on the world: a view on human rights
A senior Foreign Office official recently admitted that human rights are no longer a “top priority” for the British government. In practice, commercial and trade interests have nearly always trumped human rights and humanitarian concerns both in the United Kingdom’s relations with its own subjects, and foreign states.
Ample opportunity to demonstrate this will be offered in November with the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister since 2009. On a stopover en route to the G20 summit in Turkey, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leader of the far-right Hindu nationalist party BJP will make his first unofficial visit to the UK.
Modi Not Welcome
Narendra Modi’s visit would have been impossible before October 2012 as he was subject to a decade-long travel ban for his connection to crimes against humanity that took place in the state of Gujarat when he was Chief Minister there in 2002. With the increasingly likely proposition of Modi becoming national leader, the ban was lifted to improve “bilateral relations with India”. A 2013 invitation to address a meeting on trade relations between the two states by a north London Labour MP was met with protest, largely by the British-Indian community.
A similar EU ban was lifted in 2013. The US travel ban was lifted only after he became Prime Minister in May 2014. Prior to that, he is the only person to have been denied a visa to the US under a law that bars entry to foreign officials “responsible for severe violations of religious freedom”. He has since visited the country twice. Sikhs for Justice, a US NGO, has filed a freedom of information request to access Modi’s US visa documents to see why the US has changed its policy and “now condones the acts of violence committed by former Chief Minister of Gujarat.”
Once Upon a Time in Gujarat
Narendra Modi became Chief Minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat in 2001. Since then, his star has risen on the back of two closely intertwined issues:
Gujarat Riots: On 27 February 2002, a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was attacked and set on fire in Godhra, Gujarat, killing 59 people. Reports spread that Muslims had set fire to the train, leading to months of anti-Muslim rioting across the state, the death of at least 2000 people and the displacement of over 200,000 others, mainly Muslims. The savage and methodical response which singled out the state’s minority Muslim community was planned and admitted openly by a number of Hindu nationalist paramilitary outfits, such as the RSS, with whom Modi has a life-long affiliation.
Justice for the victims has been a struggle and slow in coming. A commission set up by the state government supported its version of events. Witnesses, lawyers and victims have been harassed. In February 2015, a Gujarat court acquitted 6 defendants accused of killing three British nationals who were on holiday in the state in February 2002, for lack of evidence; three key witnesses allegedly “turned hostile” during the trial.
Where prosecutions have gone ahead, senior state officials, including ministers, have been found to have been complicit. Attempts to prosecute Modi for his possible role in orchestrating the violence have thus far been unsuccessful, but his links to perpetrators and his failure to stop or contain it as the most senior official in the state are undeniable.
Vibrant Gujarat: Modi’s other claim to fame came directly off the back of the riots. Modi used them and anti-minority rhetoric, to include Christians, Dalits and other religious minorities in the state, to push forward his economic miracle, which has essentially meant huge tax breaks and other concessions for domestic and foreign industry. Discrimination against minorities in housing, healthcare, employment and education does not cloud the fact that the miracle has not trickled down to the majority of Hindus either.
The economic miracle has involved land grabbing, cheap land concessions to corporations at the expense of farmers, farmer suicides, and Gujarat’s status as the most polluted state in the country. Two of Modi’s closest allies, Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani, have seen their wealth grow exponentially, becoming billionaires following the riots.
On the National Stage
For over a decade, Modi was only known for the former outside Gujarat. With continuing impunity and injustice, the past is not easy to forget when over 20,000 people remain impoverished and displaced in inadequate relief camps.
He has used a US lobbying company to counter this, with limited success. He marginalised opposition within the BJP and focused on bringing his so-called miracle to a billion people. Nonetheless, incendiary comments and actions by his close allies in the BJP and Gujarat during the election campaign, and his failure to deal with them, show that communal unrest is never off the agenda. This strategy – of promoting widespread communal violence in India to further corporate interests – is nothing new: divide and rule is how the British coloniser siphoned India’s assets for almost three centuries.
In the end it was not so much Modi’s charisma or divisive policies that won the BJP the election with the lowest vote share in Indian history as existing political and structural problems, such as rampant corruption. A sign of things to come was demonstrated on the eve of Modi’s swearing-in on 26 May 2014: Hindu-Muslim clashes broke out in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, and opposition leader Arvind Kejriwal spent the night in jail in Delhi.
Friends, Romans, Countrymen
Modi’s supporters have been handsomely rewarded. Close ally Amit Shah was cleared of a triple murder charge from his time as one of Modi’s ministers in Gujarat and is now president of the BJP. Backing Modi financially paid off in dividends for Adani and Ambani during the election and has led to further concessions since. BJP officials jailed for their role in the 2002 riots have been released. Former minister Maya Kodnani who was given a life sentence for her role in the riots was granted bail on medical grounds as was Babu Bajrangi, also given a life sentence in the same Naroda Patiya massacre case.
Similar compassion is not shown to those who voice dissent, such as Delhi University lecturer Professor G.N. Saibaba, who was jailed shortly after Modi became president and held at the notorious Nagpur Central Jail in Maharashtra, west India, for alleged Maoist links. He was granted bail after a year, in spite of being paraplegic and severely disabled.
Human rights activist Teesta Setalvad, who has campaigned strongly for justice for the victims of the 2002 riots through her NGO Citizens for Justice and Peace, has reported a campaign of harassment, a travel ban and raids on her home and office.
The judge who convicted Kodnani and Bajrangi has received more than 22 death threats since passing the sentence in 2012. Outside India, prominent British Indians who signed a public letter opposing Modi’s election in April 2014 also received death threats.
Back to the Future
Alongside campaigns targeting individuals, communal violence continues. A week after the 2014 election, a young Muslim man was beaten to death in the western city of Pune by a Hindu fundamentalist mob. His attackers referred to his death as “the first wicket has fallen”.
Although there has been no violence on a scale comparable to that in Gujarat in 2002 over the past 18 months, communal unrest across the country is intensifying, such as the Dadri lynching on 28 September in a village in northern India where a Muslim man was beaten to death by a Hindu mob from his village on the suspicion that he had eaten beef. Local BJP chiefs defended the attackers.
The national debate has centred on beef bans rather than the kind of society that tolerates such mob violence or the human rights violations that took place. Although Prime Minister Modi later made a statement, it was ambiguous and did not directly refer to this issue.
Communal violence and impunity do not only affect Muslims. With official silence on the matter, violence against minorities has increased sharply under Modi. A spate of unprecedented attacks on churches has taken place in Delhi, and Christian clerics and nuns have been physically attacked. A former senior police chief spoke out against the rising wave of attacks on his fellow Christians, which have been dismissed by some Hindu nationalists in the same vein as attacks on Muslims. Attacks on Sikhs and Dalits have also increased.
Little of this has made its way into the international media. The tightening grip of religious fascism is trumped by India’s commercial prowess. Modi has made 28 trips abroad since becoming Prime Minister, each reportedly bringing in billions of dollars of investments and job opportunities to the country.
One of the main highlights of a trip to Europe earlier this year was a deal to purchase fighter jets from France. India is the world’s largest importer of arms, spending far more on the military than healthcare, and is also eager to develop its own technologies. With ongoing conflicts and shoot-to-kill policies in Kashmir and the northeast, the question of who the Indian military is aiming these weapons at is never asked.
The gulf between the hi-tech India projected to the world and the reality for many Indians is reflected in the fact that there are more mobile telephones in India than there are toilets. Adequate hygiene and sanitation are development indices. Poor sanitation and a lack of toilets in India particularly put Indian women at risk of rape, when they have to go outdoors to relieve themselves, and cause adverse pregnancy outcomes, including miscarriage.
Developing the UK economy will undoubtedly be the focus when Narendra Modi and David Cameron meet next month. Secretary of State for Business Sajid Javid visited India in September to lay the groundwork for future business deals to increase investments and exports to India.
Human rights are unlikely to feature during this visit, with no priority at all. It will demonstrate the sheer hypocrisy of the British government when speaking out on the rights of minorities and women elsewhere, and that silence bought with bullets in India can be tendered in cash abroad. It will further undermine any moral standing Britain has or claim to supremacy where human rights are concerned by endorsing the crimes against humanity imputed to Narendra Modi.
Unlike world leaders, conscientious Indians living in the diaspora have met his trips abroad with protests, particularly in the US and Canada. Similar protests will follow in London on 12 November.
A dedicated #ModiNotWelcome website has been set up with further details of why Narendra Modi should not be welcome in Britain: https://modinotwelcome.wordpress.com/home/
Modi Abroad by East India Comedy