Narendra Modi’s London visit: spectacle and reality

By Savi Hensman
November 13, 2015

On 12 November India’s far-right prime minister, Narendra Modi, arrived in London for an official visit. Part of the aim was to clean up his image, given his role in the massacre of an estimated 2,000 Muslims in 2002 in Gujarat and ongoing human rights abuses across India. But this did not work quite as planned.

He was indeed warmly welcomed at 10 Downing Street by David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister. Lucrative trade deals between the two countries were announced.

Modi laid flowers at Mahatma Gandhi’s statue in Parliament Square, where a Royal Air Force display team flew overhead, trailing India’s national colours. This was somewhat ironic, since Modi has been a member since childhood of the paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, set up in the 1920s and modelled on the movements headed by Hitler and Mussolini. Gandhi’s assassin was an RSS activist.

He went on to address the Houses of Parliament, a further mark of newfound respectability. He was also due to receive a rapturous reception at a rally in Wembley Stadium the following day. 60,000 people would attend and there would be a host of performers, including the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

From his perspective, as well as benefiting big business, the trip was presumably intended to bolster his credibility in India. There had been growing dissent against a government largely hostile or indifferent to the disadvantaged and vulnerable.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, to which he belongs, had been defeated in Bihar state elections. More than forty of India’s foremost literary figures had returned their awards to show their disapproval of growing intolerance since he came to power. Farmers and trade unionists in various parts of India had also been protesting.

But the visit too has been marked by protest, largely coordinated by the Awaaz Network (in which I have been occasionally involved over the years). This is made up of individuals and organisations committed to monitoring and combating religious hatred and human rights violations in South Asia and the UK.

Three British tourists had been among the victims murdered in Gujarat and their families are pursuing legal action against Modi. Dozens of MPs, including the opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn and Alex Salmond, the SNP International Affairs and Europe spokesperson in the House of Commons, signed an early day motion calling on Cameron to raise human rights concerns.

On Sunday 8 November at 9pm, the Awaaz Network projected an image on to the Palace of Westminster of Modi, wielding a sword and with the Hindu ‘Aum’ symbol changing into a swastika. Though only displayed for a few minutes, this powerful image was picked up by media across the world.

Some people were offended but a statement was issued, explaining that the image was meant to suggest “how religious symbols revered by many Hindus, such as Aum, are being used by the political Hindutva movement, to which Mr Modi belongs, towards fascist ends, such as attacks on minorities, rationalists, dalits and political opponents.”

The RSS, it stated, “directly drew its inspiration from European Fascism and National Socialism, not any Indian traditions" and "is responsible for trying to turn one of the world's great religions, Hinduism, into their version of fascism. They abuse Hindu symbols every day, turning them into weapons of hatred and violence.”

An open letter to David Cameron from 200 writers was published. The signatories, including David Lodge, Val McDermid, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie, were “extremely concerned about the rising climate of fear, growing intolerance and violence towards critical voices who challenge orthodoxy or fundamentalism in India.”

In another letter, over 130 academics wrote of “an escalation of violence against Dalits, Muslims, Christians and women, including the brutal lynching of a Muslim man in Dadri on suspicion of consuming beef, murders of rationalists and dissenters such as Professor Kalburgi, attacks on tourists, the banning of academic books by Hindu fundamentalists, among many other such incidents” and “consistent flouting of environmental and resource regulations to serve the interests of the large business houses that Mr Modi has gathered around himself.”

On 12 November I joined a crowd of protesters (probably about two thousand), in the course of the afternoon moving from opposite the entrance to Downing Street to near Westminster station. The chanting and banners made it harder to ignore the ethical concerns which UK ministers seemed all too keen to ignore.

It was a varied group, including Nepalese, Kashmiri and Sikh people with a range of banners, flags and slogans. Not all of us would ordinarily have sought one another’s company, but the diversity of images was also a contrast to the streamlined approach of Modi’s PR effort.

His team will no doubt hope that the Wembley Stadium event will help to establish his credentials as a popular and prestigious world leader, though this may be two-edged. A charismatic right-wing extremist appearing in a stadium amidst music and spectacle almost inevitably invites comparisons with Hitler’s stadium rallies involving orchestral Wagner performances, though Modi has toned down his rhetoric since taking office (usually leaving it to his associates to make inflammatory statements).

If overseas governments appear willing to offer unconditional support to him however severely repression and violence escalate, this will put numerous Indians in grave danger. It could also further destabilise an already volatile part of the world which, in a nuclear era, could have terrible consequences. Alternatively UK and other leaders could put pressure on him to moderate his stance. Images and the responses they evoke, as well as words, may play a part in the outcome.

* Awaaz Network http://awaaz-uk.org/

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© 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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