US academics slamming Modi ahead of Silicon Valley visit should be ashamed

Their open letter deserves to be ignored - but not before it's comprehensively rebutted.

 |  7-minute read |   31-08-2015
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It's not difficult to pin down the motive behind the open letter signed by over 120 US-based academics warning Silicon Valley CEOs about Prime Minister Narendra Modi's sinister digital designs at an event scheduled in California on September 27.

First up, a disclaimer. In a liberal democracy, I believe petitions and open letters, however good, bad or ugly, are a part of free expression. Some back genuine causes. Others are filled with empty rhetoric. In an open society all are grist to the mill. Besides, they often expose the petitioner rather than those petitioned against.

So what should we make of the open letter signed by a galaxy of US academics, mostly of Indian origin, addressed to the CEOs of Google, Apple, Microsoft, Tesla and other Silicon Valley giants?

Are these Left-leaning "liberals" - the phrase may be oxymoronic - so pathologically antagonistic to Modi that they would risk collateral damage to India just to discredit this particular prime minister? Or are they simply intellectual evangelists who think Modi is so dangerous to India's ideological, social, political and digital future that it is worth discrediting the India growth story among the Silicon Valley elite?

Fortunately, the answer to these questions is that it doesn't matter. America's technology czars are used to receiving open letters or petitions in their inboxes. They have a well-developed antenna for sniffing out those which are motivated and those which are not. The trash bin is the destination for most.

Some years ago, I co-founded and edited a magazine for US CEOs called Innovate. It was written, researched, edited and produced in India and shipped to the US. From there our Boston-based partner couriered copies to America's top CEOs, including all those who run the world's most innovative companies in Silicon Valley.

The feedback I received from them over the past few years can be culled thus: One, Indian tech companies need to move up the value chain not just be body  shops; two, the Indian government must provide an enabling institutional environment to foster innovation - from the IITs and startups to research labs and industry; and three, Silicon Valley's ecosystem of high-quality research, venture capital and entrepreneurship can be replicated in Bengaluru, Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Gurgaon, Noida, Hyderabad and elsewhere.

In many ways, India is now at an inflection point: the necessary ingredients for innovation are in place: research, venture capital and young entrepreneurs. The weak link is research. Digital India could be one way to encourage institutions, SMEs and scientists to do more original research and publish more peer-reviewed papers.

You may like or dislike Prime Minister Modi. You may think Digital India could be misused to engage in surveillance, compromising personal privacy and all the things we value. But the tone and content of the open letter aimed at smearing the prime minister ahead of his visit to Silicon Valley smacks of both nastiness and pettiness. It deserves to be ignored - but not before it's comprehensively rebutted.

Let's examine the principal points the five-paragraph open letter tries to establish:

Paragraph 1: As faculty who engage South Asia in our research and teaching, we write to express our concerns about the uncritical fanfare being generated over Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Silicon Valley to promote "Digital India" on September 27, 2015.

For liberal arts academics (virtually none of the signatories to the open letter has a science or tech degree) to claim Modi's forthcoming visit to promote Digital India has been received with "uncritical fanfare" underscores the intellectual shallowness on which the open letter is premised. It's also factually wrong. Digital India has in recent weeks received the harshest possible criticism, especially from those in India who regard themselves as tolerant and liberal.  

Paragraph 2: It rambles on and makes no arguments worthy of serious attention. Let's move on.

Paragraph 3: We are concerned that the project's potential for increased transparency in bureaucratic dealings with people is threatened by its lack of safeguards about privacy of information, and thus its potential for abuse. As it stands, "Digital India" seems to ignore key questions raised in India by critics concerned about the collection of personal information and the near certainty that such digital systems will be used to enhance surveillance and repress the constitutionally- protected rights of citizens. These issues are being discussed energetically in public in India and abroad. Those who live and work in Silicon Valley have a particular responsibility to demand that the government of India factor these critical concerns into its planning for digital futures.

The language here borders on arrogance. And again, it is wrong on facts. Issues surrounding Digital India, the open letter, in a burst of honesty, concedes, "are being energetically discussed in India and abroad." The academics should know that the US government's digital surveillance is far more intrusive than Digital India's is likely to be. And the latter is still open to discussion and change. America's isn't - a point the US-based academics aren't brave enough to make.

Paragraph 4: We acknowledge that Narendra Modi, as Prime Minister of a country that has contributed much to the growth and development of Silicon Valley industries, has the right to visit the United States, and to seek American business collaboration and partnerships with India. However, as educators who pay particular attention to history, we remind Mr. Modi's audiences of the powerful reasons for him being denied the right to enter the U.S. from 2005-2014, for there is still an active case in Indian courts that questions his role in the Gujarat violence of 2002 when 1,000 died. Modi's first year in office as the Prime Minister of India includes well publicized episodes of censorship and harassment of those critical of his policies, bans and restrictions on NGOs leading to a constriction of the space of civic engagement, ongoing violations of religious freedom, and a steady impingement on the independence of the judiciary. Under Mr Modi's tenure as Prime Minister, academic freedom is also at risk: foreign scholars have been denied entry to India to attend international conferences, there has been interference with the governance of top Indian universities and academic institutions such as the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the Indian Institutes of Technology and Nalanda University; as well as underqualified or incompetent key appointments made to the Indian Council of Historical Research, the Film and Television Institute of India, and the National Book Trust. A proposed bill to bring the Indian Institutes of Management under direct control of government is also worrisome. These alarming trends require that we, as educators, remain vigilant not only about modes of e-governance in India but about the political future of the country.

This verbose, poorly written paragraph harks back to Modi's past, slyly attempting to link him to unproven court allegations over the 2002 riots in Gujarat and a motivated nine-year-long denial of a US visa based on just one evangelical organisation's complaint  

The point this paragraph makes of undue government interference in educational institutions is of course valid. While a new idea like Digital India needs more scrutiny and safeguards, the Modi government needs to also alter its attitude to educational institutions: it must not foist under-qualified Right-leaning academics to balance out the Congress' decades-long patronising of Left-leaning academics. Only merit, not ideology, must count in such appointments. In the open letter, this emerges as the only constructive though fairly obvious suggestion. But it is hardly of material consequence to Silicon Valley's tech ecosystem or the PM's visit there.

Paragraph 5: We urge those who lead Silicon Valley technology enterprises to be mindful of not violating their own codes of corporate responsibility when conducting business with a government which has, on several occasions already, demonstrated its disregard for human rights and civil liberties, as well as the autonomy of educational and cultural institutions.

The final paragraph in the open letter is particularly venomous. It exposes the pathological dislike for this Indian prime minister. It tells the CEOs of America's top technology companies that the Modi government should in effect be regarded as untouchable because it has demonstrated a "disregard for human rights and civil liberties". It advises those "who lead Silicon Valley technology enterprises to be mindful of not violating their own codes of corporate responsibility when conducting business with the (Modi) government."  In order to discredit this prime minister, the (mostly) Indian-origin, US-based academics are prepared to discredit India.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, some open letters and petitions end up exposing their intolerant, illiberal and ill-informed petitioners more than their target. This open letter does precisely that.


Minhaz Merchant Minhaz Merchant @minhazmerchant

The writer is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. He is a media group chairman and editor. He is the author of The New Clash of Civilizations

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