Students and workers from across Boston gathered last month at the Harvard Business School to protest against a talk at the Harvard India Conference, Feb. 16, by India’s Consul General in New York Sandeep Chakravorty, who has proposed in the past that India’s government could follow the Israeli model in rehabilitating Kashmiri Pandit who left the valley due to violence in the 1970s.
Speaking at a private event in New York in November last year, Chakravorty said that the Kashmiri Pandits could return to the Valley soon because “if the Israeli people can do it, we can also do it.” His comments sparked a controversy.
On Feb. 16, about 40 protesters including MIT Students Against War, Boston University Students for Justice in Palestine, and Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine in addition to ethnic and native Kashmiri working class Bostonians, gathered outside Spangler Hall to organize the 90-minute protest on the Business School campus where Chakravorty was to speak, news reports said.
Arshad Iqbal — the lead volunteer of the Massachusetts chapter of the global Kashmiri advocacy group Stand With Kashmir — said he emailed the deans of HBS and the Harvard Kennedy School on Feb. 12 after learning of Chakravorty’s invitation to speak at the HIC. Both schools had sponsored the conference, according to reports in the Harvard Crimson and other media.
The Harvard Crimson said the protesters shared Kashmiri tea and held signs reading “Kashmir wants Freedom,” while chanting, “No hate speech, hate speech is not free speech!” and “From Kashmir to Palestine, occupation is a crime!”
The organizers said upon receiving responses from university authorities, citing “free speech” as a reason for Chakravorty’s invitation, the activists turned to public protest. They said the university authorities were asked to dis-invite the speaker, but they seemed to dodge that, responding with free speech arguments, one of the protesters, Iqbal Nissar said.
“That’s where it ended, so we took this route of free expression to bring it into public notice (about) what this person said. It reeks like there’s an intention of cultural suicide,”Nissar, whose affiliation was not mentioned in the report, was quoted as saying. He said that many of the protesters felt “deeply hurt” by Chakravorty’s comments.
“We are not people who go on protests routinely. We are working people and students at various universities around,” Nissar said. “The reason we’ve turned up here today in sizable numbers is that his (Chakravorty’s) comments have hurt us deeply. Kashmiri culture has its own history, its own ethos. And he says it’s nothing but Indian culture. It’s like he’s erasing us all.”
The Harvard Crimson report said Harvard spokespersons for HBS Dean Nitin Nohria and HKS Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
During the protest, one conference attendee yelled “Stop Islamic atrocity!”, to which the protesters responded by yelling “Shame!”
Throughout the protest, speakers from each of the organizing groups took turns giving speeches. Zarka Shabir — a Harvard Law School student, protest organizer, and a Kashmiri native — reflected on her family in Kashmir during her speech to the protesters.
“It’s been six months since I left home and I haven’t seen a single image of my parents. I speak to them once a week and worry about my family’s safety all the time. We live in constant fear,” Shabir was quoted as saying. “I am a member of this school, I do have a right to be protected by its boundaries. I do not feel represented by this event today.”
Other speeches focused on what protesters termed Harvard’s role in”legitimizing” officials like Chakravorty by giving them a platform.
“Free speech, as far as the U.S. government is concerned, is about protecting citizens from the government. It’s not about giving men like Chakravorty a platform at an institution of higher learning, it’s not about legitimizing them,” Boston anti-war activist Ryan V. Costello was quoted as saying.