BJP’s Smriti Irani Protested At UC Berkeley For Indian Muslim Genocide
Indian Cabinet Minister faces backlash at California university
When Smriti Irani, a cabinet minister in India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was invited to a forum at University of California, Berkeley, she didn’t expect the sustained backlash she faced on social media, from students, and even during her appearance.
Irani was hosted on 14 April 2022 by India at Berkeley, a student-run speaker series, to discuss “Decoding the Indian Dream.” The event stirred particular controversy as it was held on the birth anniversary of Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar, the Dalit civil rights champion known for drafting India’s constitution. No acknowledgement of Dr. Ambedkar’s birthday, which is a national holiday in India, was made by the organizers or the speaker either before, during, or after the event.
“It is highly unsettling that Smriti Irani — whose government has drastically reduced academic freedom in Indian higher education, compromised non-discriminatory access to education, and encouraged violence against Muslim women in educational institutions — is being celebrated and invited to present a talk by the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute for South Asia Studies, and a student organization, ‘India at Berkeley’,” stated an open letter issued in protest of her talk. “It is ironic that a representative of this government will address students on ‘Decoding the Indian Dream’ on Ambedkar Jayanti while fanning inflammatory rhetoric against Dalit-Bahujan students, academics, and journalists.”
The letter was signed by over 60 individuals, mostly UC Berkeley students and alumni.
Yet that was far from the only backlash Irani faced. On 13 April, I launched a #CancelIrani call on Twitter, which was still spreading widely even as the event occurred. UC Berkeley, I warned, was “platforming a BJP minister amidst an impending BJP-sanctioned genocide of Indian Muslims.”
Hours before the event, India at Berkeley — the student group hosting Irani — responded to the outcry by releasing a statement on their Facebook page. It was an issue of “free speech,” they insisted, stating, “Judging the content of a discourse before its inception is as short minded as the very criticisms leveled against it.”
As I noted, however, Smriti Irani is a “BJP mouthpiece.” It was not the content of her discourse which was being protested, but rather the very fact of providing a platform for a propagandist from a regime which is currently committing atrocities. Indeed, as the open letter stated: “UC Berkeley should not be used as a platform to whitewash Irani and her government’s brutal human rights violations; disregard for democratic accountability and the rule of law; and vicious demagoguery.”
The organizers refused to do anything but self-justify hosting Irani. So I joined the event, which was hosted via Zoom.
The forum featured two students as moderators posing questions to Irani, followed by a brief question and answer session in which audience members were allowed to speak directly to the minister.
“It is definitely not easy to come to these speaker series at India at Berkeley,” Irani said during the event, comparing her supposed struggles to those of BJP Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “To be demonized. To be called out…. I know that I came here after much confrontation…. I’m not ignorant of the attacks that have transpired on Twitter on me.”
Irani’s intention to propagandize was clear from the outset. When one moderator asked her about arrests of students, academics, and activists in India under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and other draconian laws, noting that such arrests have been condemned by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, she responded by comparing these peaceful detainees to the 12 April 2022 New York City subway mass shooter. Asked by another moderator about Indian students being banned from wearing hijab, she prevaricated.
One audience member asked, “How does the BJP government understand Indian women’s choices to study, to dress, or to love regardless of whatever religion they belong to?” Irani first responded by insistently demanding to know the name of the person asking the question, before then declaring that BJP’s actions — which have included passing laws criminalizing interfaith marriages on the premise that Muslim men are, en masse, conspiring to deceptively marry Hindu women to forcibly convert them — are intended to protect “the rights of women who do not want to be defrauded in a relationship.” Other audience members, pushing back with questions about widespread oppression of Indian Muslims under BJP rule, received similar diversionary responses.
Raising my hand to pose a question, I was selected and given the mic.
“It’s an honor to actually have a chance to interact with Minister Irani,” I began. “I just had one quick question related to the duties of your portfolio, which is: Modi is the Hitler of the East. Stop the impending genocide of Muslims in India. Cancel Irani. Stop genocide.”
Given the chance to question, I chose instead to protest. Asked by some why I did so, I pointed out that Irani is a polished propagandist. Her skills were on full display throughout the forum. Fed up with seeing her divert and repeatedly justify atrocious BJP policies, I decided I wasn’t interested in prompting a propaganda response from her. Instead, I wanted to register protest to her face.
Responding to my protest, Irani stated, “I guess that tells you.”
Certainly, Irani, that tells you that your government’s policies are not unnoticed outside of India. It tells you that, as the BJP plans the impending genocide of Indian Muslims, it will not go unchallenged. And it tells you that there is someone who believes that protesting a fascist regime is more important than pretending to engage with it as a normal and legitimate entity.
“Absolving itself of any accountability, Irani’s government disingenuously recasts targeted violence unleashed by its own cadres as ‘inter-communal violence’,” warned the open letter. “This happened in Gujarat in 2002, Kairana and Kandhla in 2014–2016, Muzaffarnagar in 2014, and Khargone in 2022.” And it is now happening in Delhi in April 2022 as the BJP regime, driven by a motivation that can only be described as one of ethnic cleansing, bulldozes the homes and shops of Muslims.
The letter continued: “It is, thus, shocking that beyond issuing a speaking invitation to Irani, the student organization ‘India at Berkeley’ has conveniently ignored her complicated record as a minister and political leader by publicizing this talk with ‘fun facts’ that bear no relationship to her public role. Irani is a democratically accountable leader — sworn to uphold constitutional rights and civic freedoms for all citizens of India. Accordingly, the University community must carefully examine Irani’s role as a public representative and minister in a government that has violated basic human rights with impunity.”
The University community failed to do so. India at Berkeley, only after sustained pressure by students and myself, posed a handful of softball questions to Irani and then accepted her answers at face-value with zero follow-up. “It was a great pleasure” hearing about all the policies she has promoted, said one of the moderators, asking: “Would we ever get a chance to see you running for the Prime Minister’s office in the future?”
Suggesting the bias of the host organization, an Outreach Team-member of India at Berkeley, after I registered my peaceful protest, responded on Twitter, stating: “My grandfather lived 100 years. You know how? By minding his own business.”
The Tweet, later deleted, appeared to obviously be a veiled threat. The threat? Don’t you dare dissent — or else.