A month before Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to arrive in the United States and travel to Silicon Valley to meet IT entrepreneurs and the Indian-American community, a petition critical of his “Digital India” plan has set off an Internet war between anti and pro Modi factions in this country.
In an Aug. 27 letter entitled “Faculty Statement on Narendra Modi Visit to Silicon Valley,” posted on the blog of Academe Magazine, 123 U.S. academics, mostly of Indian descent, cautioned U.S. high tech industry leaders to follow standards of freedom of expression and right to privacy if they strike any deals with India on grounds that the Modi government was vitiating these rights and freedoms. It also chastised the Indian-American community for what it described as euphoria over the Prime Minister’s Sept. 27 visit to California.
Prime Minister Modi will be in New York for the United Nations General Assembly meetings Sept. 25, and will make a one-day trip to Silicon Valley to meet IT leaders and the Indian-American community Sept. 27, before rushing back for a one-on-one with President Obama Sept. 28.
The anti-Modi petition described the anticipation over the Modi visit “uncritical fanfare” and said his national project “Digital India” was threatened by a lack of safeguards about privacy of information, “and the near certainty that such digital systems will be used to enhance surveillance and repress the constitutionally-protected rights of citizen.”
Among the signatories were a few non-Indian professors such University of Chicago Divinity School Professor of Religion Wendy Doniger, whose book An Alternative History of India, was pulled off shelves by publishers Penguin India when challenged by a school teacher for hurting religious sentiments. “Those who live and work in Silicon Valley have a particular responsibility to demand that the government of India factor these critical concerns into its planning for digital futures,” the letter said. It also harked back to the U.S. denial of a visa to Modi from 2005-2014 over the Gujarat violence of 2002 where 1,000 people died.
In response, a petition drive on Change.org, by Modi supporters had garnered 1,133 signatures as of Sept. 3, from “professors, researchers, scientists, scholars, students, and professionals with undergraduate, graduate or doctoral degrees from universities across North America,” in other words, going beyond just the humanities scholars and experts on South Asia who sponsored the anti-Modi petition.
Entitled “Oppose Prejudice and Fear-mongering in the “Faculty Statement on Narendra Modi’s Visit” the change.org petition accused the opposing faction of straying “far” from the scope of “sane discourse,” without respect for facts and integrity.
Their critique of Digital India’s potential for increased surveillance of citizens, “seems a desperate ploy rather than any genuine concern for India,” it said, noting that digital initiatives were undertaken before Modi came to power, “a fact that never bothered them (South Asia academics) when the UPA government, with which several U.S. based South Asian academics have had close ties of patronage and privilege, was in power.” The United Progressive Alliance was the Congress Party-led coalition helmed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Bringing up the 2002 violence in Gujarat, the pro-Modi petitioners said, was a “deplorable attempt to exhume ugly lies about Modi’s attitude towards Muslims.” Modi’s massive victory at the polls and in Indian courts, it said, vindicated him, “and unless the South Asia studies faculty who have perpetuated these charges so recklessly have new evidence that they can present before courts in India and before the Indian people, they must recognize that they are running a campaign not for justice but for destroying justice and democracy.”
The pro-Modi letter claimed there was a media conspiracy against Modi. “There is growing evidence of a systematic process of defamation against India and Narendra Modi in the international press and in a large part of the elite English-language Indian media,” the letter said, adding that, “No government that seeks to restrict freedom of speech would permit the amount of calumny that passes off as news in India.”
The letter accused anti-Modi forces of silencing free speech, noting that Modi had been prevented from addressing a Wharton Business School meeting through a video-conference by a similar confluence of academics a few years ago. “It is an unspoken about reality that the academic pseudo-consensus on South Asia, with its demonization campaign of Modi at the center, sustains itself entirely on a system of exclusion, censure and silencing.”