Inside Higher Ed: Harvard, India and intolerance

By Scott Jaschik, for Inside Higher Ed

August 1, 2011

Subramanian Swamy isn’t your average summer school instructor. Swamy was a Harvard University economics professor before returning to politics in India, where he is president of the Janata Party. But he comes back to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the summer to teach at the university, while still sharing his views in India – views that are setting off a debate at the university and in his home country.

In an op-ed in Daily News & Analysis last month, Swamy responded to a recent bombing by Muslim terrorists in Mumbai. India could wipe out terrorism, he wrote, by taking certain steps, such as declaring India a Hindu state where “non-Hindus can vote only if they proudly acknowledge that their ancestors were Hindus”, or demolishing mosques or banning conversion from Hinduism to any other faith. The op-ed author’s sign-off didn’t mention Swamy’s Harvard connection, but it didn’t take long for word to reach the university.

Some students said that, while respecting academic freedom, they found it offensive that an instructor could be advocating removing voting rights on religious grounds.

A petition, whose signatories include Harvard students and parents of students, claims that Swamy has gone beyond what is acceptable discourse and is calling for the university to “terminate” its association with him. “While free expression and the vigorous contest of ideas are essential in any academic community, so, too, are respect and tolerance for human difference,” the petition states. “By advocating measures that would grossly violate freedom of religion and the unqualified right to vote for different religious groups, and by aggressively vilifying an entire religious community, Swamy breaches the most basic standards of respect and tolerance.”

The petition also questions his suitability as a teacher: “Swamy’s comments cast doubt on his ability to treat a diverse community of students with fairness and respect. The highly insulting and stereotypical nature of his comments suggest that he cannot be trusted to regard Muslims – and no doubt other groups – with anything but a jaundiced eye.”

The dispute has attracted considerable attention in India, with some groups calling for Swamy’s arrest, and the country’s National Commission for Minorities plans to discuss the article this week.

Reports have been circulating that Harvard also plans to investigate Swamy, based on a quote from the summer school dean in The Harvard Crimson that the university “will give this matter serious attention”. However, the US Foundation for Individual Rights wrote to Harvard president Drew Faust last week calling on the university not to investigate Swamy’s statement or take action against him. The phrase “serious attention” would “unacceptably chill expression among members of Harvard’s community”, the foundation said.

Despite the remark, there has been no investigation, and Swamy has been teaching his courses, which conclude this week, without incident. And on Sunday Harvard spokesman, Jeff A. Neal, released a statement defending Swamy’s right to free speech, while noting the concern.

“As an institution of research and teaching, we are dedicated to the proposition that all people, regardless of color or creed, deserve equal opportunities, equal respect and equal protection,” Neal wrote. “Recent writings by Dr Swamy therefore are distressing to many members of our community, and understandably so.” However, he added: “It is central to the mission of a university to protect free speech, including that of Dr Swamy and of those who disagree with him. We are ultimately stronger as a university when we maintain our commitment to the most basic freedoms that enable the robust exchange of ideas.”

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