And it drives US government efforts to shield Modi from the consequences of his alleged involvement in a fascist pogrom in Gujarat in 2002.
Will his critics succeed in bringing him to book this time? Don't count on it.
Modi eventually won three consecutive terms as Chief Minister of Gujarat, a province on India’s west coast abutting Pakistan with a Muslim minority of about 10%. Modi concentrated power in his hands by personally taking on most of the key government portfolios, and by purging his RSS rivals. Modi allegedly sidelined his chief opponent, the RSS pracharak Sanjay Joshay, with a sex tape that torpedoed Joshay’s reputation for probity and celibacy—and was later dismissed as a forgery.
Similarly, according to the victims, licences and other relevant papers from the civic bodies were used to target hotels and other business establishments owned by them.
Husain is one of roughly 400,000 people living in Juhapura, a teeming Muslim township within Ahmedabad, Gujarat's largest city. Many of them moved there after the 2002 riots. Local Hindus jokingly refer to it as "Little Pakistan".
Memories of the 2002 rioting have not faded for the many residents of Juhapura who lost relatives, homes and businesses. And its legacy has been increasing segregation.
In particular, a property law unique to Gujarat has perpetuated segregation, creating ghettos such as Juhapura and a sense of apartheid in some urban areas.
The "Disturbed Areas Act", a law that restricts Muslims and Hindus from selling property to each other in "sensitive" areas, was introduced in 1991 to avert an exodus or distress sales in neighbourhoods hit by inter-religious unrest.
Modi's government amended the law in 2009 to give local officials greater power to decide on property sales. It also extended the reach of the law, most recently in 2013 - 11 years after the last major religious riots.
The state government says the law is meant to protect Muslims, who account for just under 10 percent of the state's 60 million people. "It prevents ethnic cleansing and people being forced out," a senior government official who requested anonymity told Reuters.
Critics say the act's continued enforcement and the addition of new districts covered by it - about 40 percent of Ahmedabad is now governed by the law - means it is effectively being applied as a tool of social engineering.
The Indian Express newspaper said in a recent editorial: "More Muslims and Hindus have moved into separate spaces in Gujarat, finding trust and assurance only among neighbours of their own community, and it has ended up entrenching segregation and shutting Muslims out of the mainstream."
In a startling revelation, Professor Keshavram Kashiram Shastri, 96-year-old chairman of the Gujarat unit of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, told rediff.com that the list of shops owned by Muslims in Ahmedabad was prepared on the morning of February 28 itself.
A scholar of the Mahabharat and a highly respected literary figure of Gujarat, Shastri said in a tape-recorded interview, "In the morning we sat down and prepared the list. We were not prepared in advance."
Clearly, the RSS affiliates in Gujarat regarded the Godhra tragedy as an indication of Muslim criminality and, perhaps worse, presumption that must, as matters of Hindu supremacy, justice, policy, and political calculation, receive immediate, unrestrained, maximal, and conspicuous punishment.
As to Modi, for whom membership in the RSS family was a matter of intense personal as well as political identity, his role in the Gujarat pogrom has been a subject of considerable scrutiny and legal gyrations over the last decade, complete with allegations of collusion, coverup, evidence destruction, and witness intimidation, which gave the US sufficient grounds to deny him a diplomatic visa (and revoke his tourist and business visas) in 2005.
In 2007, an Indian media outlet, Tehelka, covertly recorded interviews with several participants in the 2002 pogrom.
One mob leader described Modi's fury at the deaths of the kar sevak activists at Godhra:
In Godhra, he gave a very strong statement...He was in a rage...He's been with the Sangh from childhood...His anger was such...he didn't come out into the open then but the police machinery was turned totally ineffective...
Another mob leader stated that Modi gave him three days to conduct the pogrom before the army came in and restored order:
Haresh Bhatt: I can’t tell you this… but I can say it was favourable… because of the understanding we shared at that time…
Bhatt: I can’t give a statement... But what he did, no chief minister has ever done …
Bhatt: He had given us three days… to do whatever we could. He said he would not give us time after that… He said this openly...After three days, he asked us to stop and everything came to a halt…
Bhatt: All the forces came… We had three days… and did what we had to in those three days...
No police appeared. At least sixty nine people died. In 2009, a witness testified at an inquiry that Jaffri had desperately tried to phone Modi and other Gujarat politicians during the siege.
Despite these apparent smoking or smoky guns--and thanks to a solid phalanx of political, media, and legal defenders--nobody was able to lay a glove on Modi as an initiator and enabler of the pogrom.
Modi urged everybody, Muslims included, to “move on” after the riots, and calculatedly made a name for himself as a business-friendly technocrat, not a wild-eyed ultranationalist.
By most accounts, Muslims in Gujarat now "know their place"; they are thoroughly cowed by memories of the massacre and the BJP's conspicuous local and national political success and are, for the time being at least, resigned to their subordinate status in the state.
As the Congress Party floundered, Modi clearly became the electoral man of the hour, and India and the world were both eager to forget the murderous ugliness that had marked his tenure in Gujarat.
Modi’s riot-related difficulties apparently ended with his receipt of a “clean chit” of exoneration from a governmental commission in 2012. The composition and probity of the commission were of course questioned by Modi’s opponents; judging from descriptions of the commission’s report, which included generous conclusions like this, they have a point:
[As to the allegation that] Mr Modi had told the police during the riots to allow the Hindus to vent their anger over the massacre of 56 kar sevaks in the Godhra train burning incident…[The report says] "[E]ven if such allegations are believed for the sake of argument, mere statement of alleged words in the four walls of a room does not constitute any offence".
With Modi poised to become Prime Minister in 2014 James Mann delivered the requisite whitewash in the Wall Street Journal on behalf of the Western world, ascribing the visa ban to inexplicable application of some weird religious freedom statute.
Well-intentioned U.S. policies sometimes work out in absurd ways, but this is hard to top: In a few weeks, India, the world's largest democracy, will probably elect as its next prime minister a politician who for nearly a decade has been prohibited from setting foot on U.S. soil… The State Department invoked a little-known U.S. law passed in 1998 that makes foreign officials responsible for "severe violations of religious freedom" ineligible for visas. Mr. Modi is the only person ever denied a visa to the U.S. under this provision, U.S. officials confirm.
The most revealing perspectives on Modi, both in 2002 and today, are supplied by three Indian journalists, admittedly of the “secularist/constitutionalist/pro-Congress” bent, who had visited Gujarat shortly after the riots as representatives of the Editors Guild in May 2002 to investigate the role of the media in fanning communal hatred.
Their report describes an atmosphere of brutality, intimidation, and impunity, presided over by Mr. Modi, who blithely tap-danced away from culpability thanks to the loyal savagery of the RSS/BJP/VHP apparatus.
On the issue of incitement—Modi had first deemed the train fire a terrorist attack orchestrated by Pakistan, then allegedly explained away the subsequent violence as “Newtonian action/reaction”—there was apparently an awkward moment:
Responding to queries regarding various statements attributed to him by the media, Mr Modi denied citing Newton’s law. Nor had he spoken of “action-reaction”; he had wanted neither the action (at Godhra) nor the subsequent reaction. When we cited footage in Zee to the contrary (Annexure 4A), there was no reaction from Mr Modi
None of the three authors, Aakar Patel, Dileep Padgaonkar, or B.G. Verghese are, it is safe to say, fans of Mr. Modi.
As the evidence piled up—and was ignored by Indian voters--some of the Indian media elite reacted to Modi’s rise to ultimate power with disbelieving horror.
The second author of the Editors Guild report, Dileep Padgaonkar, a stalwart of the liberal secular order who edited the Times of India for a stretch, delivered a half-amusing half-disconcerting, and totally desperate mea culpa cum beat-sweetener on the occasion of Modi’s elevation in 2014.
So why did we lose the plot? The plain answer is that we misread the nation’s mood. …
An equally miserable failure of ours was to underestimate the spell Modi cast on the electorate. …He also tapped into voters’ yearning for a leader endowed with the will and aptitude to bring prosperity to the people, ensure clean and effective governance, provide security and instil national pride in citizens.
To reassure observers who might worry that there are limits to abject, self-destructive groveling, Padgaonkar promised to internalize the lessons of his defeat:
What we need is to acknowledge the flaws in our idea of secularism. Correctly or otherwise, it has been perceived as a hostile attitude to even the most uplifting traditions of India’s myriad religious and spiritual traditions. And, by that token, it has been equated with an indulgent attitude to Muslim extremism. A course correction is in order.
In contrast to this demoralized liberal rout, the third author, Aakar Patel, a Gujarati, offered rediff a clear-eyed appraisal of Modi:
Photo by AP
*A few words about the “F” word.
It is anathema to liberal democrats, but it should be acknowledged that fascism is catching on, largely as a result of a growing perception that neo-liberalism and globalization are failing to deliver the economic and social goods to a lot of people.
Democracy is seen as the plaything of oligarchs who manipulate the current system to secure and expand their wealth and power; liberal constitutions with their guarantees of minority rights appear to be recipes for national impotence. Transnational free markets in capital and goods breed local austerity, unemployment, and poverty. Democratic governments seem to follow the free market playbook, get into problems they can’t handle, and surrender their sovereignty to committees of Euro-financiers.
Fascism, with its exaltation of the particular, the emotional, and the undemocratic provides an impregnable ideological and political bulwark against these outside forces.
Fascism has become an important element in the politics of resistance: a force that obstructs imposition of the norms of globalization, and an ideology that justifies the protection of local interests against the demands of liberal democracy, transnational capital, and property and minority rights.
For some, resentment will, inevitably, congeal around nationalism and the perception that fascist resistance, defiantly militant, uncompromising, and irrational, racial and undemocratic, exclusionary and brutal, is the best instrument to achieve local identity and agency—power– in an ever bigger, more dangerous, and less responsive continental order.
Fascism, I’m afraid, isn’t just part of Europe’s past; it’s part of Europe’s future.