November 22, 2015

Modi Faces Protests during UK Visit

Harsev Bains

THERE has been growing unease and apprehension among the 1.7 million Indian diaspora in Britain ever since it became known in July that Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi would be visiting the UK. The visit has evoked mixed emotions and polarised opinions. This was the first visit in over a decade by an elected Prime Minister of India, representing 1.2 billion people, to the shores of Britain. Ordinarily, this would have been universally welcomed. But the fact that this individual was the controversial figure from Gujarat, was most unwelcome. In 2002, an attack on a train in Gujarat province, where Modi was then chief minister, killed 59 Hindu pilgrims and sparked an anti-Muslim pogrom. In the following months while Modi played his fiddle, Gujarat burned and a thousand plus innocent people belonging to the Muslim community were killed. Women were raped, mosques destroyed and bodies dumped into mass graves. Accused of turning a blind eye to the massacre, the international community including the US and the UK severed all relations with Modi. In 2012, the Supreme Court of India cleared Modi of complicity in the killings, a ruling that fails to satisfy all those who seek justice for the victims of the pogrom in Gujarat. The ban on Modi’s overseas visits was lifted soon after. After Modi’s election as the head of the BJP-led NDA in 2014, the 'parcharak-organiser' for the right-wing Hindu group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is now the prime minister of the world's largest democracy. Reports from India of growing intolerance, silencing and killing of rationalists and academics, lynching of a man on mere suspicion of eating beef, attack on Kerala House canteen, banning of films and documentaries, continued attacks and rape of women and children, the lack of justice for the victims of 1984 and 2002 riots, the opening of the floodgates for FDI, replacing science with mythology, and pursuit of Hindutva were among some of the concerns, why not everyone welcomed Modi in the UK. The opposition to Modi’s visit started in July. Thirty-nine MPs signed an Early Day Motion calling on British Prime Minister David Cameron to raise human rights concerns with Modi during his visit. Among the signatories was the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.The motion draws attention to human rights abuses and criticises the Indian government's ban on BBC documentary India's Daughter, which covers the gang rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi in 2012. The financial support by some Labour MPs for the visit were publicly condemned by many community groups and drew protest-pickets outside their offices. The Keralite community on Kerala Piravi Day, organised by Chethna in Bournemouth, raised awareness about the attacks by Modi’s government on democratic rights. The Progressive Writers’ Association organised a seminar on November 8 and it was addressed by Avtar Sadiq and prominent writers from Punjab as well as local artists. Intolerance and Hindutva-based fascist tendencies to silence ideas opposed to the Modi government were highlighted. More than 200 writers including Salman Rushdie, Val McDermid and Ian McEwan called on David Cameron to address India's "rising climate of fear" with its Prime Minister Narendra Modi. An open letter was published by Pen International as Modi flew into the UK for a three-day visit. The writers expressed concern over the "growing intolerance and violence towards critical voices" in India. They called for safeguarding of freedom of expression. The letter was signed by hundreds of members and supporters of Pen International's centres in England, Scotland and Wales, including Nikita Lalwani, Henry Marsh, Hari Kunzru, Neel Mukherjee and Owen Sheers. It urged the British Prime Minister to raise the "crucial" issue with Modi both "publicly and privately" during his visit. Modi also faced condemnation for stopping Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai from coming to Britain as she was about to board her plane. Pillai was on her way to brief MPs on her work. The opposition also came from many other quarters, ranging from people opposed to the unity and integrity of India with equally intolerant ideologies. Protests were held at Downing Street, with many more outside Wembley Stadium, where Modi addressed a rally. These protests could and would have been much larger if this was not a formal visit by an elected Prime Minister. Many organisations though deeply concerned with the events unfolding in India chose to respect the will of the people who have given Modi a mandate. The irony and hypocrisy of Narendra Modi's reference to Budha and Mahatma Gandhi in a response to a question on growing intolerance in India, was not lost as many political commentators mentioned the role of RSS and Nathu Ram Godse which were conveniently forgotten. And what if the outcome of the visit: India’s invitation for FDI without any future safeguards. The Rupee Bond and further opening of finance, retail, infrastructure development, power generation, education and science. Sounds familiar. Is this not how the East India Company also came in to trade and eventually took over? Living in Britain for 50 years, if we have learnt one thing it is this, successive British Governments never act unless it is in their direct economic or political interest. In the end both Modi and Cameron are looking for votes. One to disguise the growing intolerance and electoral loss in Bihar, the other austerity and attacks on the working class. (END)