Getting Away with Murder?

September 27, 2014 at 10:13 am

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is visiting the US and reminds us of the specter of how he and his BJP party used communalism to foster their rise to power.  In India, the term “community” is used to identify religious, caste, or ethnic groups.  It is accepted wisdom that the communities are set against one another to manipulate public opinion and foster political ends.    One of the worst riots in India since the time of the partition of Pakistan and India occurred in the state that Modi governed in 2002. Approximately 1000 Muslims were killed as the police and army stood and watched.  He escaped any culpability.

The enthusiasm around the election of Modi as Prime Minister of India reminds me of the early days of Obama’s election.  However, this enthusiasm is displayed only within the Hindu majority and his rise to power reflects both a questionable nationalistic impulse as well as optimism that his pro-business attitude will enhance India’s growth and development.    India is a parliamentary system and his party gained a plurality of votes that was effectively a landslide for Modi.  This plurality was unique in that people in the world’s largest democracy were voting for his party so that he could be chosen prime minister.  It has been 25-30 years since the prime minister enjoyed ruling without the need to form a power sharing coalition government.  The young embrace him as they view him as having the answers to many intractable problems.  Indisputably, he built out the infrastructure of his state, Gujarat, and help create a manufacturing base not found in many places.  Curiously, though, the infrastructure does not benefit Muslim communities in Gujarat.  Roads and electric power stop at the borders of Muslim neighborhoods.

Modi’s BJP party has used the Hindu religion for its purposes for decades.    In 1992, BJP incited a mob of tens of thousands of Hindus  in the holy city of Ajodhya to storm and demolish a Muslim mosque. Hindus believe that the mosque was built in the 16th century on the site of the birthplace of the Hindu deity  Ram.    One of the planks of BJP’s platform is to build a temple to Ram on this site. ( Modi however as prime minister is more focused on putting toilets in every school.  There are more temples than toilets in India.)

In 2002, a  train of pilgrims was returning from Ajodhya  to Modi’s state. On the way home, the train stopped in a community renowned for religious tension between the Hindu and Muslim communities.  The train of pilgrims chanted various religious slogans which resulted in violence.  Within 15 minutes of stopping, a train car went up in flames causing almost 60 deaths.

In a perhaps politically motivated  investigation that followed, it was discovered that the fire was an accident.  There was no incendiary device used.

Still, there is some testimony and circumstantial evidence that are damning for Modi.   Right after the train car fire,  Modi approved the transfer of the charred remains of the Hindu decedents for purposes of displaying them in a public square.  This display was contrary to  Indian law that only allows a transfer of remains to family members.  His close aides also encouraged a strike which helped to foment a riot.  A high state official who was later murdered provided testimony that Modi told officials the day after the train burst into flames to take no action against the rioters.  Not one Hindu  was arrested among the tens of thousands rioting.  The riots lasted for weeks displacing 150,000 people, destroying 20,000 Muslim businesses and homes and 360 mosques.  1000 people, mostly Muslims, died.

During this year’s election, Modi stated that the religious violence that swept his state was simply a reaction.  He has never apologized for the violence that occurred because of his inaction.  Even now, BJP rhetoric encourages Muslims to leave the country.   I can only shake my head.   It confirms the comments of our Indian Muslim driver that BJP and  its affiliated nationalistic organizations do not consider Muslims Indian.  Modi himself does not indulge in such rhetoric leaving hope that perhaps he will be a unifying rather than dividing force.  However, as he did when he governed Gujarat, he stands by and allows the inflammatory rhetoric.  Even though he has transformed his image as a leader who can foster growth, he built his power base on a platform of hate that continues to make the Muslim community nervous.

Modi is a “religious” man.  Even now,  during his visit to the US, he is fasting during the 9 day Hindu religious festival of Navrati which honors a different Hindu goddess each day.  May his heart be touched by God so that he can see that we are all God’s children.  May he reinforce the constitution of India which declares India to be a secular state and a home for the  toleration of religious diversity.


See for a timeline and in depth reporting on Modi and BJP.