President of Russia

At the annual Global Goalkeeper Awards hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation today, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi is set to receive the Global Goalkeeper Award for his work in improving sanitation in India. This decision has been met with widespread protest, and an open letter from over 90 Cambridge Gates scholars and alumni at the time of writing for “gross violation of human rights” by Modi’s government.

The Gates Cambridge Scholarship programme provides full-cost scholarships to Cambridge postgraduates from outside of the UK. It was founded in 2000 following a $210m donation to the University by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. According to their website, it is the “largest ever single donation to a UK university”.

At the time of writing, nearly 100 of these scholars are challenging the foundation’s decision to recognise Prime Minister Modi. The Graduate Union (GU) has also issued a statement expressing their “full support” with the open letter, commending the Gates scholars’ “drive for greater self-determination, safeguarding of human rights and liberty of the individual [...] [and] the stand against the persecution of minorities in India.” 

In full: The GU's statement on Modi's Global Gatekeeper Award

Gates Cambridge scholars have condemned the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s decision to present the Global Goalkeeper Award to the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi. In a letter, signed by more than 100 Gates scholars and alumni, they have highlighted that the decision ignores the violation of human rights under Modi-led regime in India. This is particularly significant at this point in time, given the current climate of violence, and fear in certain regions of South Asia. We support the Gates Scholars' drive for greater self-determination, safeguarding of human rights and liberty of the individual. We also wholeheartedly support the stand against the persecution of minorities in India.

We also acknowledge that support should be given to the drive for greater respect for the environment and bringing about a behavioural change in people regarding healthy sanitation practices under the 'Swachh Bharat Mission', for which the award was originally granted. At this point in time, where environmental issues need to be systematically addressed, it is important to prioritise the construction of household-owned and community-owned toilets in India, and the pursuit of reaching UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 by the Government of India. However, even though we believe that the 'Swachh Bharat Mission’ is commendable, this cannot justify the aforementioned issues associated with the government and Mr. Modi, and this must be looked at more closely by the Bill and Melinda Gates' Foundation.

Therefore, on the above-mentioned grounds, we support the Gates Scholars’ letter. Given the large number of signatures by postgraduate students, and us sharing their sentiment on the highlighted points, we would like to represent the full support of our officers and members of the executive committee for this. We will further discuss possible plans and actions with the Graduate Union executive committee, as well as with Cambridge postgraduate and mature students in the next weeks.

Best regards,

Alessandro Ceccarelli, President and Chair, Graduate Union Mrittunjoy Guha Majumdar, Chair of Exec Committee, Graduate Union and members of the Cambridge University Graduate Union Executive Committee

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Since Modi’s government established in 2014, India has seen a rise in the persecution of Muslim and Dalit minorities. The open letter accuses Modi’s government of the “significant dilution of the autonomy of academic and judicial institutions” and of arresting and censoring public intellectuals.”

In August, the Indian government decided to withdraw the semi-autonomous status of the regions of Kashmir and Jammu. The open letter also cites the Modi-led government’s decision to “effectively strip the citizenship of 1.9 million citizens, mostly Muslims” in Assam, which the letter argues indicate the government’s “espousal of Hindu nationalist ideology”.

“Given the current climate of violence, intimidation, and fear in India, the Foundation needs to condemn and not reward PM Modi’s leadership”, the letter writes.

The statement from the GU “acknowledge[d] that support should be given to the drive for greater respect for the environment and bringing about a behavioural change in people regarding healthy sanitation practices under the 'Swachh Bharat Mission', for which the award was originally granted”, but added that this “cannot justify the aforementioned issues associated with the government and Mr. Modi”.

Responding to the open letter, a spokesperson for the Gates Foundation told Varsity: “We respect their views and their right to express themselves [...] Sanitation is a key factor in improving the health and well-being of millions of people, especially women and children. Globally, sanitation-related diseases kill nearly 500,000 children under the age of 5 every year.

“Before the Swachh Bharat mission, over 500 million people in India did not have access to safe sanitation, and now, the majority do. There is still a long way to go, but the impacts of access to sanitation in India are already being realized. The Swachh Bharat Mission can serve as a model for other countries around the world that urgently need to improve access to sanitation for the world’s poorest.”

The scholars’ open letter is not the only form of protest to the decision by the foundation. A petition on ‘Stop Genocide’ entitled, “Gates, do not award Modi” has received over 100,000 signatures. A separate open letter, signed by South Asian Americans and Allies in Philanthropy, has also called on the Gates Foundation to rescind the award.

The Gates’ Foundation’s decision to give the award to Modi could be a topic of student questions when Bill Gates delivers a talk at the Cambridge Union on 7th October, as the most recent recipient of the Professor Hawking Fellowship.

  • Updated, 24th September: This article was updated to include a comment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
  • Updated, 25th September: This article was updated to include a statement from the Graduate Union

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