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Indian PM Gets Rock Star Reception in UK, But Back Home He's Accused of Brutality

Narendra Modi will lunch with the Queen and headline Wembley Stadium in the first visit to the UK by an Indian leader in a decade. But his trip has been overshadowed by protest.

by Oscar Rickett
Nov 13 2015, 11:55am

Photo by Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi will headline the UK's Wembley Stadium on Friday, addressing one of the largest Indian diasporas in the world. Among the support acts will be his British counterpart David Cameron, who joked that he would have trouble filling Wembley town hall, let alone drawing 60,000 people to the stadium.

This isn't the first time Modi has taken a role more associated with stadium rock acts. When he visited the United States, the Indian leader packed out Madison Square Garden in New York. Among the support acts that night: Hugh Jackman, a troupe of Bollywood dancers and an on-stage artist who speed-painted a portrait of Modi. The headline act's final words were, "May the force be with you."

Modi will also lunch with the Queen at Buckingham Palace during his three-day visit, the first by an Indian prime minister to the UK in a decade.

The leader's new identity as a globetrotting star represents quite a turnaround for a man who, until he romped to victory in his country's 2014 elections, could not get a visa to go to the United States. For a number of years he was also banned from entering the UK, a judgement that was overruled in 2012.

The decision to not allow him these visas goes back to 2002. Modi was the chief minister of his home state of Gujarat when a vicious series of riots broke out, leaving up to 2,000 Muslims dead and thousands more displaced.

To this day, a debate rages about whether this period of violence was a state-sponsored pogrom. There is a widely-held belief that Modi and his government either instigated or allowed the mass killing of innocent people, most of them Muslims — but in 2012 a hotly-disputed report by a Indian Supreme Court investigation team determined Modi had not been complicit.

Related: Narendra Modi's Shame: Muslim Survivors of the Gujarat Riots Are Still Suffering

In the aftermath of the violence, Modi described relief camps set up for the victims as "child breeding centres." Years later, having been asked time and again about whether he felt any guilt about what had happened in Gujarat, he finally responded by saying, "Even if I am in the back seat of a car and a puppy comes under the wheels, isn't it painful? It is." 

This period from Modi's past remains vitally important today. As the prime minister arrives to a red carpet welcome from a British establishment eager to bask in his reflected glory while inking as many trade deals as possible, a debate rages back home in India about widespread human rights abuses used to silence dissent.

Modi and the BJP, rooted in the politics of Hindu nationalism, stand accused by many of fanning the flames of religious and cultural intolerance. The BJP's recent election defeat in the large state of Bihar has also prompted the suggestion that Modi is losing his touch.

The loss in Bihar is crucial because it means that the BJP continue to be outnumbered in the upper house of the Indian parliament. This means that Modi suffers from a similar problem US President Barack Obama has faced with Congress — he cannot push his reforms through because he does not have the support.

Never far away from the debate about tolerance in India is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing, Hindu nationalist group that has been around since 1925. In its infancy, the RSS had an admiration for the Nazi party in Germany.

In a country that is 80 percent Hindu, the RSS argues for the more direct enforcement of Hindu values — including a total ban on the slaughter of cows (a sacred animal in the Hindu religion) and the eating of beef — and for further segregation between Hindus and their fellow Indians, be they Muslim, Christian, Jain, Sikh or from any other minority background.

Related: Cow Retirement Homes Are Booming in India — Here's Why

Modi began his political life in the RSS and many of his cabinet ministers are deeply connected to the group. Under the BJP, the RSS has a far higher profile here in India, with its pronouncements regularly broadcast and reported on.

In September, Mohammed Akhlaq, a 50-year old Muslim, and his son Danish, aged 22, were beaten with bricks by a mob that accused them of eating and storing beef. Mohammed died and Danish has been in hospital ever since.

In October, villagers in Northern India set upon five Muslims who were thought to be smuggling cows to be slaughtered for beef. One man died, while the other four were left seriously injured then arrested for alleged animal cruelty because apparently the cows had suffered in transit.

The incident was a "misunderstanding," Mahesh Sharma, India's culture minister and a local BJP MP, told the Guardian last month. 

In most Indian states, killing cows is illegal. Eating or possessing beef is legal, though, and India remains a secular nation in which non-Hindus are supposed to be free to follow their own beliefs. Furthermore, beef is cheap and many lower-caste Hindus eat it because it is a source of protein.

The BJP often plays "beef politics". During the 2014 national election campaign, Modi talked of a "Pink Revolution" which would put an end to the killing of cattle.

Related: Lynch Mob Attack Over Alleged Cow Slaughter Puts Spotlight on Hindu Extremism

Indian historian and journalist Vijay Prashad told VICE News that Modi's election victory in 2014 resulted in "his people going off and lynching those whom they accused of being involved in the cattle trade". In October, the Delhi police raided the canteen at Kerala House because they wrongly suspected it was serving beef.

Concerns have also been raised about freedom of expression and restrictions on NGOs. Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai was prohibited from traveling to the UK to talk about environmental impacts of a new coal mine, and the acclaimed documentary India's Daughter, about the gang rape and death of a young Delhi woman, was banned inside the country. 

This year, a host of Indian writers have returned national awards in protest against a "climate of intolerance."

"Of late, Modi's regime has effectively tolerated – if not encouraged – a saffron-clad army of Hindu activists who monitor and violently discipline those suspected of eating beef, disobeying caste rules or betraying the "Hindu nation," Anish Kapoor wrote on Thursday. "A Hindu version of the Taliban is asserting itself, in which Indians are being told: "It's either this view — or else.""

Writers have been joined by Bollywood stars, politicians and intellectuals, including the former prime minister Manmohan Singh and the banker Raghuram Rajan, in voicing their criticisms. One of these celebrities, the Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan, has been accused of being a terrorist for airing his views.

An anti-Modi protest group Awaaz UK sparked outrage when it projected an image of Modi wielding a sword in front of a swastika onto British parliament buildings on Remembrance Sunday, and the same group organized a demonstration on Thursday outside Downing Street attended by hundreds of protesters.

At a press conference on Thursday, the BBC asked Modi why India was becoming a more intolerant place. "India is a vibrant democracy," he replied, "With a constitution that gives even the most ordinary citizen security of every kind, and is committed to protecting their thoughts."

Many disagree. In Bihar this month and last, Modi used the same kind of hateful language he used in the 2014 election, said historian and journalist Prashad. Yet, he ended up losing. "They used it in 2014 and in 2015," he said. "Once it worked, and then the toxicity overflowed. This time, it did not work, or at least it did not result in victory."

However the breakdown of results in Bihar suggests that Modi's defeat was more to do with the alliance that defeated him, which was led by two veteran local politicians, than with the BJP's politics.

Related: A Rape Survivor in India Must Balance a Heavy Rock on Her Head to Prove Her Purity

Modi's election triumph in 2014 — and his emergence as an international star — was founded on two seemingly contradictory pillars: Hinduism nationalism and economic development.

The son of a tea seller who himself sold tea, Modi was the embodiment of the Indian dream. People didn't need state subsidies; they just needed to live in a society that allowed for opportunity and growth, he said. 

This was a kind of Thatcherism, a 21st century neo-liberalism with the emphasis on tech solutions and free enterprise. This has made Modi a popular character in the tech world — witness his bromance with Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg — and among businessmen.

One Indian investment banker told VICE News that Modi's "policies are business friendly, which is good as India needs to get moving, but a lot of his announcements have not materialised into actual action."

As Modi's policies have appealed to the corporate world, so the corporate world has supported Modi. For at least two years prior to the election, the BJP spent a great deal of money going out into the farthest reaches of the nation to find out what people wanted.

The party's message was then brought to them — sometimes even by holograms of Modi — and the leader dominated (and still dominates) social media.

The prime minister's great backer is fellow Gujarati Mukesh Ambani, the managing director of Reliance Industries. India's richest man — dubbed the "unloved billionaire" by the Economist — has his fingers in many pies, including the media.

Modi has taken his money and has flown in his private jet, but an Indian public infuriated by the corruption of its elite is growing tired of the kind of crony capitalism its prime minister seems happy to foster.

That kind of crony capitalism will be at the fore in Britain, where $15 billion worth of trade deals are said to be up for grabs. Analyst Aditya Chakrabortty said of Modi in a withering comment piece: "This is what real danger looks like nowadays: wearing a business suit and clutching trade deals — while silencing those who disagree."

But while he may seem invincible right now, this is a crucial six months for Modi. He has to show India that he is still the turnaround guy, the guy who can get things done. Without a majority in the upper house, this will be difficult.

Much of Modi's support comes from the bania (trader, merchant) caste and from India's middle-class. If these groups expand, so does his support. The tech sector is expanding in India but that was the case long before Modi came to power, and India still suffers from a debilitating "brain drain", with Indians leaving the country for better education and employment. The agricultural sector is stagnating and farmers are committing suicide in record numbers.

Prosperity at home requires investment in the kind of infrastructure — education, transport and so on — that Modi does not seem to be particularly bothered with. The BJP's opposition, divided and weak of late, has seen signs of encouragement.

And so, while Narendra Modi will lap up the applause of British politicians and the Indian diaspora, back home he faces a battle to maintain his aura of invisibility. The worrying thing for Indians is that, in an attempt to rally support by appealing to the lowest common denominator, this battle may lead him to plunge ever further into fundamentalist territory. 

Follow Oscar Rickett on Twitter: @oscarrickettnow

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