Anger and admiration as India’s far-right leader Modi visits USA

By Savi Hensman
October 1, 2015

Admirers and protesters have mobilised as India’s far-right Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits the USA. He is a controversial figure, given his role in the mass murder of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 and ongoing links with violent hardliners.

To some outsiders, the willingness of many Western business leaders and politicians to overlook his grim past and dubious present is a triumph of pragmatism over principle. But even in terms of self-interest, overseas governments and corporations would be prudent to avoid allying themselves too closely with him.

There were chants of “Modi, Modi” as he spoke to an admiring crowd at a sports arena in San Jose, California. During his visit to Silicon Valley, he was also hosted by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive. Modi’s supporters have been skilled at public relations, including use of social media. A meeting with Barack Obama, the American president, is expected to strengthen ties, including arms sales.

But others gathered to protest against the visit. And in India one of the Gujarat survivors, whose husband and neighbours were horrifically murdered at Gulbarg Housing Society in 2002, continued to pursue her quest for justice.

There is little doubt about Modi’s moral culpability for the killings in Gujarat, where he was the chief minister. After 59 Hindu supremacists and family members died in a fire on a train, as a result of either an accident or arson, he helped to whip up anti-Muslim anger, then failed to prevent a massacre.

There was "a comprehensive failure on the part of the state government to control the persistent violation of the rights to life, liberty, equality and dignity of the people of the state," according to the National Human Rights Commission, a statutory watchdog.

Supreme Court judges compared Modi and his administration to the notorious Roman emperor Nero, saying, "The modern day Neros were looking elsewhere” while “innocent children and helpless women were burning, and were probably deliberating how the perpetrators of the crime can be protected."

But proving legal guilt beyond reasonable doubt is far harder, especially when a suspect is still in an extremely powerful position. Zakia Jafri’s quest for justice has already taken over a decade and is currently in the Gujarat High Court.

Teesta Setalvad, a campaigner who backed her, and Sanjiv Bhatt, a police officer willing to testify to Modi’s involvement, have been victimised. However protesters in India and overseas have not given up.

Their concern is deepened by the fact that the prime minister has not broken with his extremist past, despite taking care to cultivate a business-friendly image and to focus on the economy and growth in his electoral campaign.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, which he represents, remains part of the ‘Hindutva’ movement, which uses a gravely distorted version of Hinduism in its quest for power. He has been involved since childhood in the paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and, earlier in September, attended one of its meetings. Since coming to office he has shown his authoritarianism, including cracking down on human rights and environmental voluntary organisations.

However, he and his associates have been hindered to some extent by India’s constitution and history of democracy. His attempts to stifle opposition, though largely effective, have met with some resistance.

He plans to visit Britain in November, where again he is likely to be met with both admiration and anger. To some overseas, the fact that India offers rich business opportunities, and is also a strategic ally in international power games over oil, money and influence, is more than enough to override any ethical concerns.

The backing of major public figures in the USA and UK may strengthen his hand in India, as he cracks down still further on basic freedoms and human rights. However even in terms of enlightened self-interest, it might be wise for Western politicians and heads of global firms to think carefully about being too closely associated with him.

The flourishing of extremism in India has widespread implications, including boosting the position of extremists in Pakistan and the Middle East. This is a dangerous matter, especially when two nuclear powers share a border where there are occasional armed skirmishes.

On a longer-term basis, if sustainable development and environmental protection are undermined by a regime that puts big business first, there could be a serious global impact, given India’s size and influence.

Modern history should be a sobering reminder of the risks of putting profit and power first, while downplaying human rights and protection of the planet.


© Savitri Hensman is a widely-published Christian commentator of politics, religion, welfare and allied topics. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the care and equalities sector.

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