Subramanian Swamy is a hate-monger. Let's not make him a martyr
Who's afraid of Subramanian Swamy? A petition to force Harvard to dump Swamy might just backfire on the angry students who are circulating it. Banned by Harvard could give him more cachet than Swamy deserves.
The moving gadfly writes, and having writ, moves on to Harvard.
Now some 260 plus students in Harvard have signed a petition that demands their university sever ties with Dr. Subramanian Swamy because of his fear-mongering op-ed in DNA.
“Swamy breaches the most basic standards of respect and tolerance,” says the petition, initiated by two desis, Umang Kumar from the Divinity School and Sanjay Pinto, a doctoral candidate in sociology and social policy.
Umang Kumar and Sanjay Pinto might have their hearts in the right place. And bless them for busting the myth of the apathetic young generation.
But they are wrong. Dr. Subramanian Swamy should not be hounded out of Harvard.
It’s not because what he wrote in DNA was not reprehensible or hateful. “Declare India a Hindu Rashtra in which non-Hindus can vote only if they proudly acknowledge that their ancestors were Hindus” is about as twisted a view of a secular India as there can be.
It’s not because his political opponents are any creatures of great moral fibre. His bete noire, the Congress has pandered for communal votes in the worst ways possible whether on Ram Janmabhoomi or the Shah Bano case.
It’s not because Dr. Swamy blithely says “I don’t think anyone in India, except the Left wing, has been upset by my article. There has been wholesale support.” Well, even if just the angry letters to DNA are any indication, there is much more wind beneath the “Left wing” in India than any of the Leftist parties dared assume in their wildest dreams.
And it’s not really even about freedom of speech. Dr. Swamy’s speech has been if anything a little too free, swinging schizophrenically across the spectrum, from free love to free hate. Guess who once said, “It does not matter what the Muslims are doing to their minorities in Saudi Arabia. Even in Pakistan or anywhere. We are not going to imitate them. Our society is different. It came out of a joint struggle of Hindus and Muslims.” That too, is Dr. Subramanian Swamy, just of a different vintage.
Those who are touting his political courage in calling a spade a spade in that DNA diatribe are giving undue credit to him. There is useful controversy. And then there is firebombing from the safety of newspaper column. Subramanian Swamy has nothing to lose politically. With his Janata Party virtually janata-less, Dr. Swamy has long been a megaphone in search of a party. DNA provided him a podium that his “party” could not. It does not take any great courage to write a poisonous op-ed and then disappear behind a “not available for comment” purdah.
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But this is also a great opportunity. Why reduce this debate to a paper fight between an op-ed and a petition? Why turn it into a battle of signatures? “I think it’s important for members of this community to play a part in discrediting him and saying, ‘No, he does not represent us,’” Pinto told the Harvard Crimson.
That’s fine but why not have a real battle of ideas instead of trying to shut him up with a petition? There is a grand tradition of debate at universities like Harvard. They might be Ivy League but its professors cannot just seclude themselves in ivory towers. They have to engage at the level of ideas with their peers and their students. It’s own president Lawrence Summers had to face the music for his comments about the “innate differences” between men and women when it came to mathematics and science.
The Harvard petitioners had better be careful that they don’t make Swamy a political martyr in their zeal to kick him off campus without real debate. That would allow him the perfect excuse to retreat to the safety of yet more newspaper op-eds, where he can sit on a pedestal and lob incendiary monologues.
Let Subramanian Swamy defend his ideas instead, and the whiplash-inducing twists and turns in his ideology, in an open forum.
Dr. Swamy is not the first academic or scholar to land in hot water because of a comment or an op-ed. And in this regard, no side, left or right, can claim that they are more sinned against that sinning. Today’s sanctimonious champions of free speech can quickly turn into tomorrow’s academic lynch mob.
Native American scholar Ward Churchill was fired by the University of Colorado for “research misconduct” in 2007. But his real crime was an essay where he described the 9/11 attacks as chickens coming home to roost – “acts of war” by the “Islamic East” responding to “crusades” by the “Christian West.”
Closer to home, Darool Uloom Deoband seminary’s vice chancellor Maulana Ghulam Mohammed Vastanvi was ousted from his post using some comments he’d made about Narendra Modi as a pretext. Historian Mushirul Hasan, the vice chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia, was assaulted, threatened, and called a traitor to Islam because he dared to say that while he found the Satanic Verses offensive, he did not believe in banning books. As Jamia students chanted “Qaum ka gaddar, maut ka haqdar (Betrayer of the community, deserver of death),” Jamia said it could not guarantee his safety.
Columbia University, on the other hand, did stand by Rashid Khalidi when he was kicked out of a New York City teacher training program in 2005 for using the words “racist” and “apartheid” while discussing Israel. At that time, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger defended him saying his firing violated the First Amendment. Students created a Facebook group called “I stand by Rashid Khalidi.” A student who had been involved in a pro-Israel group’s film about the controversy said that while he disagreed with Khalid’s view of the Middle East “in terms of his role as a professor, he was excellent. He was provoking, he always allowed for different opinions, he had an open zone where people could voice their disagreement.”
Harvard students should create that “open zone.” Instead they are asking: Who will rid Harvard of this turbulent Swamy?
Swamy clearly does not believe in a pluralistic “open” society. But that is no reason for the rest of us to cede those values in the name of opposing him. To repeat what he once said about Saudi Arabia: “We are not going to imitate them. Our society is different.”
Harvard students should hoist Swamy on his own words. Instead of sending him into exile, they should remind of this inconvenient truth: There is no democracy without debate.
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