India firms drop Wharton event

In this Monday, Dec. 3, 2012 photo, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi attends a press conference. (AP File Photo / Ajit Solanki)

UPDATED: Two India companies have withdrawn sponsorship of a Wharton School business conference after conference organizers un-invited an Indian politician who has been banned from the United States since his government failed to block massacres of Muslims in 2002.

The student-run Wharton conference courted, then snubbed, Gujarat State chief minister Narendra Modi. He is the popular, Hindu-nationalist, private-business-oriented BJP (Indian People's Party)'s likely candidate to be the next Prime Minister of India, says the Times of India here.

The event's lead ("platinum") sponsor, Adani Group, a port, power, coal and gas conglomerate, and its billionaire chairman Gautam Adani "withdrew the sponsorship, and opted out of the event, citing commitments here," reports the Indian Express here.

Another India company, software outsourcing giant Hexaware Technologies, which counts Blue Bell-based Unisys and Germany- and Newtown Square-based SAP AG among its partners, "withdrew sponsorship for the Wharton India Economic Forum (WIEF) on Wednesday and company chairman Atul Nishar opted out of the event," the Express said.

"The decision follows controversial cancellation of [Gujarat state] Chief Minister Narendra Modi's keynote address (through video conference) at the Forum by the host, Wharton School...

 "'Mr Atul Nishar wouldn't be able to attend this Forum due to his other business engagements. The sponsorship matter is a call of the Marketing department and not of Mr Nishar'," company spokesperson Sreedatri Chatterji said.

 "Nishar was to speak at the Forum while his company was a 'bronze sponsor' of the event. The name and logo of Hexaware Technology was removed from the portal of WIEF later in the day." Remaining sponsors include the Indian government's tourism group and entertainment TV channel Colors Viacom.

Adani is based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat's main city. Hexaware is based in suburban Mumbai, south of Gujarat.

EARLIER: The University of Pennsylvania's Wharton business school is under attack by politicians in India, one of the school's growth markets, after it invited, and then un-invited, the controversial top state government executive from India's Gujarat state, Narendra Modi, from addressing the Wharton India Economic Forum 2013 conference in Philadelphia, March 22-23.

Modi, a leader of the Hindu nationalist BJP political party, is banned from traveling to the United States by the State Department. The ban was reinforced by then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in December after 25 U.S. Congressmen led by Chester County-based U.S. Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., urged Modi remain excluded. BJP, which is broadly pro-private-business and socially conservative, opposes India's founding Congress political movement, which is secular and historically supported socialist state control.

Modi's state government was criticized by U.S. officials for failing to stop or contain organized attacks that killed Muslims and burned Muslim-owned homes and shops in the early 2000s. It was also criticized by India's human rights commission for allowing the exclusion of Muslims from public areas, and pressuring Christians by sending state officials to their homes at night demanding information on religious ties, according to this 2003 State Department report, which also noted Gujarat textbooks praised the racist and mass-murderous German Nazi government under Modi's administration. 

After Wharton invited Modi, three Penn professors of Indian origin, social work professor and prostitution scholar Toorjo Ghose and English professors and "postcolonial studies" scholars Ania Loomba and Suvir Kaul, circulated a petition protesting the invitation to Modi.  Excerpts (more in India's Bangalore Times here): 

“We are outraged to learn that the WIEF has invited Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat, to be a keynote speaker at its 17th Economic Forum on March 23, 2013. This is the same politician who was refused a diplomatic visa by the US State Department on March 18, 2005 on the ground that he, as CM, did nothing to prevent a series of orchestrated riots that targeted Muslims in Gujarat. The most conservative estimates are that over a thousand people, mostly Muslims, died in those riots. Thousands more were forced to leave their homes and businesses....

“Since then, the Supreme Court of India has repeatedly faulted the Gujarat government led by Modi for failing to prosecute those guilty of the crimes in 2002 and instead prosecuting whistle-blowers and activists who had tried to bring the guilty to justice.... 

 “It is incomprehensible to us that this is the man whom the WIEF wishes to celebrate as an exemplar of economic and social development. We find it astonishing that any academic and student body at the University of Pennsylvania can endorse ideas about economic development that are based on the systematic oppression of minority populations, whether in India or elsewhere...

“Modi still does not have a US visa to enter the US, but Wharton plans to present him on Skype to the audience. Recently there have been efforts to whitewash Modi’s grim record and to grant him respectability. Wharton’s invitation lends itself to doing just that. We urge the Wharton India Economic Forum to revoke their invitation to Narendra Modi..”

On March 3, Wharton surrendered. Not because the conference organizers have come to believe Modi is a killer, and not because they are making a statement against communal violence -- the organizers say their only "ideology" is "a neutral platform" -- but rather because they don't want conflict with "sub-segments of the alumni base, student body, and our supporters."  Statement here (via India's NDTV). Excerpts: 

"As it stands currently, Mr. Modi's keynote address at Wharton India Economic Forum has been cancelled. With all the chosen speakers across multiple keynotes and panels, our goal as a team is to provide a neutral platform to encourage cross pollination of ideas as we all work towards contributing to India's success. Through this ideology, we hope to present multiple opinions and ideas to our audiences and supporters across the world and constructively contribute to the intellectual milieu for which University of Pennsylvania and The Wharton School stand. 

"We do not endorse any political views and do not support any specific ideology. Our goal as a team is only to stimulate valuable dialogue on India's growth story, and to act as a forum where students and audiences interact with influential leaders from across India.

"The student organizing body was extremely impressed with Mr. Modi's credentials, governance ideologies, and leadership, which was the primary reason for his invitation.

"However, as a responsible student body within the University of Pennsylvania, we must consider the impact on multiple stakeholders in our ecosystem. Our team felt that the potential polarizing reactions from sub-segments of the alumni base, student body, and our supporters, might put Mr. Modi in a compromising position, which we would like to avoid at all costs, especially in the spirit of our conference's purpose...

"We as a team, would like to apologize for being a catalyst may have put Mr. Modi and the Wharton School administration in an difficult position. We have received tremendous support for the conference and would like to thank everyone for their constant support and encouragement.

"We hope to have Mr. Modi speak at a more appropriate forum where he can interact with students without the distraction of this kind of attention... We are in the last stages of finalizing an additional keynote address to complete our lineup. This keynote will be delivered by a very prominent Indian leader and will be announced very soon on our website. Thank you." 

Indian politicians have criticized Wharton for retreating. "Once they had invited him, they had a duty to hear his point of view," national health minister (and Congress member) Shashi Tharoor told the Times of India here."It doesn't behove civilized people to first sent an invite and then withdraw it,'' added BJP leader Balbir Punj.

Modi's chief defender in Congress is non-voting U.S. Rep. Eni Faleomavaega (D-Guam), who in a statement last month said he's "aware of the 2002 communal riots" in Modi's state, but finds the ensuing campaign against the governor "politically motivated."

Times of India columnist Rajiv Shah wrote here that Modi "muzzles dissent," including by professors, and "despises any form of protest." He notes that Prof. Loomba had criticized Wharton for presenting a forum that would have allowed Modi to avoid discussion of his whole record, including human rights, focusing just on his pro-business stance.

But if Columbia University could host Iran president and Israel threatener Mamoud Ahmadinejad at a highly-charged 2007 forum, Wharton should have been able to handle Modi and raise the broad issues of his rule, Shah concluded.

Will Wharton's efforts to raise its India profile suffer lasting damage -- especially if Modi ends up running the country? In a statement, the school sought to shift blame from its adminstration: "The student organizers of the upcoming Wharton India Economic Forum have announced that they have cancelled the proposed keynote address by Mr. Narendra Modi.   We appreciate the efforts our students have put forth in organizing this event and regret any confusion that may have been caused by the change in program.”

Hindustan Times story here. Daily Pennsylvanian story here.