It was only 7 a.m., and a determined crowd of Indian-Americans had already gathered in full flare at New York City's Madison Square Garden. Dressed in traditional festive outfits and saffron T-shirts, they were carrying signs and flags to welcome Narendra Modi, India’s recently elected prime minister, on his maiden visit to the U.S., where he would be addressing the eager Indian diaspora the day after his U.N. speech.
“This event is a hallmark to show how emotionally bonded he is with the community here," explained lead organizer Dr. Bharat Barai, an Indiana-based physician and longtime friend of Modi. Coordinated by the Indian American Community Foundation, which Barai described as a “nonreligious and nonpolitical organization," 450 volunteer associations partnered to raise about $1.2 million from private donors and crowd-funding for venue rental and other costs.
Historically, Madison Square Garden is an iconic location for appearances by cultural personalities and rock stars, but on Sunday the stage was all set for Modi’s reception, which was expected to draw approximately 20,000 frenzied supporters — perhaps one of the largest crowds for any foreign leader on U.S. soil.
“A leader like Modi deserves all this fanfare and extravaganza. After all, his humble beginnings have to be admired. He is not from the typical Delhi political circle,” said Vijay Pallod, a Houston businessman visiting New York just for the event. A volunteer campaigner for Modi in India, Pallod was confident that Modi could take India to the level of a superpower because he understands how to succeed. He said Modi’s humble beginnings as a tea vendor and disciplined training as an organizer with the Hindu nationalist RSS are a testament to his character.
Pallod said that although his generation was inspired by Modi’s journey from the bottom to the top, he added that his daughter's generation was more drawn to Modi’s economic and civic policies for India. “Hindutva is a way of life, and our PM will pave the way,” he said, referring to Modi’s conservative religious values. “But my daughter is more of a fan of Modi’s promise of toilets before temples.”
Down the street, the audience for the event formed a winding line down the block, as enthusiastic volunteers started chanting “Har har, Modi” (“Go, Modi”) and “Bharat mata ki jai” (“Victory for Mother India”). Some attendees were humming along as the patriotic anthem “Vande Mataram” was heard down the street. “You think a Rahul Gandhi–elected government will ever be able to draw such a crowd?” asked Ramesh Gajjar, a Gujarati residing in New Jersey. He praised Modi’s transparency and anti-corruption drive. “Even this event is not sponsored by taxpayer money. It is donation-based.”
Delegates from the Tibetan Association of New York and New Jersey, dressed in traditional outfits, also lined up with banners welcoming Modi. Rashmi Kulkarni and others from New Jersey’s Jai Bharat Dhol Tasha group started organizing to perform outside the venue. “We are not participating inside, but we want to express our joy at Modi’s visit. Especially because he is finally returning after being denied a visa,” she said.
Congress denied Narendra Modi a visa in 2005 for failing to protect religious minorities during riots in Gujarat in 2002, in which more than 2,000 Muslims were killed when he served as the state’s chief minister. He was granted a visa earlier this year after becoming prime minister.
As many excited Indian-Americans expressed their fervor, across the street a group of protesters was shouting and condemning Modi as a murderer. Coordinated by the Alliance of Justice and Accountability, organizations included the South Asian Solidarity Initiative, and Sikh rights groups Khalistan Affairs Center and Voices for Freedom.
Such political voices represent the demographic of Indian-Americans who still hold Modi accountable for human rights violations. “More that 1,000 Sikh farmers have been thrown out of Gujarat, the state that everyone is using as a benchmark to highlight Modi’s economic success story,” said Jaspreet Kaur, a legal counsel from Voices of Freedom. With Muslims, Kashmiris and other minorities, she called for Modi to be held accountable.
“Modi’s speeches are all pseudo-Hindu, and the fact that he is giving the Bhagavad Gita to foreign prime ministers is not acceptable,” Kaur said, pointing out that Sikhs, Muslims and other minorities should be equally a part of India.
“We are all opposed to him being here, even though the Supreme Court has cleared him. Some of the people here have traveled to gurudwaras as far as D.C. to garner support,” said Robindra Deb of the South Asian Solidarity Initiative.
Amarjeet Singh, executive director of Khalistan Affairs Center, said Modi’s roots in the Hindu nationalist RSS are harmful for India’s future. “Look at this term ‘love jihad’ that the RSS has coined in Uttar Pradesh," Singh said, referring to alleged attempts by young Muslim Indian men to convert non-Muslim women by feigning love. “Then they are making a scapegoat of Kashmiri students who choose to cheer on the Pakistan cricket team. And Modi is their blue-eyed boy.”
Modi delivered his speech in Hindi rather than English, and he highlighted Hindu religious heritage. “He is bringing Hinduism to the front and is giving a powerful message to the world that India has its own identity and secular values,” said Megha Gupta, originally from Delhi, who agreed with Modi’s strategy for boosting Indo-American ties.
“So far, America has just seen us as an ally, and now they will see us an equal partner,” said college student Rima Patel, who traveled from Washington, D.C., for the event. She called Modi the champion of Indians worldwide and said he gave hope to every “Indian-American who has immigrated and struggled to make it.”
While Modi’s visit has elicited a mix of responses from the diaspora community, Indian-American Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., said that Modi’s goals now seem more tangible and that the visit promoted the two great democracies’ working hand in hand. “U.S. senators and congressmen cannot dream of ever filling up a stadium the way Modi has today,” he said.