Indian firms back out of Wharton event

Narendra Modi was to speak via Skype. He is banned from the U.S.
Narendra Modi was to speak via Skype. He is banned from the U.S. (ALTAF QADRI / AP)
Posted: March 09, 2013

Two Indian companies have withdrawn support for a Wharton School business conference at the University of Pennsylvania after student organizers scrapped a talk by Narendra Modi, a popular chief minister of a state in India and a Hindu nationalist banned from visiting the United States since 2002.

The travel ban was the result of deadly attacks on Muslims that Modi's government allegedly failed to block.

The 17th annual Wharton India Economic Forum had scheduled Modi, chief minister of Gujarat state. Modi has been identified by the Times of India as a likely future prime minister of the world's second-most-populous nation.

He was to be chief speaker at the March 22-23 conference, but the invitation was canceled Sunday after a protest led by several professors of Indian origin at Penn.

After Modi was dropped, the event's lead sponsor, billionaire Gautam Adani, head of the Adani Group, an energy and port conglomerate, pulled out of the event, citing scheduling conflicts. Software-outsourcing giant Hexaware Technologies, which counts Unisys of Blue Bell and Newtown Square's SAP America as partners, and its chairman, Atul Nishar, also dropped out, citing "other business engagements."

Modi is a leader of the Hindu nationalist BJP political party, whose leaders say India is fundamentally a Hindu nation. That is in conflict with the view of the National Congress political movement, which is secular and socialist-leaning.

The conference had invited Modi to speak via Skype because of the U.S. State Department travel ban. The ban was reinforced by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in December after 25 U.S. congressmen, led by Chester County Republican Joe Pitts, urged that Modi remain banned.

Besides the Muslim killings, the State Department cited under Modi's governance state harassment of Christians and state textbooks glorifying Nazis.

After Wharton invited Modi, Penn professors Toorjo Ghose (social work) and Ania Loomba and Suvir Kaul (English professors) circulated a protest petition.

"We are outraged" by the invitation, they wrote, given the killings of more than 1,000 Gujaratis and Modi's failure to punish the killers.

In canceling Modi, conference organizers said they hoped to avoid conflict between "sub-segments of the alumni base, student body, and our supporters."

Wharton sought to distance itself from the controversy with a statement emphasizing that conference leaders were students, adding that Wharton "regret[s] any confusion that may have been caused by the change."


Contact Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194, JoeD@phillynews.com, or follow @PhillyJoeD on Twitter.

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