Subramaniam Swamy to address Saturday’s India conference, as MIT rejects critics’ demand to disinvite him

Subramaniam Swamy
Subramaniam Swamy

Subramaniam Swamy will address the “MIT India Conference” via video.

Student organizers of the “MIT India Conference,” which will be held on Saturday, rejected demands from critics to disinvite Indian politicians Subramaniam Swamy, and MIT officials said they will stand by the students’ decision.

Held at MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, MA, the conference is now known as one of the biggest conferences in the United States that focus on India. As soon as the organizers announced the list of speakers for the ninth edition of the conference, which included Swamy, there was an outcry from Indian Muslim groups in the United States, who urged the institute to rescind the invitation to the controversial Member of India’s Parliament, given his very radical views on Muslims and Islam in the past.

Writing in The Tech, MIT’s campus newspaper, on February 9, Husayn Karimi, a student, and Arif Hussain, a political analyst and activist, urged school authorities to disinvite the politician, citing his “Islamophobic and homophobic past.”

The two cited an op-ed penned by Swami in an Indian newspaper in July 2011, in which he called for removing a mosque “in Kashi Vishwanath temple complex, and 300 others in other sites as a tit-for-tat,” and to “declare India as Hindu Rashtra in which only those non-Hindus can vote if they proudly acknowledge that their ancestors are Hindus.”

Separately, a petition on endorsed by some Indian Americans and Muslim groups urged MIT President L. Rafael Reif to revoke Swamy’s invitation because he is an “Islamophobe and homophobe.” The petition got more than 2,000 signatures.

Also panning the Swamy’s presence at the event was Audrey Truschke, historian and an assistant professor of South Asian history at Rutgers, who criticized the university in a series of tweets. Terming the Bharatiya Janata Party politician as a “notorious bigot,” she wrote

“MIT invited a racist, homophobic, Muslim-hating, woman-hating fanatic to speak. Maybe they’ll get wise, talk to some scholars of South Asian Studies, and rescind the invite,” she wrote in one of more than two-dozen tweets. “But it remains astonishing that they invited him to begin with.”

Another tweet from Truschke read: “Swamy says Muslims should only be able to vote in India if they “proudly acknowledge” Hindu ancestors. A rough parallel – If a white guy said black Americans should only be able to vote if they “proudly acknowledge” their white ancestors. And then MIT invited that guy to speak.”

On Thursday, MIT defended the invitation and said Swamy will speak to the delegates via video.

In two back-to-back letters published on The Tech on Thursday, MIT officials said they stand by the organizers’ decision to invite the politician.

In the first letter, in response, to Karimi’s  and Hussain’s column, MIT Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart and Provost Martin Schmidt wrote: “Because some of Dr. Swamy’s past public statements are sharply out of step with MIT’s values of inclusiveness and respect, a number of people inside and outside our community are asking the MIT administration to intercede and rescind his invitation to speak.”

The two wrote that, in a vote conducted, a majority of students opposed rescinding of the invitation. They added:

“This is a moment when two of our most deeply held values — freedom of expression and inclusion — are in conflict. For MIT as a university, guarding freedom of expression is fundamental to our mission of advancing knowledge and educating students. We are and must be committed to ensuring that different points of view — even those we reject — can be heard and debated in a respectful and safe way. At the same time, however, as a global institution that depends on bringing together talented people from around the world, we are and must be profoundly committed to making sure we create a community where people of every background — in terms of nationality, race, religion, sexual orientation and more — can feel welcome and supported. In this instance, our students have chosen to allow Dr. Swamy to speak. We support their right to do so, and we expect to maintain our community’s standards of open, respectful dialogue.”

In a separate rejoinder offering his perspective, Indian American S.P. Kothari, an advisor to the student organizers of the conference and faculty director of the India Program, wrote that Swamy’s “inclusion does not equate to endorsement — by the organizers, the advisers, or the Institute.”

Kothari, the Gordon Y Billard Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the moderator of Swamy’s session, said he “will work to maintain a dialogue that is open but respectful.”

He added: “My role as an advisor and educator is to position our students to engage with, not isolate themselves from, those with different — sometimes even abhorrent — views. Therefore, I think it is important that we find opportunities to hear from those with whom we disagree. “

This was not the first time Swamy, a member of the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) in India, had to face flak for in the United States for his controversial views.

In 2011, the Harvard Summer School program fired him and discontinued the summer courses he was teaching following an op-ed titled “how to wipe out Islamic terror,” which he wrote after a Muslim terror attack in Mumbai.

In the article, Swamy wrote: “Muslims, though a minority in India, still have fanatics who dare to lead violent attacks against Hindus. Other Muslims of India just lump it, sulk or rejoice. That is the history from Babar’s time to Aurangzeb.”

He also wrote: “Even Parsis and Jews in India have Hindu ancestors. Others, who refuse to so acknowledge or those foreigners who become Indian citizens by registration can remain in India, but should not have voting rights.”

The theme of the 2019 conference is “India’s Competitive Edge.” Besides Swamy, nearly two-dozen speakers from the United States and India are schedule to address the event, either in person or via video. Two other prominent personalities that will be attending the conference via video conferencing are economist and former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan and former Indian cricket captain Sourav Ganguly. Those who will be present at the venue include India’s Minister for Human Resource Development Prakash Javadekar, Indian film actors Farhan Akhtar and Anupam Kher, tabla player and Princeton professor Manjul Bhargava, astrophysicist and professor at Yale University Priyamvada Natarajan and lawyer Arundhati Katju. However, because of the controversy generated by Swamy’s presence, their attendance has been drowned out.

The aim of the MIT India Conference is to celebrate Indian achievements and to boost innovations through collaborations between India and the world.

(This post has been updated.)

One Comment

  1. The Persians used the word “Hind” and it meant the river “Shindu” (Sind) and they called all the people living on the other side of the river “Shindu” Hindu. It had no religious connotation. What sort of scholar is this bigot who does not even know that “People live on the other side of the river” were from all religions and not only the today’s Hindus? And how MIT invites such a fanatic for anything? What is the difference between him and Osama Bin Laden?

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