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Modi backers stage 'funeral of free speech' near Wharton

Last updated on: March 24, 2013 12:08 IST

Modi backers stage 'funeral of free speech' near Wharton

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Arthur J Pais

A group of Indian Americans, appalled by Wharton India Economic Forum's withdrawal of invitation to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, staged a demonstration near the Wharton School where the summit is underway. Arthur J Pais reports.

After staging a "funeral" at a corner of a street near Wharton School of University of Pennsylvania and carrying a placard which read In Memory of Free Speech 1776-2013 Killed at Wharton, over 130 men and women, mostly in their 50s, marched for about 15 minutes braving a bright but a brutally cold Saturday.

They then gathered in front of the university museum where the students, who had earlier invited Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to give the inaugural talk at Wharton India Economic Forum and then rescinded the invitation, were holding the annual event.

Shouting pro-Modi slogans, the protestors -- many who seemed to know each other in their Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bharatiya Janata Party circles -- also shouted slogans denouncing a handful of Wharton professors including Toorjo Ghose (Fire Toorjo Goebbels, read one placard) who had led a campaign against Modi's invitation.

Free Free Speech from Intellectual Al Qaeda, read another placard. It added, Let Freedom Ring!!!

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Image: Modi supporters protest near the venue of the Wharton Economic Forum in Philadelphia on Saturday
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi/Rediff.com

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And they ended the protest with vociferous slogans, "God Bless America" while waving a placard, Keep America Safe. Dozens of American flags fluttered, as VHP and BJP crowd blessed America. A few yards away, across the road, an Indian flag also fluttered at the entrance to the forum venue.

A few people were little disappointed as there was no huge turn over, despite widely publicised free bus ride offer from Edison, an hour and half away from the protest venue.

One man wondered if it was the cold that had deterred others from joining the protest. A few hours later and some 50 miles away at the Naya Andaz dance competition there were over 1200 people for a ticketed event which cost $60 (around Rs 3261) for the lowest tickets.

"We are mourning the death of free speech at this university," said Narain Kataria, one of the organisers, dressed in a well cut suit, sporting a flamboyant red tie, and dark glasses. "They have done many things like this before," he added, without elaborating. "There will be a coffin and candles at the funeral."

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Image: Modi supporters protest near the venue of the Wharton Economic Forum in Philadelphia on Saturday
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi/Rediff.com
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But as the "funeral" began, there was no coffin, and the protestors marched behind an American band that was playing jubilant and rousing Western march tunes.

A Caucasian cheer leader yelled, 'What do we want?'

'Freedom,' the crowd including those carrying a picture of Modi (Narendra Modi, Future P.M) roared

'And when do we want it,' asked the cheerleader.

'Now,' chorused the crowd.

One of them brandished a placard, Restore First Amendment Right Now!. Another waved a placard, Stop Academic Jihad. A third one raised a placard with plea, Legitimise Hindu Political Activity. Hindus Are People Too.

A few onlookers read the slogans but hardly anyone seemed eager to know what was happening. "We are for protecting everyone's freedom," said one demonstrator to a man on a bicycle who was reading a placard. "There are enemies of freedom at this university."

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Image: Modi supporters protest near the venue of the Wharton Economic Forum in Philadelphia on Saturday
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi/Rediff.com
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A Bangladeshi Hindu who saw a placard announcing Hindus Will Not Be Silenced Anymore cornered one of the protestors and asked why Indian government wasn't protecting Hindus in Bangladesh. As the marchers gathered steam, the two were arguing over (Congress president) Sonia Gandhi's chances of becoming India's prime minister. "Indians worship whites," thundered the Bangladeshi. "You think Mrs Obama can ever become the prime minister of India?"

Some of the placard carriers had absolutely no idea what the writing meant. Asked who is Goebbels (Hitler's propaganda minister) one woman struggled to say something in Hindi but ended up using Gujarati. She said something like, "Isn't it Toorjo's full name?"

Another placard carrier End McCarthyism (sic) Against Hindus had no idea what McCarthyism was. Of course she had not heard of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

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Image: Modi supporters protest near the venue of the Wharton Economic Forum in Philadelphia on Saturday
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The colorful slogans were reportedly inspired by a handful of University of Philadelphia (which runs Wharton) students and staff who are upset over the successful efforts of Professor Ghoshe and others in disinviting Modi.

McCarthyism, a campaign ofaccusations of disloyalty, subversion, or treason without proper regard for evidence, scared thousands of Americans in the 1950s when Senator McCarthy accused many Americans of being Soviet Communist spies and stooges. Any reckless and unsubstantiated attack on political opponents is immediately identified as McCarthyism.

And it was McCarthyism that professor U Penn Saswati Sarkar alluded to in defending Modi and denouncing Ghose and cohorts and the Indian students at Wharton for capitulating to the demand Modi be disinvited.

Sarkar, professor in the department of electrical engineering, said the accusation at Modi that he had fomented "genocide" of Muslims were blatantly false. She said while some 700 Muslims were killed in Gujarat, some 330 Hindus were also killed, and the numbers showed it was a regrettable riot.

And she also criticised the anti-Modi lobby, which included English professors Ania Loomba and Suvir Paul, she said their complaint that letting Modi speak at the Wharton forum would have meant legitimising Modi. A leader who has been elected three times with an overwhelming majority and whose party had made successful inroads even in Muslim-dominated constituencies winning quite a few of them does not need to be legitimised by Wharton students, Sarkar said to thundering applause, with the chant 'Modi, Modi, Modi' rising.

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Image: The venue of the ongoing Wharton India Economic Forum in Philadelphia
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi/Rediff.com
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Couple of placards denouncing the English Department at Wharton rose. One of them compared the department with Al Qaeda.

As soon as Modi was disinvited, she had told The Daily Pennsylvanian, 'I believe it violates all established norms of civilized engagement...That's not the manner in which we engage with each other, rescinding an invitation.'

On Saturday, she echoed that sentiment, wondering why Modi's opponents did not believe in free debates which are hallowed by academics and seek to question Modi after the plenary speech.

Even if you disagree with Modi, she said, you cannot censor speech. Some time back, she heard that a film showing Gujarat and India in bad light was being shown at U Penn, and some Indians were upset over it. But she said the proper response to such films would not be censorship but discussion. 


Image: A cheerleader at the site of the protest near the Wharton forum venue on Saturday
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi/Rediff.com
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