(See update below.) Whenever I have followed the government news out of India, I have looked for the name Subramanian Swamy. It was because of him that I got into journalism. Recently I was startled to see his name in the American news again.
Fifteen years ago, in a commencement speech at the Medill School at Northwestern, I told the story of Dr. Swamy. Long before that, in the late 1960s, I had been a freshman at Harvard, ready to study around the clock in preparation for medical school. To earn extra money I had signed up as an ad salesman for the Crimson, and during the unbelievably bleak and frigid January "reading period" of my sophomore year, I was in the newspaper's office one night, laying out an ad dummy for the next day's paper. All the regular writers and editors were gone, cramming before final exams to make up for the courses they had skipped through the semester. So when a variety of fire alarms and sirens started going off, for what proved to be a big fire at the Economics Department building, I was the one on hand to run out after grabbing a camera and a reporter's notebook.
I had seen snow only once in my life before going to college; and in my high school jobs, manning smudge pots in the local Southern California orange groves on "cold" nights, we would trade tales about whether human beings could actually survive exposure to temperatures that dipped below 32F. But at the Economics Department, it was so cold -- well below 0 F back in those pre-warming days -- that the Cambridge Fire Department had trouble putting out the fire: water from the hoses would freeze in the air. I saw an upset-looking gentleman alongside me watching the fire. I asked why he was there. He said that all the notes and research for his current book, inside that building, was literally going up in smoke. That was Subramanian Swamy, then a young economics instructor. I wrote up his story in the paper -- my first story for the Crimson, and the beginning of my shift from the ad staff (and pre-med) to the news staff -- and years later was relieved to see that he had bounced back to become Minister of Commerce at home in India.
I could hardly believe it was the same person when, in the past few days, I read of another breaking-news story involving Dr. Swamy at Harvard. He has been teaching summer courses there over the years, but recently Harvard has suspended him, in protest of an op-ed he had written in India in July called "How to Wipe Out Islamic Terror." Immediately after the op-ed was published, the Harvard faculty stood by him, on free-speech grounds. But at a faculty meeting last week a professor of religion, Diana Eck, proposed a resolution to remove Swamy's courses from the catalog. As my own Crimson reported:
"Swamy's op-ed clearly crosses the line by demonizing an entire religious community and calling for violence against their sacred places," Eck said, adding that Harvard has a moral responsibility not to affiliate itself with anyone who expresses hatred towards a minority group. "There is a distinction between unpopular and unwelcome political views."*
I haven't looked into the full merits of the case, and honestly haven't wanted to. Ever since that night in the cold I've considered Dr. Swamy, with whom I've had no contact, a comrade. Maybe he wishes he'd tried a different university? No larger point here, just wanting to note, in amazement, a re-connection from decades ago.
*UPDATE. Harvard magazine offers online a long, detailed, and quite dramatic account of the faculty meeting that led to cancellation of Dr. Swamy's courses. It includes an explanation of why many members of a faculty council that had originally voted 14-0 to approve the courses reversed their views. Worth reading in full.