London: Narendra Modi’s forthcoming visit to Britain is still weeks away but it has already become a subject of heated debate in Cambridge University with the vice-chancellor facing pressure to withdraw his invitation to the Indian prime minister to address the Senate, its most important academic body.
A group of students and faculty members have written to the VC Leszek Borysiewicz protesting his decision arguing that by inviting him the university would be seen condoning “ongoing attacks on academic freedom and freedom of expression in India’’.
A spokesman confirmed the protest letter purporting to be from “Faculty, Students and Alumni of Cambridge”. He said it was sent by a “mixture’’ of Indian and British scholars.
“Given that your invitation comes at a time when several prominent Indian writers and intellectuals are returning their state honours in protest against the ongoing assault on civil liberties and academic freedom under Mr Modi’s government , we believe that Mr Modi’s presence at our institution will bring the university into serious disrepute,’’ their letter said.
The university, however, is standing by its decision.
Officials told Firstpost that Modi’s visit would go ahead despite protests. They pointed out that Modi is a democratically elected leader of his country and the university would benefit from an exchange of views with the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy.
Besides, Cambridge had old historic ties with India and enjoyed a “strategic relationship which it is keen to develop further.
Cambridge University, they said, has been home to generations of Indian students and has “educated many leading Indians including three prime ministers’’.
It remains one of the most favoured destinations for many Indian students.
Officials were also keen to emphasise that universities are places for open debate and discussion and to shut out voices was against the grain of Cambridge University’s long tradition of engaging with different viewpoints.
The protest letter acknowledges the university’s tradition of inviting political figures to address the Senate but said, “in this particular instance there are several grave and present concerns that we feel impelled to advise you of.”
The letter recalls Modi’s alleged role in the 2002 anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat when he was chief minister, it refers to some recent controversies including “the beating to death of a Muslim man by a Hindu mob for allegedly eating beef”.
“While these events should concern all right-thinking people, our specific concern about this invitation from one of the world’s top universities stems from Prime Minister Modi’s government’s ongoing attacks on academic freedom and freedom of expression in India,’’ it said citing the murder of dissident writer M.M Kulbargi and “cases of international researchers being denied entry to and being abruptly deported from the country’’ because of their views.
“We are impelled to ask therefore why the University of Cambridge affords to Mr Modi the very freedom of expression and academic freedom that, despite constitutional guarantees, are being steadily eroded in India,’’ the letter added.
Nobody from the group which sent the letter could be reached for comment. There was speculation, however, that those opposed to Modi’s visit were likely to stage a protest when he speaks at the Senate.
“It is too early to say anything but most probably there will be a protest,’’ said an Indian student who did not want to be named.
Old Cambridge hands sought to play down the row saying it was all part of “the cut and thrust of campus politics’’. The university, they said, had got used to such displays of dissent over the years.
‘We have this kind of protests every time someone controversial is invited…and we have no problem with it so long as it is peaceful and everyone is able to express their views,’’ said one former teacher.
Some feared that things could turn ugly if Modi supporters tried to stage a counter-protest. In the past, the university has seen rival groups clash on such occasions.
An activist of the UKWelcomesmodi campaign group, which is planning a gala reception for the prime minister at Wembley Stadium, dismissed the Cambridge row as an attempt by “left wing intellectuals” to stir the pot. He accused them of attempting to “grab headlines and hijack the event”.
Some rights campaigners said they too believed that Cambridge University had not fully thought through the implications of the decision to invite Modi to address its most prestigious academic body at a time when academic freedoms were under attack in India.
Modi’s visit is first by an Indian prime minister in nearly a decade and both his supporters and critics are gearing up for action—one by rolling out the red carpet, and the other by taking to the streets.
Updated Date: Oct 23, 2015 12:26:51 IST