The India Society at Oxford University has cancelled a high-profile lecture set for next month, days after some members of the Indian community in the UK objected to one of the speakers at the event.
The appropriately-named ‘Contrarians’ conference, which had been scheduled to take place at the University’s Exeter College on 3 April, was set to feature Indian-American academic and Indic activist Rajiv Malhotra as well as the controversial politician Dr Subramaniam Swamy.
The duo were due to speak on issues of economic development and discuss Malhotra’s book ‘Breaking India: Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines’ which contends that campaigns against caste-based discrimination in India is part of a wider “western conspiracy” to undermine the country’s sovereignty.
An announcement of the event by the Oxford India Society (OIS) on its Facebook page earlier this month divided the community, particularly in the wake of recent remarks by Dr Swamy on the issue of places of religious worship in India.
Whilst many users were supportive of the event, others were critical, particularly of the appearance by Dr Swamy.
One said that whilst it was important to preserve freedom of speech, that courtesy “should not be extended to those who have crossed the lines of civility”.
Dr Swamy, a member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janatha Party, caused outrage in India this month when he told a private gathering in Guwahati that mosques and churches were not “holy” places and could be “demolished”, adding that Gods “only lived in Hindu temples”.
Dr Subramaniam Swamy
It is the latest in a long list of controversial remarks attributed to the former Harvard professor.
He has previously claimed that homosexuality is a “mental disorder”; that Muslims should be considered “outsiders” because they had “invaded” India; and once accused Al Jazeera of using scenes from the Bollywood flick ‘Sholay’ to depict Israel’s destruction of the Gaza Strip.
The UKAsian attempted to contact the Oxford India Society but were referred to a statement on its Facebook page which claimed that the event had been cancelled due to “logistical issues”.
The statement adds: “We understand that this event has raised several strong opinions from various members of the community. We maintain our stand that in a democratic society, there is need for both sides to communicate, debate and find common ground for consensus that will result in meaningful solutions to problems”.
However, a number of organizations – most notably the National Council of Hindu Temples (NCHT – UK) which is organizing several other events featuring Dr Swamy – have slammed the cancellation.
“We are stunned that a leading British University that should be championing free speech and freedom of thought has taken such a cowardly decision”, said Satish K Sharma, General Secretary of the NCHT-UK.
“We cannot allow the appeasement of extremists to stifle cherished values and I fear this decision will reflect very badly on Oxford University and their much publicised ‘free rigorous thinking’ credentials”, Mr Sharma added.
NCHT-UK also questioned why Dr Swamy was excluded from speaking at the same institution which had previously provided a platform for the likes of French far-right leader Marine Le Pen and Holocaust-denier David Irving.
Mr Sharma’s views were echoed by other commentators.
One Facebook user, Prakash Shah, wrote that OIS should have shown more “gumption” whilst another, Aditya Tyagi, claimed that the Society did not want “the views of Rajiv Malhotra and Subramaniam Swamy to be heard”.
The issue however, continues to divide opinion.
Souktik Roy, a mathematics student at Oxford, said that the OIS was meant to represent all “people of Indian origin” including members of religious minorities who he said are “quite literally threatened by bigots like Swamy.”