on the world: a view on human rights
It has been a long summer in the north London borough of Brent, one of the areas chosen for the government’s “racist van” advertising campaign pilot and the subject of “heavy-handed” immigration checks at train stations by the Borders Agency. Not all the political controversy has been provided by central government, however; one local politician has been doing a good job of stirring up contention. In August, Brent North MP Barry Gardiner invited the chief minister of the west Indian state of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, to speak on “The Future of Modern India”, before an invited audience at the House of Commons. Barry Gardiner is the Chair of Labour Friends of India and his constituency includes a large Indian Gujarati community, both Hindu and Muslim. A few days later, this invitation was backed up by Shailesh Vara, Conservative MP for Cambridgeshire North West, and from the Conservative Friends of India. The invitation is a clear reflection of the UK’s trade interest in India and disregard for basic human rights.
As chief minister of Gujarat, a post he has held since 2001, Narendra Modi is accredited with the success of Gujarat in India’s economic miracle, opening up the state to direct foreign investment and growth in the manufacturing sector. With Indian parliamentary elections due to take place in 2014, he will almost certainly be confirmed as the candidate for his political party, the BJP, later this month. Speaking about the invitation, Barry Gardiner said, “He is obviously a key player in Indian politics, and as such he is somebody British politicians need to hear from.” While British politicians are undoubtedly keen to hear what deals and concessions he can offer British companies, there are a number of issues Narendra Modi would rather not talk about. Considered “one of the most polarizing political figures in India”, his party, the hard-line Hindu nationalist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party, Indian People’s Party), India’s main opposition party, actively discriminates against India’s minority groups. It is largely on this ticket that he came to and has sustained power.
Narendra Modi is widely considered to be the main architect of violence that took place in the state in 2002 over several months, leading to the deaths of at least 2000 people and the displacement of almost 200,000 people, mainly Muslims. On 27 February 2002, a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was attacked and set on fire in Godhra, killing 59 people. Reports spread that Muslims had set fire to the train, leading to months of anti-Muslim rioting across the state. In February 2011, a Gujarat court convicted 31 Muslims and acquitted 63 others of involvement in the attack, even though the cause and facts of the attacks on the train have yet to be conclusively established. A commission set up by the state government supported its version of events. Two independent inquiries, one led by a former judge, that found the fire to be accidental and to have started inside the train, were rejected.
Conversely, little effort has gone into investigating and prosecuting the ensuing violence. Eyewitnesses, police officers, investigators and others have reported that the violence was not a spontaneous response, but was orchestrated by a number of Hindu fundamentalist groups and facilitated by the state authorities. In some cases, the police are reported to have watched as property was burned and individuals were brutally murdered. Vanloads of attackers from the Hindu fundamentalist RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, National Volunteer Organisation) paramilitary group and other similar outfits turned up in towns and villages and carried out attacks. In 2007, an Indian magazine, Tehelka, obtained recorded footage of officials and attackers talking and boasting about their involvement in the violence. More than a decade later, more than 16,000 displaced people remain in makeshift relief colonies, often without basic amenities, such as sanitation, electricity and roads. Many are still too frightened to return to their towns.
The violence that took place has been called a “pogrom” and even “genocide” due to its systematic nature. Last year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused the Gujarat state authorities of “subverting justice, protecting perpetrators, and intimidating those promoting accountability.” Involvement in the violence runs right through to the top of the political establishment within the state. HRW reports that lawyers and investigators have been intimidated, as have witnesses. Policemen and officials who reported what they saw and were told by their seniors during and after the riots were later dismissed from their jobs, as well as those who attempted to help victims. Prosecutions that have been successful, such as that in 2012 of BJP Minister Maya Kodnani and 31 others for the massacre of 97 people in Naroda Patiya, have been far and few between. Others have been facilitated by the Indian Supreme Court or held in the neighbouring state of Maharashtra. Several attempts have been made to prosecute Modi too for his part in the violence, but remain unsuccessful to date; future prosecution cannot be ruled out nonetheless.
One of the more vicious aspects of the violence was the systematic and brutal gang rape of hundreds of Muslim women and girls who were later burned alive or murdered. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (UN CEDAW) raised particular concerns about the violence faced by women and girls “including torture, murder, gang rape, forced nudity, parading women naked, mutilation of breasts and other body parts, insertion of wooden and metal objects into genital parts and other forms of sexual violence [that] specifically targeted women and girls.” It criticised India for failing to promptly investigate cases of violence, that “investigations [carried out] were flawed from the outset as a result of acts and omissions on the part of certain police officials”, the authorities failed to ensure investigations were fair, and failed to encourage female victims to report their experiences, as well as not providing them with any consequent support or assistance. The report refers to a court case brought before the Indian Supreme Court where the National Human Rights Commission sought to have 2017 cases of violence against women in the riots reopened. CEDAW also expressed its concern that “those police officials responsible for the unlawful and motivated closure of the 2017 cases were not adequately held accountable for their wrongful and unlawful obstruction of the course of justice,” nor have any meaningful prosecutions been brought against them.
Sikhs, Christians and lower-caste Hindus are also victims of communal violence in India. The riots in Gujarat in 2002, however, set a new yardstick for scale and organisation, as well as media exposure in the digital age. The situation has not improved for Muslims in Gujarat in the past decade or so, or for other minorities. Attacks on Christians are reported to have increased and discrimination against minorities remains in housing, education, employment and access to basic facilities. The Gujarat state government is reported to be currently embroiled in a dispute, now referred to the Indian Supreme Court, to remove 5000 Sikh farmers from the state, claiming that they do not belong there, and reportedly seeking to sell their land for real estate development.
The BJP’s focus on discriminatory policies against minorities cannot cloud the fact that Gujarat’s economic success has not improved conditions for the overwhelming majority of its population. Compared to its growth rate and GDP, poverty rates remain very high; it is almost twice as high in rural areas than in towns and cities. Many do not have access to basic amenities, medical care and education. The situation of women has not improved. Modi’s economic progress has come off the back of cheap concessions and deals with foreign companies that benefit them but not workers and local communities. As well as being one of the most industrialised parts of India, Gujarat is also one of the most polluted; collusion between industrialists and the state government hampers efforts to remedy this. Rivers in the state are heavily polluted and in highly industrialised towns, usually dominated by foreign industries and manufacturers, the air quality is very poor, leading to numerous health complications for residents. Farmers in the state are also unhappy with Modi’s trade plans that see agricultural lands sold cheaply to foreign companies. More recently, the controversial mining company Vedanta has been making inroads into Gujarat to source bauxite and with community programmes.
Narendra Modi is also held responsible, in ongoing court action, for the extrajudicial executions of over 30 people between 2002 and 2007 in the state. Most of these were of individuals considered to be “terrorists” or involved in criminal activity. There have been more than 500 such deaths in India in recent years. Recently, a former senior police officer, who is awaiting trial for the 2005 deaths of two alleged criminals, has written from jail, stating that a “series of “encounter killings” [extrajudicial executions] carried out between 2002 and 2007 was in accordance with the policy of Narendra Modi’s Gujarat government.” The accused claims that he has committed no wrongdoing and that he and other officers were simply acting on the orders of the state authorities.
These issues are unlikely to be raised. For the British political establishment, trade trumps all human rights concerns. This invitation nonetheless, an endorsement of Modi and what he stands for, comes at a critical junction. The invitation follows the lifting of a 10-year ban on Narendra Modi travelling to the UK. Modi’s public relations efforts abroad have also secured the lifting of an EU ban, which ended in March 2013. He is still banned from travel to the US. The invitation is all the more unusual in that the deaths of three British nationals during the 2002 riots remain unprosecuted. In spite of India’s recently faltering economy, its economic prowess as one of the BRICS is crucial to the British economy. It is for this reason that the British High Commissioner James Bevan does not consider the invitation to be an endorsement of Modi’s human rights abuses.
Objections have been raised to the invitation, mainly by sections of the UK’s Indian community, and Barry Gardiner and Shailesh Vara have been asked to withdraw their invitation. To this end, a number of actions have been set up, including a demonstration that took place outside Barry Gardiner’s surgery, where he meets and discusses issues of concern with his constituents, on Monday 9 September, at the Brent Civic Centre in Wembley. The demonstration had a good turnout of over 70 people, including many local residents and South Asian activists from different groups and of different faiths or none. Among the groups organising the demonstration were the South Asia Solidarity Group, Foil Vedanta, Council of Indian Muslims UK, Islamic Human Rights Commission, Kesri Lehar, Southall Black Sisters and Brent Trades Council, sending a strong message that Narendra Modi is not welcome and that the people of Brent and the UK will not support his fascist sentiments. The protesters held a lively demonstration during which slogans such as “Shame, shame, Narendra Modi” and “Barry Gardiner, shame, shame, we don’t want your fascist friend” were chanted.
Mr Gardiner engaged briefly with the protesters as he entered the building, informing them that Narendra Modi had declined the invitation, even though Mr Modi has told the media only that he is too busy currently to accept. He handed over a letter setting out why he had invited Narendra Modi to the UK in his capacity as the chair of Labour Friends of India. This same letter had been sent to the Council of Indian Muslims UK on 19 August. In the interim period, the Council has replied to it in detail. The letter may well have been drafted by the very same supporters of Mr Modi who set up the invitation in the first place. Early on, Gardiner cuts to the chase of the economic benefits of his invitation, “He has presided over what is often referred to as an economic miracle in Gujarat, encouraging foreign direct investment” but his description of that miracle “improving roads, electricity and infrastructure whilst increasing education and healthcare” is a different story on the ground for millions of Gujarat residents. One thoughtless statement it contains would undoubtedly be of considerable interest and surprise to Modi and the BJP’s actual chairman and leader in the Indian parliament, that Narendra Modi “has recently been made the Leader of the official Opposition Party, the BJP”; his position as BJP candidate for the parliamentary election has yet to be confirmed officially. Furthermore, the letter makes a hilarious comment, when coming from any politician or anyone old enough to take part in the political process, that “since 2001 he has stamped out corruption in the State administration.” There is no such thing as corruption-free politics at any level anywhere. It would perhaps have been helpful if Mr Gardiner read his letter before endorsing it.
Activists from Foil Vedanta, who campaign against Vedanta’s unethical practices particularly against tribal communities in India, provided some street theatre, with one actor dressed as Barry Gardiner and another as Narendra Modi. The two then sign a deal, making a “memorandum of understanding” (MoU), providing “the state of Gujarat is hereby open for loot and exploitation by Vedanta, Reliance, Birla, Essar, and other corporations.” Money then swapped hands with “Modi” handing over the MoU to Gardiner in return for a wad of cash. The two then posed together triumphantly for the crowd and threw the money around, landing in a wet pile on the ground, before being sprayed with red paint “blood” by activists, demonstrating the blood-stained nature of the transaction.
Barry Gardiner has reportedly refused to meet constituents about the issue. Several tried to make appointments at his surgery to coincide with the demonstration; however, he particularly turned away those with Muslim-sounding names. The earliest any of the activists was able to secure an appointment was at the end of October. One constituent did manage to see his MP’s caseworker during the demonstration, having made his appointment only the week before. He did not manage to meet Mr Gardiner who had left earlier. He was told that Barry Gardiner was confused about the demonstration since he had only received five letters from constituents opposing the invitation, but had instead received at least 15 messages of support. He was advised that if there is so much opposition to the invitation locally that residents should contact Barry Gardiner’s office about it. The constituent has already done so.
In spite of a successful demonstration, one of the organisers, Amrit Wilson from the South Asia Solidarity Group said, “political capital has already been made from the invitation. It is a victory that Modi has delayed his visit, but we have to go on pressing for more. Modi really is not welcome here.”
The opposition will continue. Activists would like to urge the leaders of the Labour and Conservative parties to seek that their members withdraw their invitation to demonstrate their opposition to Modi’s policies and human rights abuses. A petition has been put together to this end: https://www.change.org/petitions/david-cameron-and-ed-miliband-stop-the-visit-of-mass-murderer-narendra-modi-to-the-uk
An early day motion (EDM) has also been set up asking for MPs to sign asking them to support a motion for a ban on Narendra Modi visiting the UK to be reinstated: http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2013-14/479