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Unmasking Modi
Part II






Continued from yesterday …


There were significant opportunities for Modi as the Hindu right expanded its sectarian politics. The first, and most pivotal, campaign of the Hindu right involved a movement in 1990 to rebuild a temple to Ram, the mythological hero of the Ramayana, on the site of the Babri Masjid, a sixteenth-century mosque in Ayodhya, in northern India. The BJP leader at the time, L.K. Advani, rode a Toyota truck modified into a “chariot” around the country to rally Hindus to the cause, starting his journey at Somnath in Gujarat, where a temple had been destroyed in the eleventh century by a Central Asian Muslim invader, and traveling towards Babri Masjid.

Modi was RSS general secretary at the time, a position that entailed directing the BJP from behind the scenes, making sure that it was following the RSS’s agenda.

He organized the opening segment of the tour, and old photographs show him standing next to Advani on the chariot. In a sign of things to come, the temple campaign went global, shored up by other members of the Sangh Family, including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), or World Hindu Council, which focuses much of its energies on the Indian diaspora in the West.

Hindus around the world were asked to donate bricks to build the temple to Ram. Bricks, some made of gold, arrived from abroad as well as from hundreds of villages and towns in India, and although Advani’s tour ended when he was arrested for inciting violence, the mobilization continued. On December 6, 1992, Babri Masjid was leveled by a Hindu-right mob, with police and other government authorities looking on, setting off a spiral of violence that resulted in the death of around 2,000 people.

The violence of the Ayodhya campaign, the crudeness of depictions of Muslims as brutal invaders, the deft use of political spectacle, and the targeting of all this toward a new Indian elite both ambitious and insecure, were trends that Modi would embrace and develop.

In 1995, he became BJP national secretary and moved to Delhi, just as India began its conversion to a full-fledged market economy and embarked on a period of economic growth that would benefit the urban elites enormously. The market, the nation, and Hindutva converged as the BJP won the elections in 1998, the new government carrying out a series of nuclear tests to celebrate the victory.

A year later, it fought a brief war with Pakistan. The nuclear tests and the war were promoted hysterically by media outlets that were consumed eagerly by a growing urban elite, drawing in even liberal Indians who might have been uneasy about the Ayodhya campaign but who liked the way this new India asserted itself on the global stage.

In October 2001, Modi was appointed chief minister of Gujarat by the BJP leadership in Delhi. It was the first time an RSS pracharak had become chief executive of an Indian state.

The impact was apparent soon afterward.

In February 2002, 59 Hindus returning from the tenth-anniversary celebration of the destruction of Babri Masjid died in a fire that broke out in a train compartment. Investigations would later point to the fire originating inside the carriage, perhaps from a malfunctioning cooking-gas cylinder, but the Hindu right accused Muslims of storming the train and setting it on fire. Modi flew to the site.

Orders were given for the corpses to be brought to Ahmedabad in a convoy of trucks. The corpses were then displayed in the open on the hospital grounds, apparently for the purpose of postmortem examinations, as agitated crowds watched the grisly spectacle.

A retaliatory campaign of extermination by Hindu mobs against Muslims began hours later and lasted for more than two months, resulting in the death of more than 1,000 people and the displacement of 150,000. Women and girls were raped before being mutilated and set on fire. Homes, shops, restaurants, and mosques were looted and burned.

The attackers, reportedly guided by computer printouts that listed the addresses of Muslim families, were on many occasions aided by the police or led by legislators in Modi’s government. Many of the killers were identified as belonging to various Hindu right organizations.

“Eighteen people from my family died,” a survivor of the onslaught said in “We Have No Orders to Save You,” a 2002 report from Human Rights Watch. “All the women died. My brother, my three sons, one girl, my wife’s mother, they all died. My boys were aged ten, eight, and six. My girl was twelve years old. The bodies were piled up. I recognized them from parts of their clothes used for identification.”

Even by the macabre standards of mass murder in India, there was something unusually disturbing about the Gujarat massacres. They had taken place in a relatively prosperous state, among people given to trade and business, rather than in a less-developed part of the country where a link might be made between deprivation and rage.

[EDITOR: Not true. The 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom in which tens of thousands were murdered in broad daylight, and which within hours spread all over the country, began in and remained focused on New Delhi, India’s capital and the seat of the country’s government!]

But this connection in Gujarat, between economic prosperity and primal, sectarian violence, became one of the defining aspects of Modi’s image, in India and among the diaspora, one reaffirming the other, the pride of wealth meeting the pride of identity.

Modi’s Gandhi had nothing to do with anticolonialism or nonviolence. Those had been left behind with the old India.

In the aftermath of the massacres, Modi demonstrated not a shred of remorse or regret. In fact, he decided early on to turn questions about the massacres and his role in them into an attack on Gujarat, and on India, especially when the Bush administration decided, in 2005, to deny Modi a diplomatic visa and revoked his tourist/business visa for the “particularly severe violations of religious freedom” that had taken place under him.

In 2007, when asked by Karan Thapar, the host of a show on the Indian television channel CNN-IBN, “Why can’t you say that you regret the killings that happened? Why can’t you say maybe the government should have done more to protect Muslims?” Modi walked out of the interview.

In 2013, as he was emerging as a prime ministerial candidate, Modi responded to a similar question with a convoluted analogy. “If someone else is driving, and we are sitting in the back seat, and even then if a small kutte ka baccha comes under the wheel, do we feel pain or not? We do.”

Reuters translated kutte ka baccha as “puppy,” which, while technically accurate, missed the point: Kutte ka baccha, or “progeny of a dog,” is an extreme insult in Indian lingo.

Modi also began to say that he had been given “a clean chit” about his role in the massacres by a team appointed by the Indian Supreme Court. His legions of supporters modified this statement, endlessly repeating that the Supreme Court had cleared him of any culpability in relation to the massacres. Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya, economists at Columbia University, wrote to The Economist asserting this, arguing that what the magazine had earlier called a “pogrom” was really a riot and that a quarter of those killed were Hindus.

In some ways, this response is almost as disturbing as what happened during the massacres themselves. Modi’s supporters were willing to ignore the question of responsibility for the sake of what they saw as the higher priority of a new India, now a superpower ‘respected’ by the West.

Large sections of the ‘liberal’ Indian ‘intelligentsia‘, writers and opinion makers - just as vis-à-vis 1984 - have chosen to remain silent.

And then there are those who approve of Modi, knowing that he has been able to address all of new India’s fantasies and fears in a way not achieved by any other comparable leader, taking it to great heights as an emerging capitalist power, asserting its place in the world, and unleashing its dark, nihilistic violence on marginalized people.

As for Modi’s “clean chit,” the devil is in the details. Modi, who is supposed to have been absolved by the Supreme Court, has never actually been tried by it. The Supreme Court was petitioned in 2008 by Citizens for Peace and Justice (CPJ), an advocacy group seeking justice for the victims of the massacres.

Led by Teesta Setalvad, a Gujarati activist, the CPJ expressed its fear that the judicial process in Gujarat was compromised, in response to which the Supreme Court appointed a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to look into a select number of cases. In 2009, the court also asked the SIT to investigate a petition against Modi related to his involvement in the massacres, which was initiated by Zakia Jafri, whose husband, Ehsan Jafri, a Congress politician, was killed during them; she had previously approached the Gujarat police and the Gujarat High Court to no avail.

The SIT’s final report in 2012 concluded that there was not enough evidence to prosecute Modi. But, as the journalist Hartosh Singh Bal pointed out in ‘Open‘, a current affairs magazine, those conclusions differed dramatically from the evidence in the report itself. One is left with the impression that the SIT was eager to find a lack of evidence no matter how much evidence actually existed. Maybe the SIT was right to be cautious.

Hartosh Singh Bal was fired by ‘Open’ just before the 2014 election for being too critical of the Hindu right; when Modi won, ‘Open’ described his victory with the headline: “Triumph of the will.”

The SIT was also plagued by charges of interference from members seen as close to Modi and the Gujarat administration. Harish Salve, a senior lawyer appointed to guide the SIT as an amicus curiae or “friend of the court,” was removed for allegations of conflict of interest. He was also representing the Modi government in front of the Gujarat High Court in the matter of Ishrat Jahan, a 19-year-old Muslim college student who was killed by the police, who alleged she was a terrorist plotting to assassinate Modi.

There had been other such extrajudicial executions in Gujarat, with more than 30 police officers and government ministers imprisoned for their involvement, all allegedly carried out under the direction of Amit Shah, the Gujarat minister of state during Modi’s tenure and now the president of the BJP.

A number of the police officers selected to join the SIT had allegedly been involved in these extrajudicial killings, as well as in the 2002 massacres. Salve’s replacement, Raju Ramachandran, argued there was enough evidence to try Modi. He called for the cross-examination of Sanjiv Bhatt, a Gujarat police officer who had earlier stated that he was present at a meeting during which Modi directed the police to allow Hindus to vent their rage.

The overall tendency of Modi’s government was, as Human Rights Watch described in its report, one of “subverting justice, protecting perpetrators, and intimidating those promoting accountability.”

Government officials seen as loyal to Modi, and under whose watch some of the worst killings took place, were rewarded with promotions and cushy posts. Those who provided evidence that raised questions about his role in the massacres found themselves subject to disciplinary measures, legal prosecution, threats, and scandals.

Three police officers who gave the National Commission for Minorities a transcript of a public speech delivered by Modi seven months after the massacres, in which he called camps set up for displaced Muslims “baby-producing centers,” were summarily transferred.

R.B. Sreekumar, a senior police officer who testified to a commission set up by the Gujarat government to investigate the train fire and the massacres, which was headed initially by a single retired judge considered to be a Modi loyalist, was denied promotion and charged by the government with giving out “classified information.” He had recorded a session during which a senior Modi official had coached him about how he should answer questions, including “tell[ing] the commission that no better steps could be taken” in terms of preventing the violence.

Rahul Sharma, a police officer who gave the commission phone records allegedly proving that killers involved in the massacres had regularly been in touch with politicians and police officers, was charged by the Gujarat government with violating the state’s Official Secrets Act.

Haren Pandya, a minister in the Gujarat government who became a bitter rival of Modi’s, and who testified in secret to an independent fact-finding panel about the riots, was murdered in March 2003, after he was publicly identified as a whistle-blower and forced to resign his ministerial post. A dozen men, supposedly Islamist terrorists, were arrested for Pandya’s murder; all of them were acquitted eight years later.

Pandya’s father maintained that Modi had orchestrated the killing.

In contrast, those who were indicted and sentenced to imprisonment for taking part in the massacres seemed to have a benevolent, gentle state looking out for their well-being.

Maya Kodnani, an RSS member and BJP legislator, named by Modi as the Gujarat Minister for Women and Child Development in 2007, was in 2012 sentenced to 28 years in prison for leading a mob that killed 95 people, including 32 women and 33 children.

In 2014, she was let out on furlough due to poor health, and she has since been spotted taking selfies at a yoga retreat on the outskirts of Ahmedabad.

Babu Bajrangi, a leader in the Bajrang Dal, a militant faction, who was also convicted for his role in the Gujarat massacres, told the investigative magazine Tehelka in 2007 that Modi was “a real man” who had changed judges on his behalf on a number of occasions to get him out of jail.

Given a life sentence in 2012, Bajrangi is frequently out of prison on furlough, for reasons ranging from attending his niece’s wedding to getting his eyes checked.

The circumstances, when laid down clearly, are so damning that it is astonishing that they can be airbrushed from Modi’s record. But they show how, in Gujarat, Modi engineered a hybrid vigilante-police state, one in which the righteous were punished and perpetrators rewarded.

Modi ran Gujarat for more than a decade. The achievements he claims from this period depend on audience and situation, but they all emphasize his economic success, in particular the “double-digit growth rates” he engineered through what is known as “the Gujarat Model.”

The profile of Modi on the BJP web site commends his “masterstroke of putting Gujarat on the global map” through an “ongoing campaign called the Vibrant Gujarat that truly transforms Gujarat into one of the most preferred investment destinations. The 2013 Vibrant Gujarat Summit drew participation from over 120 nations of the world, a commendable feat in itself.”

Modi hired the U.S. public relations firm APCO Worldwide to help promote the Vibrant Gujarat initiative, and in this too, he showed himself to be a truly modern Indian, concerned with his image among other nations of the world, particularly in the West.

The West was a willing accomplice in Modi’s ambitions, eager to turn the conversation away from sectarianism and death by mob violence and toward the business opportunities offered by the Gujarat model.

In January 2015, The Economist, not particularly enamored of Modi, lauded his fiscal success in Gujarat, writing, “With just 5 percent of India’s population and 6 percent of its land mass, [Gujarat] accounts for 7.6 percent of its GDP, almost a tenth of its workforce, and 22 percent of its exports.” Loud expert voices, many of them in the diaspora, bolstered this triumphal narrative, including Vivek Dehejia, an economist at Carleton University in Ottawa; Bhagwati and Panagariya at Columbia; and Ashutosh Varshney, a political science professor at Brown.

As the 2014 national elections drew nearer, they were joined in their support by more seemingly liberal figures, in India and abroad, who had in the past been associated with the Congress.

The truth about the Gujarat model was more complex.

What had been achieved, in a state that was already more developed than many other parts of India, was a layer of infrastructure and globalized trade - roads, power, exports - topped off with a thick, treacly layer of hype. The state poverty figures under Modi remained unimpressive and employment levels stalled, while the quality of available jobs went down, with lower wages in both rural and urban areas compared to the national average.

Almost half of Gujarat’s children under the age of five were undernourished, in keeping with the shameful national average. (Panagariya, the Modi loyalist, argued that Indian children were stunted, even when compared to impoverished sub-Saharan African populations, not because of malnutrition, which was a “myth,” but because of genetic limitations to their height.)

The number of girls born in Gujarat compared to boys remains low, suggesting a continued bias for male children in a country known for its grotesquely patriarchal norms; and yet the state is in the forefront of providing surrogate mothers for wealthy Western populations.

Much was made of Modi’s decision in 2008 to allow the Indian automobile manufacturer Tata to open a car factory in Gujarat, in particular after an attempt to do so in the traditionally left-leaning state of West Bengal had resulted in a violent farmers’ uprising.

Less was said, however, about the low-cost cars made at the Tata plant, which were in the habit of catching fire.

As for the rhetoric about creating a new Singapore, Shanghai, or South Korea - Modi’s metaphors of growth reveal a preference for authoritarian, homogeneous social systems - it has still remained rhetoric.

A new city on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, constructed by architects brought in from Shanghai and touted, in 2012, as “the largest urbanization project in Indian history,” turned out, three years later, as The Wall Street Journal reported, to consist of mostly empty office buildings.

In an Independence Day speech last August, Modi modified his “Make in India” slogan to a more contemporary “Startup India.” But there was little about the wealth created under Modi that had to do with technological innovation.

It depended instead on heedless resource extraction, crony capitalism, and competition for outsourcing work handed out by the West, all of which has been visible in India for decades.

In Modi’s case, this was exemplified by his closeness to the Gujarati billionaire Gautam Adani, who had come swiftly to Modi’s defense when the latter was criticized for the 2002 massacres. In November 2014, Adani accompanied Modi to the G-20 summit in Australia, a country in which he hoped to dig one of the largest, and most controversial, coal mines in the world. Although a series of international banks refused to fund the project, voicing concerns about its environmental impact, Adani nevertheless received a massive loan from the State Bank of India.

To be continued …

Siddhartha Deb is a contributing editor at The New Republic and the author of The Beautiful and the Damned.

[Courtesy: The New Republic. Edited for]
May 6, 2016

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Part II"

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