on the world: a view on human rights
India is a land of fascination to many. Home to more than one billion consumers, and a country rich in natural and human resources, it is of particular interest to domestic and multinational corporations. A major player in global economics, the world’s biggest buyer of arms, and the world’s largest democracy, international interest in its current ongoing parliamentary elections is to be expected. For many, the inclusion of Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate for the BJP, the Bharatiya Janata Party, a hard-line far-right Hindu nationalist party, one of the two main political parties in the country, has upped the stakes and interest.
A polarising figure and chief minister of the prosperous west Indian state of Gujarat since 2001, Modi is (in)famous for two main things: he is the self-styled architect of Gujarat’s so-called economic miracle over the course of this century, and is widely considered by many others to be the chief architect, in his official capacity, of an anti-Muslim pogrom that swept the state in early 2002, leading to the death of over 2000 people, and the displacement of around 200,000 more, mainly Muslims.
Not as well-known in some parts of India as he is in corporate circles abroad, Modi used the services of public relations company APCO, also employed by Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev, a fellow human rights abuser, to portray himself as a man who has made a clean break with his past and is ready to share his “economic miracle” with the rest of country. The fruit borne of this campaign has included the lifting of a decade-long ban on Modi entering the UK and a travel ban by the EU imposed in the wake of the riots. A US travel ban remains in place.
The aftermath of 2002 still lingers, however; 12 years on, more than 15,000 people remain in camps for displaced persons, often with poor sanitation, and no running water or electricity. Given the impunity allowed by the state government, few prosecutions and intimidation of witnesses, victims and investigators, many are too frightened to return home. Many have witnessed men, women and children being burned alive, and systematic and brutal rapes and murders.
Communal violence in India is not uncommon; the Gujarat riots stand apart for the systematic and planned nature of the attacks. Anti-Sikh riots in 1984 have not been investigated thoroughly either. Showing that nothing has changed over the years in its anti-Muslim rhetoric, the BJP sent Modi’s close ally Amit Shah to Uttar Pradesh as part of the election campaign where he incited people to vote for the BJP if they wanted “revenge” for recent serious communal clashes that took place there in the town of Muzaffarnagar in September 2013, leading to 51 deaths and over 50,000 people, mostly Muslims, being displaced and living in makeshift camps.
Given Modi’s rise to power largely on the back of anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence, India’s 100 million Muslims, the world’s largest religious minority, have played a sizeable, albeit passive, role in the election campaign. Otherwise largely ignored and marginalised, and airbrushed out of Indian history, educational curricula and the media, Indian Muslims have long been portrayed as an “other”: spoken of and about, but seldom to, except in the mould of victim or scapegoat.
The creation of this myth of the Indian Muslim has played into Modi’s hands to counterbalance the myth of Narendra Modi. Many Indian Muslims face considerable discrimination in housing, employment, benefits, etc. The same applies to a lesser degree to other religious minorities, such as Sikhs and Christians, and low-caste Hindus, known as Dalits. The problems are not restricted to Gujarat either; an April 2014 report by Human Rights Watch, They Say We’re Dirty, looks at the widespread discrimination and failings in the state education system suffered by Dalit, Muslim and tribal children in four different states.
Riding high in the social media rankings and with the corporate media on his side, the threat of Modi’s authoritarian and unaccountable style of government translating on the national stage, rather than him being tried and punished for crimes against humanity has raised alarm among Indians and human rights advocates both within India and abroad. On 1st May 2014, a crowded meeting of around 150 attendees was held in the British Houses of Parliament, entitled “Not in Our Name: Resisting Hindutva, Defending Justice & Human Rights”, organised by the Awaaz Network and The Monitoring Group and others, bringing together human rights activists and south Asian communities. The meeting was chaired by Mike Wood, Labour MP for Batley, which has a large Gujarati Muslim constituency; he represents the family of three men visiting India in 2002 who were murdered during the riots. Their murders have not been investigated.
Dame Helena Kennedy QC, a leading human rights lawyer and activist, spoke first about the 2002 riots and Modi’s role in them, stating that the issue goes well beyond India and that anyone who cares about human rights should be concerned. She stated that Narendra Modi should be tried for his crimes against humanity; the roles that leaders play at incendiary moments in conflicts need to be recognised. She stated that he is “not a man who is ashamed of his past and his abuse of human rights” and that if Modi is elected, not only will it send a message to other nations that they can act in the same way, but will provide affirmation that you can abuse human rights and still be elected.
Prof Guatam Appa, an economics expert from the LSE and the Awaaz Network, provided more details of Modi’s economic miracle and campaign claims, which he stated are lies. The economic miracle did not take place as such, as Gujarat was already an industrial and commercial hub; Modi’s successes came off the back of land grabbing, the sale of that land at throwaway prices and circumventing laws on statutory environmental licenses. What Modi can take the credit for is growing pollution in the state, with some industrialised parts of Gujarat the most polluted in the country, causing serious health problems for residents and poisoning rivers and agricultural land. Furthermore, under Modi, Gujarat has performed poorly in welfare indices; women and children in particular are affected by poor standards of living. Given Modi’s close ties to the corporate media, such information rarely makes it into the mainstream, or is publicised at all.
Dissent and criticism can lead to threats and physical attacks. In the current election campaign, members, including the leader, of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) were attacked by BJP supporters. Journalists, NGOs, human rights organisations, lawyers and others have been targeted too. This harassment takes the form of both physical attacks and defamatory comments on social media. Such threats were also made against Prof Appa and others who signed a letter in The Guardian newspaper stating that the election of Modi “would bode ill for India’s future as a country that cherishes the ideals of inclusion and protection for all its peoples and communities.”
He called the treatment of Muslims a “boycott” and described it as “ghettoisation” due to the discrimination Muslims face, including the inability to buy property in predominantly Hindu areas. A recent election campaign controversy arose when Modi political ally Pravin Togadia joined a protest to prevent a Muslim businessman from entering a house he had legally purchased in a Hindu neighbourhood and incited protesters to remove Muslim residents from their areas, by force if necessary.
Leading human rights advocate and Indian Supreme Court lawyer Vrinda Grover, visiting from India, spoke about another violent aspect of Modi’s rule: “encounter killings”, a form of extrajudicial execution by Indian law enforcement authorities. Grover said that Indians were being asked to vote for Modi based on his economic record without knowing the facts or history of what he has done. While “encounter killings” take place all over India, she stated that in Gujarat, such killings are a part of the BJP’s political agenda. Around 126 “encounter killings” took place in Gujarat in 2002-2012. In such “encounters”, individuals are assassinated by the police on the pretext that they intended to kill Chief Minister Modi. As in most of these cases the person killed is Muslim, the police accuse the deceased of being a member of a Pakistani militant group, the same police officers who carry out the assassination then draw up the official paperwork and the case is closed without investigation. The police are never injured or confronted in such incidents.
Grover is representing the family in one such case, that of 19-year old Ishrat Jahan from Mumbai, who was found dead with three others near Ahmedabad, Gujarat, in an “encounter killing” in June 2004. The police claimed they were members of the banned group Lashkar-e-Taiba, and were planning to assassinate Modi. In October 2004, her mother, who found out about the killing from journalists who came asking questions, filed a writ at the Gujarat High Court. Maintaining her daughter’s innocence throughout in this ongoing case, in 2009, a Gujarat court ruled that the “encounter” was fake; this has since been appealed. One of the other deceased was later found to have been working for the intelligence services.
Grover stated that the case has been obstructed by various institutions, such as the courts, media, and law enforcement authorities, protecting Modi and his government, yet these are the very same institutions that are supposed to check his power if he were to become prime minister. Sometimes also known as “controlled killings”, Grover stated that such killings, that largely target Muslims, are rationalised and normalised by the media.
Grover also stated that while Modi focuses his campaign on targeting minorities, the corporations who have put their support behind Modi will come to collect their returns which they will exact from the majority who support Modi, and not just minorities.
Renowned sculptor Sir Anish Kapoor contrasted Narendra Modi’s vision against that of Gujarat’s most famous son, Mahatma Ghandi, who preached and practiced pluralism, describing the latter’s vision as the one prevailing in the India “I grew up in”. He stated that Modi and his allies treat Ghandi’s legacy as though it is an embarrassment and stated that they had hijacked it with a “narrow brand of Hinduism and Hindu nationalism”. Kapoor described the situation as urgent and called on everyone to use their voice to speak out. He himself has been attacked by e-mail and on social media for being a signatory to Prof Appa’s letter. He called on people to consider the social and environmental impact of Modi’s policies, and for social justice for the poor suffering under Modi’s policies, who should not “just be swept away”.
A Muslim woman who was in Naroda, Ahmedabad, in 2002, the scene of some of the worst violence, gave her testimony of living under siege, watching houses burn from her own terrace and hearing of people being burned alive and raped.
With voting due to end on 12 May, after a record 36 days of polls, there is much at stake here. Indian elections have long been accused of corruption and vote-buying by the two main parties; the Communist Party of India has called for a boycott. In many ways, this election is also a neoliberal corporate experiment. With social media involved, a large diaspora, multinational corporations and foreign governments and institutions watching, there is more than the future of a nation being played for here. If Narendra Modi and his neoliberal friends get their way, with impunity, authoritarian rule and nuclear weapons under their belts, India could well see more industrial disasters such as that in Bhopal 30 years ago. Who will be to blame then?
For further details and links to some of the human rights issues raised at the meeting, please read my earlier article on the issue: https://onesmallwindow.wordpress.com/2013/09/10/let-the-right-one-in-britains-invitation-to-narendra-modi/