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Wharton hijack and the new sepoys of colonialism

by Rajiv Malhotra  Mar 8, 2013 11:07 IST

#InMyOpinion   #Narendra Modi   #Wharton   #WIEF  

I have repeatedly criticised Western academic biases toward India in humanities departments. In contrast, I consider business schools less ideologically motivated, focused instead on imparting business skills. However, the recent decision by Wharton to uninvite Narendra Modi to the Wharton India Economic Forum (WIEF) shows that the ideals, ethics and independence of Wharton Business School are getting hijacked.

Modi is a controversial political leader in India, who nonetheless has had enormous success in the economic and social development of his state of Gujarat. He was invited be a keynote speaker at the prestigious annual student-run event on business opportunities in India. But suddenly the university (rather the WIEF)  pulled the plug on the invitation, under pressure from ideologues that are far removed from the world of business, and are hostile to free enterprise and globalisation which is the bread and butter of Wharton's programme.

I am no fan (or opponent) of Modi. What concerns me is the violation of important principles and due process. Such intrusions are reminiscent of the way the British East India Company operated in Indian affairs, supporting one Indian raja (ruler) against another, often citing "human rights violations" as its excuse. It was through these strategic interventions, and not through a conventional military invasion, that they ended up stitching together the world's biggest colonial empire.

Denied an opportunity wrongly? PTI

Denied an opportunity wrongly? PTI

Today, India has a functioning democracy that has elected Modi three times, as well as a legal system whose Supreme Court set up a special investigation team into the allegations against Modi. The Supreme Court investigation resulted in no charges being filed against him. Yet, these findings are apparently insufficient for Wharton, which, citing the concerns of three Indian professors, withdrew Modi's invitation.

Ironically, these Indian professors specialise in scholarship criticising colonialism, not realising that now they are serving similar American policies on interventions in India. They are extreme leftists when it comes to protesting against imperialist interventions in places like Iraq, Libya, Syria and other failed states. But they switch sides when it comes to India, and play the same role for America in undermining India's sovereignty as the sepoys did. (The sepoys were Indian soldiers serving the British army to fight against other Indians.)

Prior to this episode, American business schools had been largely free of such politicking, had enjoyed autonomy within their universities and were viewed as good revenue generators for the universities. The jealous humanities departments often hold business schools in mild contempt, trivialising their pragmatic approach as "unintellectual." This distance between business schools and humanities worked out well for India.

Business school students have been spared the brainwashing by humanities discourse that routinely paints India as a basket case ridden with caste, cows, dowry, slums and other scourges, ripe for rescue by Western interventions. Rather, the research emanating from business schools, authored by a young breed of Indian professors, has focused on the strengths and potentials of Indian society. This is why Wharton's Modi saga signals a potential loss of autonomy and political neutrality for business education in America.

Though American universities are amongst the best in the world, there also exist many compromised academics that promulgate theories on India which are racist, colonial and downright inimical to India's interests. Many naïve Indian donors have unwittingly sponsored such scholars. My earlier book, Invading the Sacred, analysed how certain professors at top American schools view Indian culture as oppressive and destructive, using outmoded theories; my next book, Breaking India, exposed the nexuses between such academics and civic groups that are promoting separatist identities and schisms in India. I analyse the long-term trend that I have called "breaking India," in which many colonised Indian intellectuals are funded to dish out divisive and biased materials on India. Such meta-narratives can put Indian business leaders on the defensive in their international negotiations.

Wharton should not have capitulated to political petitions from persons outside of the business world. It ought to have turned this into an opportunity to debate Modi, and confront him on the controversies that swirl around him. That would have been true to the spirit of intellectual freedom. Universities are not known to shy away from controversial figures, and students are supposed to learn multiple sides of complex issues. This was meant to be a business students' forum that has been organised entirely by students for several years. Most of them will have careers involving non-Western countries with controversial leaders and circumstances. They are better off being taught to think for themselves rather than running away from complexity or letting others make decisions for them.

It is important that Indians must ask the following questions: Why did Wharton's decision-makers not rely on Indian democracy and India's legal system as the most important criteria for an Indian leader's legitimacy? Are the future business leaders being taught the lesson of succumbing to political pressure without doing thorough due diligence of their own? Have the professors behind the ambush done a disservice to American businesses by snubbing the chief minister of a state that is the most sought after destination by multinationals for their Indian manufacturing hubs?

Modi's long list of endorsements from global business leaders seems to have been overruled easily by three angry professors. Why did their opinions prevail over all others, when their main competence is in English and post-colonial theory, not business?

Importantly, Modi's popularity is largely due to the fact that businesses consistently rate him the most corruption-free leader in India. The same cannot be said of many other leaders who've graced the auditoriums of Wharton in previous years, and who will be honoured at this year's event. Indeed, many Indians have speculated that it is his refusal to be bought off by vested interests that makes him a target of the political-intellectual mafia.

If Wharton wishes to boycott Indian leaders and parties that have well-established roles in prior communal violence, it must undertake a systematic analysis of the hard facts, namely, that many Indian leaders who enjoy great respect in US have unclean hands in this regard.

American business school students and their alumni have an opportunity to refashion the discourse on India. Business schools generally have been friendly to Indian students. Wharton, for example, is known to be the "brownest of the Ivies" and admits hundreds of Indians every year. But business schools exist within the "ecosystem" of other disciplines, and these are likely to exert their ideological agendas.

For Indian alumni and students, this event should be a wake-up call to lead rather than follow the agenda on India. Indians have enough clout in business circles to not take this quietly. Otherwise be prepared for lobbying to impose US trade sanctions on the grounds of human rights violations! That is a card that US leaders periodically like to show Indian leaders. Unlike the Chinese who thumb their noses, and give their own reports of US human rights violations back to the Americans, Indian leaders have not shown the spine when pressured.

This unfortunate episode isn't good for overall US-India relations and the perception of the United States in India. In recent opinion polls in India, Modi emerged as a top choice for the next prime minister. Americans should introspect that they applaud democracy on the one hand, and undermine fair democratic outcomes on the other. Meanwhile, the Indian sepoys are gleefully playing a double role - presenting themselves as representatives of India while undermining it; and facilitating American interventions in India while claiming to be experts on post-colonial studies.

Rajiv Malhotra is the author of Being Different, and a regular blogger on The Huffington Post. Twitter handle: @RajivMessage