The Hindustan Times reports that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to address the senate of the University of Cambridge during his three-day visit to Britain in November. This has caused considerable consternation among those currently attending the University, whatever their capacity, and among alumni. The letter at the end of this link is addressed to the Vice Chancellor of the University requesting that he withdraw the invitation. It cites the reasons why such a person should not address the University, among which are his complicity in mass murder, and his systematic silencing of dissenting voices. As an alumnus I have signed the letter. I urge any fellow Cantabrigians reading this blog to consider doing so also.
When I promoted the letter on Facebook it drew two interesting observations from two friends of mine, both men of letters and learning, and in friendships that persist and thrive despite significant differences in our political leanings. The first observation was on whether this action constitutes an act of censorship. This friend is unwavering in his belief that freedom of speech should never be constrained, no matter how hateful the message, or the messenger, as this is a route to, and symptom of a more insidious tyranny. My other friend brought a considered tone of both treating a foreign dignitary with respect, and tempered this with a healthy dose of real politik. Alienating India, a key regional ally, and economic power would be damaging to our self interest. My friend and I learned the phrase “jaw jaw not war war” from the same history teacher decades ago. He went on to argue that by engaging with Mr Modi we have the opportunity to extend our influence over him, and over time draw him closer to our standards of openness and democracy.
I responded to both thus:
In the first instance the stance we are taking is not one of censorship, but censure. I admit though to relishing the irony of not letting a man who suppresses voices air his own. But as PM of India Modi does not lack for platforms from which he can spread his messages. The action is not to silence, but to withhold the cachet and implicit acceptance that goes with speaking at Cambridge when the speaker’s mores are so horribly at odds with the tolerance and intellectual freedom we so value.
Modi will undoubtedly speak at dinners hosted by Cameron and will be toasted by business leaders. The ballrooms and convention centres of Southall and Birmingham will be filled with Indian diaspora hanging off his every word, blind or willfully ignoring the atrocities in which he is complicit and hate mongering of which he is culpable.
Nor are the freedoms we love so cheap that we will hawk them in the bazaar to whoever passes with a purse full of copper. Have you been to India? The inequality there is of a scale you cannot comprehend if all you have seen is the local tragedy of the western homeless, sleeping in the rain shadow of skyscrapers. There an abject, withering poverty sits beside wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. Is it to those vaults of hoarded rupees we should sell our self respect.
Are we the world’s penniless drunk, sitting at the bar hoping the brash new money that walks in will buy a round for everyone? Are we the dissolute master returning to his suddenly wealthy manumitted slave with a shy smile, saying “I raised you up and only flogged you gently, and see how well you learned my lessons of violence and entitlement. Take me to lunch and tell me how you did it”?
I am not so readily bought. My Alma mater’s most precious asset is the ennoblement of mind it confers on those who pass through its halls and cloisters. People come to speak there to bask in its reflection. I hope the institution listens to the voices it has nurtured and withholds its light from this murderer of masses, from this silencer of voices.
And yet should we not hold him close? Talk to him rather than shun him, allow our sensibilities to seep into his own? It is a sentiment so self evidently true and right that it should immediately raise the hackles of suspicion. Look carefully at those who eschew estrangement from the things we despise and argue that we should bring our influence to bear. And then follow the sickly sweet scent of the money. It is as self serving a position to take in this instance as it is in our Prime Minister’s toadying with Saudi Arabia, and it is just as fruitless. I have not seen any evidence of influence bringing lasting political change to bear. More than that I think our influence in Britain is a myth we have spun to fill the emotional chasm caused by the loss of an empire. We keep close to other nations to pick their pockets or sell them our silver. Hard money and the consumption of things talks louder than the abstraction of influence. I suspect Churchill knew that in 1954 and his famous quote is just another pillar in his personal myth creation. Perhaps if he had been truthful he would have said, “more, more, not war war”.
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