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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.



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