How the latest anti-Modi petition took shape, and why it is a fine example of the Left’s illiberal attitude towards those who do not agree with them.

It was nearly a month ago that the first draft of a statement targeting India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi over his pending visit to Silicon Valley appeared in my inbox.  I am on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, but as a denizen of the medical school, my interactions with those in that anomalous realm of “South Asian studies” are sparse.  And it seemed particularly misdirected coming to me, when my views on academic freedom and the Wharton Modi debacle, and on Modi’s inaugural visit to the U.S. were in the public realm.

Still, this errant email gave me an entertaining ringside seat to witness how some of my colleagues in the academe sublimate their ideological proclivities into political activism.  The first version of the petition was 290 words and was initiated by Kamala Visweswaran, on the faculty of the University of Texas, and currently a fellow at Stanford.  Prof. Visweswaran is no neophyte in the work of leftist activism and amassing signatures for sundry causes.  Whether it was penning an article with Harvard’s Michael Witzel — the Hindu American community’s prime antagonist during the California Textbook Controversy — a signature campaign against Modi’s speech at Wharton, a letter condemning another favorite target for her, Israel, Visweswaran demonstrably joins or orchestrates sign-ons with fellow travelers.

Anjali Arondekar, a professor in feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz was promoting the Visweswaran version of the email appeal that I saw.  Arondekar received a PhD in English here at Penn, where two other co-signatories of the anti-Modi statement happen to teach English, Ania Loomba and Suvir Kaul.  Loomba’s son, Tariq Thachil, a professor at Yale, also signed the statement.  Loomba and Kaul, of course, spearheaded the very campaign that successfully kept Modi’s address out of the Wharton India Economic Forum three years ago.  The internecine connections that lead to these sorts of petitions was becoming clear to me as others signed on.

Meanwhile, the initial statement by Visweswaran, then, morphed into 548 words after throwing in a few more paragraphs now demanding that business leaders in Silicon Valley decry not only ostensible religious persecution under Modi, remember the visa denial, but curiously, instruct that corporate responsibility implies either lecturing Modi or refraining from investing in India because his government committed such atrocities as changing leadership at Nalanda University or at the Indian Council of Historical Research.

As I perused the list of signatories to the statement that would make a scathing criticism of Digital India its centerpiece, what struck me was that while Visweswaran evidently had no trouble getting those from the disciplines of South Asian studies, anthropology, English, gender studies, and the like to join her, she evidently prevailed on only one faculty member from a technical field to sign on.

The lack of signatories with core competency in the nuances of the Indian government’s initiative to create a digital infrastructure–and its potential vulnerabilities is striking. If the intent was to limit the petition to a rolodex of comrades that commonly join such “open letters” and statements, even while a certain purpose is served, the anti-Modi statement would certainly perpetuate the image of an incestuous academy that many of us seek to shed.

I could quibble too that the indiscreet visceral revulsion of many of the signatories for all things Modi precludes the credibility of yet another anti-Modi effort, but there is also an undeniable visual authority to diasporic Indian academics criticizing India’s socio-political trajectory.  But then why would these Indian Americans include several non-Indian signatories (Wendy Doniger and Sheldon Pollock among them, no less), and also those of Pakistani origin in this effort?

The competency of a Shahzad Bashir and Tayyab Mahmud, or Junaid Rana in their respective fields is not in question, but did signatories wonder as to the optics of Indian origin academics joining with Pakistanis to demand that American businesses reconsider investment in India?  And that too, when among other things, they are protesting pending legislation regarding such Indo-centric issues as autonomy of the Indian Institutes of Management?

My inbox has not been populated yet by this shining example of Indo-Pakistani unity inviting signatories for a condemnation of the Pakistan state’s incontrovertible sponsorship of killings in Mumbai in 2008, or the recent spate of attacks in Gurdaspur and Jammu.  And if it is Gujarat of 2002 and deaths of Muslims that motivates the Pakistani signatories, propriety would demand that the same academics would have considered a declaration against the genocide, forced conversions, rape and abductions of Ahmadiyyas, Hindus, and Christians in Pakistan as detailed by the U.S. State Department and other human rights reports.

Since a number of signatories are self-described leftists, this latest exercise exposes in stark relief the yawning gulf between liberal advocacy and leftist activism.  As Jonathan Chait brilliantly expounds, while liberalism exists as a potent ideological vantage with discernible tenets, it lives within a dialogic space that respects varying opinions.  In contrast, the Marxist left “always dismissed liberalism’s commitment to protecting rights of its political opponents.”  The “currency” of the power of liberal ideas is so depleted, the leftists hold, that liberal privileging of free speech is not just quaint — but impotent.

Rather than entertain, let alone respect, an opposing view, leftists today conjure up the concept of “microagressions” to justify physically assaulting an anti-abortion protestor, or, as Arondekar’s colleague repented in a recent retrospective of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, liberals for too long argued for freedom of thought and expression without considering who wields “power.”  These freedoms of expression and thought should be controlled, abrogated and contested everywhere the contemporary leftist holds.

The avowed leftists signing the Visweswaran letter do not limit their activism to India alone.  Nearly a dozen of the signatories of the anti-Modi letter have supported aspects of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement and happened to sign on a campaign demanding an academic and cultural boycott of Israel–silent, of course, on daily atrocities being committed against atheists and Hindus, in say, Bangladesh.  Many of them also joined the alarming rise in “disinvite” trends tracked by a Philadelphia based watchdog, FIRE.

It is this illiberal leftism –not liberalism — that seems to motivate so many of my colleagues in the Indian American academy, and it is what is so curious in the dichotomy between the teaching of the humanities and the sciences.

For a professor of surgery, my classroom spans from lecture halls to the operating suites, but my teaching is rooted in the scientific realities of anatomy, embryology, pathophysiology and surgical technique.  An electrical engineering professor at Penn, Saswati Sarkar — hardly diffident of her strong political positions vis a vis India — will likely mentor a PhD student in empirical scholasticism, without even knowing whether the mentee is ideologically aligned.

The leftist academy perpetuates then, because just as I expect a surgeon I train to replicate techniques I teach to matriculate, can a Doniger protégé really see anything more than a perverse, erotic symbol in the Shiva linga, or can a Arondekar student argue that gender studies is an disingenuous redoubt in the academy if the students wish to secure that PhD, or the all-important — and evasive — tenure?  Our lofty goal as educators may be to teach the student how to think, but for the activist professor, clearly, the aspiration is an insistence to teach what to think.

It is a fascinating fever that befalls the diaspora here in the United States when Narendra Modi comes calling.  It was a year ago that I sat in the rafters as the stage was set at Madison Square Garden for nearly twenty thousand.  The same fever rises again on the opposite coast even as an apposite debate begins about liberalism versus leftism and rights versus privilege.

Aseem Shukla, M.D. is an Associate Professor of Surgery at the University of Pennsylvania. He is co-founder and member of the Board of Directors of the Hindu American Foundation (www.hafsite.org). Views expressed here are his own.

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