By Abeer Dahiya
This event has already taken place. This article was published on October 30, 2021.
This article contains comments made by a politician that reference and/or endorse sexual assault, violence and ethnic cleansing, which may be disturbing for some readers.
Earlier this week, the Stanford India Policy and Economics Club (SIPEC), a VSO founded last academic year, announced a Zoom event with Manohar Lal Khattar, the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Chief Minister (the Indian equivalent of a US governor) of the northern state of Haryana. The event, titled “Haryana: Powering India’s Growth Story’” is set to take place this weekend, in collaboration with groups at Princeton and Berkeley.
While Khattar is not a well-known figure internationally, domestically, his administration is widely seen as inept, and he himself has been associated with inflammatory rhetoric against women and minorities.
Let’s start with economics, since the event aims to promote the purported miracle that is Khattar’s Haryana. In fact, his administration has presided over some of the worst economic depressions in the history of the state. Before his election in 2014, Haryana was hailed as a bright spot in India’s flagging economy. Under Khattar’s leadership, Haryana has attained the unenviable distinction of the highest unemployment rate in the country, with an estimated 35.7% of people unemployed as of August as per the CMIE, an independent think-tank.
But Khattar has disputed those numbers, citing government figures that are a fraction of that percentage. Under the Modi regime, India’s national economic statistics have come under fire by independent observers and experts for being prone to distortion or outright fabrication. To have Khattar speak on economic growth is akin to having Lil Nas X lecture us on defense policy.
In any case, rising unemployment figures are not Khattar’s only concern. Haryana is a traditionally agricultural state, making it one of the epicenters of the farmers’ protest movement in response to the deregulation of public markets for crops. Those laws were similarly passed by the far-right Hindu majoritarian Modi regime without much debate in Parliament. Among other things, the new farm laws would strip the right to legal recourse from affected farmers suing against public agents or private corporations.
The laws have drawn fierce and sustained opposition from India’s millions of small farmers (65% are ‘marginal farmers’ that own less than one acre, and the average holding is around 3 acres) who would be most heavily affected by the entry of large corporates that could exercise control over markets that their livelihoods depend on. Protesters have received support from international rights organizations, 87 farmers’ unions in the United States and even Rihanna, while they have been vilified by India’s media as “traitors” and “terrorist sympathisers”.
Khattar’s government has arrested and imprisoned thousands, doused peaceful protestors with freezing water cannons, and led police brutality on an unprecedented scale, resulting in dozens killed. On Oct. 3, he exhorted his supporters to “treat” protesting farmers with violence. His words have had an impact: on Thursday, three women were killed by a hit-and-run at a protest site. A minister in his Cabinet has publicly stated that farmers killed while protesting would have “died anyway”.
Furthermore, Khattar has publicly stated that men from his state should “bring back Kashmiri women” in a despicable reference to the stripping of Indian-administered Kashmir’s constitutional autonomy clause. His comments echo the rising rhetoric of ethnic cleansing that is popular among his brand of Hindu nationalist politicians, many of which hold high office in India today.
Haryana has one of the worst gender ratios of any subdivision in the world, with just 911 female births per 1000 male births. In recent years, women’s safety has deteriorated in the state, with four rapes being reported daily and an increase of 68.9% in cases involving minors as per the National Crime Records Bureau. Confronted with this issue, Khattar has blamed victims for wearing revealing attire, and has claimed that the “biggest concern” is not the abject failure of police and legal authorities in his state to protect women, but that many cases are false reports, comments that are antithetical to the oath that defines his office, and bring shame to his state- my state.
To me, Haryana stands as an achievement of the Indian experiment in liberal democracy- a multilingual society carved out of refugees from a bloody Partition (of which Khattar traces his ancestry to) and native citizenry, as well as a champion of industrial agriculture and market liberalization. Despite a deeply patriarchal society, Haryana has produced remarkable female talent, including astronaut Kalpana Chawla, foreign affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and a plurality of Indian female Olympic medalists. Khattar is an anathema to that narrative of progress.
To have Khattar speak under the banner of this University now is a part of a trend of members of India’s ruling party attempting to regain some of their lost international credibility. We must not let that happen. A past event organized by SIPEC involving Union Cabinet Minister Piyush Goyal did not permit unmoderated questions, and neither will the one featuring Khattar. If a representative of a foreign government- let alone one that is single-handedly associated with the collapse of democratic institutions in India- comes to Stanford, they must expect and be prepared to meet the dissent they have tried so egregiously to suppress at home. Stanford cannot, and will not, become a bully pulpit for would-be authoritarians.
Twenty-one months ago, in January 2020, students at this University and hundreds of other institutions around the world demonstrated in solidarity with thousands of students in India against the enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) by the Modi regime. Taken together, both would have effectively introduced a religious test for citizenship in a constitutionally secular democracy, under the guise of opening citizenship to refugees fleeing religious persecution. Nearly two years after domestic and international outcry over the laws, they are yet to be completely rolled out in many parts of the country, effectively abandoned by the ruling BJP as a policy priority. It is worth remembering that Khattar has spent his political career as part of that same machine.
Our experience as protestors then taught us a significant lesson: that the Modi government was ultimately sensitive to foreign criticism, criticism that it is unable to monitor or effectively control. Unlike in India, where journalists and academics are regularly arrested on flimsy charges and detained for years without trial, we at Stanford enjoy the enormous luxury of the First Amendment, as well as our University’s name: both powerful weapons in inspiring progressive change around the world. We carry with that great power a great responsibility to the societies we inhabit.
The Fundamental Standard that governs student behaviour at this University since 1896 states that students at Stanford are “expected to show both within and without the University such respect for order, morality, personal honor and the rights of others as is demanded of good citizens.” I have yet to understand how an organization of Stanford students such as SIPEC can reconcile those foundational values with the invitation of a figure as repugnant as Khattar to address our campus community.
As a Haryanvi, I am enraged that the misamanager-in-chief of my state is given ill-deserved validation. As an Indian, I am ashamed that voices like those of Prof. Anand Teltumbde or Sudha Bharadwaj, which have spent their careers fighting for democracy and justice are silenced while those entirely unworthy of a platform are given several. And as a Stanford student, I am devastated that my University could be co-opted by the very movement I’ve dedicated myself to fighting in its unrelenting drive to rob my homeland of its democratic institutions.
The irony is stark: Stanford is set to celebrate its first-ever Democracy Day on Tuesday, two days after it hosts a denier of it to millions.