cheerful in blue and peach, more ethnic in gorgeous red turbans. His ethnic clothes serve as diacritical markers of respect. He plays the chief in full regalia. Having earned traditional respect, he needs a more formal attire, suits for Davos, a bandhgala for national forums. Hair transplants and Ayurvedic advice served to grow his hair. Photographs show him even trying a Texan hat…”
Be that is it may, there is an argument that shunning Modi at Wharton is against the spirit of freedom of speech, which is supposed to be cornerstone of US democracy. In 2007, Columbia University invited Iranian President Ahmedinejad to address its students amidst protests by a host of groups. One may wonder, in a culture that claims to embrace free speech, should Modi's address have been boycotted? Referring to the argument, Ania says, “It is part of a vibrant democracy to dissent and indeed to boycott speakers… We know such objections and protests take place all the time, and are part of the democratic process.” Given this framework, she wonders why organizers changed their mind and decided to “disinvite” Modi. Was it because of the campaign against Modi? Ania doesn’t think so. Or was it because sponsors of the event suspected Modi wouldn’t be happy with such protests? To quote Ania, “according to the organizers, there were several 'stakeholders' whose opinions influenced their views” to “disinvite” Modi. Who these “stakeholders” are is anybody’s guess.



Hold your breath! UK ex-Muslims to celebrate Blasphemy Day on September 30

Soheil Arabi The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB), in a suprise move, has decided to observe September 30 as the Blasphemy Day. In an email alert, Maryam Namazie, CEMB spokesperson, has asked anyone interested to join CEMB in celebrating blasphemy by " uploading your photo into our #blasphemyday frame and sharing on social media."

Diaspora protest as Biden failed to publicly address persecution of minorities in India

As Modi addressed UN, human rights groups decried “monstrosity” of persecution of Muslims, Christians, Dalits, and other minorities in India. Demonstrators gathered outside UN to protest fascism, hate campaigns, weaponized rape, apartheid, lynchings, unlawful arrests, attacks on the media, and other abuses in India: A report distributed by the diaspora group Hindus for Human Rights: *** While observers said it was “shameful” that President Biden failed to publicly address widespread persecution of religious minorities in India when he met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on September 24, more than 100 members of interfaith and human rights groups spoke out as Modi addressed the United Nations General Assembly. Speakers condemned the egregious human rights violations and murders of religious minorities in India under a government that openly supports Hindu supremacy. The rally was sponsored by 21 organizations, including Ambedkar International Center, Ambedkar King S

What this veteran Gandhian witnessed at Rajghat is indeed intensely disturbing

Renowned Gandhian, activist and physicist Professor VK Tripathi witnessed an “intensely worrisome” event at the Gandhi Samadhi on his birthday on October 2, 2021. “The children of the Hindutva criminals who assassinated him have captured places which are supposed to keep Gandhiji's heritage alive”, says Deepak Joshi in a Faceook post, insisting, “We should strongly protest against it. It is already too late.”

Forthcoming book explodes Western myth: Personal qualities are biologically inherited

Jonathan Latham, PhD, Executive Director, The Bioscience Resource Project, New York, has said in an email alert via JanVikalp that his forthcoming book about genetics and genetic determinism, provisionally titled "The Myth of The Master Molecule: DNA and the Social Order" criticises the notion that personal qualities are biologically inherited: *** The contention of the book is that the key organising principle of Western thought is the seemingly innocuous and seemingly simple idea that our personal qualities are biologically inherited. That is, our character derives from our ancestors rather than being an always-adapting product of our own experiences, decisions, and education. The book makes the case, first, that genetic determinism is a scientific fallacy. Organisms are self-organised systems and therefore are not genetically determined. Second, the explanation for the myth, which predates Mesopotamian cities of 6,000 years ago, is its utility. Genetic determinism rationa

International Energy Agency floats new plan to end oil, gas, and coal expansion

In major shift, International Energy Agency (IEA)’s World Energy Outlook has mainstreamed 1.5°C pathway, showing need to end oil, gas, and coal expansion, insisting on new fossil fuel phase-out benchmarks in order to test government ambition ahead of COP26. A report by Oil Change International, distributed by BankTrack: *** For the first time, the International Energy Agency (IEA)’s flagship annual report on global energy pathways, used worldwide to influence trillions of dollars in investment, details an achievable roadmap to keep global heating below 1.5 degrees Celsius (°C). By making a 1.5°C scenario the benchmark of this year’s World Energy Outlook (WEO), the IEA challenges governments and companies to back up lagging Paris pledges with immediate action to shift the energy system away from fossil fuels. Notably, this year’s WEO solidifies the policy conclusion, first presented by the IEA in May , that no new oil, gas, and coal extraction projects should be approved under a 1.5°C-

UN Food Systems Summit paved the way for greater control of big corporations

In a sharp critique of the  UN Food Systems Summit, a statement released by the People's Coalition on Food Sovereignty, a global network of NGOs, has accused UN meet of being steered by big corporations, even as the Global South was pushed back. *** The Global People’s Summit (GPS) on Food Systems slammed the recently concluded UN Food Systems Summit (UN FSS) for paving the way for greater control of big corporations over global food systems and misleading the people through corporate-led false solutions to hunger and climate change. “It was just as we expected. While branding itself as the ‘People’s Summit’ and even the ‘Solutions Summit,’ the UN FSS did not listen to the voices of marginalized rural peoples, nor forward real solutions to the food, biodiversity and climate crises. Instead, it let powerful nations and big corporations play an even bigger role in determining food and agricultural policies. The UN has finally made it clear what ‘multilateralism’ is all about—paying l

Ex-official: Why not offer Vaishnaw loss making BSNL, Air India to prove his worth?

By Rajiv Shah A senior chartered accountant, whom I have known intimately (I am not naming him, as I don’t have his permission), has forwarded me an Indian Express (IE) story (July 18), “Ashwini Vaishnaw: The man in the chair”, which, he says, “contradicts” the blog (July 17), "Will Vaishnaw, close to Modi since Vajpayee days, ever be turnaround man for Railways?" I had written a day earlier and forwarded it to many of my friends.

Gujarat cadre woman IAS official who objected to Modi remark on sleeveless blouse

By Rajiv Shah Two days back, a veteran journalist based in Patna, previously with the Times of India, Ahmedabad, phoned me up to inform me that he had a sad news: Swarnakanta Varma, a retired Gujarat cadre IAS bureaucrat, who was acting chief secretary on the dastardly Godhra train burning day, February 27, 2002, which triggered one of the worst ever communal riots in Gujarat, has passed away due to Covid. “I have been informed about this from a friend in Jaipur, where she breathed her last”, Law Kumar Mishra said.

Known to have assissinated O'Dwyer, Udham Singh chose not to apologise to the British

Udham Singh (26 December 1899 – 31 July 1940), best known for assassinating Michael O'Dwyer , the former lieutenant governor of the Punjab in India , on 13 March 1940, done in revenge for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar in 1919, for which O'Dwyer was responsible, was subsequently tried and convicted of murder and hanged in July 1940. While in custody, he used the name Ram Mohammad Singh Azad, which represents the three major religions of India and his anti-colonial sentiment. Writes a well-known analyst, "He too could have apologised. He chose the noose instead!" Udham Singh's speech prior to sentencing in UK: *** “I say down with British Imperialism. You say India do not have peace. We have only slavery Generations of so called civilisation has brought us everything filthy and degenerating. known to the human race. All you have to do is read your own history. If you have any human decency about you, you should die with shame. The brutality and blood

Indian Doctors for Truth want Modi to stop overzealous universal vaccination drive

At a time when there is a huge demand to ensure that vaccination should be universal in order to gain immunity against the pandemic, an organisation called Indian Doctors for Truth, have asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the “urgent need to stop the overzealous universal vaccination drive against Covid-19.  Read the letter, signed by 18 doctors and a health expert: ***