When Stephen Harper hosts Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his visit to Canada this week, they will be greeted with both adoring fans and with protests. Modi, an extremist Hindu nationalist, has a strong support base within a section of the Indian community. But his past comes back to haunt him. A human rights organization called Sikhs for Justice has appealed to the Canadian government to prosecute Modi for the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat.
Until a year ago, Modi was denied a visa to visit the US because of “severe violations of religious freedom”. While Modi was chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, he was accused of ‘criminal conspiracy’ in a pogrom against Muslims in 2002 in which more than 1,000 were killed, and over 100,000 were made refugees. Modi rose from the ranks of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an extremist nationalist organization that was briefly banned in India after one of its members, Nathuram Godse, assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. Extremist Hindu nationalist groups affiliated to Modi’s party, collectively called the Sangh Parivar, allegedly played a key role in the planned attacks. Several Sangh members and police officials have provided evidence of Modi’s role in the genocide. “The chief minister (Modi) gave us a free hand to do whatever we wanted for three days. After that, he asked us to stop,” said Haresh Bhatt, a leader of the militant Bajrang Dal, in a video interview to Tehelka magazine.
In a petition to Peter McKay, the Minister of Justice, Sikhs for Justice have asked that Modi be charged for counselling genocide and inflicting torture under Canadian law, based on the evidence they provided in their letter. The letter points to relevant sections of the Canadian Criminal Code and the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act that allow for the prosecution of a foreign leader in Canada. In India, Zakia Jafri, the wife of Ehsan Jafri, a Member of Parliament who was brutally murdered during the Gujarat pogrom, filed a case of ‘criminal conspiracy’ against Modi and 58 other political and government figures. After the Gujarat High Court absolved Modi, Jafri is appealing the verdict in a higher court. Jafri’s family and the human rights groups supporting her case have faced intense harassment from the Modi government.
Modi’s spin doctors have worked hard to hush up his role in the Gujarat genocide. Since corporate India championed Modi, and funded his election campaign, his image in the West has undergone an extreme makeover. He is being wooed by world leaders eager to cash in on business in India, one of the world’s fastest growing economies. After his election victory, one of Modi’s first state visits was to the US. Soon after, Barack Obama visited India for its Republic Day celebrations and was able to get Modi to sign a nuclear deal in which the Indian government and public sector agreed to take on the liability for any accident in nuclear power plants operated by American companies in India. For this special occasion, Modi wore a pinstripe suit with his name embroidered into the stripes in gold thread, a ‘gift’ from a businessman.
Corporate India may try hard to dress him up and re-invent his image, but it’s difficult to cover up his true colours. With Modi in power, his emboldened brotherhood in the Sangh Parivar has intensified the targeting of minorities – Christians, Muslims, indigenous tribes and lower castes. Women are kidnapped for marrying Muslim or Christian men as part of Modi’s ‘love jihad’ campaign. Churches are being attacked and nuns raped. But Modi pretends like the everyday violence and intolerance doesn’t exist. He is busy travelling the world, signing business deals and meeting his diaspora supporters that have funded the hate campaigns. Just before visiting Canada, Modi signed a deal to buy 36 jet fighters during his visit to Paris, even as children die of starvation in India.
In many ways, Harper and Modi are natural allies, both conservatives with aggressive strong corporate backing. Just like Harper has been using Islamophobia to stir up fear and insecurity, Modi uses anti-Muslim rhetoric during his election campaigns too, but violent consequences often follow his words. Modi has diluted already weak environmental laws in India to favour business, just like Harper pushed through the omnibus Bill C-45 that weakened environmental regulations to make way for major development projects.
Both leaders have used strategies to subvert democratic processes. The Harper governmenthas been criticized for being an ‘elected dictatorship’ and over-riding the parliamentary process. Modi shares the same autocratic style. Recently, when Modi’s proposals to dilute land acquisition laws was held up in Parliament, he got the President of India to pass an ordinance to enact a law that strengthens the rights of government and companies to acquire land and impairs the rights of ordinary people. The Modi government has frozen the accounts of Greenpeace India, in an attempt to stop their efforts at environmental protection. Harper has used similar strategies to stifle dissent against his policies to expand Canada’s environmentally destructive tar sands.
Perhaps during another era of Canadian politics, Modi may have hesitated to enter Canada for fear of the law catching up with him. But today, it is a different Canada. Today, Modi is a state guest. It is business as usual.
Dionne Bunsha is a journalist and former correspondent for Frontline magazine and The Times of India newspaper in Mumbai, India. I’ve also written a book called ‘Scarred: Experiments with Violence in Gujarat’ (Penguin, 2006).