The insult, first. I accept that Narendra Modi feels injured by Wharton’s action. After all, how many of us get the chance to address some of the brightest business students in the world? Modi must have been looking forward to that. No doubt it came as a slap in his face that Wharton was persuaded to take back its invitation.
Though I realise Modi has long learned the value of labeling criticism of him as insults to Gujarat’s “Asmita”. For a decade we’ve seen him do it to any questions about the massacres of 2002, reaping the electoral rewards such rhetoric is designed for. Now that he nurses wider political dreams, the labeling gets correspondingly wider too: it’s not just Gujarat, but, as the Shiv Sena’s Suresh Prabhu announced, “Wharton has insulted India.” Look, Mr Prabhu, I’m Indian and I’m not insulted. Please don’t presume to speak for me.
This is so shaky an argument that it’s a wonder someone as erudite as Bhagat even tries to make it. For one thing, Wharton is a thoroughly private, independent institution that has nothing to do with its country’s government. For another, that country also makes friends with democracies. So?
And finally, freedom of expression. The extent to which this straightforward concept is misunderstood always mystifies me. What it means is, I’m free to express myself, just as you are and just as Modi is.But let’s understand: so are those who don’t want to hear Modi. Here’s the absolute essence of free expression: views we find annoying or offensive enjoy just the same freedoms our own views do. Presumably there were people who wanted to hear Modi, and they asked the Wharton organisers to invite him. In just the same way, there were people who didn’t want to hear him, and they asked the Wharton organisers to withdraw the invitation. Freedom of expression applies equally to both those groups.