For a business sector that likes to call itself the “hospitality industry,” it is painful that the chief guest at its March 2005 gathering will be a man who many claim to be a mass murderer. Hardly hospitable!
Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of the economically dynamic state of Gujarat, will travel to Florida to deliver the keynote address for the Asian American Hotel Owner’s Association’s 2005 Annual Convention and Trade Show. The Association (or AAHOA) represents mainly small hoteliers and motel owners, rather than the corporate conglomerates. Indian Americans, mainly Gujaratis, came into this business by happenstance and now have a commanding role in both AAHOA and as motel owners. Their success came from superb initiative, from the use of family contacts (including capital) and of family labor, and from the withdrawal of others from a business that is unrelenting and relatively dangerous.
Within AAHOA there is considerable diversity, between the members who own a single motel or else those who own what amounts to a chain. AAHOA’s president from a few years ago, Bakulesh “Buggsi” Patel is the chief of Buggsi Hospitality Group that owns at least thirteen hotels and is widely integrated in the property markets in Washington, Idaho and Oregon states. Patel told a business journalist, “Our members own 35 to 40 percent of all lodgings in the United States, and when you get into the mid-market to budget range, it’s more like 55 to 60 percent of the market.” Even with this clout, Patel continued, Asians faced discrimination, “In the beginning, we were stereotyped as bad operators. It was hard to get insurance for properties, and we faced discrimination from suppliers.” People like Patel formed AAHOA to fight against these forms of business discrimination, and to gain a higher profile for their work.
In 2000, at the height of his game, Patel told the journalist J. N. Shenoy that AAHOA had not “leveraged our strengths for political purposes.” Patel wanted to hire a full-time lobbyist in DC, who would get some respect for AAHOA’s over seven thousand members who own over $40 billion worth of real estate and dominate the sector used by most of us when we’re on the road. In early February of 2005, AAHOA went on a legislative field trip of Congress, meeting with members to ensure either funds or exemptions from the Americans with Disabilities Act, to protect access to the Small Business Administration’s 7(a) start-up funds, and the 504 program for long-term financing of fixed assets (along with fixed-rate second mortgages). In other words, like other business associations in these neo-liberal times, AAHOA wanted as much free money from the government and as little regulation as possible. For a group founded to fight discrimination, it is a scandal that it will not honor the Americans with Disabilities Act without question.
AAHOA realized Patel’s hope of having a politician bless the organization when newly minted Congressman Bobby Jindal (Republican-LA) addressed the field-trip in February 2005. But even this is not enough for a group that wants visibility. What better way to gain the public eye than welcome the butcher of Gujarat to be the chief guest at its next major event?
Narendra Modi is the Chief Minister of Gujarat. He was re-elected to his post after the 2002 pogrom against Muslims conducted mainly by his political allies and with the complicity of the state apparatus. Two thousand people died and several hundred thousand had their homes and livelihoods devastated. According to Human Rights Watch, “Mobs arrived by the thousands in trucks, chanting slogans of incitement to kill, and armed with swords, tridents, sophisticated explosives, and gas cylinders. They were guided by computer printouts listing the addresses of Muslim families and their properties. While army troops had been flown in to quell the violence, state officials refused to deploy them until after the worst violence had ended. In the weeks that followed the massacres, Hindu homes and places of business were also destroyed in retaliatory violence by Muslims.”
The pogrom followed the death of several right-wing activists in a train car in the town of Godhra. Without an investigation, the government, led by Modi, decided that the activists had been killed by Muslims who lived in the vicinity of the train tracks. It now turns out, according to an official commission chaired by Justice U. C. Banerjee and released in early 2005, that the coach may have caught fire by “accident.” Instead of any inquiry, the Modi administration used the pretext to send out its cadre for the pogrom, and for political advantage. Human Rights Watch’s report noted, “Top police officials who had sought to protect Muslims were removed from positions of command. Gujarat’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi, formerly a RSS volunteer and propagandist, came under severe scrutiny for his role in the attacks.”
The RSS is the core organization of the right-wing Family (the Sangh Parivar). It is the ideological center as well as the training ground for many of the thugs who then go out to other Family groups set up to gain control over Indian social life. Modi is a devout member of the RSS, a group whose founders saw inspiration in the genocidal Nazi policies. The Indian Supreme Court, in the careful language of jurists, found Modi to be party to the carnage of 2002, “Those who are responsible for protecting life and properties and ensuring that investigation is fair and proper seem to have shown no real anxiety. Large number of people lost their lives. The modern day `Neros’ were looking elsewhere when Best Bakery [one site of the carnage] and innocent children and helpless women were burning, and were probably deliberating how the perpetrators of the crime can be saved or protected” (Zahira Habibullah H. Sheikh vs. State of Gujarat (2004) 4 Supreme Court Cases 158).
This is the official who is to give AAHOA a higher profile! Activists in groups such as the Coalition Against Genocide are trying to get the organization to rescind its invitation. They have failed. AAHOA is unrepentant. Another speaker at the convention is Chris Mathews of Hardball, but even he has so far not succumbed to the pressure. The campaign needs help from one and all. Call Chris Mathews’ assistant, Tina Urbansky (202-737-7901) and let her know what you think. Write to AAHOA’s current president: Fred Schwartz, AAHOA, 66 Lenox Pointe, NE, Atlanta, GA. 30324. If you live in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida or thereabouts and want to be involved in the protest against this state terrorist, check out the website www.coalitionagainstgenocide.org.
It is unlikely that all the members of AAHOA are happy to host Modi. In the past two days I spoke to two motel owners in the region where I live and both descried the move, although neither wanted to get involved in any way. Progressive political involvement for an immigrant who has something to lose is always hard, and in these harsh times when many South Asian immigrants are in the dragnet, it becomes virtually impossible. AAHOA, on the other hand, is aggressively political, and rather than chose the typical bland leader who would give it profile but not controversy, the group has gone for Modi. This is a puzzle, although it could perhaps be explained by the fact that he is the elected leader of Gujarat, from where many hotel owners hail. In other words, the hotel owners should not earn your ire, for their own social location is fraught. The core of the problem is AAHOA’s leadership, and Modi himself. They are the inverse of hospitality, as Modi is the obverse of genocide.
VIJAY PRASHAD teaches at Trinity College, Hartford, CT. His latest book is Keeping Up with the Dow Joneses: Debt, Prison, Workfare (Boston: South End Press). His essay, “Capitalism’s Warehouses”, appears in CounterPunch’s new book, Dime’s Worth of Difference. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org