Opinion guest column

Shunned by Harvard, feted by MIT

Subramanian Swamy, a member of India’s ruling party, is set to speak at the MIT India Conference despite his homophobic and Islamophobic past

This year’s annual MIT India Conference is slated for Feb. 16, 2019. Similar to earlier years, the conference has listed a phalanx of Indian speakers drawn from tech, business, politics, and entertainment. It is organized by students, staff, and faculty across different departments at MIT, and speakers are primarily sourced from the networks of faculty advisors and students. Add to that the MIT brand name, and it’s not very difficult to attract prominent figures from India.

One speaker that stands out this year is Subramanian Swamy. Swamy is a member of India’s current ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and is a nominated member of the Indian Parliament’s upper house. A Harvard-trained economist, Swamy has had a controversial academic and political past. After briefly teaching economics at Harvard, he went back to India and for a short while taught at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, got fired and joined politics in the early 1970s.

In his almost five-decade-long political career, Swamy has mostly associated with center-right to far-right political parties. He started out with the Brahmin nationalist party Jan Sangh — the predecessor of BJP — in the 70s and after many flings with multiple political formations, including the Indian National Congress, officially joined the BJP in 2013.

On July 16, 2011, in an op-ed in Indian newspaper Daily News and Analysis titled “How to wipe out Islamic terror,” Swamy proposed, among other things, to “[r]emove the masjid [mosque] in Kashi Vishwanath temple complex, and 300 others in other sites as a tit-for-tat,” and to “declare India as Hindu Rashtra in which only those non-Hindus can vote if they proudly acknowledge that their ancestors are Hindus.” The op-ed was criticized by readers but was also praised within the Brahmin Supremacist ecosystem of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organization of BJP. The Harvard Division of Continuing Education, which runs the Harvard Summer School program at which Swamy taught, initially supported Swamy in the name of free speech and resisted the calls to censure him. Neoconservatives in the U.S. were delighted and Fox News did an interview with Swamy, in which the interviewer Steve Doocy said, “Your op-ed was absolutely right. People have got to stand-up to Islamic terror.” Swamy also commended Harvard for being a “beacon light” for free speech by allowing him to continue as a summer school instructor.

The episode made Swamy famous in the U.S., but it came at a cost. Later in December, Harvard faculty voted to discontinue Swamy’s summer school courses, effectively shutting him out of Harvard. The decision was largely supported by students.

Swamy’s outbursts against social and religious minorities of India didn't stop with the inflammatory and Islamophobic op-ed he penned in 2011.

In 2016, following the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a bright Dalit — a social group kept outside the Brahminical social caste system’s hierarchy and thus historically suppressed — PhD candidate, large scale protests by members of oppressed castes broke out all over India and abroad. Swamy called these protesters “dogs” in a tweet from his official Twitter handle.

In recent times, Swamy has been in the news for speaking out against the decriminalization of sex between consenting adults of the same gender, insisting that homosexuality is “not a normal thing.” Swamy said, “These are all American habits, there's a lot of money behind it. The Americans want to open gay bars, and it'll be a cover for pedophiles and a huge rise in HIV cases. It is a danger to our national security.” In another interview, Swamy said that “being homosexual” is “not normal,” is “against Hindutva,” and needs “medical research to see if it can be cured.” Hardly kind to people with mental and psychiatric disorders either, Swamy warned against bipolar people joining politics, describing them as violent and unfit to “lead a public life.”

It is interesting to see the return of Swamy to the north banks of the Charles River, this time to MIT. There is already a petition on Change.org imploring President Reif to disinvite Swamy from the conference, and earlier this week, a group of MIT faculty members wrote to President Reif and Provost Schmidt expressing their opposition to the India conference’s invitation to Swamy. So far the people behind Swamy’s invitation, notably Prof. S.P. Kothari — also the Chairman of last year’s World Hindu Congress in Chicago, an RSS jamboree — are silent on the ongoing protest. Coming at the heels of MIT’s recent refusal to dissociate from Mohammad bin Salman and Saudi investment, whether this invitation signifies the MIT administration’s conscious tip towards a more conservative, even reactionary worldview, or is just an attempt by vested interests to establish currency for a particular political viewpoint, will be judged by the final decision on the matter by MIT leadership.

Husayn Karimi is a member of the MIT Class of 2019 studying computer science. Arif Hussain is an activist and political analyst based in the Boston area.